William Hope Hodgson's The Voice in the Night: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis
Unquestionably, “The Voice in the Night” is Hodgson’s most famous story. It is also his most filmed story: only three of Carnacki’s tales were filmed (for television), and this – his only other adapted story – was converted to the screen twice: once as a moody, 1958 made-for-television anthology piece, and – more famously – adapted to the silver screen in the Japanese horror film “Matango.” Although it is a loose adaptation, “Matango” has been celebrated by Hodgson fans for its atmospheric gloom, otherworldly aesthetics, and nightmarish eroticism. And it must be admitted right of the bat that this is a highly erotic work with heavy themes of lust, temptation, forbidden fruit, and contamination. The story is memorable for its use of one of Hodgson’s most prevalent horror motifs: parasitic vegetation and the dreaded threat of infection. Hodgson was a fanatical germophobe – terrified by fungi, mold, and bacteria, and obsessed with “hygiene.”
Many scholars believe that his obsession with “physical culture” and body building was partially driven by a neurotic desire to be strong and healthy and hence immune (both literally and figuratively) to life’s corrupting influences. A portion of this was caused by his traumatizing abuse at the hands of his shipmates, which has been discussed widely in previous notes, but the two – the twin obsessions with physical weakness and physical wellness – may converge in Hodgson’s attempts to cure his crippling insecurities. There has been some speculation that Hodgson (who famously married late in life and had (we think) one girlfriend who soured him on women for years) visited prostitutes during his time ashore and was haunted both by the guilt of his immorality and by the nagging fear of having contracted a venereal disease.
Regardless of the biographical source of his neurotic obsession with hygiene, Hodgson was desperate to avoid contamination, and this features prominently in many of his most famous stories. One overt example of this is in “The Terror of the Water-Tank,” where a cistern isn’t regularly cleaned, leading to a biological perfect storm: the warm, dark, scummy water spontaneously breeds a new, vicious lifeform. After the beast is exposed and destroyed, a hygiene-conscious doctor shakes his head disgustedly, delivering the sanctimonious, after-school-special final line “It certainly ought to prove a lesson in cleanliness.” Indeed, Hodgson regularly suggests that the only thing standing between mankind and oblivion is regular cleaning – the consistent clearing away of Nature’s invasive landing parties: spores, mold, dust, grime, and grease.
Of course, he rarely expresses this quite so overtly, but the subtext of many of his most memorable stories (“The Mystery of the Derelict,” “The Derelict,” “Demons of the Sea,” “Terror of the Water-Tank,” etc.) is that when Nature has the chance to convert human technology and territory, the result is a ghastly mutation. Mother Nature is not a peaceful dame in search of harmony and balance, but a fanciful madwoman spreading chaos and anarchy wherever mortals fail to resist it. Ironically Hodgson views Nature as the source of pollution and contamination. “The Voice in the Night” doubles as both ecological horror (in the vein of “The Willows,” “The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” and “The Strange Orchid”) and a sexual allegory, but regardless of which you prefer, the common message at its core is to shun corruption, avoid pollution, and beware the steady, parasitic onslaught of the forces which threaten to consume our human identity.
Like so many of Hodgson’s stories, this one begins with a ship stalled in the middle of the ocean on a calm, dark night. Drifting in a windless, foggy expanse of the North Pacific, the watch of a British schooner are surprised to hear the splash of oars as a rowboat approaches their side. Out of the heavy fog comes a weak but earnest voice: “Schooner, ahoy!” They call out to the stranger who politely begs them for some supplies, promising them no harm (he is just an old man), but requesting that they permit him to stay out of the range of their lamps. He claims to be suffering from a dangerous, infectious ailment, and requests that they send the supplies across the gap between the boat and ship without making contact with him. Out of fear and respect, the sailors douse their lights and float a box of provisions to him. He is deeply grateful, and they hear the splash of his oars receeding into the distance.
