William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912)
Back in 1805, the French priest de Grainville wrote what could be considered the first Dying Earth novel. Despite many obvious science fictional elements, Le Dernier Homme was a religious fantasy, inspired by the pseudo-biblical style of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Scientist-prophets fulfilled God’s will by conquering nature with science, but in the background was an invisible world of mystical spirits who were part of God’s master plan.
A century later, a quirky British poet produced another major dying earth vision by flipping this formula: he brought the mysticism to the foreground, and put the science in the background, creating a completely secular and much darker vision of earth’s final era. William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, a flawed beast of a book, is a milestone in the genre — a forerunner not only of now-classic Dying Earth fantasies by Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe, but also of psychologically refracted post-apocalyptic visions like Galouye’s Dark Universe and Dick and Zelazny’s Deus Irae.
Hodgson’s narrator is a young man who lives in the waning days of the earth, in humanity’s last redoubt: a giant, completely self-sustaining pyramid fortress that lies deep within an enormous crevice. Here, more than one hundred miles from the earth’s surface, it draws warmth and energy from the planet’s interior. Hundreds of thousands of years before, the sun dimmed, leaving the planet’s surface uninhabitable. Fortunately for humans, a giant rift opened up, and people were able to move civilization to the last habitable place on earth.
This move of course required tremendously advanced technology, but now that technology is all but magic. The community’s survival depends on this inherited technology, but its secrets are lost, along with a rational view of the natural world. The twilight Night Land is filled with fearful mysteries and dimly perceived dangers: “The Giant’s Pit”, “The Headland From Which Strange Things Peer”, “The Road Where The Silent Ones Walk”, “The Watching Thing of the North-West,” and “The Thing That Nods.” Holed up in its bunker, humanity does little more than survive and look out on the lurid landscape.
Hodgson was writing at a time when science fiction writers were still struggling with the issue of a frame story. How are present readers supposed to know about events of the distant future? As Brian Stableford argues, during the 19th century “speculative fiction had been handicapped by the lack of convincing narrative frames.” The works of de Grainville and Mary Shelly were supposed to be recorded visions of the future. M. P. Shiel used a similar technique, framing The Purple Cloud as the record of a patient’s words during a session of mesmerism. H.G. Wells’ Time Machine was revolutionary, because, with the invention time travel, it got around the problem of framing a story as a fantastic vision. A time machine “opened up the farther reaches of time and space to a kind of rational enquiry” that hadn’t been possible before.
The Night Land, however, isn’t much of a rational exploration of the distant future, and Hodgson uses a convoluted frame story. The narrator is in fact a 17th century writer, whose wife, the Lady Mirdath has died. During his sleep, he wakes up as a seventeen year-old youth of the dark and distant future, living in the Mighty Pyramid. As that youth, he remembers his 17th century past and still longs for his lost Mirdath.
One day, he manages to make telepathic contact with a woman named Naani, who he immediately knows is the future incarnation of Mirdath. Naani lives far away, in another pyramid fortress. But her fortress is failing, and she is crying out for help. The narrator is determined to rescue his long-lost love, and so, like Dante pursuing Beatrice, he sets out on a journey through the hellish country of the Night Land. And thus begins one of the classic storylines of the genre: the post-apocalyptic road trip.
GEOGRAPHY OF FEAR
The young man’s adventure is a nightmare journey to the center of the earth. As in Jules Verne’s story, Hodgson’s hero finds a world that evokes the primeval past. There are strange geological phenomena and bizarre creatures who occupy a landscape that is no longer dominated by humans and their technology. At one point, the hero watches a band of “Humped Men” pursuing a giant creature, a scene that recalls Neanderthals attempting to take down a mammoth.
But unlike Verne’s Professor Lidenbrock, Hodgson’s hero sees only mysteries. Scientific artifacts litter the land, but the youth has no rational framework to make sense of what he sees. It’s rarely clear whether the perceived dangers are real or imagined.
For example, the people of the Mighty Pyramid live in fear of mountain-sized monsters called “Watchers.” They had appeared “a million years gone”, and “grew steadily nearer through twenty thousand years; but so slow that in no one year could a man perceive that it had moved.”
On his journey, the narrator creeps by one of the Watchers, crawling on his hands and knees to avoid being seen. He gets closer look:
I was confounded that the mighty chin did come forward… even as the upward part of a vast cliff, which the sea doth make hollow about the bottom; for it did hang out into the air…as it had been a thing of Rock, all scored and be-weathered…
And the thing was squat there, and might have root within the earth, so it did seem to mine imaginings, as I did stare with a dumb wonder. And there were monstrous warts upon the thing, and indents and a mighty ruggedness and lumpings; as it were that it did be pimpled with great boulders that were inbred within that monstrous hide.
This is clearly just a mountain, not a giant monster. But the hero doesn’t recognize this; his courage suddenly leaves him and he flees in terror: “And I gat an abrupt and horrid shaking of the spirit; for I did feel in verity that my soul had come too anigh; and that the Beast had a sure knowledge concerning me.”
As the journey proceeds, there is no revelation of the truth, no lifting of the curtain to see the order behind the mystery. The hero finds his soulmate, and in that sense he succeeds. But the Night Land remains as dimly illuminated as ever.
Something has to be said about the book’s famous flaws, which have doomed it to obscurity. I read the abridged version of HiLo Books’ Radium Age Science Fiction series, which cuts out a third of the book. Axed are the long first chapter, “a corrosive treacle-stream of sentimentality” describing the narrator’s 17th century love life, and “lengthy denouement” that describes the journey home after the hero and Naani are united. Hodgson wrote the book in awful psudeo-archaic prose, and combined with the unvarying pace of the repetitious narrative, it makes even the abridged version a slog. It’s one of those books I’m glad I read, but I wasn’t happy reading it.
Why read it at all? If can you get through it, it’s a compelling, original vision of the world’s end — a dark, psychological journey to the center of the earth, haunted by our most primeval fears.
Image credits: The Night Land cover art from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database; Cover, 2012 HiLo Books edition by Michael Lewy; Cover, 1972 Ballantine edition by Robert LoGrippo; Cover, 1979 Sphere edition by Solar Wind.