by William Hope Hodgson
140 pages, Postern Press
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I’ve looked at William Hope Hodgson’s work before when I reviewed “The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder”. I had a great time with those stories of the supernatural detective, but didn’t rush out to read any more of William Hope Hodgson’s work. That was over five and a half years ago and I felt it was high time to take a look at his most famous work, “The House on the Borderland”. Spurred on by the wonderful doorway-between-dimensions plotline in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”, I was keen to check out Hodgson’s 1908 tale of cosmic horror.
The novel starts with a pleasant framing device. Two Englishmen go on a fishing trip to rural Ireland and discover a battered old book in the ruins of a house. The book is a journal of an unnamed man who dwelled in the house with his elderly sister at some unspecified time in the recent past. The old man’s journal entries form the main body of the novel and tell of a series of inexplicably strange events at the house. At the close of the novel, we return to the two Englishmen and learn of their reactions to the contents of the journal. As framing devices go, it’s pretty basic, but it fulfils its purpose - to convey a sense of mystery - particularly as the fate of the house is never fully explained.
Indeed, it’s the lack of explanation to the contents of the journal that will infuriate as many readers as it will enthrall. For me, it worked incredibly well and served to create a sense of unease and weirdness. Other reviews I’ve seen bewail the novel’s lack of traditional narrative structure. Again, this seems part of Hodgson’s plan; to make our reading of the old man’s journal feel less like we are following a story and more like taking a glimpse into the unknown. There are times when the old man’s account is direct and to the point, but other times where it reads less like a story and more like a conceptual exercise in mood and imagery.
The contents of the old man’s journal fall into four main sections. The first part tells of his first out-of-body experience, where he travels to another dimension, and where he sees the “Plain of Silence”, a vast, barren wasteland surrounded by enormous mountains. Standing in the mountain ranges are huge representations of various gods and demons. It is unclear whether these representations are statues or some incarnation of the gods themselves. In the centre of the wasteland is a huge version of the house, made from green jade-like material. A giant humanoid with the features of a swine stalks around the house, but before the narrator is able to comprehend what he is seeing (or what we are reading), he is whisked back to his own reality.
The second section of the book is the one that most people remember. A landslide in the pit beside the house uncovers a tunnel from which a number of creatures from another world escape. The “swine-things” lurk around overgrown gardens of the house and attack at night. The old man does his best to fortify the house against their attacks and this section of the book could well have inspired Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. I found this section of the book particularly memorable as the narrator’s relationship with his sister is also explored. Whilst he is convinced that he is protecting her from the nightly assaults of the swine-things, one can also read her wordless terror as being directed toward her brother as he experiences some form of psychotic breakdown. Although he manages to kill several of the creatures, he never finds their remains and there is every chance that the beasts are merely the product of his troubled mind.
The third section of the book is where things get really strange. The narrator appears to fall out of time and witnesses the demise of Earth as the sun is extinguished. Although this takes place over millions of years, the narrator experiences this all in a matter of hours, viewing the process in fast-forward. This section of the novel is bursting with such unbridled creativity and powerful imagery, it is easy to see how Hodgson lost track of telling a coherent story. In a way, the story doesn’t matter at this point. What happens during this part of the novel transcends the narrator’s own individual subjective experience. Our solar system comes to an end and the narrator drifts through space towards a giant green sun at the centre of the universe. The narrator is absorbed by this vast celestial body and becomes part of a stranger universe; one of infinite spheres containing multiple heavens and hells, angels and demons. He travels into one of these spheres and finds himself in the “Sea of Sleep”, a pseudo-afterlife where he is able to spend time with his deceased love.
The final part of the novel sees a return to our world. The narrator awakes to find himself back in the house but discovers that the gigantic swine-thing from the Plain of Silence is now lurking outside. The swine-thing infects the narrator and his dog with a strange luminescent infection before making its final attack on the house. We do not learn the meaning behind any of these events, nor are we given any clear idea of the old man’s fate.
“The House on the Borderland” is a strange, uncompromising book, but it is unquestionably brilliant. Hodgson confidently steers the reader from moments of hallucinatory horror and dread, to moments of dreamlike awe and wonder. It is both disconcerting and disorienting. It is easy to see how the author’s rejection of a traditional narrative structure is off-putting for many readers. My advice would be to stick with it. Perhaps the best way to approach this book is to think of it as a very strange ride. Strap yourself in, don’t bother trying to figure out the inexplicably weird sequences and accept that they are part of the whole experience. One hundred and eight years after it was first published, “The House on the Borderland” retains its magic and mystery.
Hereward L.M. Proops