Sargasso: The Journal of William Hope Hodgson Studies #2, edited by Sam Gafford. Book review

Sargasso: The Journal of William Hope Hodgson Studies #2, edited by Sam Gafford, Ulthar Press, p/b, £10.12 (Amazon price at the time of writing),

Reviewed by Dave Brzeski

The first thing I noticed was that this second issue is some 28 pages slimmer than the first, which would explain the lower price. It’s still a fairly hefty paperback, though, weighing in at 176 pages.

The opening piece ‘Under the Skin: A profile of William Hope Hodgson’, is exactly what the title says. Jane Franks attempts to put together a profile of Hodgson, from the various bits of scant evidence we have. It’s always nice, when reading about favourite authors, to see evidence that you might not have disliked them as people.

James Bojaciuk provides us next with ‘Carnacki Pastiche: A Bibliography’, in which he attempts to list all the appearances of Carnacki in the work of other writers. I actually found a couple that I wasn’t aware of, so it was useful.

The first of several pieces of new fiction in this issue is Deborah Walker’s ‘Low the Ascomycotan Sky’. Most of the new Hodgson inspired fiction I’ve seen to date have been either new Carnacki stories, or those that treat Hodgson’s mythos as a precursor to, or expansion of that of H. P. Lovecraft. Much as I enjoy those sorts of stories, it’s refreshing to see an author attempt something different. Deborah Walker gives us a far future tale—an almost perfect blend of modern science fiction and period weird fiction. The Sun is dying, most of the earth is now uninhabitable. The remnants of humanity harvest all their food and medicines from the vast fields of fungi, which are pretty much all that is left growing, other than lichens. Fuel sources are so low that there are just a handful of huge vehicles, with crews devoted to exploring the planet, looking for new food and energy sources. It’s a clever “after the holocaust” type of story, in which the crews of these vehicles are in constant danger from attacks by abhumans in a world which is well on its way to resembling that of the ‘Night Land’.

As with the first volume, there’s an excellent gallery of Hodgson-inspired artwork, this time from: Sebastian Cabrol, Chris Farman, Alex Weiß and Herve Scott Flament. My personal favourite in this issue is Sebastian Cabrol.

Phillip A. Ellis has uncovered a couple of obscure contemporary reviews of Hodgson’s fiction and poetry, and in ‘Contemporary Views: Pieces on William Hope Hodgson from the Idler and the Bookman’, he attempts to uncover some of the possible reasons behind Hodgson’s lack of popularity at that time. I have to say that I’ve rarely read a review that has made me want to read one of his works more than the one of ‘The Ghost Pirates’, presented here.

‘A Home on the Borderland: William Hope Hodgson’s Borth’, Mark Valentine’s piece on the home of the Hodson family on the mid-Welsh coast, would have been interesting enough, with it’s photographs of the area, and suggestions as to which local landmarks were reflected in his books. Where Mark Valentine has done us a real service, though, is in tracking down still-living neighbours of the Hodgsons who were able to provide fascinating incidental details of the everyday lives of Hodgson and his family.

The second piece of new fiction is, ‘The Flames of the Drakkar’ by John B. Ford. An excellent pastiche of Hodgson’s supernatural sea stories, in which a young apprentice seaman has a horrifying experience aboard the three-masted windjammer, the Spirit Moon.

The second contribution to this issue from James Bojaciuk is ‘A Concluding Oink: An Abnormal Flight of Fancy’, in which he compares the Carnacki story, ‘The Hog’, to ‘The House on the Borderland’, and even suggests that there is information about the origins and nature of this particular “Outer Monstrosity” to be found in a most unexpected place. He certainly makes one wonder just where else we might uncover evidence of the Hog’s brief incursions into the here and now.

Laurie Needell gives us ‘After The Voice in the Night’, the third piece of new fiction in this issue. Naturally, I couldn’t resist rereading Hodgson’s ‘The Voice in the Night’ for comparison. Laurie Needell’s story is, as the title suggests, a re-imagining of ‘The Voice of the Night’ in a modern day setting. I liked it, but it was flawed by a lapse in internal logic. Unlike Hodgson’s original, this tale is set on a river, which the protagonists access via a boat club, presumably somewhere in the United States. They set off in their launch down the river, the weather turns foggy, and eventually they are hailed by a man in a dinghy. The rest of the story proceeds pretty much like the original, even to the extent of the shipwrecked couple having to look for fresh water and finding tanks of it on an abandoned ship. The author seems to have forgotten that they are on a river, not many hours sailing away from a popular boat club. It’s possible that they wanted to avoid the river water due to contamination from the fungus, but this isn’t mentioned. It also seems unlikely that there would be an abandoned shipwreck, covered in a deadly fungus in a river—I suppose it might have been set on the Amazon, in South America, or maybe they’d been mysteriously displaced out to sea in some Bermuda Triangle like manner, but this is certainly not made clear.

Many readers, including myself, have assumed that Hodgson’s Carnacki stories must have been influenced by Algernon Blackwood’s occult detective character, John Silence, who appeared in six stories in 1908. Since this was just a couple of years before the first Carnacki story appeared, this seems fairly unlikely. However, in ‘Foreshadowing Carnacki: Algernon Blackwood’s “Smith: An Episode in a Lodging House”’, Joseph Hinton makes a very convincing case for this earlier Blackwood tale, published in 1906, having been a huge influence on the creation of Carnacki.

I really liked Robb Borders’ ‘The Shop on the Borderland’. The play on Hodgson’s hog creatures as the proprietors and customers of BacoNation is clever. I found the descent into madness of the owner of the art shop across the road owed more to of the work of Robert W. Chambers, in his ‘King in Yellow’ mythos, than it did to Hodgson, not that it suffered for that.

We return to the theme of just who influenced what and when, in Scott Conner’s ‘Dust and Atoms: The Influence of William Hope Hodgson on Clark Ashton Smith’. The long-held belief that ‘The Night Land’ was a major influence on Smith’s Zothique stories is more, or less conclusively disproved by the evidence that he hadn’t read any Hodgson books until two years after the first Zothique tale was published. On the other hand, Scott Conner provides very convincing evidence that ‘The House on the Borderland’ was definitely a great influence on the writing of Smith’s story, ‘The Treader in the Dust’.

This second issue of ‘Sargasso’ is rounded out with a selection of Hodgson inspired poems by Philip A. Ellis and Charles Lovecraft, which are interspersed between the fiction and articles, and editor, Sam Gafford’s review of the volume of The Centipede Press Library of Weird Fiction, devoted to William Hope Hodgson

Overall, I felt this second issue was, if anything, stronger than the first. Sargasso looks very like becoming an essential purchase for weird fiction fans.