The Night Land is an astonishingly original, imaginative, and bizarre piece of fiction — one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read. And yet, so powerful are its idiosyncrasies that I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone.
Hodgson was among the progenitors of what was called for some time “Weird fiction,” an ur-genre which translated to modern parlance comprises horror, science fiction, fantasy, and others not common at the time, though with serious literary pretensions, to differentiate it from the lurid and numerous stories and novellas appearing in pulp magazines.
He is best known today for a few of his stories of nautical horror (“The Voice in the Dark” and “The Derelict” for instance) and the genre-flouting The House on the Borderlands, whose divagations in deep time and space place it in a lonely hinterland halfway between supernatural horror and a long-form narrative of a DMT episode.
The Night Land inhabits a similarly unusual conceptual Venn diagram: A three-way combination of historical epic, hard sci-fi, and travel diary. The final product is more than the sum of its parts, and deserves to be numbered among the founding documents of science fiction — yet Hodgson’s styling and narrative choices are so frustrating that I sometimes wished I could imitate the protagonist and project my own soul forward in time so as to escape his unceasing exposition.
The book begins with a framing story of the protagonist, who remains nameless throughout the hundreds of pages. He is a strong young man of the 17th century who falls in love with a woman who, he finds, experiences eerily similar dreams of a strange world where it is always night. Soon the narrator finds himself in that world, laboriously explaining the apparent coexistence of his soul and mind in both worlds with the passion of one describing a religious experience.
Once there, he describes the situation of the Last Redoubt, a pyramidal megastructure home to millions — the last humans on an Earth, or at least so it is theorized. And it is the world they inhabit — if to cower in an enormous structure protected by technology the secret of which has been lost for thousands of years is to inhabit — that is Hodgson’s greatest accomplishment.
His description of the lightless landscape and the hideous, mysterious creatures and structures that cover it strike, to me, the exact right balance of “show” and “tell,” with the added benefit of having Terrifying Proper Names.
The Watcher in the South; the Road Where the Silent Ones Walk; the Quiet City; the Giant’s Kiln. These objects and places are never fully explained, but their sinister and eons-old nature is sufficiently attested to. Together, with what comes after, they present what seems to be a small snapshot of a totally strange and hostile world unlike any other I have read of.
Hodgson evoked the concept of Deep Time and the passage of innumerable years in The House on the Borderlands, and The Night Land seems to be a ground-level portrait of a world in the middle of that Deep Time: our own but not our own, and so many years hence that the history of our civilizations is not even brought up — indeed the history of mankind itself is in doubt.
Eventually the narrator departs on a quest to find a person to whom he seems to be able to speak via some sort of ESP that is hinted to be a familial property of some sort. And amazingly, from the first steps of his departure, for the weeks and months to follow, whatever happens is minutely described almost to the hour. There is no days-long ellipsis wherein he says something like “for some days I made my way north.” Every step is accounted for, though he makes irregular time as he avoids and contends with the many horrible surprises the Night Land has in store.
And here we find where the book will either repulse or, as in my case, morbidly compel the reader. For all this minutiae is described not in a brisk traveler’s jargon or even the high-flying prose to which Hodgson and his fellow Weird authors often resorted. Instead it is in a sort of faux-antique dialect that is exasperatingly repetitive and needlessly opaque, scrupulously avoiding common words and tenses in a way I have never encountered in writing from any period, and certainly not the 17th or even 16th century.
Here are a couple representative excerpts:
And there grew therefrom a little courage into mine heart, and I obeyed my spirit, and took an hold of my strength and went slowly backward into the bushes. And presently I was come a long way off. Yet troubled and disturbed, and very strict to my going.
And onward I did pass, and I do mind me how that I saw the lower fires of that Country to burn very fierce; and this I set to the richness of the air; but yet with no surety of knowledge; and do but tell the same that you shall see the oddments of thought that went oft across my brain, and so have so much knowledge as I, concerning this and that.
And I ceased to run, and lay quiet; for, in truth, I did near swoon away with the hardness of my travel. And indeed as you shall know, I had slept not for seven-and-twenty hours, and had scarce ceased to labour in all that time. Moreover I had eat not, neither drunk, for nine hours; and so shall you conceive that I was truly a-weary.
“As you shall know” indeed, for he keeps careful reckoning of the time, of his meals, of the direction and distance of his travel, of pretty much every single thing. This confounding diction never lets up, although you do get used to it.
And yet, despite these infuriating aspects, the journey he is undertaking is so compelling, and the world he travels through so mysterious and well-formed, that it is immensely difficult to stop reading despite the difficulty of doing so.
The truth is that the style does narrative work as well, adding a layer of strangeness to the already strange, and keeping the reader in mind of the fact that the narrator, like them, is a stranger and a visitor to this world.
By the time the end rolled around, I was loath to let go of this world, knowing that once the final page was turned, there would be no further revelations as to the nature of the narrator’s experiences. What was that disembodied laughter? What was the airship, and the primitive ones who guarded it? How did the world become like this?
Like the narrator, Hodgson’s masterpiece transcends time; It is too weird and dated to come from the present, yet too ingenious and original to be consigned to the past. It is unique and beautiful and without parallel. That it was published more than a century ago, predating the rise of cosmic horror and serious science fiction, is a fact that continually boggled my mind as I was reading it. For anyone delving into the origins of weird fiction, Lovecraftian horror, and ambitious science fiction, it is a must-read — but one that will try your patience nonetheless.
One last point: The book was essentially rewritten lately as “A Classic Retold” or some such. I looked into this as an alternative when it became clear that the original’s stylistic choices were not going to abate. Unfortunately it is not worth even considering, as it does away with an enormous amount of what makes the original so strange and wonderful. Read The Night Land, or don’t.