Tuesday, 4 April 2000

William Hope Hodgson: The House on the Borderland (1908)

Edition: New English Library, 1996
Review number: 468

Of all the classics of early fantastic fiction, The House on the Borderland must rank as one of the strangest. The influences which formed it and the influence it had are much less clear cut than in its contemporaries. The afterword to this edition (by Iain Sinclair) cites the unlikely combination of John Buchan and Thomas de Quincy, among others; I was also reminded of Edgar Allan Poe and Olaf Stapledon.

Framed by a relatively conventional story about two travellers discovering a hidden manuscript while on holiday in the strange landscape of the Burren in the West of Ireland, the tale itself is a sequence of bizarre events which befall the owner of a now derelict house in the area. The grounds of this house include the quarry-like Pit, entrance to a complex system of caves. Without warning, the house is attacked by intelligent yet bestial creatures from the Pit. When the attack is beaten off, the house itself travels in time, the writer of the manuscript experiencing, as a detached observer, the death of the Solar System and other apocalyptic events at the end of time itself before suddenly returning to his own time. The apocalyptic descriptions are among the most atmospheric in all science fiction.

Even looking at this superficial summary, The House on the Borderland is a strange book, but it is possible to read far more into it. The other inhabitants of the house are the writer's sister and housekeeper, and there are indications that the events he records could be hallucinations brought on by guilt over an incestuous affair (the extreme and unexplained fear that his sister exhibits towards him after the attack of the swine beasts - a personification of the uncontrolled side of his nature? - for example). Then there is the similarity between the visions experienced by the writer and those caused by hallucinatory drugs, though there is no direct evidence for drug taking in the narrative. (This perhaps accounts for the great interest in the novel during the sixties.)

It is rare for a short novel to suggest so much so vividly, and this is why it is a classic. As a horror story, it has been eclipsed by later writers, but as a tale of the fantastic, of the borderlands between the inner and outer worlds, it remains effective.

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