The Night Land
by William Hope Hodgson
Published in 1912
Hodgson was one of the numerous writers of the Late Victorian – Edwardian Era who wrote in that genre that would eventually become known as Science Fiction. Although in his case, there’s little “science” in his stories. And while there are some horror tropes, his work doesn’t fit well in there, either. Perhaps “Weird Fiction” is the best way to classify it. There’s a little science, some fantasy, and enough creepiness but not enough scares to be called horror.
This work was his last published novel; he died at the Fourth Battle of Ypres in 1918, after actually re-enlisting to fight in the Great War. It’s not certain when he actually wrote it; it’s been surmised that his novels were published in the inverse order of writing. His first-published novel, The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, has a more mature and accessible style than The Night Land.
Be that as it may, The Night Land is either loved or hated by most contemporary readers….
Hodgson writes the novel in a particularly dense and stilted style. Here’s a random passage:
And so was it made plain that those Peoples must suffer and come unhelped and alone to their end; which was a sad and dreadful thought to any. Yet had those within the Great Pyramid come already to much sorrow and calamity because that some had made attempt in this matter. And there had been for gain, only failure, and the sorrow of Mothers, and the loneliness of Wives, and of kin. And now this dread horror upon us, which concerned those lost Youths.
There’s no dialogue at all, and everything is couched in deliberately verbose terms. It’s told from a first-person perspective (for the most part), and the protagonist never bothers to tell us his name. It really is a slog to get through.
You can avoid the first chapter entirely. It tries to be a prologue, in which an unnamed protagonist falls in love, gets married, then has his wife die in childbirth. It only matters because at the start of Chapter 2, our protagonist gets a vision from the future that reveals to him that his love will last until the end of the world.
The rest of the novel describes that vision.
The setting is the very far future – so far ahead that the Sun has burned out, leaving the Earth in the darkest night. The only light comes from volcanic activity, either lava pools or burning gas vents. The last of humanity (the mutants and other beasts living out in the wilderness don’t count) inhabits a huge arcology (an eight-mile-high pyramid) powered by some form of geothermal energy. The humans have evolved enough to the point where they have some telepathic – “telempathy” is a better term, since they more easily detect emotions than detailed thoughts – abilities.
One “day” a strange message is received. It seems that somewhere out there is another “redoubt” / arcology! Our protagonist is picked to go out and find them, since he has the strongest telempathic powers anyone can remember someone having. He’s also in great physical shape, too. After some intense training (thankfully given minimal description), he is sent out on his quest.
The “science” here is really, really, REALLY bogus.
Even if you account for the fact that very little was known about stellar evolution at the time, the mind boggles. How can there be plants (actual bushes and trees!) out in the Wilderness if there’s no light? Starlight isn’t going to cut it. It’s not like the world needs to be in a permanent night, either. It only comes into play in two brief scenes.
Then there’s the “dehydrated water”. Seriously. The guy gets drinkable water by putting a little mysterious powder into a cup – which then sucks moisture out of the air, and fizzes into a cupful of pure water.
At least his weapon makes a bit more sense. Called a “diskos”, it’s some sort of spinning disk on a telescoping rod. It can be used as a flashlight or a sword, gets its power from the Earth (geothermal energy, or magnetic currents, or some such technobabble), loses all power when its owner dies, and each one is “attuned” to its owner. I’m going to call it a “light saber” and let it go.
Anyway, Our Hero manages to find the other city/redoubt/arcology, but it’s too late. They fell to an assault from the many creatures inhabiting the wilderness. The only survivor that he found was – no surprise here – the woman who sent that message, and happens to be Our Hero’s predestined Love Interest! Will they be able to make it back to his home safely?
There are some Nice Things in here, once you get past the awkward (to put it mildly) style. The romance, even though we know it’s going to happen, is handled reasonably well. There’s no “meet cute” incident, and the pair become partners and friends along their journey. Their relationship stays Platonic – kissing is as intimate as they get – and they seem to actually care for each other.
Our Hero is actually badly wounded in a fight, and spends days recovering. How often do you see that? Sure, a hero might find himself in dire physical peril, but he’ll always manage to escape with nary a scratch. Or any wounds will be superficial and can be treated with minimal care. Here, he’s laid out for almost two weeks – even with the attentions of his companion.
It’s a shame that Hodgson went with such a difficult style for The Night Land. Fantasy author James Stoddard rewrote the novel (The Night Land: A Story Retold) in 2011, putting it in a clearer, more modern style. I’ve not read that version, and I probably won’t.
But if you can handle a deliberately archaic and clumsy style, you’ve got an epic tale of a solo journey across a dying world. I think it’s worth the effort.