THOUGHTS ON THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND
by Brian J. Showers, © February 2005

This short article was first published in the Letters to the Editor section of All Hallows #39, June 2005

Thursday was my birthday. On Wednesday morning Anna-Lena woke me early, told me I didn't have to go in to work, and handed me a pair of bus tickets for western Ireland where she had rented a quaint, coastal cottage (with a fireplace).

I took this opportunity to re-read The House on the Borderlan by William Hope Hodgson. With the rental cottage located not too far from where the novella takes place, this seemed to be an excellent opportunity. For those who have not read the novel, an e-text can be found here.

The below may contain a few spoilers, but nothing overt.

The first time I read The House on the Borderland was about five years ago. I have read the relatively short novel a few times since then, and am always astonished by Hodgson's far-out imagination and ability to invoke a thorough and consistent atmosphere of dread. Insofar as 'cosmic horror', I think Borderlands is equal to, if not more effective than most of what H.P. Lovecraft wrote. Still Hodgson is not without his faults. I also rank him alongside Philip K. Dick as one who could have been a genre giant with the aid of a good editor.

Those who have read Borderland may know what I'm talking about. Jeremy Lassen addresses this in his introduction to volume two of the Collected Works:

"The House on the Borderland [1908] was Hodgson's second published novel, and is the penultimate example of his narrative duality. Half the book is devoted to the cosmic exploration of the nature of reality, while the other half of the book is a tightly paced, suspenseful siege narrative. Critics have cited this duality as the reason for its effectiveness; or conversely, the reason for its failure." (Night Shade Books, 2004)

The story can literally be cut into two distinct and seemingly independent halves. The first half is a straightforward narrative, the second a vivid if not slightly psychedelic description of the end of the universe and beyond. Each of the two halves of the book are so strikingly distinct that the switch between them can be jarring on first read. Subsequent readings will reveal that the two halves are slightly more cohesive as a novel, but connections are still tenuous.

In his "Introduction to the Manuscript", Hodgson rather ingeniously invites each individual reader to link the two halves together:

"Of the simple, stiffly given account of weird and extraordinary matters, I will say little. It lies before you. The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire. And even should any fail to see, as now I see, the shadowed picture and conception of that, to which one may well give the accepted titles of Heaven and Hell; yet I can promise certain thrills, merely taking the story as a story."

I don't think Hodgson is a bad writer; the above passage is not an excuse. I think he knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote The House on the Borderland. The structure and pacing were wholly intentional. As Hodgson writes above, the story indeed delivers thrills, but for those who are willing to meet the author half-way, the 'shadowed picture' that dwells between the two halves of the story reaches the absolute zenith of fear and cosmic dread.

And, I cannot imagine reading The House on the Borderland any other way.


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