Lovecraft on Hodgson

I found this interesting excerpt online. It’s taken from HP Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror in Literature.

He’s rather scathing of the Carnacki stories, which I’m rather fond of. Oh well. I think the professional occultism of the Carnacki stories is key to their charm personally, but I’ll leave further comment on that until I write up the stories themselves.

In the meantime, here’s the man from Providence himself:

Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be. Despite a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connection with regions or buildings.

In The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907) we are shown a variety of malign marvels and accursed unknown lands as encountered by the survivors of a sunken ship. The brooding menace in the earlier parts of the book is impossible to surpass, though a letdown in the direction of ordinary romance and adventure occurs toward the end. An inaccurate and pseudo-romantic attempt to reproduce eighteenth-century prose detracts from the general effect, but the really profound nautical erudition everywhere displayed is a compensating factor.

The House on the Borderland (1908) — perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson’s works — tells of a lonely and evilly regarded house in Ireland which forms a focus for hideous otherworld forces and sustains a siege by blasphemous hybrid anomalies from a hidden abyss below. The wanderings of the Narrator’s spirit through limitless light-years of cosmic space and Kalpas of eternity, and its witnessing of the solar system’s final destruction, constitute something almost unique in standard literature. And everywhere there is manifest the author’s power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery. But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water.

The Ghost Pirates (1909), regarded by Mr. Hodgson as rounding out a trilogy with the two previously mentioned works, is a powerful account of a doomed and haunted ship on its last voyage, and of the terrible sea-devils (of quasi-human aspect, and perhaps the spirits of bygone buccaneers) that besiege it and finally drag it down to an unknown fate. With its command of maritime knowledge, and its clever selection of hints and incidents suggestive of latent horrors in nature, this book at times reaches enviable peaks of power.

The Night Land (1912) is a long-extended (538 pp.) tale of the earth’s infinitely remote future-billions of billions of years ahead, after the death of the sun. It is told in a rather clumsy fashion, as the dreams of a man in the seventeenth century, whose mind merges with its own future incarnation; and is seriously marred by painful verboseness, repetitiousness, artificial and nauseously sticky romantic sentimentality, and an attempt at archaic language even more grotesque and absurd than that in Glen Carrig.

Allowing for all its faults, it is yet one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written. The picture of a night-black, dead planet, with the remains of the human race concentrated in a stupendously vast metal pyramid and besieged by monstrous, hybrid, and altogether unknown forces of the darkness, is something that no reader can ever forget: Shapes and entities of an altogether non-human and inconceivable sort — the prowlers of the black, man-forsaken, and unexplored world outside the pyramid — are suggested and partly described with ineffable potency; while the night-land landscape with its chasms and slopes and dying volcanism takes on an almost sentient terror beneath the author’s touch. Midway in the book the central figure ventures outside the pyramid on a quest through death-haunted realms untrod by man for millions of years — and in his slow, minutely described, day-by-day progress over unthinkable leagues of immemorial blackness there is a sense of cosmic alienage, breathless mystery, and terrified expectancy unrivalled in the whole range of literature. The last quarter of the book drags woefully, but fails to spoil the tremendous power of the whole. Mr. Hodgson’s later volume, Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, consists of several longish short stories published many years before in magazines. In quality it falls conspicuously below the level of the other books. We here find a more or less conventional stock figure of the “infallible detective” type — the progeny of M. Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and the close kin of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence — moving through scenes and events badly marred by an atmosphere of professional “occultism.” A few of the episodes, however, are of undeniable power, and afford glimpses of the peculiar genius characteristic of the author.

I love Lovecraft dearly. A flawed writer, but one who deserves his recent and very belated recognition by Penguin Modern Classics. At his worst, his writing was racist and overwrought. At his best, it was weird in the finest sense of that word. I’ll write about him more another day, though I have an adolescent fondness for him which makes impartiality difficult.


Filed under Hodgson, William Hope, Horror, Lovecraft, H.P.

8 responses to “Lovecraft on Hodgson

  1. Thanks again Max. These are the ones I got FREE on the kindle:
    The Night Land
    The Ghost Pirates
    Carnacki, the Ghost Finder
    The House of the Borderland
    The Boats of the Glen Carrig

    I’ve only read one Lovecraft.

  2. For my money, Lovecraft is actually at his best when he is racist and overwrought. It’s when he’s more sane and in touch with the roots of the genre that I find him weaker and less interesting.

    I think without his racism, Lovecraft would be largely forgotten. It’s the coal in his engine… the moments when he taps into those reserves of fucked-up neurotic bullshit that he really starts to shine and find his own voice.

    Lovecraft was quite harsh about himself as a stylist. He famously said that he had his Dunsany stories and his Poe stories but he had no Lovecraft stories. I think the Lovecraft stories are the ones that can be read not as SF or as Fantastical Horror but as flat out racial paranoia : Redhook and Innsmouth in particular can both be read as entirely ‘realistic’.

    Lovecraft is kind of an anchor between the gothic authors of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the racial stylists of the Third Reich. His works are precursors to films like the 1940 Jew Suss.

  3. There’s certainly some truth in that Jonathan. He’s at his weakest when showing his influences most strongly, I don’t particularly rate his Dunsanian material for example – unsurprisingly Dunsany did it better.

    That said, while you can’t separate his racism from his art, it did sometimes get flatly out of hand. Stories like Polaris or The Street are, well, the ending of Polaris I think is actually laughable and The Street is just bigotry with a thin veneer of narrative.

    Red Hook’s a good example of where it works. It has a palpable fear of the other, and Innsmouth takes latent fears of miscegenation and turns them into something even darker.

    That said, I think his best work is often where he thought it was – where it’s touched by a sense of the cosmic. The Call of Cthulhu with its unusual structure – the piecing together of different narratives which leads to a single horrifying conclusion, or The Whisperer in Darkness which is driven largely by suggestion – I think their power comes from that sense of cosmic indifference more.

    I’m largely unfamiliar with Nazi cinema. I know some of it was technically accomplished, but it was ultimately propaganda wasn’t it? Lovecraft was driven by his personal demons, his best work for me is where he just about controls them (in The Street he fails to I think) or where he captures a brief echo of that sense of the cosmic he was always striving for.

  4. The picture of a night-black, dead planet, with the remains of the human race concentrated in a stupendously vast metal pyramid and besieged by monstrous, hybrid, and altogether unknown forces of the darkness, is something that no reader can ever forget:

    This, here, is the description of an image that I’m never going to forget that I’m never going to forget.
    That is: from here, Lovecraft really does seem to know his writing like the best of them.

  5. Here’s the opening paragraph of The Call of Cthulhu Ronak, a story Lovecraft himself didn’t rate but which is widely seen as one of his best (he was a harsh critic of his own work, sometimes too much so):

    The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

  6. GB Steve

    And here is that same piece after some treatment.

    HPL was a queer old goat, only too aware that he was doomed never to meet his excating standards, in writing as in life, filled with a rage against the deadly unfairness of it all, and yet concious of the impotence of this rage. Like a self-aware Daily Mail reader really.

  7. Brilliant.

    He wasn’t a happy chap. Of course the critical reaction to his work in his lifetime didn’t help.

    A self-aware Daily Mail reader. We must be thankful that such a thing could never actually exist. The universe, though indifferent, is at least not that actively cruel.

  8. leroyhunter

    I can’t get over the cheek of Lovecraft describing another writer as “Of rather uneven stylistic quality…”

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