The House on the Borderlands
written by William Hope Hodgson
in 1908, and published by Chapman and Hall Ltd. Of London.
Hyperion reprint edition, 1976
“From the Manuscript, discovered in 1877 by Messrs Tonnison and Berreggnog, in the Ruins that lie to the South of the Village of Kraighten, in the West of Ireland. Set out here, with Notes…”
It is closing in on a hundred years since this classic work of eerie fiction was first published, and even a century removed I’m still not quite sure what to think of it. The House on the Borderlands is one of those titles which comes up naturally in the course of one’s education in horror; the book is mentioned often, always with a tantalizingly vague description, by several sources. The reader has the nagging sense that she ought to track it down and read it some day, just to see what everyone is talking about, especially as Hodgson’s name always arises as a notable author who never quite seems to get his due.
“The book almost certainly influenced Olaf Stapledon’s The Star Maker,” one critic will say. And then H.P. Lovecraft chimes in: “Perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson’s works…”
It was with some pleasure, then, that I discovered this old and oft-rebound book in the data base of the Vancouver Public Library System’s electronic catalog. It took only a few keystrokes to have it spirited to my local branch from its obscure corner of the city’s widely dispersed stacks.
“And the M.S. itself—You must picture me, when first it was given into my care, turning it over, curiously, and making a swift, jerky examination. A small book it is; but thick, and all, save the last few pages, filled with a quaint but legible hand-writing, and writ very close. I have the queer, faint, pit-water smell of it in my nostrils now as I write, and my fingers have subconscious memories of the soft, ‘cloggy’ feel of the long-damp pages.”
Having now read the book from cover to cover, I find myself somewhat bewildered; whatever I expected from this book, I most certainly didn’t get it. The House on the Borderlands, despite its great antiquity, is one of the weirdest books that I have ever read.
Structurally, this is a nested narrative; the center rests within two consecutive framing devices. This “Chinese box” motif is one that I often see in older gothic fiction, and it gives me some pleasure to see it done well. Antique stories are not unlike antique furniture, in some ways; the craftsmen of former ages had their own way of building a functional object, and it is pleasant sometimes to run my hands over the fine old things they made, and marvel at the cunning way things were fitted together.
Hodgson (the author), poses as the editor of this work in his introduction, claiming that he has produced the published work that you hold in your hands by transcribing what was written by others. This is the outer frame of the story. The inner frame is a tale of two outdoorsy young men on a fishing trip in Ireland, vacationing in an untouched region where the people still speak nothing but Gaelic and the villages and rivers cannot be found on any map. While exploring these two men come upon the ruin of an old house, strangely perched on the lip of a huge crater; among the tumbled stones they come across an old journal, and the contents of this journal make up the main body of the book.
And here is where the bewilderment sets in. The main narrative of House on the Borderlands is extremely bizarre. The writer of this journal is a nameless old curmudgeon, who bought the strange old house in the woods when it was still intact. The place had a bad reputation with the locals, but it was quite cheap, and offered him all he could want in the way of isolation and quiet. So he lived in the massive, rambling manse with no family and no servants except for his elderly sister and a faithful old dog.
All of this is sketched in within a few pages; Hodgson takes no time to establish an ordinary routine or explore the characters in ordinary circumstances. He simply shakes the reader’s hand and then pounces, leaping out of the ordinary into the fabulous without hesitation. Literally, by the ninth paragraph, we are yanked feet-first into a realm beyond the boundaries of ordinary consciousness and space-time, clinging to the shirt-tails of the hapless narrator as he finds himself dragged bodily into an eerie dreamscape which reminded me inevitably of Carlos Castaneda.
With him we float disembodied over a vast silent plain, then drift into a range of dark mountains, and are brought at last to a huge natural amphitheater where the brooding peaks form circular walls. There the towering death gods of countless religious traditions stand frozen, looming over this place like undead statues for all eternity. And in the center of it all, an eerily huge copy of his own house in Ireland stands, built of green jade but otherwise similar in every respect to the building he calls home.
Does it get stranger from here? Most definitely it does, but I have no interest in spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book already. Suffice it to say that the narrator does return to the ordinary waking world within a chapter or two, and tries to get on with his alarmingly believable “real” life. But the way this strange and largely unwilling visit to another realm begins to creep into his mortal affairs is genuinely horrifying.
This isn’t a book that merely creeps up on you, tickling the back of your neck with a cold feather. There are times when the old man is engaged in a genuinely desperate struggle for his life and his sanity, against enemies that tear and claw and leave corruption in the wounds they make. You forget entirely, as you read, that he had to have survived these battles in order to write about them; Hodgson has you by the throat during those passages, and his grip is strong.
But there are also long, minutely described chapters which recount the old man’s visions and experiences in realms far, far beyond the waking world. Strange silver seas, from which rise the spirits of our beloved dead. Dreadful eternities blinking by in seconds, until our sun is a cold cinder and the gases of our planet’s atmosphere have frozen and fallen to earth as snow, leaving the sky airless and black for the rest of time.
All in all, The House in the Borderlands has the feel of “addict fiction”, the kind of works which can sometimes be written by authors who experiment heavily with mind-altering drugs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge sometimes has this kind of eerie power, and Byron touched upon it once with his poem “Darkness”. William S. Bourroughs can show this kind of imaginative abandon at times, as well, and I have seen it often in art created by men and women who took frequent “trips” on LSD, peyote, or psychoactive mushrooms.
Please understand that I do not presume to guess at Hodgson’s personal habits in this regard—I haven’t read his biography, if one has been written, and there are obviously some writers, like Lovecraft, who achieve these states of mind without any chemical assistance whatsoever. I merely point out that regular doses of a powerful alkaloid can send an artist in this direction; Hodgson’s book is “trippy” in the extreme—and it’s a very bad trip at that.
I can certainly see a heavy influence on the weirdest of the weird fiction written by men like Stapledon and Lovecraft. I can even see a dim connection between some passages of this book and the eerie extended sequence at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001; there is the same sense of scope, of willingness to grapple head-on with the infinite. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who fancies himself a scholar of weird fiction, especially those who think that Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands” stories are his best work. It’s also worthwhile for those who can appreciate finely made antiques, or very deep, very bad acid trips. An object lesson for those who want to know what the word “original” really means, when applied to a work of fiction: after nearly a century, I assure you, The House on the Borderlands still stands alone.