A century ago, somewhere in Ypres, Belgium, William Hope Hodgson was killed, just a few months before the end of World War I. It’s not surprising that he was on the battlefield. Hodgson had spent his youth apprenticing at sea, and though he came to despise the mariners’ life, the experience molded him into a physically powerful and tireless fighter. He joined the army in the Great War well into his thirty-seventh year and insisted on returning to combat even after sustaining injuries, a decision which ultimately led to his untimely death.
But despite his evident courage, Hodgson’s valor is not what would commend his name to posterity. Nor would his earlier attempts to cultivate a school for “physical culture” (the Edwardian equivalent of bodybuilding), which would help embroil him in a dispute with the legendary Harry Houdini. Rather, Hodgson’s reputation is built on his output as a fiction writer, and while he is hardly a household name, devotees of weird fiction, horror, or early science fiction will recognize him at once. For in his brief but feverish writing career that ended in mid-April 1918, Hodgson churned out the novels and stories that would make him one of the undisputed masters of twentieth-century terror.
It is perhaps not so coincidental that he went throughout his life by his middle name: Hope.It might never have been so, were it not for his intense determination. His initial attempts at publication often ended in failure, to the extent that Hodgson scholar Sam Gafford argues he published his four novels virtually in the reverse order in which they were written. His poem “Nevermore” is a pastiche of Poe’s “The Raven” in which rejected manuscripts, rather than a black bird, haunt the narrator’s doorstep. His eerie tales and books were outside the mainstream and didn’t necessarily sell well, though in hindsight we can see him as part of a golden age for such haunting tales in England. Writers like Bram Stoker, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and countless others flourished in these decades.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his animus toward the sailing life, many of Hodgson’s works take place at sea, often involving his characters in battles against monstrous adversaries or spectral forces. This includes many short stories, which were often among his more popular publications at the time, as well as two of his novels, The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1907) and The Ghost Pirates (1909). However, his two best-known books are also his least nautical: The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912). But what most of his writings share, and what makes him so chillingly effective, is a sense of mounting dread or awe in the face of the unknown. He masterfully mobilizes this feeling in the direction of horror at the prospect of a dark, dying, uncaring cosmos; yet at times, he seems almost to peer beyond, to follow some new sense or intuition toward a hint of transcendence.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was weird fiction master H. P. Lovecraft who helped cultivate the American vogue for the erstwhile obscure Hodgson. He commends Hodgson for the writer’s “vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life.” These “lurking worlds and beings” are evident in all five works that Lovecraft covers in his landmark study Supernatural Horror in Literature. The Boats of the “Glenn Carrig” follows its narrator and several other sailors who have escaped a doomed ship only to find themselves trapped in a weedy realm populated by strange predatory monsters. In The House on the Borderland, an isolated narrator in a decaying mansion fends off mysterious swine-like beasts, only to find himself caught up in a vision of the death of our solar system. The narrator of The Ghost Pirates can do little more than watch helplessly as his ship comes under attack by what appears to be an otherworldly vessel and its crew. In The Night Land, the protagonist lives underground with the vestiges of humanity in a far-future earth whose sun has died; he braves this night land to rescue a woman in a distant stronghold under siege, after he hears her telepathic distress call. And the collection Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder chronicles its eponymous sleuth’s forays into paranormal investigation.
Hodgson is generally regarded now as a horror author, and rightly so. Many of his shorter tales suggest or describe ghastly preternatural forces waiting to emerge from the shadows or, worse, to consume the human characters until they themselves become something entirely. Nothing is more terrifying in Hodgson than this fear of the “abhuman”—a term used by Kelly Hurley in 2004 study The Gothic Body but first coined by Hodgson himself. It derives from the implications of raw post-Darwinian thought, that humans are themselves soulless animals and thus, in reality, simply objects or Things. People in his works might be absorbed into the landscape or may degenerate into beings that can no longer be termed “human” at all. The terrain of The Night Land is populated by such abhumans. Plants or fungi gradually consume people in The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and “The Voice in the Night.” Characters are (perhaps?) plunged into cosmic gulfs in The House on the Borderland and The Ghost Pirates.
This all seems pretty grim. Yet, though it is less frequently observed, Hodgson’s dark works are not without glimmers of something like light. It is perhaps not so coincidental that he went throughout his life by his middle name: Hope.
Two of his four novels end on at least partially upbeat notes, as do many of his stories. Reading through Hodgson’s oeuvre entails more than enduring a trudge through a slough of nihilism. Notwithstanding the unsettling horrors—and they can be found in abundance across his corpus—moments of great beauty or joy can peek through as well.
