Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review of The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson



Oh cosmic evil, wherefore art thou?  Ahh, a deep pit in the fields of rural Ireland, just where I thought.  At least, this is the dish William Hope Hodgson would serve.  His 1908 The House on the Borderland is the story of an Irish recluse’s encounter with inexplicable forces of the malign in the fields outside his home.  Even stranger is that the evil bears the head of a pig.  (I would have thought goat given all the pagan stereotypes, red eyes, horns, etc., but, what do I know of cosmic evil…)

The House on the Borderland opens with two fishermen going to the countryside for a little sport.  Encountering a strange house at the edge of a small gorge, rifling through the interior they discover a manuscript, and over a meal begin reading it.  The framing device effective, the tale the manuscript tells is one that requires that extra bit of narrative distance to work properly.  An unnamed narrator, living in the countryside with only his sister and dog, experiences the most bizarre happenstance one day.  Seemingly swept out of the Earthly dimension, he arrives in a massive field, and in the center sits a house—a house that bears strong resemblance to his own, yet made of jade and much bigger.  An evil swine entity making its presence felt more than seen in the ether surrounding the house, the narrator’s return home sees several of the swine beasts trying to break into his house.  Though defending himself with a shotgun, his inter-dimensional experiences are only just beginning.  Looking out his window one evening, time begins to shift from fast, to faster, to dying Earth.  And that is only one stop of the cosmic clock.

Perhaps the Irish are more stout than the average person, but little of the surreal and alien horrors that assault the narrator in The House on the Borderland have any effect.  (Perhaps all the brandy he consumes?)  Like a machine he goes about blasting the swine-men, nary a question as to their origins or alienness, nary a moment of shock or surprise, and nary a cry of terror as he stares life in the eyes.  Like told there are ants on the floor, he goes about getting the broom with all the passion of a refrigerator.  The attack of the swine-men simply incites no emotion in him. 

The result of this tone is that there is little resonance of fear or horror to the novel.  A more subtle feeling of bizarreness or strangeness endowed within the text, The House on the Borderland is not Hollywood horror, rather something much more akin to the weirdness of H.G. Wells The Time Machine or H.P. Lovecraft’s works.  The narrator of Wells’ tale likewise unnamed, each man is placed in an unfamiliar environment with utterly unrelatable occurrences, and both are subject to immense spans of time.  Hodgson’s look at the far-far-far future less abrupt and more graded than Wells’ (but less socially and politically relevant), he extends the concept’s arms to take in the broad sweep of galactic existence and finds (sound the kettle drums and echoing laughter) cosmic evil—in the form of a pig man.

In the end, The House on the Borderland is a nicely constructed novel that drags out something haunting and mysterious from the dark depths of the universe in phantasmagorical imagery.  The character driving the experience comes off as flat and cold, but in doing so forgoes making the story overt horror (i.e. blood, monsters, and screams) in favor of something—there go the kettle drums again—more cosmically evil. (Oink oink.)  Certainly one of the original Weird texts, I imagine the likes of Jeff Vandermeer (and wife Ann), China Mieville, and similar writers have something of a soft spot for the novel.  Interestingly, Borderland also forms a sort of intermediary link between Wells’ The Time Machine and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.  Stapledon’s offering infinitely more philosophical, each book nevertheless utilizes the ultra-long term perspective of The Time Machine to couch their ideas.  Another interesting link is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  The boys stranded on the island afraid of a mysterious pig-man they believe haunts the shadows, one can’t help but wonder whether Golding had read Borderland and chose to borrow the imagery for his own symbolism of evil.  Only the cosmic swine-man knows…

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