Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Books Read in October 2017

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

I couldn't help myself mentioning what happens in this, so #spoilers.

Published in 1908, this is a supernatural horror novel which was new and innovative for its time. Up until this point, the horror genre had really been the Gothic novel - Dracula, Frankenstein, The Monk, Melmoth the Wanderer, Edgar Allen Poe - tales of madness, vampires, stormy nights, and the Devil. This was something new. What happens in The House on the Borderland doesn't derive its horror from religion. Instead, its more related to science fiction horror - things occur on a cosmic scale, encompassing vast expanses of space and time, the main character facing immense, unknowable forces. It's cosmic horror, popularised by Lovecraft, but William Hope Hodgson got there first. It influenced Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Terry Pratchett, and Olaf Stapledon. Hodgson corresponded with H.G. Wells, and that comes out in one of the more crazy scenes that happens towards the end of the book.

Borderland takes the form of a journal discovered in the ruins of an isolated mansion by a couple of British chums on a fishing holiday to Ireland. The journal is written by an unnamed narrator who is known simply as The Recluse, an old man who lived in the house with his old sister and dog, Pepper. I would have added the sister's name, but the old man talks more about his dog than her. The sister is merely in the background, someone who looks after him but doesn't really take part in the story. The Recluse recounts the strange experiences he has in the house.

There's no pissing about with the strange experiences. Within the first few pages of the journal, The Recluse is sitting in his study, when out of nowhere he sees a red and green light. He is transported off the planet and through space, travelling at impossible speeds beyond the borders of the universe to a lonely world where giant god-beasts squat among the mountains and look down into a vast arena in their midst, where an immense replica of the Recluse's house sits, constructed from a green jade-like substance. His voyage through space as a 'fragile speck of soul-dust' reminded me of the journey undertaken by the main character in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. There's another travel sequence near the end that's like something out of 2001: a Space Odyssey, offering a view of the universe that's totally strange.

But it's not all cosmic flights of fancy. There's a few chapters concerning a siege on the house that's surprisingly gripping, not what I expected in a book from 1908. It's actually, you know, fairly exciting, with things trying to get in and The Recluse shooting at them, barring the doors and checking the windows, like an Edwardian version of Aliens. The jeopardy continues when The Recluse gets trapped underground, and is almost swept away by a torrent of water - it's another pretty gripping scene.

But the phantasmagorical nuttiness resumes in an amazing time travel sequence, which goes way beyond what H.G. Wells did in The Time Machine, hurtling untold millennia into the future. It's accompanied by a trip through space to the centre (or the end) of the universe, where The Recluse sees what can only be described as a succession of mind-bending visions.

I'm not sure what all of it means, but I liked the individual parts. I'm not sure if there's some underlying theme to all these weird events, but I did wonder if he was imagining it all at one point, because after the siege, his sister seems a little off with him, like she doesn't know what he's talking about. Some lost love of The Recluse is mentioned - he sees her during one of his trips at an otherworldly place called the Sea of Sleep, but this is where the journal leaves us hanging, the pages that presumably tell us who she is, damaged or missing. Is he dreaming all these bizarre episodes because he's pining for her? Maybe he's retreating into a fantasy world because the lost love is... his sister?... and he's appalled at himself and seeks escape? Yuck. Maybe it's all really happening, the house being some kind of conduit into other spaces, times and dimensions. Maybe it's just a bunch of great sci-fi set-pieces, the plot (as it is) just an excuse to string them all together.

It's an entertaining tour de force of the imagination, an interesting milestone in science fiction and horror, and a jolly good read.

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