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The House on the Borderland and Other Novels: Fantasy Masterworks 32

by William Hope Hodgson

(Gollancz, £6.99, 637 pages, paperback, this edition published 10 October 2002.)

This volume gathers together all four of William cover scanHope Hodgson's novels of the fantastic published in his lifetime (1877-1918): The Boats of the Glen Carrig, originally published in 1907; The House on the Borderland (1908); The Ghost Pirates (1909) and The Night Land (1912). It's in the usual attractive Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks package, with a very enthusiastic introduction from China Miéville. The back cover mangles a quotation from H.P. Lovecraft; what he actually said, with respect to The House on the Borderland, was "But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water" and it is rather cheeky of Gollancz to use only the last six words.

Though Lovecraft was being a bit unfair. The House on the Borderland certainly is a classic, and though it is the shortest of the four novels it is far and away the best. The plot is very simple: Hodgson presents himself as the editor of a manuscript found by two friends camping in the ruins of an old house in a remote spot in the west of Ireland, supposedly forty miles from the nearest railway station (an impossible feat in the well-networked Ireland of 1877, I should think). The manuscript descibes the experiences of the previous owner of the house; he is attacked by pig-creatures from a pit in the grounds which apparently leads to another dimension, and then experiences a rapid fast-forward through the heat death of the universe. The writing is vivid and at the same time surreal. There is no apparent causal relationship between the events and no explanation. But it stays with you, and was clearly an inspiration for Lovecraft despite his begrudging comment.

Lovecraft is not the only one. This story forms part of the hinterland of many genre works, most explicitly in Roger Zelazny's The Changing Land, where the House on the Borderland, renamed the Castle Timeless, is recognisably at the centre of a wizardly contest, one of the wizards bearing the name of Hodgson; at the end of the book, he looks out the castle window "across a very green land towards the misty mountains". Brian Stableford rescues the historical Hodgson from his historical death in the trenches to send him back to Ireland in The Gateway of Eternity, and Ian Sinclair's Radon Daughters revolves around a contemporary quest for Hodgson's manuscript of the sequel to The House on the Borderland. No doubt there are others I have missed.

According to leading Hodgsonologists, the two sea stories in this collection, The Boats of the Glen Carrig and The Ghost Pirates, may actually have been the last two written (though the first and third published) as their author realised that there was more of a market for nautical novels with a fantastic twist than simply novels of the fantastic. They therefore represent an attempt by the author to get in on the market for boys' adverntures opened up in the late nineteenth century by Robert Louis Stevenson, R.M. Ballantyne, G.A. Henty, Captain Marryat and the like. But both stories involve bizarre encounters with the supernatural on the high seas, and are written far more intensely than their Victorian precursors could have imagined. Together with The House on the Borderland, they make up a very good package, excellent value (especially when one considers that some publishers are marketing single novellas for twice the price of this 630-page volume).

But wait, there's more. Oh dear. Over half of this volume is taken up by The Night Land, the last published (though, according to some, the first written) of the four novels; it is hundreds of pages of pure awfulness. China Miéville disarmingly admits in his introduction that its faults are "manifold and obvious", adds that it "stretches mercilessly" and speculates that "If a committee had been set up to design an unreadable book, they'd probably have come up with The Night Land." He then tries to persuade us to read it anyway. I simply couldn't. The style of The Night Land is so abysmal - an attempt to do Samuel Pepys in telegraphic mode, perhaps - that I found it, once put down, impossible to pick up again. Never mind, there are three excellent novels here, each of which has three times the quality of many Big Commercial Fantasies of the same size. Recommended.

Review by Nicholas Whyte.

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