Thursday, March 30, 2006

Gothic Psychedelia: The House on the Borderland

I finished the second book on my handpicked list about a week ago. This was William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. And I realised why, in spite of the travesty that was The Night Land, Hodgson was consistently ranked one of the best Golden Age science fiction writers.

The tale begins quite slowly, with the engaging account of two Englishmen visiting Ireland, with the sole intention of occupying themselves with fishing and camping. In their quest to find the perfect place to set up camp, they come across a village whose inhabitants do not speak English. Camping next to the village, they find a strange castle-like building in ruins. And thus the scene is set for a classic Gothic tale.

Pure Gothic horror has always had its steadfast adherents and worshippers; I count myself among them. The macabre goosebumpy feeling that one gets upon mentally picturing an abandoned house, with furniture creaking softly in the light, and a gibbous moon hanging across the striated cloud-filled sky, is one which is unparalleled. Wuthering Heights, Kidnapped, Frankenstein - the monopoly for Gothic tales has always been tightly clasped by the classics. This book surely deserves to be ranked along with the best of this genre.

STYLE: The book, thankfully enough, is written in a style reminiscent of the masters of literature, without any specific harnessing of form peculiar to read and impossible to digest. It was an easy read throughout.

DEVICES: Present in this book are the classic elements of Gothic horror. To begin with, we have the recently discovered manuscript, written by some recluse/initiate with access to deep secrets of the cosmos. The recluse (for such is the term employed by Hodgson) writes calmly and clinically, though the subject matter of his journal is anything but, as the reader discovers soon enough.
We find next the abandoned house, in the middle of dense foliage and overgrown gardens. A sense of dull fear shimmers through the pages which describe the house and its surroundings, and one can almost hear the quite-close sniff of a hidden pursuing 'beast'. The abandoned house is one of the stock images of Gothic horror, one found in nearly every book belonging to this genre, and the diligent reader would discover a wry reference to this fact by the author himself, as is shown in the following passage:

Reaching the ruin, we clambered 'round it cautiously, and, on the further side, came upon a mass of fallen stones and rubble. The ruin itself seemed to me, as I proceeded now to examine it minutely, to be a portion of the outer wall of some prodigious structure, it was so thick and substantially built; yet what it was doing in such a position I could by no means conjecture. Where was the rest of the house, or castle, or whatever there had been?

I went back to the outer side of the wall, and thence to the edge of the chasm, leaving Tonnison rooting systematically among the heap of stones and rubbish on the outer side. Then I commenced to examine the surface of the ground, near the edge of the abyss, to see whether there were not left other remnants of the building to which the fragment of ruin evidently belonged. But though I scrutinized the earth with the greatest care, I could see no signs of anything to show that there had ever been a building erected on the spot, and I grew more puzzled than ever.

One can almost imagine Hodgson chuckling to himself as he places the house in his fictional Ireland, at a place where no building had ever been erected before.

The other piece of the Gothic puzzle that falls into place with ease is the appearance of the Other; in the case of this book, this is in the form of alien gods, mysterious spirits and implacable pit-demons. The abyss which forms the central theme of the book keeps reminding us of the limitless depths of darkness to which the human form and psyche can descend.

NARRATIVE: Psychedelia. There is no other word to describe the book. Hodgson was, if nothing else, one of the greatest hippies never to have been a part of the Swingin' Sixties. The loss is keenly felt, for, as one goes through the book, the feeling invariably arises as to how close the visual metaphors are to the mind-expanding reality-de(re)constructing pharmaceutical-induced visions that PKD and members of his ilk explained to us so breathlessly. For, in major portions of this book, the author describes journeys of the recluse into distant realms of space and time, of the death of stars and the whirling away of the Earth into infinity, of magically towering images of ancient pagan Gods and buildings of quartz. Read this book for its mystic descriptions of the passage of time alone; it's worth the effort.

PLUS POINTS: Plenty. In fact, but for the decisive but unsatisfying ending which left a slightly disappointed feel for the text, the rest of the book was a study in rigorous construction of classic horror, while also being the very picture of modern fantasy.

BOTTOMLINE: A beautiful book, one worth treasuring for a long time. It surely deserves an easily accessible place in the huge canon of the world's classic works of literature.

I have started reading, and am mid-way into, the next book on the list.

The Night Land: A Partial Review

Imagine, if you will, a future so distant that the very existence of the Sun is but a legend of ancient times, where the last dregs of humanity live in cowering fear inside a single Pyramid reaching 7 miles into the heavens, surrounded by monsters and half-breed mutants.
Imagine a million years of silence emanating from the Last Redoubt (for that is what the Pyramid is known as), and the host of silent Watchers of stone waiting for the last defences to collapse so that the faint spark of humanity that lies within can be finally extinguished.

Thus lies the basic premise of William Hope Hodgson's "The Night Land", a novel which I've just finished reading. And more than anything else, I have found it to be pretty disappointing. Let me start at the very beginning.

