William Hope Hodgson: Voices from the Borderland edited by Massimo Berruti. Book review

William Hope Hodgson: Voices from the Borderland edited by Massimo Berruti, S.T. Joshi and Sam Gafford, Hippocampus Press, p/b, £18.00, Website

Reviewed by Dave Brzeski

Apart from a couple of chapbooks, this volume is one of only two collections of non-fiction about William Hope Hodgson to be published in book form. It’s divided into four thematic parts.

Part One: ‟Some Studies of Hodgson’s Life and early reception.”

I mentioned that there is, in fact, one previous collection of Hodgson based articles available in book form, that being Hodgson: A Collection of Essays by Sam Gafford. This volume opens with a reprint of one of the essays from that collection. ‟Houdini v. Hodgson: The Blackburn Challenge” is a fascinating piece on the infamous “handcuff challenge” issued by Hodgson to Houdini, on the occasion of his visit to the Palace Theatre, Blackburn in 1902. Unimpressed with Houdini’s escapology act, Hodgson challenges him to escape from shackles supplied and applied by himself. Sam Gafford has done considerable research to bring together as many accounts of this challenge as possible in the effort to provide us with the most likely sequence of events. Frankly, neither man comes over as particularly pleasant during this affair, and we’ll likely never know for sure exactly whose version of the events is true, if either.

We have probably all, by now, become used to the fact that William Hope Hodgson is vastly under-appreciated. It was with some surprise, then, that I read A. Langley Searles’ ‟William Hope Hodgson: In His Own Day”, a piece on the overwhelmingly positive contemporary criticism Hodgson received for his work. This is, so the author states, the first of two connected articles: the second being a look at Hodgson’s more recent reviews. The fact that this second article isn’t included in this volume is likely down to the reviews discussed being relatively much easier to find.

‟Pioneering Essays” is a collection of early pieces about Hodgson by H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, H.C. Koenig, August Derleth, Ellery Queen and Fritz Leiber. I was very familiar with the Lovecraft material, but the rest was all new to me. After reading all the good reviews Hodgson received during his lifetime, it’s particularly poignant to read H.C. Koenig’s report on how hard it was for him to find even a mention of Hodgson just a couple of decades later. The overwhelming dedication and work Koenig put into obtaining recognition for the work of this lost master in the USA cannot be under-appreciated. Especially when one considers that almost every Hodgson fan I know in the UK first discovered him through the US Ace paperback edition of The House on the Borderland.

Part Two: ‟Some Special Topics.”

Brian Stableford’s piece, ‟William Hope Hodgson”, is taken from Scientific Romance in Britain (1890-1950), originally published in 1985. That book is by no means easy to get hold of these days, so I was glad to see this informative overview of Hodgson’s work reprinted here.

‟The Dark Mythos of the Sea: William Hope Hodgson’s Transformation of maritime Legends”, by Emily Alder, is, as the title suggests, an examination of the way Hodgson used common maritime myths and legends, as popularised by seamen all over the world through the centuries. Taking legends such as the ghost ship (the Flying Dutchman for example) the author shows us how Hodgson adapted them to fit his own more cosmic viewpoint, regarding things that lie beyond human boundaries of knowledge and thought.

An S.T. Joshi piece is always interesting. In ‟Things in the Weeds: The Supernatural in Hodgson’s Short Stories”, he examines Hodgson’s use of the “clearly supernatural, the explained supernatural and the ambiguously supernatural” in his stories. As one would expect from S.T. Joshi, his criticism is refreshingly honest and he doesn’t baulk at pointing out Hodgson’s stylistic failings. In common with many other critics, he doesn’t really rate the Carnacki tales all that highly…

Which brings us to ‟Against the Abyss: Carnacki the Ghost-Finder”, in which Mark Valentine argues strongly against the view that the Carnacki stories are inferior works, compared to his novels. It’s an opinion I share. Nothing is more frustrating than reading the opinions of a fellow Hodgson enthusiast, only to find them getting all snobbish about those silly occult detective stories.

