Monday, November 25, 2013

The Night Land - William Hope Hodgson

The Night Land (1912), William Hope Hodgson's science fantasy of a decaying Earth darkened by the death of the Sun in a vastly remote future, should be regarded as unreadable. The pseudo-archaic language lumbers along, the plot is simple and largely descriptive, there is virtually no dialog, the characters are thin, there is an unpleasant thread of misogyny in the character relationships, and the whole mass is excessively long and repetitive.

But The Night Land is, after a fashion, a masterpiece.

The Night Land is less a narrative than a prose-poem, a setting, a mood, an evocation of entropy and dread in a world so old that human progress is over, the Sun is dead and only the end of all things, inevitable but hugely delayed, remains. Humanity has retreated to one last Redoubt, and can only wait for extinction. The world is desolate, ruled by threatening monsters, but their nature is utterly alien. Whatever the hero of the text can gain, it will be ultimately eclipsed by the destruction and failure of everything else. Hence, in a real sense, progress, narrative advancement, is futile. The book is really about a setting, a world of alien things and impending destruction, which can be barely named, let alone described.

Hence, the archaic language is an evocation of distance, of the alienating effect of so much time. The vague names of creatures – Watchers, Silent Ones – suggest their menace and unknowability. The routine story is really the only action that is possible when all human beings can do is rescue the remaining fragments and wall them up against the gathering darkness. Hodgson's fantasy edges closer to the logic and stasis of a dream. The Night Land is about creating an impression, a sense of dread, of the night closing in and a flicker of human resistance.

This, and the scope and boldness of the author's vision of a dying universe, is what makes The Night Land unique.

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