When even the fans of a particular book have been known to describe sections of it as “virtually unreadable”, there is, at the very least, something worth talking about. And someone really does need to remember William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, a rather obscure book first published in 1912 by one of the early masters of the genre now most often referred to as weird fiction (also the “dying earth” subgenre, if genre classification is your thing).
What happens in it? Well, a young man in the 17th century falls in love with a young woman, but she dies. The grieving fellow then falls asleep one night and wakes in the body of a far-future incarnation of himself. This incarnation lives inside a gigantic pyramid (called the Last Redoubt) with the remnants of the known human population. Outside, the sun has gone dark, monstrous living forms called Watchers creep ever closer to the Redoubt, and strange beings scuttle across a landscape lit only by volcanic fissures. Future Narrator hears a telepathic call for help from none other than the future incarnation of his lost love, and, like any good protagonist, he sets off across the nightmare-riddled terrain to find her.
Yes, there are sections that are more or less unreadable, but I’m encouraging you to well, read it. For one, you can honestly tell your friends that it’s like nothing else you’ve ever read. For another, I think there are some legit writing lessons to be gained here, although if you try to copy the style you have probably learned the wrong ones. One that we can appreciate is that what isn’t seen or described in detail can be a lot more unsettling than what is. Take, for instance, the House of Silence, one of the many sinister places our narrator glimpses from the top of the Last Redoubt before setting off on his journey. Lights burn inside it and always have. No sound escapes it, and no one that enters ever leaves. The reader never learns what the House of Silence is or what’s inside it, and doesn’t need to. Its pall has been cast across the entire narrative, and no amount of explanation in the world could imbue it with more dread than it already has. (Obviously, this is a a really important lesson that anyone attempting to write on the edges of the horror genre should know, and WHH is not the only one to learn it from, but I think we can mostly agree that the early writers did suspense better).
One day I’ll re-read it, but I’m not quite that bedridden at the moment. According to the Wikipedia entry, an author named John Stoddard has essentially re-written the novel as The Night Land, a Story Retold, in a more palatable style. I have not yet read it, but I already want to give this man a cookie because someone needed to do it. Hodgson himself also wrote The House on the Borderland, which some readers might find a bit more accessible, but which never personally resonated with me as much as The Night Land did.
Oh, and there’s a website. Complete with fanfic, naturally.