Sargasso: The Journal of William Hope Hodgson Studies #1, edited by Sam Gafford. Book review

Sargasso: The Journal of William Hope Hodgson Studies #1, edited by Sam Gafford, Ulthar Press, p/b, £15.81 (Amazon price at the time of writing),Publisher’s website

Reviewed by Dave Brzeski

Periodicals dedicated to studying the works of the grand masters of weird fiction, such as H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard etc. have been around for decades. A regular journal of William Hope Hodgson studies, however, has been a long time coming. Sam Gafford has finally bridged this gap in the critical market with ‘Sargasso’.

The reason it’s taken this long is simply that William Hope Hodgson has never garnered the level of respect accorded the likes of Poe, Dunsany, Bierce and Lovecraft. It’s Sam Gafford’s intention to address this sad state of affairs, not only with this magazine, but in non-fiction books such as his recent ‘Hodgson: A Collection of Essays’, ‘William Hope Hodgson: Voices from the Borderland’ (published by Hippocampus Press) and his anthology of new Hodgson inspired fiction, ‘Carnacki: The New Adventures’.

I once co-ran a book/comic shop named after Hodgson’s best known book, ‘The House on the Borderland’, so it should surprise no one that I’d have an interest in these publications.

The first article in the magazine is ‘Shadow out of Hodgson’, by John D. Haefele, in which the author examines the evidence that Hodgson was a major influence on H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow out of Time’. I’d long assumed that Hodson was an influence on Lovecraft, not realising that Lovecraft hadn’t actually read him until Clark Aston Smith sent him three Hodgson books in mid 1934. This significantly lessens the possibility of Hodgson being that huge an influence on Lovecraft, but John D. Haefele presents convincing arguments for him having had a major impact on Lovecraft’s writing of that particular story.

Phillip A. Ellis contibutes a long piece, ‘A Reassessment of William Hope Hodgson’s Poetry’, plus a couple of poems of his own, inspired by Hodgson. I can’t deny that much of the article went over my head. While I do enjoy poetry, I am blissfully ignorant of how and why particular literary tricks and techniques are designed to have a specific effect on the emotions of the reader, and would need to further my education in such matters somewhat to fully appreciate this piece. I suspect it would also help a lot if one actually had the poems to hand while reading the article. Having said that, it did succeed in that it made me aware of Hodgson’s poetry—I have to admit that I haven’t actually read much, if any—and interested enough to want to check it out at some point.

I was fascinated by Jane Frank’s piece on ‘William Hope Hodgson’s Sales Log: The Pleasure and Consequences of Collecting’. We all owe Jane, and her husband, Howard, a huge debt for ensuring the Sam Moskowitz’s archive of Hodgson material didn’t end up in the hands of dealers and thus be split up, with no hope of ever reassembling it. This, plus the painstaking research that has led to more Hodgson material being made available, with the possibility of more to come is very good news indeed.

I suspect there are people who, while they might read a non-fiction article about William Hope Hodgson if it happened to come their way, might not actually purchase an entire book of them. I can’t help but feel that the inclusion of a new Carnacki story, by William Meikle, might just tip the balance for more than a few readers. ‘Carnacki: The Blue Egg’ also features Hodgson’s other series character, Captain Gault, in their second team-up. The first, ‘Carnacki: Captain Gault’s Nemesis’, also by William Meikle, is included in ‘Carnacki : The New Adventures’. This time, Carnacki’s help is requested by Captain Gault, regarding a legendary Roc’s egg. Not the real thing, but a gigantic gemstone, with dangerous mystical properties. Captain Gault hopes to turn a profit, but even with Carnacki’s help the curse may prove too much.

Mark Valentine’s ‘The “Wonder Unlimited”—the Tales of Captain Gault’ is a logical piece to follow after William Meikle’s story. The Captain Gault stories are a lesser known series by this unfairly disregarded author. Mark Valentine shows us that this is largely due to the sub-genre of sea stories itself being so rarely read by the modern reader, whereas at the time of Hodgson’s writing, it was a huge market. In the course of the article, several other authors, who made their money writing tales of the sea, are mentioned—a couple of which were new to me.

Emily Adler contributes a very interesting article, ‘Always sea and sea: The Night Land as sea-scape’, in which she shows how Hodgson’s land-locked fiction was still deeply influenced by his experiences at sea, and shared much of the same imagery and themes as his maritime stories. I also learned things I didn’t know about the problems inherent in the use of magnetic compasses in metal ships.

In ‘The Long Apocalypse: The Experimental Eschatologies of H.G. Wells and William Hope Hodgson’, Brett Davidson explores the similarities and differences in the world (cosmos?) view of Wells and Hodgson, how they were influenced by the level of the scientific knowledge of the time and how they balanced the scientific with the metaphysical in their work.

Neal Alan Spurlock continues with the study of the metaphysical side of Hodgson’s work in ‘Ab-Reality: The Metaphysical Vision of William Hope Hodgson’. He opens with a useful, detailed explanation of the terms “metaphysics” and “epistemology” and how they apply to human perception, before examining how Hodgson’s mythos is more consistent—more compatible with the universe as we know it than that of Lovecraft. Genuinely fascinating, it’s certainly recommended reading for any who may wish to write their own expansions of Hodgson’s mythos.

‘A Question of Meaning’, by Pierre V. Comtois is a crossover between Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and ‘The Night Land’, in which the author takes on board August Derleth’s concept of evil Great Old Ones, and good Elder Gods. He cleverly shows that having an Elder God on your side might not be quite as much of an advantage as you thought.

This first issue of the magazine concludes with ‘Things Invisible: “Human” and “Ab-Human” in Two of Hodgson’s Carnacki Stories’, in which Leigh Blackmore cites examples in an effort to counter those who criticise the Carnacki stories as trivial and clichéd, compared to the rest of Hodgson’s canon.

Between William Meikle’s story and the following article, is a portfolio of six excellent full page illustrations, one each by Andrea Bonazzi, Pete Von Sholly, Nick Gucker and Allen Koszowski and two by Steve Lines. There are several more Allen Kosowski illustrations throughout the magazine.

In summary, this is an excellent mix of non-fiction and fiction. I have to admit that some of the theory in the non-fiction pieces came dangerously close to going over my head, but there’s certainly enough in here to please the less academically minded reader. I would have picked up the magazine for the fiction alone, so everything else is a huge bonus.