William Hope Hodgson's Savage, Otherworldly Thrillers and Hopeless Horror Stories
Although it was not until later in his career that H. P. Lovecraft stumbled upon the treasure trove of William Hope Hodgson’s fiction, it is undeniable that once he did, he had found a kindred spirit. Lovecraft was probably indirectly influenced by Hodgson regardless of the relative lateness of his discovery: they were influenced by the same authors – primarily Poe, with elements of Bierce and Blackwood – and Hodgson’s writings were influential to writers whom Lovecraft discovered earlier in his career – men like Oliver Onions, Robert Howard, and Walter de la Mare among others.
Both men were fascinated by the concept of marine terrors, outer monstrosities, eldritch folklore, communication between the long past and long future, mystic tomes, exceptional Nietzschean masculinity (countered by the masses of low-bred, craven men), pulpy, tentacled monsters, cosmic isolation, and mind-blasting realizations. Writing in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft summarized Hodgson’s faults and recommendations:
"Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be. Despite a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connexion with regions or buildings..."
Alongside Arthur Machen, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, and Oliver Onions, Hodgson belonged to an intellectual fraternity that sprang up from the fertile soil of the decadent Yellow Nineties and ripened in the Edwardian Era. His literary career began in the middle of that verdant period (lasting from 1901 to roughly 1914) which hosted the talents of J. M. Barrie, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forester, G. K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, D. H. Lawrence, Kenneth Grahame, H. G. Wells, E. Nesbit, Bram Stoker, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, and Saki (to name a mere few).
This literary period was remarkable for its sophisticated blends of realistic cynicism (safely escorted over from the 1890s by Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James) and romantic elegance. In horror fiction this lead to an increased fascination with mysticism, time travel, destiny, and the fashionable occult. Blackwood, Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle excelled in toying with these concepts, and it was during a very dark period of his life that Hodgson threw his hat in the ring.
HODGSON'S LIFE AND INFLUNCES
Hodgson’s youth had been troubled to say the least. His mother was haunted by the deaths of several infant and stillborn children (a motif which would occasionally appear in his work), and some have speculated that her devotion to these lost babies may have inspired a bit of shameful devotion and bitter jealousy in young Hope. As a teenager he successfully ran away to sea – a foundational experience which would be both disappointing and traumatizing. In the sea he found a far harsher mother figure who cannibalized her children and relentlessly beat optimism and romance from his spirit. The worst of it, however, were his experiences with the crew. While details are sparse, what we do know is that he was viciously bullied and physically abused for his slight build, cocky attitude, and beautiful handsomeness. Both seamen and officers participated in this hazing, and while there is no extant evidence that his humiliation ever took on a sexual nature, his writing – with its obsessions with masculinity, domination, vulnerability, and phallic imagery – may cause us to wonder just how far this abuse went.
Regardless of its nature, the hazing was emotionally scarring, and began a lifelong fixation with body-building and strength. Hodgson committed himself to strenuous regimens of weight lifting and exercise, at one time earning a reputation as one of the strongest body builders in England. After several more voyages which did nothing to warm his feelings towards the seas, he had made enough money to found a gym of sorts, devoted to “physical culture,” where he acted as a trainer and life coach. His reputation was firmly established when he had the opportunity to restrain Harry Houdini during the escape artist’s early career. Hodgson so viciously bound him that it was very nearly the only time Houdini would fail a challenge (bondage and sexualized restraints show up on several occasions in Hodgson’s oeuvre, leading me to suspect that he very much enjoyed dominating others): he at one point begged for help, and when he finally emerged from his cabinet, he was coated in sweat and welts. Some sources claim that Houdini considered (or claimed to consider) giving up his career after this encounter, and most agree that he carried a few permanent injuries with him from his encounter with the enthusiastic strong man.
Despite his fame and reputation, in 1905 Hodgson was forced to shutter his body-building center due to financial constraints, and found himself – yet again – vulnerable, weak, and needy: a condition that he chronically dreaded. Without the school for physical culture – and determined never to sail again – he picked up his pen and turned to writing for his living. His first published story was something of a Conan Doyle pastiche (“The Goddess of Death”) followed shortly by a brief but telling maritime story, “A Tropical Horror.” The story tells of two teenaged sailors whose ship is attacked by a brutal, man-eating sea serpent: a slimy, bloated eel-like creature which feels its way around the vessel, slurping up men from the decks and rigging.
The monster suns itself on the deck in the morning, before continuing its rampage, eating the entire crew save the two boys hiding in a locked galley. But the beast feels its way to them, bursting through the protective port hole, and mangling the younger boy in front of his protective friend. Crying angry tears, the protagonists attacks the throbbing serpent, but is knocked unconscious, where he is found by rescuers. There is no sign of the monster other than the wreckage, and gore, and slime. Hodgson’s deeply intimate portrayal of vulnerability and horror ensured that he had found his stride, and while he never became a famous writer, his career – which spanned a little over a decade – was firmly established and eventually became very nearly lucrative.