I would be lying if I claimed that I enjoyed every piece in this book. I’m afraid I found Phillip A. Ellis’ ‟William Hope Hodgson in the Underworld: Mythic Aspects of the Novels” a little too long-winded and repetitive for my tastes. The author attempts to get across the various methods by which Hodgson’s narrators try to describe to the reader how the ‟underworlds” they find themselves in, and their denizens, differ from the mundane world. He tends to use an awful lot of words to say very little, and I found the quoting of pretty much every example in each of the novels soon became extremely tedious.

Thankfully, Sam Gafford is much more precise and to the point. ‟Decay and Disease in the Fiction of William Hope Hodgson” is a very interesting look at another theme Hodgson, something of a fitness and health fanatic in real life, returned to again and again.

The last essay in this section is also by Sam Gafford. The fact that little is really known of Hodgson’s private life and views is referred to often in this collection. Nowhere is that more apparent than in ‟Hodgson’s Women”, in which the author offers what theories on the subject of Hodgson’s relationships with the opposite sex we might glean from his fiction. It’s not a pretty picture. As Sam Gafford says, ‟Hodgson would be a feminist’s nightmare”.

Part Three ‟Studies of Individual Tales”.

This section opens with a piece by Leigh Blackmore, ‟Things Invisible: ‛Human’ and ‛Ab-Human’ in Two of Hodgson’s Carnacki Stories”, which previously appeared in Sargasso #1, which I have also reviewed.

Sid Birchby contributes an essay on ‟Sexual Symbolism in W.H. Hodgson”. It’s interesting and well presented, but I’m not sure I wasn’t happier not being aware of this stuff while reading Hodgson’s work.

‟The ‛Wonder Unlimited’—the Tales of Captain Gault” is the second piece reprinted from the previously reviewed Sargasso #1, in which Mark Valentine explores Hodgson’s lesser known series character.

Henrik Harksen, in ‟The House on the Borderland: On Humanity and Love”, presents a compelling argument that the passages dealing with love—what Lovecraft referred to as his ‟commonplace sentimentality”, were actually vital to the story’s power to fascinate.

Part Four: ‟Comparative Studies”

‟Time Machines Go Both Ways: Past and Future in H.G. Wells and W.H. Hodgson” starts with a descriptive passage that could equally apply to either Wells’ The Time Machine, or Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Andy Sawyer compares the two authors similarities and differences of approach in portraying a vision of humanity’s inevitable fate.

The next two articles are also reprinted from Sargasso #1. The first, Brett Davidson’s ‟The Long Apocalypse: The Experimental Eschatologies of H.G. Wells and William Hope Hodgson”, covers related ground to Andy Sawyer’s essay, focusing instead on Wells’ more purely scientific vision, and Hodgson’s combining of his deep respect for science with a more traditionally spiritual view.

The second is ‟Shadow out of Hodgson”, in which the author examines the evidence that Hodgson was a major influence on H.P. Lovecraft’s ‛The Shadow out of Time’. John D. Haefele presents convincing arguments for Hodgson having had a major impact on Lovecraft’s writing of that particular story, even though Lovecraft discovered Hodgson’s work too late for him to have been any influence on his other works.

‟R.H. Barlow’s ‛A Memory’ in William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land” is an interesting attempt to discover if Barlow had, in fact read Hodgson’s The Night Land early enough for it to have influenced his stories, ‛A Memory’, and ‛Till A’ the Seas’. Marcos Legaria points out the similarity to The Night land in Barlow’s tales, and gives us what information is known, via letters to and from Lovecraft, of the distribution of Hodgson’s books between Lovecraft’s correspondents, but has to admit in the end that this information is simply not complete enough to prove the case one way, or the other.

The rest of the book is taken up by the most extensive bibliography of Hodgson’s work to see print so far. Such an undertaking can only ever be a work in progress, continually added to, but I suspect this will be the go-to source for collectors for quite some time. It’s spilt into several sections…

  1. Works by Hodgson in English.
  2. Books and Pamphlets.
  3. Contributions to Books and periodicals.
  4. Media Adaptations.
  5. Hodgson in Translation.
  6. Works about Hodgson.
  7. Bibliographies.
  8. Books about Hodgson.
  9. Dictionary and Encyclopedia Articles.
  10. Criticism in Books or Periodicals.
  11. Academic Papers.
  12. Book Reviews.

Simply put, if you have an interest in William Hope Hodgson that stretches beyond just enjoying his fiction, then this volume is essential. Very highly recommended.