A phenomenal writer of the earliest weird fiction, Hope Hodgson specialized in heart-stopping moments of terror, built on pages of tense, supernatural menace. The majority of his work focused on the lurking horrors of the ocean but his explorations of dread and panic were much admired by those who built on such themes, and acknowledged by the giants of twentieth century gothic and fantasy fiction, including the influential H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth.
Born in 1877 in a less-than-bucolic English village, isolated and vulnerable to the elements, Hodgson was one of twelve children, born to a vicar and his wife. Three of his siblings died in their first few years. The life of a churchman could be peripatetic at best and Samuel Hope Hodgson’s family was moved to several new homes during young William’s early life. One of these unsettling locations was Ardrahan in County Galway, Ireland where the family was despatched to a bleak rural community of native Gaelic speakers who resented the missionary objective of the English church and their ambassadors. The wind-swept chill of homes, scattered across the landscape close to the sea, inspired what many regard as Hodgson’s finest novel, The House on the Borderland.
Throughout these early years Hodgson yearned to run away to sea, attempting several times, only to be returned in shame. Eventually he gained a place in the merchant marine, and he trained and set sail for four years. He hated every second of it. Far from being the romantic getaway from his tough and lonely life on land he spent most of his watch being bullied. This has led to almost every biographer drawing the obvious conclusion that Hodgson’s bitter and horrific stories of sea-faring fear can be traced back to his miserable time in the merchant navy.
His return to the mainland in 1902 saw a move to Blackburn in Lancashire where he worked variously as a photographer, fitness instructor (using the skills he had learned in order to survive the abuse endured at sea) and journalist. Increasingly though he turned to fiction in an attempt to support himself, and like other writers of the fantastic and modern gothic, Hodgson’s dark themes were driven by the narrow confines of his particular landscape: H. P. Lovecraft lived at home for ten years, enduring the consequences of a nervous breakdown; Robert E. Howard dreamed of ancient Cimmeria from the desolated sweeps of Texas; Arthur Machen was inspired by the Stygian, supernatural romance of the welsh countryside.
It is interesting to speculate that Hodgson’s particular circumstances, the bleak, lonely upbringing, the years at sea, the habitation of an industrial Northern city, kept him away from the dramatic changes in culture, society and politics of the day. With modernism sweeping through high society, challenging the elite and the social order, Hodgson conducted an everyday life of determined survival.
In common with many of his era and education Hodgson, when he began writing, thought of himself primarily as a poet (as did Lovecraft), but it is hard to find much of any distinction. However, it is his prose fiction – four novels and countless short stories – for which he is chiefly remembered. Of the novels, The House on the Borderland, published in 1908, is often regarded as the most influential, with its dark terror and hints of the cosmic supernatural. The Night Land of 1912 is an early science fiction classic which although invoking Mary Shelley‘s own novel of slow decline, The Last Man (1826), also prefigures the dystopian novels of the 20th century (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games), with its future of frightened humanity surrounded by evil in a burnt out world.
Most of Hodgson’s work is based on the sea, his two other novels The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907) and The Ghost Pirates (1909), and the series of short stories comprising the Sargasso Sea. The Derelict, From the Tideless Sea and many other dark tales are drenched in the choking depths of the unknown and the nameless monsters that swim within.
Perhaps Hodgson’s most well-known creation was Thomas Carnacki, a supernatural detective who delighted in debunking the fake and fraudulent by use of scientific and photographic methods, his tales being recounted by a group of friends at dinner in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, London. Such stories were popular at the time, with Algernon Blackwood‘s John Silence and Conan Doyle‘s masterful detective Sherlock Holmes indulging in similar activity. Carnacki was published in magazines (The Idler and New Magazine), and as a chapbook and has been much reprinted over the decades since Hodgson’s death; the first collected publication was in 1913, as Carnacki, the Ghost Finder.
Endings and Beginnings
Hodgson suffered an early death. He volunteered to serve in the First World War and, having survived one attack he was one of six hundred thousand young men killed in a two-month period, ending in April 1918 at Ypres. Had he survived the war this industrious, imaginative man would have benefited from the dramatic changes in social order that shifted the economic balance in Europe and saw, amongst many other changes in reading habits, a flowering of the fantastic in pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s.
Lovecraft’s assessment of Hodgson’s legacy is generous and accurate. Writing in his 1926 publication, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ he says:
‘Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be. Despite a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connexion with regions or buildings.’
The text of this post will soon appear as William Hope Hodgson: Life, Times and Works in a new paperback edition of House on the Borderland and Other Tales, to be published by Flame Tree 451.
Other posts of interest in These Fantastic Worlds include:
- Virgil Finlay: Master of Dark Fantasy Illustration
- Henry Fuseli: Dark Gothic Fantasy
- Clark Ashton Smith: Master of Gothic, Pulp and SF Classics
- Robert Bloch: Master of Psychological Terror
- Algernon Blackwood: Master of Supernatural Fiction
- H. P. Lovecraft: From Weird to Modern Gothic
- Arthur Machen: Master of Supernatural Horror
- Charles Brockden Brown: First American Gothic
- William Blake: Artist and Revolutionary
- Myths and Legends: Origins and Traditions
- Frankenstein by Jeffrey Catherine Jones
- The Only Connect series of posts starts here.
Pinterest board for the H. P. Lovecraft post is here.