THE SARGASSO SEA MYTHOS
He remains most famous for his four novels, his maritime horror stories, and his occult detective, Thomas Carnacki. The first published novel (their order of writing was likely the reverse of their order of publication) was The Boats of the “Glenn Carrig,” a false document that relates the misfortunes of the eponymous crew who – during the 18th century – are stranded in the Sargasso Sea where they fend off man-eating octopi and mutated weed monsters in a world as fantastical and melodramatic as an Arthurian romance. Eventually the men encounter a marooned ship which they rescue and repair, eventually escaping the hellish weed world. This was the most famous entry in Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea Mythos, a series of tales that wildly embellishes the atmosphere of the North Atlantic Gyre – a mild expanse of water bounded by the major North Atlantic currents, and famous for its mats of brownish-green sargassum sea weed which float idly in the still waters which are kept stable and quiet by the roaring currents that belt them.
While the Sargasso Sea, its weeds, and its perennial stillness are all very real, Hodgson – with some help from Jules Verne and a handful of little known adventure writers – invented the idea that it was a boggy graveyard of ships. In fact the weeds there are more like lily pads: floating in clumps and clusters, they easily part to make way for the lightest rowboat, and the only ghost ships mired there are those which had been abandoned in the outer currents which later dumped them in the gyre along with any number of flotsam. But Hodgson saw the potential to turn this quiet, endless expanse of deep blue water into a borderland which connected the mundane episodes of the mortal world with the fantastical adventures of misanthropic Mother Nature and Father Time. His characterization of the Sargasso Sea became conflated with postwar myths of the Bermuda Triangle and has left its indelible mark on popular culture (for a more extensive conversation on Hodgson and the Sargasso Sea, see the notes to “From the Tideless Sea, Part I”).
NOVELS OF BORDERLANDS AND LIMINAL ZONES
Hodgson was constantly obsessed with this concept of “borderlands” – touchstones that bring bland human lives into contact with the outer monstrosities of the supernatural and cosmic powers the blow angrily, unseen around us. In The House on the Borderland Hodgson once again uses a false document written by a man in a previous century, this time a hermit whose country cottage proves to be built on the site of a supernatural portal which brings him into contact with time travel and inter-dimensional monsters. The Ghost Pirates combined the themes of both novels into a maritime horror story involving a ship which has become the plaything of attackers – ghosts, elementals, spirits, aliens, or beings from another dimension?
Hodgson never explains fully what they really are – who violently assault the vessel and its crew after a tense voyage of supernatural mishaps and perils, leaving only one survivor to relate the experience to his stupefied rescuers. The ill-fated ship had sailed into a borderland of sorts, opening it up to punishment and destruction from another world – unseen and unearthly, but one which overlaps ours in space and time. Hodgson’s final novel was The Night Land (arguably the first he wrote), a dense fantasy masterpiece which pictures an apocalyptic universe where the humans who have survived earth’s annihilation have hidden themselves away in a gigantic metal pyramid. The protagonist – a typical Hodgsonian male: macho, daring, arrogant, dominating, and very fit – forms an alliance with a submissive female (whom he enjoys binding, and punishing when she coquettishly rebels against his dominion), and embarks on a journey to find the citadel, all the while dodging cosmic monsters and avoiding gory massacres. Chauvinistic and melodramatic though it may be, it is a groundbreaking installation in the fantasy genre which is still having reverberations today.
ADRIFT ON THE HAUNTED SEAS:
HODGSON'S MARITIME HORRORS
Hodgson’s maritime horror remains among his most accessible and popular, and this anthology is primarily dedicated to it. In a 2014 presentation to the University of Southhampton (which can be found in full here: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/369928/ ) Dr Alexander Hay connects Hodgson to the larger subgenre of “Maritime Horror” and considers his peculiar philosophy that so effortlessly transforms the sea into a breeding ground of abhuman terrors:
"The Sea represents many things, but one recurring subject is horror. Whether it is Ulysses driven insane by the song of the sirens as he is lashed to the main mast of his ship; Umibouzu, the sinister giant black figure that haunted Japanese fishermen and sailors; Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with its depictions of living death and doom; the shipwrecked mariners contemplating cannibalism and ‘otherness’ in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym or Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the sea has long been both source and setting for horror… This then is what I term ‘Maritime Horror’ a sub-genre which both maligns and celebrates the sea as horror or backdrop to horror… "
"[What] is most significant about Hodgson, beyond his having written a great deal of maritime horror fiction, was that he was himself a former mariner, first becoming a sailor at age 14 before becoming disillusioned with life at sea and starting a career as a physical trainer and then an author after his 25th birthday… His passion for the sea was dimmed considerably by what he described as “a comfortless, weariful, and thankless life” while he himself was a volatile, even at times unpleasant individual, who encountered mixed fortunes throughout his life. For Hodgson, conflating his experiences with horror and the foreboding unknown took very little effort. Yet I would argue that this also gives Hodgson an insight and authority in regards to his subject matter that other authors lacked – for he really did obey the maxim that you should write about what you know..."
