Friday, April 21, 2006

More Hodgson

This morning I am serving a special role as the guy who can get our software to fail. We have an intermittent bug and two engineers have been trying to get it to fail the same way it fails for me. They just tried it five or six times and were unable to get it to fail. Finally they asked me to come do the same thing. I did the exact same actions, and it failed for me immediately! I guess I can bias the collapse of the probability wave function towards failure. A useful skill for a software engineer!

I got a treat from Amazon yesterday... three more volumes of the _Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson_. I'm now missing only Volume 5, which I think may not have been printed yet.

The whole set has the same handsome midnight-blue covers and silver embossed artwork. It is slightly disappointing that the artwork for each of the volumes is the same, although the section headings vary slightly -- there are different mysterious figures floating around on the same background. The typography and printing are of the same excellent quality. One of the volumes is, strangely, slightly wider than the others, but only by a fraction of an inch, so this is only noticeable when they are lined up together. I am looking forward to eventually having some nice shelves in our living room where I can display some of my more attractive books. These will definitely be there!

The bindings seem, for the most part, quite sturdy, although one of the volumes seems like it didn't get enough glue during manufacturing. I can't tell if these books involve any sewing, or just glue. Binding technology is a bit of a mystery to me: you want to make a backing which will hold the pages in place securely, while still allowing the book to be opened flat, which means that the binding forms a steep arch. The binding thus has to be very flexible. You also want it to remain securely attached at both sides to the rigid cover, even though as it flexes, it must change width. Oh, and it also should withstand fairly regular handling for at least 100 years. It seems like quite an engineering challenge, and there is probably still room for improvement.

Hodgson wrote several novels and many short stories, ranging from somewhat traditional seafaring adventure stories through monster stories and ghost stories as well as creepy, surreal fantasies and more traditional ironic short stories and romances. He generally gets credit for inventing, or at least perfecting, the supernatural sailing tale. His character Carnacki is a kind of cross between Sherlock Holmes and Fox Mulder: an investigator of the supernatural who finds that sometimes he is investigating an elaborate hoax, sometimes a true "haunting," and sometimes a little bit of both.

Even his stories that are told perfectly straight always seem to me to contain just a bit of deadpan humor. It is a bit hard for me to judge whether this was always intended, or whether it just appears that way because I've become conditioned to see irony everywhere. For example, one of his more conventional stories is about a "haunted" water tank. It turns out to contain a giant snake, or eel -- it is unclear exactly what it is -- which crawls out and kills people. The mystery is eventually solved, and the last line in the story is one of the characters saying something about the "importance of cleanliness." That's it -- that's the moral of the story!

It seems deliberately silly to me, but it makes me wonder whether the contemporary reader would have laughed, or would have had a more thoughtful response, with the creature serving as a metaphor for germs, infection, horror of disease, fear of the unknown, horror of empty spaces, or some other response that I just can't appreciate almost 100 years later.

Volume 4 consists mainly of a very long, strange fantasy novel called _The Night Land_. See the Wikipedia entry here.

_The Night Land_ is written in a forced archaic style, with strange word usage (for example, Hodgson frequently, but inconsistently, uses the word "eat" as a past-tense form, as in "I drank some water and eat some bread." To achieve an ancient feel, I think it would have made more sense to use the archaic form "et," but he didn't.) The sentences are extremely long, with many semi-colons and prepositional phrases. Some parts are worse than others in this regard, but in general, it has the effect of forcing you to slow down and read very carefully, or you will find that you've quickly lost track of subject and verb. Here's a small taste, from the framework story:
Mirdath, My Beautiful One, lay dying, and I had no power to hold Death backward from such dread intent. In another room, I heard the little wail of the child; and the wail of the child waked my wife back into this life, so that her hands fluttered white and desperately needful upon the coverlid.

I kneeled beside My Beautiful One, and reached out and took her hands very gentle into mine; but still they fluttered so needful; and she looked at me, dumbly; but her eyes beseeching.

Then I went out of the room, and called gently to the Nurse; and the Nurse brought in the child, wrapped very softly in a long, white robe. And I saw the eyes of My Beautiful One grow clearer with a strange, lovely light; and I beckoned to the Nurse to bring the babe near.

My wife moved her hands very weakly upon the coverlid, and I knew that she craved to touch her child; and I signed to the Nurse, and took my child in mine arms; and the Nurse went out from the room, and so we three were alone together.

Then I sat very gentle upon the bed; and I held the babe near to My Beautiful One, so that the wee cheek of the babe touched the white cheek of my dying wife; but the weight of the child I kept off from her.

And presently, I knew that Mirdath, My Wife, strove dumbly to reach for the hands of the babe; and I turned the child more towards her, and slipped the hands of the child into the weak hands of My Beautiful One. And I held the babe above my wife, with an utter care; so that the eyes of my dying One, looked into the young eyes of the child. And presently, in but a few moments of time; though it had been someways an eternity, My Beautiful One closed her eyes and lay very quiet. And I took away the child to the Nurse, who stood beyond the door. And I closed the door, and came back to Mine Own, that we have those last instants alone together.

