The House on the Borderland

23 Jul

The House on the Borderland (1908) is a supernatural horror novel by British fantasist William Hope Hodgson. The novel is a hallucinatory account of a recluse’s stay at a remote house, and his experiences of supernatural creatures and otherworldly dimensions. A manuscript is found: filled with small, precise writing and smelling of pit-water, it tells the story of an old recluse and his strange home – and its even stranger, jade-green double, seen by the recluse on an otherworldly plain where gigantic gods and monsters roam. Soon his more earthly home is no less terrible than this bizarre vision, as swine-like creatures boil from a cavern beneath the ground and besiege it. But a still greater horror will face the recluse – more inexorable, merciless and awful than any creature that can be fought or killed. The book was a milestone that signalled a radical departure from the typical Gothic fiction of the late 19th century. Hodgson created a newer more realistic/scientific cosmic horror that left a marked impression on those who would become the great writers of the weird tales of the middle of the 20th century, particularly Clark Ashton Smith, and H P Lovecraft. Lovecraft listed The House on the Borderland and other works by Hodgson among his greatest influences, and Terry Pratchett has called the novel “the Big Bang in my private universe as a science fiction and fantasy reader and, later, writer.”

William Hope Hodgson was born in 1877 in an Essex village. His father was an Anglican clergyman. The family was a large one – there were twelve children – although three died in infancy – and was always poor. Apprenticed as a cabin boy at the age of fourteen, Hodgson remained at sea for eight years, experiencing the considerable privations of life aboard ship that prevailed at the time. By 1890 Hodgson had had enough of the sea. He turned to his other skills – photography, physical culture and writing – in search of a means of support. In the early 1890s he began to sell stories to the popular magazines of the time. Although he was a long was from the literary world of London, he corresponded with other writers, including H G Wells. He published his first novel, The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’, in 1907. Hodgson married in 1913 and went to live for a while in southern France. When the First World War began he and his wife returned to England. He enlisted in 1915, receiving a commission in the Royal Field Artillery. While serving in France in 1916 he was thrown from a horse and badly injured. He returned to the front when he had recovered and was killed in action in April 1918, near Ypres.

Hodgson had a number of his weird tales published in various magazines before he wrote the bizarre but brilliant The House on the Borderland. This novel was first published in Britain by Chapman and Hall, Ltd. London in 1908 but its most popular version was by Arkham House Press, Sauk City, Wisconsin, in 1946 as part of The House on the Borderland and Other Novels, the same publishers that brought out many books by other authors of weird fiction, such as H P Lovecraft. In 2000, DC Comics’ mature reader imprint Vertigo published a 96-page colour graphic-novel adaptation The House on the Borderland, with story by Simon Revelstroke. Revelstroke updated Hodgson’s initial ‘manuscript discovery’ frame to 1952 Ireland, and while he made an effort to retain most of the original plot and dialogue, excepting the very last page, the climax is purely Revelstroke’s invention. In the credits, Revelstroke listed himself as a “Carnacki Fellow” currently “teaching at the Glen Carrig School of Nautical Horticulture”, both direct (and fictional) references to Hodgson’s other literary works. Carnacki the Ghost-Finder was an Edwardian psychic detective who investigated all sorts of terrifying paranormal phenomena in the course of Hodgson’s short stories. In many ways the Carnacki stories have more than a flavour of Sherlock Holmes about them, with a clever protagonist who approaches each ‘ghostly’ case with a healthy dose of scepticism, utilising science to banish the supernatural or expose it as a hoax. This is part of the fun of the adventures of Carnacki, which often turn out to be nothing more than human skulduggery rather than genuine otherworldly manifestations. Of course, every now and again it turns out that the hauntings are all too chillingly real…

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