If you read book reviews or writing books you’ve undoubtedly heard that an original, even a brilliant concept, doesn’t help if the book is poorly executed. William Hope Hodgson’s THE NIGHT LAND is a perfect example (cover by Robert LoGrippo, all rights with current holder). The setting—a dark Earth so far in the future that daylight is considered an ancient myth like Eden—is absolutely incredible. The execution is very poor. Lin Carter (editor of the Ballantine two-volume reprint shown above) ranks it as Hodgson’s masterpiece, but I think it’s a poor cousin of The House on the Borderland.
In the opening scenes, the protagonist (apparently a 1600s or early 1700s guy) meets his dream woman, falls in love, marries — and loses her in childbirth. He’s distraught until he gets a mystical connection with his future reincarnation, in an era when the sun, while it provides heat, generates zero light. Earth swarms with unholy horrors such as the Silent Ones, the Watchers, the House of Silence, the Night Hounds, the Grey Men; to survive, millions are huddled together into the gigantic pyramid known as the Last Redoubt, every level of which is a city in itself. Few go outside, and those who do carry the equivalent of a cyanide capsule. That way if you’re faced with the loss of life and soul to the horrors, you can take your own life and save your soul.
But of course, the hero has to go out. It turns out there’s a Lesser Redoubt somewhere, but its protective shields are failing. The protagonist is in telepathic contact with Naani, a woman from the second pyramid—whom it turns out is his dead love, reborn like him into the far future. Come what may, he has to try to get her to safety, even though the very location of the Lesser Redoubt is unknown.
It’s a terrific set-up, and the world outside the pyramids is indeed nightmarish. There are lots of creepy scenes, such as when a band of young men seeking the Lesser Redoubt are drawn into the House of Silence and don’t come out (and we never learn what’s inside, or what happened to them). It’s also close to unreadable.
The first problem, though not the worst, is that Hodgson wrote in an archaic style that adds nothing and distracts quite a bit (e.g. “While that we were a space off from one of those gas shinings, there went past us at a distance, as it did seem, people running in the night, as that they be lost spirits.”). Even HP Lovecraft, whose style was hardly subtle, though Hodgson’s style here was affected. It’s particularly bad, to the point of self-parody, when he names things: a headland near the Last Redoubt from which strange things peer is literally named The Headland From Which Strange Things Peer. The road where the Silent Ones walk is named The Road Where the Silent Ones Walk. Sorry, Mr. Hodgson, those are not names.
A bigger problem is that Hodgson constantly bogs down in detail. Along with encounters with giant slugs and Humped Men, the narrator obsessively monitors how long he’s been walking, eating, sleeping —e.g., 12 hours of travel, followed by downing two food pills, six hours of sleep, two more pills, another 12 hours … Maybe Hodgson was trying to ground the story in mundane details, but it didn’t work (I had the same problem with parts of his Boats of the Glen Carrig).
And then there’s the love story. This is obviously meant to be the emotional core and anchor for novel. The thing that keeps the narrator going against all odds. The big emotional payoff for us. But it fails on every level. It’s maudlin in the Victorian style, focuses on the narrator’s rapturous love rather than anything as mundane as personality, and it’s pretty much unreadable. It’s not so bad in the first volume, where the hero’s trying to reach his woman. After he finds Naani and has to protect her, shelter her, coo at her (and she at him) it takes up way too much space (the first half I could just skim bits) and drowns out the horror.
It’s a surprising failure for someone as good as Hodgson, and a real waste of a wonderful setting.