STYLE: Hodgson uses stilted prose like a crazed dwarf swinging a greataxe. He literally bludgeons one to death with his over-use of the literary styles of the late 17th century.

DEVICES: Considering that this was one of the first science-fiction novels ever written (1912), belonging to the Dawn Age of Imperial SF, one can sympathize with his choice of subject - the last citadel of Noble Humanity being battered down by the savage Hordes of sub-humans, a theme which has been tackled in various subtle as well as non-subtle ways by writers such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, the recurrent theme of the Others. Hodgson, however, cannot be forgiven for his misuse of the tacky literary device of being "warp-zoned" to the future in a dream. Yes, matey, the hero simply dreams of the far future, in such utter vividness that the mind boggles. Literary devices and constructions such as this should be tackled, nailed to the ground, and shot in the head with extremely fine-caliber rifles.

NARRATIVE: Or the lack of it. Hodgson describes, in excruciating detail, how the Hero (whose name we fail to discover) walks from one place to another, over a matter of fifty pages. Fifty pages of descriptive prose concerning how scared he felt, how tired he was, how the grass was long and the night was dark, until one wishes that the Hero would simply get discovered by one of the ScaryMonsters(TM) and get eaten. A fitting end to one of the most boring characters to have ever graced the pages of a novel.

POSITIVE POINTS: A lot. Which is why the disappointment, simply because I had expected much more from someone considered to be one of the greatest writers of science fiction. One catches glimpses of sheer genius in some parts of his prose, for example in the extract below:

Before me ran the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk; and I searched it, as many a time in my earlier youth had I, with the spy-glass; for my heart was always stirred mightily by the sight of those Silent Ones.
And, presently, alone in all the miles of that night-grey road, I saw one in the field of my glass--a quiet, cloaked figure, moving along, shrouded, and looking neither to right nor left. And thus was it with these beings ever. It was told about in the Redoubt that they would harm no human, if but the human did keep a fair distance from them; but that it were wise never to come close upon one. And this I can well believe.
And so, searching the road with my gaze, I passed beyond this Silent One, and past the place where the road, sweeping vastly to the South-East, was lit a space, strangely, by the light from the Silver-fire Holes. And thus at last to where it swayed to the South of the Dark Palace, and thence Southward still, until it passed round to the Westward, beyond the mountain bulk of the Watching Thing in the South--the hugest monster in all the visible Night Lands. My spy-glass showed it to me with clearness--a living hill of watchfulness, known to us as The Watcher Of The South. It brooded there, squat and tremendous, hunched over the pale radiance of the Glowing Dome.
Much, I know, had been writ concerning this Odd, Vast Watcher; for it had grown out of the blackness of the South Unknown Lands a million years gone; and the steady growing nearness of it had been noted and set out at length by the men they called Monstruwacans; so that it was possible to search in our libraries, and learn of the very coming of this Beast in the olden-time.

The passage extracted above reminds me, somehow, of H. G. Wells at the peak of his writing.

BOTTOMLINE: How I wish that Hodgson had been gifted with the power of story-telling to match his visionary imagination. How enriched literature would have been!

As for me, I'm on to the next novel. Will get back to you as soon as possible.

A Semester-Long Spree

I just finished reading A Trillion Year Spree, by Brian Aldiss, a work which outlines the history of science fiction as well as the books which led to its current state of development.
I'm impressed.
And, as a young orphan once so pitifully queried of an eviller, crueller generation: "Please, Sir, can I have some more?"
So, I made a list of the books that I need to read during the course of this semester. The entire list consists of over 50 books, which is why I've broken it into more digestible list-chunks of about 6-7 books each. Sadly enough, most of the books that I plan to peruse are not available in India. The only solution thus left to a penniless semi-literate subcontinental geek is to download 'em tomes off IRC.
In any case, here's the first list-chunk of books that I intend reading. Let's see how quickly I'm able to finish them. After I finish one list, I plan on posting reviews of each book, most of which I guess will be painfully personal.
But then, such is life.

Without further ado, here are the books:
  1. The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson
  2. The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson
  3. The Trial, by Franz Kafka
  4. The Castle, by Franz Kafka
  5. Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon
  6. The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
  7. The Inverted World, by Christopher Priest

Fee Fi Fo Fum

And a whole lot of abracadabra. And while we're at it, a little dash of hocus pocus wouldn't do much harm.
Yes, this blog needs a whole lot of magic to work.

I know, I know, there are a whole lot of questions to be answered, and I promise you I'll tackle them one by one.

Q. Why another blog?
A: Because everyone complained when I put up book reviews on my other blog ( This is for you guys. There. There! Does that make you happy now?

Q. Why a blog for book reviews?
A: Because that's what I do best. Read a book, and then excitedly gather people around me, to convert them to the latest faith that I've caught onto. Glee is a mild word, and does not even start to describe the joy I feel in comprehending and analyzing text.

Q. Why are you boring me now?
A: The Internet's a free place. Gittout while you can.

I'll start off by cross-posting from my main blog. These are the two reviews which created such a ruckus and forced me to separate the blogs. Have fun reading!