William Hope Hodgson:

Reporter from the Borderland

William Hope Hodgson was born on November 15, 1877 in Blackmore End, Essex, England, one of twelve children. His father was an Anglican clergyman who was often transferred with his family to such remote locations as Galway on the rugged western coast of Ireland.

Young William loved the sea and at age thirteen ran away to be a sailor. He was retrieved, but finally allowed to become a cabin boy in the Merchant Marine -- a four-year apprenticeship beginning in 1891. Very early on, he was treated badly by a cruel Second Mate and decided to learn judo and begin body-building to protect himself. In 1895, he attended a technical school in Liverpool for a year or two. Then he acquired a Third Mate's certificate and returned to the sea, around 1897. He distinguished himself by rescuing a shipmate drowning in shark-infested waters and was given the Royal Humane Society award for heroism. He also set up a darkroom and pursued a new hobby, photographing the sea and storms. Still, he complained of "bad treatment, poor food, poor wages ... a comfortless, weariful, and thankless life ... of hardness and sordidness ... [and] being a pawn with the sea for board and the shipowners for players." In short, after having sailed around the world three times, he realized (belatedly!) that he hated the sea -- and with such passion that in nearly all his writings the sea is regarded with a feeling of horror, almost as if it were evil.

Once back on dry land, in 1902, Hodgson set up a school for physical culture in Blackburn, near Liverpool. Here he taught body-building to local policemen and others, and published articles on the subject which included photographs of his muscle-bound self. After a time the business failed.

Around 1904, Hodgson decided to devote himself to creative writing, supplementing his income with photography. Besides the articles already mentioned, it is likely that he began writing poetry in childhood, continuing to do so at sea, where -- surrounded by sailor's tales -- he may have also tried his hand at a story or two. His first published story was "A Tropical Horror," The Grand Magazine, for June 1905. Others followed, including perhaps his finest tale, "The Voice in the Night" in The Blue Book Magazine (November, 1907). Early in 1907, the episodic novel The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" was published, consisting of more weird events at sea. For his second novel, however, Hodgson came ashore -- and turned inward -- for the setting of The House on the Borderland (1908). This is probably his masterpiece, called by Lovecraft "a classic of the first water" and "perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson's works." It is possibly the first instance of what Lovecraft would term "cosmic horror." Written with astonishing imagination and an atmosphere of sustained fear, it tells of a house on the coast of Galway, perched above a physical abyss -- as well as a psychic or metaphysical one, from which strange swine-like creatures issue to assault the narrator, who also travels to the distant future and witnesses the destruction of our solar system. Hodgson returned to the sea for his next novel, The Ghost Pirates (1909). It is perhaps the best-crafted of his novels, avoiding a departure for cosmic realms and retaining a straight-forward level of realism as a backdrop for the supernatural events -- which pour in a tireless onslaught.

Like M. P. Shiel and Algernon Blackwood before him, Hodgson created a sort of supernatural detective. Thomas Carnacki was the subject of at least nine "ghost-busting" adventures in which he usually refutes claims of hauntings or other supernatural elements. (At the same time, in real life, Sherlock Holmes's creator, Arthur Conan Doyle was investigating -- and exposing -- seances and other occult phenomenon in his search for proof of a psychic dimension. Similarly engaged was Harry Houdini, who incidentally had met Hodgson in 1902.) Eight of the Carnacki stories were published in magazines in 1910 and 1912; two were condensed and issued, along with a poem, in a 1910 chapbook; six were collected as Carnacki, The Ghost Finder in 1913. Thirty-four years later, August Derleth's Mycroft & Moran reissued the book with the addition of three further Carnacki tales.

The Night Land (1912) has a stranger publication history, due to its enormous length (538 pages). Hodgson himself condensed the over-long work for publication in a chapbook as The Dream of X (1912). Other condensations of Hodgson's work (including The Ghost Pirates in 1909) were made to preserve copyright of his work in America. Years later, Lin Carter, citing Lovecraft's criticism of the passages, assumed the right to cut overly romantic passages from the second volume of the Ballantine paperback edition of The Night Land. In any event, Lovecraft admitted that the flaws did not "spoil the tremendous power of the whole" and said "It is one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written." It was also praised by C. S. Lewis, who cited "the unforgettable sombre splendour" of its images; and by Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote "In all the literature of fantasy, there are few works so sheerly, purely creative."

On the flip side, noting Hodgson's faults, he is often accused of marring his work with sentimentality and with appeals to human love, however immaturely conceived. In his defense, his protagonists repeatedly survive supernatural horrors (as in Glen Carrig and The Ghost Pirates) and even reach the empty terminus of the vast cosmos (at in Borderland and Night Land), so it is small wonder that they would turn to someone of their own kind to reestablish some feeling of their own humanity.

Hodgson himself "turned to another" in 1913, when at age thirty-six he married an editor with the Harmsworth magazine firm. In order to lower their cost of living, the couple moved to the south of France. Unfortunately, after this time Hodgson wrote comparatively little -- possibly for economic, possibly for personal reasons. Nevertheless, three story collections were issued in this period: Men of the Deep Waters (1914), and The Luck of the Strong (1916), and Captain Gault, Being the Exceedingly Private Log of a Sea-Captain (1917) .

Of Hodgson's poetry, almost nothing has been written -- perhaps a poet's worst critique! Aside from a sea-chanty or two, little if anything was published prior to the chapbook Poems; and A Dream of X in 1912. Cargunka and Poems and Anecdotes, in 1914, was the last to see publication in his lifetime, though the selections The Calling of the Sea (1920) and The Voice of the Ocean (1921) appeared posthumously and were later collected in Poems of the Sea (1977).

At the outbreak of the first World War in 1914, Hodgson returned to England and entered training as a Lieutenant with the Royal Field Artillery. He received a serious head injury in a fall, but eventually recovered and was sent to the front lines near Ypres, Belgium. There he volunteered for highly dangerous duty as a forward observer and, on April 17, 1918 was obliterated by a German shell. He was forty.

After his death and a few posthumous publications, Hodgson drifted helplessly toward anonymity, his writings vastly out-of-step with his time. But through the efforts of the American H. C. Koenig, Ghost Pirates and Boats were reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries and "The Hog" appeared in Weird Tales. Derleth, at Arkham House, brought out a huge omnibus collection of all four Hodgson novels in 1946. Derleth also obtained some unpublished manuscripts from Hodgson's sister, Lissie Hodgson, for Arkham's Deep Waters (1967), a collection of the best of the sea ghost stories. R. Alain Everts, noted Lovecraft scholar and one of the leading authorities on Hodgson, engaged in valuable research that yielded much biographical data as well as the restoration of texts to original versions (issued in a series of booklets in 1988). Sam Gafford and the late Sam Moskowitz have also uncovered and reprinted previously uncollected stories and essays. Through the efforts of these scholars, Hodgson's work has been preserved to see another day -- perhaps to gain the critical attention it deserves.

In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock's television mystery and suspense series "Suspicion" aired an hour-length, adaptation of Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night" which was "beautiful, atmospheric" according to Paul Kesler. More details were included in Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Illustrated Guide to the 10-Year History of Television's Master of Suspense by Brian Kelleher & John McCarty (St. Martin's Press, 1985).


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Last updated: October 20, 2004

Alan Gullette, Oakland, California. Email: alang@alangullette.com