Writing Backwards:

The Novels of William Hope Hodgson

by Sam Gafford

It is not an easy task to do critical work on William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918). In the first place, there is very little previous work to build upon. The number of critical articles on Hodgson can easily be counted on one hand and the various introductions to the reprints are relatively worthless. Even those pieces which purport to be serious examinations of Hodgson have provided little critical information. In Out of the Storm [Donald M. Grant, West Kingston, R.I., 1975 (OoS)], Sam Moskowitz supplies an introduction which contains a wealth of biographical data but almost no actual criticism of Hodgson's works. Clearly, then, there is much work to be done in this field.

One of the major stumbling blocks to understanding Hodgson and his writings has been the lack of primary source material. In contrast to the situation with Lovecraft, there has been no deposits of letters and manuscripts to libraries or institutions. Hodgson has never enjoyed the popular acclaim of Lovecraft, so it is even less likely that private individuals will have preserved such items since Hodgson's death in 1918. To complicate matters further, many Hodgson items are held by private collectors who have little desire to risk losing such valuable material. It is the lack of this information that makes interpreting Hodgson so difficult and so time-consuming. Accordingly, when new material surfaces, it can be both shocking and revolutionary, completely revising our previous conceptions about Hodgson and his work.

Hodgson published four novels in his lifetime: The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' [London: Chapman & Hall, 1907 (BoGC)], The House on the Borderland [London: Chapman & Hall, 1908 (HoB)], The Ghost Pirates [London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1909 (GP)], and The Night Land [London: Eveleigh Nash, 1912 (NL)]. It is on the strength of these novels that much of Hodgson's literary reputation rests. Lovecraft, while very much aware of Hodgson's other literary faults, praised these novels for their imagination and scope. Although Hodgson wrote a number of short stories, it is primarily his novels that continue to be reprinted. All four contain what were highly original themes for their time and it is this aspect that allows them to be readable today.

Working against Hodgson is his apparently inexplicable choice of writing styles. NL, a uniquely original novel, is told in an excruciating seventeenth-century style that never existed.

And in thiswise passed three days and nights; yet both in the sleep-time and the time of waking did great multitudes cease not to watch; so that many went hungry for sleep, as in truth did I. And sometimes we saw those Youths with plainness; but other times they were lost to our sight in the utter shadows of the Night Land. Yet, but the telling of our instruments, and the sense of my hearing, there was no awareness among the Monsters, and the Forces of Evil, that any were abroad from the Pyramid; so that a little hope came into our hearts that yet there might be no tragedy. (NL 57)

Hodgson's style is only slightly better in HoB. In GP, Hodgson writes more realistically in the tone and language of the sea-faring men he'd shipped with in his youth, but the style quickly becomes tiresome and drags the pace of the novel unbearably. It is only in BoGC, that Hodgson hits a medium, combining his imagination with a flat, but readable, style.

In general, lack of information and primary sources has led scholars and critics to believe that the novels were written in the order of publication: BoGC (1907), HoB (1908), GP (1909), and NL (1912). Moskowitz claims that no "new fiction by Hodgson appeared between April, 1906 and July 1907's publication of 'The Mystery of the Derelict'. He was hard at work on his first novel, deliberately aimed at book publication" (OoS 45). Moskowitz then goes on to claim that this "first novel" was BoGC and was obviously finished between this time and the signing of the publishing contract on August 16, 1907. This theory of the writing sequence of the novels, which is common with most of today’s writers, yields a variety of assumptions. It might be thought that Hodgson's imaginative powers grew steadily from BoGC through to NL as he felt confident enough to take on larger, more complex themes and ideas. However, it could also indicate that Hodgson's writing style (or discretion in choosing one) declined as he used more and more "gimmicks" like archaicism to write his novels. "The title of his novel was The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig,' written in an 18th century manner that presaged his experiment in writing The Night Land in a 17th century style" (OoS 47). It was not an especially complimentary picture, but it showed Hodgson as a writer whose ideas, if not his actual writing skills, were developing. The truth turns out to be even more unusual and raises entirely new questions about Hodgson and his career.

In the summer of 1991, I was informed by S.T. Joshi (who was aware of the research I was conducting on Hodgson for a critical study) that someone had obtained access to a large number of previously unknown Hodgson letters which gave the impression that Hodgson had actually wrote his novels in reverse order, with NL being the first and BoGC being written last. At the time, I was somewhat incredulous. Trying hard to keep an open mind, I felt that perhaps the letters had been misread, as it did not seem likely that 1) Hodgson would have kept manuscripts sitting idle for so long, and 2) that he was capable of producing NL as his first novel. Upon rechecking the available source material, I could find no mention of such a theory. But Moskowitz does state the possibility that "this novel [NL] may have been in the works as far back as 1906" (OoS 94). The implication is that it may have been finished earlier than publication and heavily revised by Hodgson up to that point. Still, all critics and scholars were ignorant of such a radical theory.

In September of 1991, I acquired photocopies of nine letters, written by Hodgson to Coulson Kernahan, from the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Previously published Hodgson letters had proven to be little more than variations of the 'thanks for the kind words about my story' variety, and there was little reason to believe that these letters would be any different. They would, in fact, change many preconceptions about Hodgson and his novels.

In a letter dated September 25, 1905, Hodgson writes: "I've just finished my fourth [my italics] book--Hooray!!!!!!!" Later in the letter he writes, "The title of the book is The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig,' and I've tried hard to be commonplace [my italics] in it; but, I'm afraid, with but poor success. I cannot ride above that failing of mine which urges me to write original stuff." This statement verifies positively that not only was BoGC Hodgson's fourth (and not his first) novel, but that he had written all four by September 1905. In his letter of April 28, 1905, Hodgson states: "It'll be three years in August since I commenced, and where am I!" This means that the four novels were written in less than three years between August 1902 (at which point we are to presume that Hodgson became a 'serious' writer) to September 1905. This is a prodigious feat when we consider the vast length of NL (over 200,000 words) and the lengths of the other novels as well.

