Horror So Wondrous: An Excerpt from William Hope Hodgson’s “The Night Land”
In the far future, humankind’s survivors huddle below Earth’s frozen surface in a pyramidal fortress-city that, for centuries now, has been under siege by enormous slugs and spiders and malevolent “Watching Things” from another dimension. When an unnamed protagonist receives a telepathic distress signal from a woman whom (in a previous incarnation) he’d once loved, he sets off on an ill-advised rescue mission — into the fiend-haunted Night Land.
“If you are encountering William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Night Land’ for the first time,” writes Erik Davis in the introduction to a new abridged edition of Hodgson’s classic horror-fantasy-science fiction-dying earth novel, “you may feel a bit like an angler who drags a bizarre and horrible fish out of the deep, something that rings no bells of recognition.” Indeed, the novel is a flawed masterpiece, a “literary monster” whose imperfections somehow intensify its uncanny luster and make it all the more compelling.
In the following passage, a brief but unnerving moment in this frequently unnerving novel, our protagonist senses a disquieting noise echoing through the night. The low moaning hum appears to originate both nearby and from an unfathomable distance, revealing itself as a “Doorway in the Night” — an interdimensional fissure capable of heralding the possible Destruction of his very soul. He manages to elude the Doorway, but later recalls that “in truth there was an horror so wondrous and drear about it, that I can forget not.” It is that haunting phrase, “an horror so wondrous,” writes Davis, that perfectly encapsulates Hodgson’s peculiar and deeply resonant tone of cosmic encounter.
Now I walked for twelve hours, and in that time, did eat and drink twice; and made onward again very steadfast, and happy that all did go so quiet with me; so that it was as if I had at last come to a part of the Land that was given over to quietness, and lacking of monsters. Yet, in truth was I come to a worse place than any, maybe; for as I went forward, striding very strong, and making a good speed, I did hear presently a little noise upward in the night, and someways unto my left, that had seeming as that it were a strange low sound that did come down to me out of an hidden doorway above; for, indeed, though the sound did come from very nigh, as it did seem no more than a score feet above my head, yet was it a noise that did come out of a great and mighty distance, and out of a Foreign Place. And I did know the Sound; though never, as you may suppose, could I have heard it in all my life. Yet had I read in one of the Records, and again in a second and a third, how that certain of all they that had adventured from the Pyramid into the Night Land to seek for knowledge, had chanced to hear a queer and improper noise above them in the Night; and the noise had been strange, and did come from but a little way upward in the darkness; yet was also from a great and monstrous distance; and did seem to moan and hum quietly, and to have a diﬀerent sounding from all noises of earth. And in the Records it was set forth that these were those same Doorways In The Night, which were told of in an ancient and half-doubted Tale of the World, that was much in favour of the children of the Pyramid, and not disdained by certain of our wiser men, and had been thus through all the latter ages.
And I did seem to know the sound upon the moment; for my heart grew swift to understand. And it was a very dread uncomfortable sound; and you shall know how it did seem, if you will conceive of a strange noise that doth happen far away in the Country, and the same noise to seem to come to you through an opened door nearby. And this is but a poor way to put it; yet how shall I make the thing more known to you? So that I must even trust unto your wit and true sympathy that you shall conceive of the fullness of my meaning.
Now, in all the Histories of those that had adventured into the Night Land, there were but three sure Records that did concern this Sound; and each did tell of a Great Horror; and of them that did hear the Sound there had died the most part, out in the Night Land. And the Records did make always that they had come upon Destruction, and not simply unto Death; but were destroyed by a strange and Invisible Evil Power from the Night.
And of those that came alive unto the Pyramid, they had all one strange tale to tell, how that there were secret and horrid Doorways In The Night. Yet how this thing could be plain to them, who may know truly; save it be that the eyes of their spirits did behold that which was hid to the eyes of the ﬂesh.
And there was afterwards writ a proper and careful treatise, and did set out that there did be ruptures of the æther, the which did constitute doorways, as those more fanciful ones did name them; and through these shatterings, which might be likened unto openings—there being no better word to their naming—there did come into this Particular Condition Of Life, those Monstrous Forces Of Evil, that did dominate the Night, and which many did hold surely to have been given this improper entrance through the foolish and unwise wisdom of those olden men of learning, that did meddle overfar with matters that did reach in the end beyond their understanding. And this thing have I told before, and it doth seem proper unto my belief; for it is always thus, and I have that same taint within me, as must all that have the zest of life.
Now, by this that I have set down swiftly, to make a little clear the sure horridness of this Sound, you shall know, even with me, the great horror that did come immediately upon my Spirit; and I did know that my Search was surely like to have an end in that moment; and I bared mine arm, for my teeth, where the Capsule did lie below the skin; and so was ready to an instant Death, if that Destruction did come upon me. And in the same moment, I did fall silent, inward among the moss-bushes, and did begin to creep very quiet toward the right; for, as you will mind, I had heard the Sound over beyond my left. And all that time, as I did creep, there was a great sickness upon me, and it did seem that my mouth had weakened unto water; so that I could scarce hold my teeth tightly from unseemly clitterings.
And I crept always very silent, and did often stare quick and painful over my shoulder, upwards, and this way and that; but did never see anything; neither could I hear now the Sound.
William Hope Hodgson (1877–1918) was an English poet, sailor, bodybuilder, and weird fiction pioneer whose horror, fantastic, and proto-sf novels — in addition to “The Night Land” — include “The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’” (1907), “The House on the Borderland” (1908), and “The Ghost Pirates” (1909). He also wrote stories in the Sargasso Sea series, the Captain Gault series, and a series about the occult detective Carnacki.