Hours later, he returns to thank them. His fiancée, who is sick and dying, needed the food desperately. While the moonless night sky keeps them clouded in darkness, he tells them his story. He and his fiancée were missionaries bound for a foreign post where they were to marry and spread the gospel. Their ship was wrecked en route, however, and the crew abandoned them to the mercy of the waves. After the storm, they constructed a raft and made their way to a lush, desert island (borrowing from “The Swiss Family Robinson”). They make a campsite on the shores of a gorgeous lagoon where a wrecked ship filled with provisions has been stranded. The ship is coated in a pulpy, grey fungus which covers everything, and when they return with their supplies, they are disturbed to see that the fungus thrives across the entire island with the exception of the strip of beach where their campsite is. As the weeks and months pass, they also notice that they have developed an unnatural desire to eat the fungus, but both promise to resist their desires.
One day the Invisible (as Hodgson calls him) notices a patch of grey mold on his fiancée’s skin. Confronted with this fact, she breaks down and confesses that she ate some of the mold in desperation. She promises not to do so again, but their supplies have run very low and they are only able to catch occasional fish to eat. They are further terrified when they encounter strange, oblong shaped columns of fungus that move slowly about – the encrusted bodies of the crew from the stranded ship who have been entirely overwhelmed in fungus and are unrecognizable as human beings. But hunger proved too strong, and one day they gorged on the grey fungus, until they couldn’t eat anymore. It was too late now, the fungus was taking them over, but they agreed never to do this again. For the past several decades they have suffered the transformation they witnessed, but have been faithful to their determination to resist eating the lichen. The previous week, he claims, they had eaten the last of their provisions, and now only the occaisional fish could stem their hunger pangs.
Dawn begins to break over the horizon, casting a pearly grey light over the east, and the Invisible takes his leave of the schooner, thanking them for their kindness and promising them that God will reward them for having mercy on two suffering souls. He bends back over his oars and begins to recede into the distance, but as he departs, a beam of light reveals him to the curious crewmates: “Indistinctly I saw something nodding between the oars. I thought of a sponge — a great, grey nodding sponge — The oars continued to ply. They were grey — as was the boat — and my eyes searched a moment vainly for the conjunction of hand and oar. My gaze flashed back to the — head. It nodded forward as the oars went backward for the stroke.” Before they can take in any more, the mist engulfs the monstrous figure, and he disappears forever.
Hodgson could never be accused of being sex-positive: throughout his life he nurtured a Madonna/whore dichotomy that expressed itself revealingly in his fiction. Regarding Hodgson’s view of human sexuality – as it is depicted in “The Night Land” – critic Sid Birchby paints a picture of depravity, pollution, and infection: “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.” Love interests in his short stories are usually virginal and submissive: they begin the story as bastions of stalwart purity, but ultimately give themselves – after a commendable resistance – to the paternal guardianship of their knightly conqueror.
But the tradeoff is sudden and immediate: the Madonna must find a physically and morally vigorous male protector at the moment of their sexual awakening (or, better yet, the moment prior to it) lest she become a whore. As Birchby notes “Spiritual love, then, is more important than physical attributes. First there must be a meeting of the minds. Having found the true love, the lover must at once rescue her from the temptations of the world.” The religious devotion of the Invisible and his fiancée reflect Hodgson’s own dual spiritual identity (as illustrated in the simultaneously devout and blasphemous stories “Out of the Storm” and “The Baumoff Explosive”).
Hodgson was torn between a rebellious agnosticism that resented a God he viewed as weak and a protective, filial devotion to the fatherly God of his youth. In his fiction blasphemy is often followed by dutiful acceptance of punishment and God’s will (“Out of the Storm” and “Shamraken Homeward-Bounder”) Likewise the Invisible remains committed to his religion in the face of physical annihilation largely because he views it as a deserved punishment. But punishment for what, we ask? What sin has merited their consumption and absorption by parasitic molds? In an characteristic display of Victorian-style subtextuality, Hodgson has written a coded narrative which is perhaps – but just perhaps – even more horrifying than his allegorical story.
You can read the original story HERE!
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of William Hope Hodgson's best weird fiction and horror HERE!