Later in the Sept. 25, 1905, letter, Hodgson states: "You may be interested to know that The House of Mysteries has been refused twenty-one times, and The Ghost Pirates fourteen. SO I've put the naughty pirates to bed in the house of mysteries, and there I'll let 'em rest until there's a Publisher comes to me and begs to be plundered, then--" The House of Mysteries is probably an alternate title to HoB. Its having garnished twenty-one rejections to GP's fourteen suggests that HoB was finished before GP. The number of rejections indicates that HoB may have been finished sometime in early 1904, with GP being finished around the winter of 1904-1905.

So the actual order of completion becomes:

1. THE NIGHT LAND (1903?)

2. THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND (1904)

3. THE GHOST PIRATES (1905)

4. THE BOATS OF THE 'GLEN CARRIG' (1905)

As opposed to a publication order of:

1. THE BOATS OF THE 'GLEN CARRIG' (1907)

2. THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND (1908)

3. THE GHOST PIRATES (1909)

4. THE NIGHT LAND (1912)

While NL is never specifically mentioned in these letters, Hodgson makes a passing reference to one of the most significant creations in his fictional world. In the closing of his January 17, 1905, letter, Hodgson writes: "if thou hast come thorough [sic] so far as this in safety, I will commend thee to the Watchers [my italics]." This mention of the watchers points to the creatures in NL, showing that Hodgson had already developed the concept, to some extent, by 1905. This makes it likely that NL was the first book that Hodgson wrote, and would seem to confirm the belief that Hodgson revised NL until its publication in 1912.

This concern over the order of composition of the novels may seem of little importance until we consider the implications toward Hodgson's work overall. Under the previous publication theory, we considered NL as part of a natural growth in Hodgson's movement toward more complex themes and ideas. Now we have proof that NL was the first book written and BoGC was actually the last. In effect, Hodgson moved away from NL's quasi-science fiction scenario (which contained an astounding number of original conceptions) and toward BoGC's more basic adventure slant. But ever here, Hodgson could not content himself with writing mere ordinary adventure. " . . . I've tried hard to be commonplace with it; but, I'm afraid, with poor success. I cannot ride above that failing of mine which urges me to write original stuff." BoGC is filled with such touches as "The Land of Lonesomeness" and vicious weed men that separates it from more traditional adventure fare. Hodgson's mention of the "commonplace" is the most significant phrase in these letters. It means that he began his novel writing career with an explosion of originality that he found to be totally unmarketable. To be fair, the actual cause may be due more to the poor writing style than the plot but either case is hardly encouraging. From this point, he begins to tone down his writing and ideas in order to have a better chance of selling his work.

Hodgson was a "working man's" writer. He approached the task like any other job and was extremely concerned with selling his work. In the letter dated November 17, 1903, Hodgson states that he has received a total of 427 rejections since starting his writing career. His letters are filled with references to trying to sell his work to "fill his belly". Hodgson was keenly aware of the relationship between selling his material and eating, and this obviously affected his decision on what and how to write. So, in effect, Hodgson tempers his imagination after NL and HoB and begins to concentrate on more salable work. It is interesting to note, then, that he moves away from work that is purely imaginative and begins to focus on the sea, a topic he had known only too well in his youth. Finding publishers unreceptive to his "flights of fancy", Hodgson buckles down to the more "normal" concepts of GP and BoGC. It was a natural transition for him, as the sea was one area he could write about with authority and passion.

Which brings us to another conclusion about Hodgson's writing style. It is now obvious that HoB was not a harbinger of NL but that their relationship is actually completely opposite. Hodgson is not using HoB as an experiment toward perfecting the style for NL but is actually trying to get away from that style. Still unable to completely abandon the seventeenth-century style, he modifies it into the "affected" eighteenth century style which makes the novel still clumsy but more accessible than NL. In GP, he uses the language and lore of the sea to give the novel a "realistic" feel, and shows more control of his language and style. It is still a potentially annoying style, but a definite step away from that of NL and HoB. When he finishes the group with BoGC, Hodgson has managed to rid himself of these affectations of style and produces a book written in a flat but serviceable tone. With each book, Hodgson learns better control of language and more writing savvy and eventually begins to develop his own voice.

This revelation enables us to understand Hodgson's growth as a writer much better. We can more easily chart his development through this order of composition than we were able to under the publishing order. Still, it manages to raise several interesting questions of its own. Most notably is why, if Hodgson had finished all four novels by 1905, he never wrote another before his death in 1918. It is possible that he concentrated on his short story sales, as they gave him much more financial compensation than the novels ever did. It could also be that, drifting more and more into salable "straight" adventure and genre stories, he felt that another novel would not satisfy his desire to be original. He had placed all his hopes on NL, and when that became a critical success but a financial failure, he may have been too depressed to consider doing another. Answers to such questions as these are not available now, but could be discovered if more Hodgson letters materialize. Until then, we can only wonder what wonderfully imaginative excesses like The Night Land may have been lost because of an unappreciative public.

Works Cited

Hodgson, William Hope. The Night Land. London: Sphere, 1981. (NL).

Hodgson, William Hope. Out of the Storm. Edited by Sam Moskowitz. West Kingston, R.I.: Donald M. Grant, 1975. (OoS)


© 1997 Sam Gafford.

Email: hodgson121@hotmail.com

Website: http://www.angelfire.com/biz/hobgoblinpress/

 

First posted: May 31, 1997

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