Indeed, Hodgson’s maritime writings ripple with realism – until the actual horrors appear, fantastical and otherworldly as they are. And yet, this is hardly a fault: the oceans in Hodgson’s fiction act as liminal zones where the realistic and the uncanny overlap and intrude upon one another. The Boats of the “Glenn Carrig” is set in the Age of Enlightenment and its physical setting is one which has been known and navigated since Columbus: it is not the unexplored Antarctic, a secluded plateau in the dark Amazon jungles, or a subterranean cavity. It is a charted, understood, accessible stretch of water cozily resting between the cosmopolitan ports of Baltimore and Lisbon.
But in Hodgson’s hands, it is a zone where carnivorous trees take on the shapes of their human victims, where mutants lurk, where octopi hold ships hostage for months – long after a real animal would lose interest – just for misanthropic spite. Hodgson transforms realism into fantasy with a flash of the pen, leaving his readers unsure of what they are reading: Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne, Herman Melville or H. G. Wells? More than any of his other stories, his maritime horror tales play generously with science fiction – more so than supernaturalism: in his Sargasso Sea Mythos, his villains are outlandish, freakish, and otherworldly, but rarely if ever are they supernatural beings. Far more often they are the hateful mutations of a sick-minded Mother Nature whose psychotic whims, sublime ugliness, and chaos stand in contrast to mankind’s self-discipline, need for beauty, and love of order. Spring boarding from the realism and naturalism of Stephen Crane and Jack London, Hodgson is no Wordsworthian romantic: he loathes Nature, fears it, and respects its homicidal instincts.
In “The Terror of the Water Tank” he demonstrates how – even in a quaint, landlocked, English town – the merest trace of Nature can bring death and destruction to human happiness: a water tank which has been uncleaned for several years develops the necessary level of muck, murk, and matter needed to spontaneously generate life – in this case a vicious tapeworm like mutant which gleefully strangles humans it encounters when slithering out a drain pipe. Nature is no source of inspiration or awe for Hodgson – rather disgust and repulsion. Nature is the madwoman in mankind’s attic, and Hodgson’s best recommendation is that we band together, avoid exposure to the elements, and maintain a strict regimen of hygiene, nutrition, exercise, weight lifting, and celibacy. Which brings us to his most highly regarded and reprinted tale.
THE VOICE IN THE NIGHT AS A CASE-STUDY:
SEX, GENDER, VIRGINITY, AND DISEASE IN HODGSON
Hodgson’s most famous story, of course, is “The Voice in the Night,” the story of an affianced couple who are shipwrecked on a desert island dominated by a parasitic fungus which clings to everything. Hodgson deposits this devoutly religious couple in a new Eden where the allure of the fungus takes the place of Genesis’ far more appealing Forbidden Fruit. And here we find a goldmine of fascinating symbolism that drives at Hodgson’s apparent horror of germs, women, and women’s germs. In the notes to this story I speculate, (perhaps irresponsibly, though I own it) that the story may reflect Hodgson’s fear of venereal disease. We know that he dated at least one woman before his wife (a childhood friend whose lack of attractiveness he touted in a letter to his sister after their wedding), and that relationship appears to have been a disaster.
His fiction is perennially unkind to women, casting them in lazy Madonna/whore binaries wherein a rapid transfer from innocence to carnality must be made to prevent a good girl from turning into a bad girl: marriages in Hodgson’s fiction are rapid and are usually the suggestion of the male (a stallion who needs his sexual energies channeled) not the female (hopefully a virginal submissive who doesn’t realize that she likes sex until she is taught to by her macho husband – and then she is a loyal and captive addict). Sid Birchby humorously summarized Hodgson’s neurotic, paranoia of female sexuality in the following terms: “Physical love is an animal thing, foul and all-engulfing. No good will come of sexual intercourse, only the savage lusts of the swine (whose speech is described as similar to human speech but 'glutinous and sticky')."
The True Love spurns physical contact -- The true love is virginal as a new-born babe, and is glimpsed only in sleep. Or she is as impregnable as a Sleeping Princess.” In this Hodgsonian Eden, our Adam is a resolute man of honor and self-discipline, revolted by the mold that grows sluggishly over everything save a pristine beachhead that he adopts as their basecamp. But our Eve is weak: she develops spots of mold on her skin which are quickly scrubbed away with detergent, but one day her male guardian returns to find her gluttonously gorging on the fungus. Heartbroken, her companion reprimands her – but it is too late: the infection has taken root and will now hopelessly spread like the unstoppable Original Sin of Man. Whether this is a parable of resisting lust, the merits of good hygiene, the threats of venereal diseases, or the inevitability of human corruption, it has fascinated readers since its publication and remains a popular favorite with anthologists and editors.
CARNACKI THE GHOST-FINDER:
HOLMES MEETS LOVECRAFT MEETS TESLA
Hodgson’s final contribution to the horror canon – his most likely bid for immortality – is the dashing Thomas Carnacki – Ghost-finder. Throughout his career Hodgson had a taste for mystery. His very first story – “The Goddess of Death” – was not unlike “The Hound of the Baskervilles”: someth