|The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson|
Originally published in 1912, The Night Land is, by any reasonable use of the phrase, a classic. Like many classics, it both straddles and defies genre. It is a mix of horror, fantasy, fairy tale, and, almost by definition of the setting, science fiction. Of course, all these genres were still in flux in 1912, so it makes assigning this novel a little more difficult.
The novel makes odd use of a framing story, although the framing story is part of what lets this novel keep a foot planted in the world of the fairy tale. Briefly, it opens with the unnamed narrator describing (in almost excruciating detail) how he met and fell in love with the love of his life. Or, more correctly, The Love of His Life. This goes far, far beyond love, beyond even soul mates. This is an endless love; a love for the ages. And, as we see, calling it a love of the ages is exactly right. After the tragic death of his love (and we are still in the first chapter here), he has a vision. A vision of the future. The far future.
And when I say "the far future", I mean the far future. A future the likes of which only The Time Machine or The Dying Earth can appreciate. The book jumps from a vague 17th century setting to, quite literally, millions of years into the future, to a point after the death of the sun (when this was written, it was assumed that the sun would dwindle and snuff itself out, as opposed to swelling into a red giant and absorbing the earth).
Allow that to sink in for a moment. Just imagine the world he has created for his narrator to live in. A world of, more or less, perpetual darkness. A world where the last millions of people live in a massive structure called the Last Redoubt. It is in this world that the bulk (and the novel has considerable heft) of the story takes place, with the narrator attempting to reconnect with his love.
This novel is staggering. For one, the Last Redoubt is possibly the first use of an arcology in literature, and is simply colossal, a true and fine example of super-architecture:
...when the humans had built the great Pyramid, it had one thousand three hundred and twenty floors; and the thickness of each floor was according to the strength of its need. And the whole height of this pyramid exceeded seven miles, by near a mile, and above it was a tower from which the Watchmen looked...Of course, much of the novel doesn't take place in the Redoubt; it takes place in the titular Night Land, which is, essentially, the rest of earth. A dark, deadly place filled with monsters and living testaments to pure, true evil. Beings simply waiting for their chance to destroy, slay, and consume the last humans, body and soul.
In addition to physical sizes (a nearly eight mile tall four sided pyramid, massive creatures and giants), the time scale is also tremendous. Frequently, the narrator will pause to go off on a historical tangent, that will involve ancient (for him) events, but he will also mention how a certain situation or standard would continue for "mayhaps an hundred thousand years," just casually blurring through huge gulfs of time. Of course, when you've given yourself twenty million years (give or take) to play with, what's a couple hundred thousand between friends?
However. There's always a however.
This novel was written in 1912, emulating, sort of, earlier story-telling styles, which makes this something of a difficult read. The language is very formal and very stilted at times. The narrator (forever unnamed) will often go off on long digressions, often going on and on for pages about some esoteric thing or bit of history. There's also an almost utter lack of dialog. All of this can make for a bit of a slog to get through this story, wonderful as it is. For example:
And by this means did I eat thrice in that time, and have six hours of sleep. And this seemed very good to me, and I did strive always to manage thus in all my great journeying in the Night Land. Yet, as may be supposed, there were times oft and many when I must watch without ceasing, and leave my slumber unto the future; for the Land was full of grim and dreadful Perils.While is certainly isn't as circular and over-enamored with adjectives as, say, Paul Clifford, it can't be said that this story isn't taking its time. Then again, this isn't exactly a brief review either, so perhaps I should be careful in my glass house.
But still... still... it is compelling. This is the kind of story Lovecraft wished he could write (and he all but said so in Supernatural Horror in Literature). Rather than Paul "Dark and Stormy Night" Clifford which wore out its welcome rather quickly (no matter how fun it was to post hundred-word sentences to Facebook), The Night Land enchants. It sucks you in. While this makes the digressions all the more infuriating as you want to get on with it, you can't stay irritated, because who knows when that five page tangent about what some people did a couple million years ago might become important.
Personally, I liken it to the novels of Lord Dunsany. Like, say, The King of Elfland's Daughter, it takes its time, slowly building the world, slowly progressing the story. In many ways, they are literary examples of "it's the journey, not the destination". And while the journey may be bumpy and your tour guide might be overly flowery, it's a journey that's more than worth it.
Which is not to say it isn't without its faults. At times, the narrator is an impossible idiot. He sets off on his quest, only knowing that his destination lies to the north. Or maybe the northwest. But very likely in some northish direction. Picture that for a moment. Unless you're in the Arctic Circle, "north" isn't especially useful. And yet, he expresses dismay that he hasn't found his destination after a couple weeks of walking. But at least he gives updates about when he eats and drinks and when he feels he's deserved an extra ration, "as you shall understand."
At times, this feels very much like a classic -- in the bad way. Like the kind of book you were forced to read in high school, and thus would resent for the rest of your life. And it feels like that even now, even though I'm reading this because I want to. And the thing is, even though there are times that I feel like yelling at the narrator ("Yes, yes, you ate and drank every 6 hours, you don't need to tell me this every day for a month!") or yell at the author ("Get on with it!"), I can't help but want to know what happens. Perhaps it's a sort of Me vs. It contest of wills at this point, but I also think it's because the story, buried deep under a pile of expository gilding, is still worth it. But still, even though I devour Lovecraft and Poe and Dunsany, I think I might have gotten more enjoyment from reading Stoddard's rewrite of the novel to make it less archaic (or Hodgson's own abridged version which cuts, literally, 90% of the story). But then, there's something for reading the original, even if it feels like a contest of wills at times.
And, the kicker is, he knows how to write. I skimmed a couple pages of one of his other books (The House on the Borderland), and it was fine. Early 20th century styling, but fine. Unfortunately, he's aping a bizarre Victorian style which leads to:
And in this place I will make explanation why that I speak somewhiles of fire-pits and otherwihiles of fire-holes; for the holes did be those fires that burned nigh to the brim of the holes; but the pits were those places where the fire was deeply in the earth. And this thing I give for your enlightenment, even on a small matter; so that you shall have a clear knowledge to abide with me all the way; and you to agree of this for wisdom, and I to be pleased that you so agree.That passage is eight hundred pages into this almost 1300 page novel. 800 pages in and he finally decides to explain the difference, more or less out of nowhere. It's the phrases like this that make the entire book read like it's a rambling story being told by your drunken uncle Earl after Thanksgiving dinner. Even still, I can't hate this book. God help me, but I enjoyed it on the whole.
So why did I call this a bit of background reading? Simple. I read this 197k word tome as groundwork for the collection I had originally intended to read. But after getting about five pages into that, I decided I needed to read the source. So now that I've read the source, I can go on to John C. Wright's Awake in the Night Land.
And surely all this to be plain to you, and to be over-plain; for, in verity, I tell to you, and over-tell, until that I should be weary; and mayhap you to be the more so.Hit the nail on the head, buddy.