Hodgson’s protagonists are all male, usually impressive physical specimens—which, we should recall, was largely autobiographical in his case. In his novels, hope is almost always associated with women: you can predict the outcome of the book based on the role its female characters play. The Ghost Pirates occurs on an all-male crew, and they are almost entirely destroyed. The narrator of The House on the Borderland pines for a mysterious lost love and alienates himself from his sister; he presumably doesn’t survive. On the other hand, John Winterstraw, the narrator of The Boats of the “Glen Carrig,” meets his eventual wife in the course of the novel and survives to tell his son the tale. In what ought to be the bleakest of all his books, The Night Land, X and Naani return to the safety of the Great Redoubt as heroes.
Hodgson’s female characters are not always particularly well realized. They may be in some senses Platonic/Petrarchan ideals—though they are definitely physical beings, never hyper-spiritualized or distant. The pattern of such women signifiying redemption can be complicated if all his dozens of stories and poems are factored in, yet it is nonetheless broadly informative.
According to his biographer R. Alain Everts, Hodgson “was totally atheistic and quite contemptuous of the Church and religion in general.” But whatever his contempt, Hodgson’s actual writings suggest he was rather unsettled about such skepticism. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s assessment of his friend Herman Melville (another author of nautical novels) might apply equally well to Hodgson: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.”
The buoying hope of female presence in the novels could in one sense represent a primarily human romantic love in the face of an uncaring cosmos. Most Hodgson readers—from H. P. Lovecraft to C. S. Lewis—find these interludes the most distasteful, “sentimental” aspects of his work, though Henrik Harksen finds them “vital,” at least in The House on the Borderland. But in his works, the optimism associated with his female characters (and the pessimism associated with their loss) go hand-in-hand with his ambivalence about faith. The Ghost Pirates opens with a sea chanty about hell, and The House on the Borderland begins with his dark poem “Shoon of the Dead,” inscribed “To My Father (Whose Feet Tread The Lost Aeons”). The Boats of the “Glen Carrig,” on the other hand, starts with his poem “Madre Mia,” in which his mother begins to take on an almost Mary-like cast: “The soul-light of thy face is pure as prayer.”
It is in his little-read poetry that Hodgson’s grappling with faith becomes most evident. Some poems suggest a tragic nihilism, others a resigned agnosticism, others an unorthodox yet distinctly theistic perspective. Though they were mostly unpublished apart from what he could work into his fiction, Hodgson arranged these poems into collections as he hoped to see them printed. One such collection, Through Enchantments, would have opened with a poem entitled simply “To God,” which ended like this:
O Thou Who Art; but not by man described—
A Force all hidden to the eyes of Proof,
Believed in dumbly, or with foolish word,
By man whose thoughts are by emotion bribed,
If Thou art there, so utter and aloof,
Answer my heart that flutters here, absurd,
Asking unguided questions of the Dark—
Hope asking—hope that can but hark.
This, I believe, is the William Hope Hodgson whose fiction retains so much power, searching for a god whose existence he at best half believes in. Given that Hodgson went by his middle name, the final line becomes especially poignant.
Hodgson’s fiction is often characterized by perception in a psychic manner that transcends the five senses. The ghost pirates emerge from a dimension beyond our own. Carnacki often interacts with the supernatural world with occultic techniques. X ”hears” Naani’s cry across the night land, and they are both reincarnations of past lovers. Some of these occurrences are horrific while others are redemptive, but whether despairing or hopeful, they testify to Hodgson’s interest in testing the limitation of what we can know. And that testing certainly extended to a desire to “hear” from God. In his longest poem, The Voice of the Ocean, the Ocean itself asserts God’s existence. “To God” rejects knowledge of the divine through most traditional epistemologies. Yet Hope can still ask, can still hark.
Though he remains obscure, William Hope Hodgson is probably better recognized now than he ever was in his lifetime. His supernatural fiction can now be found in several elegant volumes, in addition to an increasing amount of scholarly work. At his darkest, Hodgson is the equal of the great past masters of weird fiction, such as Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. I began reading his work for that reason, assuming such terrors were as far as I’d get. But from the literary and philosophical bodybuilder who insisted on staying in the Great War until it ended his life, one can also see rays of light shine through. Whether those rays are the last dwindlings of twilight or the first presage of a new dawn, whether the voices one hears are just lonely cries for help or whispers from heaven, Hope lived up to his name, even in the darkest night land and across the roaring sea.