And the hands of my wife lay very still and white; but presently they began to move softly and weakly, searching for somewhat; and I put out my great hands to her, and took her hands with an utter care; and so a little time passed.

Then her eyes opened, quiet and grey, and a little dazed seeming; and she rolled her head on the pillow and saw me; and the pain of forgetfulness went out of her eyes, and she looked at me with a look that grew in strength, unto a sweetness of tenderness and full understanding.

And I bent a little to her; and her eyes told me to take her into mine arms for those last minutes. Then I went very gentle upon the bed, and lifted her with an utter and tender care, so that she lay suddenly strangely restful against my breast; for Love gave me skill to hold her, and Love gave My Beautiful One a sweetness of ease in that little time that was left to us.

And so we twain were together; and Love seemed that it had made a truce with Death in the air about us, that we be undisturbed; for there came a drowse of rest even upon my tense heart, that had known nothing but a dreadful pain through the weary hours.

And I whispered my love silently to My Beautiful One, and her eyes answered; and the strangely beautiful and terrible moments passed by into the hush of eternity.

And suddenly, Mirdath My Beautiful One, spoke,--whispering something. And I stooped gently to hark; and Mine Own spoke again; and lo! it was to call me by the olden Love Name that had been mine through all the utter lovely months of our togetherness.

And I began again to tell her of my love, that should pass beyond death; and lo! in that one moment of time, the light went out of her eyes; and My Beautiful One lay dead in mine arms ... My Beautiful One....

This has a maudlin feel, perhaps, but a certain beauty to it as well. From the narrator's wife's death, the story slips into a dream, or vision, which forms the bulk of the text. It is a strange, strange journey. Here's another excerpt, describing the preparations as the narrator prepares to leave the fortified redoubt and venture out into the Night Land:
And three days and three nights did I abide within the Room of Preparation; and upon the fourth day was mine armour brought unto me; and the Master of the Preparation stood away from me, silent and with sorrow upon his face; but touching me not, neither coming anigh to aid me; nor having any speech with me; for none might crowd upon me, or cause me to answer.

And, presently, was I clad with the grey armour; and below the armour a close-knit suit of special shaping and texture, to have the shape of the armour, and that I might not die by the cold of the Night Land. And I placed upon me a scrip of food and drink, that might keep the life within me for a great time, by reason of its preparation; and this lay ready to me, with the armour, and was stitched about with the Mark of Honour; so that I knew loving women thus to speed me.

And when all was done and made ready, I took up the Diskos, and bowed in silence to the Master of the Preparation; and he went towards the door, and opened it; and signalled that the People stand back; so that I might go forth untouched. And the People stood back; for many had crowded to the door of the Room of Preparation, so that I knew how that my story must be to the heart of all, in all the Cities of the Great Redoubt; for to come unbidden anigh that Door was against the Lesser Law, and that any erred in this matter, betokened much.

And I went out through the Door; and there was a mighty lane of people unto the Great Lift. And about the Great Lift, as I went downwards, did the countless millions stand; and all in a great silence; but having dear sympathy in their souls; yet loyal unto my safety, in that none in all the Mighty Pyramid did make speech unto me, or call out aught. And as I went downward through the miles, lo! all the aether of the world seemed to be surged with the silent prayers and speedings of those quiet

And I came at last unto the Great Gate; and behold the dear Master Monstruwacan did stand in full armour, and with the Diskos, to do me honour, with the Full Watch, as I went forth. And I looked at him, quietly, and he looked unto me, and I bent my head to show respect; and he made silent salute with the Diskos; and afterwards I went onwards towards the Great Gateway.

And they made dim the lights in the Great Causeway, that there should no glare go forth into the Land, when the Gate was opened; and behold, they opened not the lesser gate within the greater, for me; but did honour my journey, in that they swung wide the Great Gate itself, through which a monstrous army might pass. And there was an utter silence all about the Gate; and in the hushed light the two thousand that made the Full Watch, held up each the Diskos, silently, to make salute; and humbly, I held up the Diskos reversed, and went forward into the Dark.

The full text is available from Project Gutenberg here. You might initially love or hate the style in the excerpts above, but it grows on you, and the story, although ponderous and slow-moving, is quite fascinating. There is a strange, sentimental heroic romance interwoven in _The Night Land_, but it is also a bleak fantastic/science fiction-ish story, as if "The House on the Borderland" was played on a record player at too slow a speed. Later, Hodgson revised and edited _The Night Land_ into a much shorter, tighter piece called "The Dream of X," which should be in volume 5; I am looking forward to reading it.

Hodgson wrote this amazingly varied and interesting body of work, which contained both popular commercial successes as well as intriguing stories that were not commercially successful. He did all this over the course of about ten years. He was then killed, rather pointlessly, near the end of World War I, like so many of his generation. I'd like to believe there was some higher purpose to this, but I think he probably had a lot more writing in him. He turned his years of experience as a sailor into an amazing number of works with sailing themes and sailor characters. If he had survived the war, and been able to draw on that experience in his writing, what kinds of stories, or even entirely new kinds of stories, could have have told?

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