I Tell Ye Sorr ...
Judged by any of the normal standards, William Hope Hodgeson was a bad writer. He had a tin ear for prose (he sounds most artful when he’s writing in a strange Ye Olde mix, doubtless inspired by the same current of social thought that led to Lord Dunsany’s stories, William Morris’ handiworks, and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites) and his characterisation is thin to the brink of fatal anorexia. The people in his books are often little more than names (Tonnison, George, Monstruwacan) or accents (“I tell ye sorr, ‘tis no use at all at all thryin to reclaim ther castle. ‘Tis curst with innocent blood…”). It’s easier to remember them for what they go through (grim battles with Yellow Things; disorienting trips through time) than who they are.
But Hodgson the writer (I have no idea if this extended to Hodgson in everyday life) dwelt in a state of extraordinary and vivid terror, and it is this emotion that gives his stories their power. To read his books is to watch a man fighting to dig an elusive core of fear out of his mind and see it in daylight. He does not wallow in it, as a Stephen King does. He does not revel. When King describes a boy’s brains sounding like snot as they hit the wall in Needful Things, he seems to be standing aside and almost chuckling at the overdone grimness of it all. Hodgson didn’t have King’s facility with words; he never manages a throwaway tone; he is not funny. “I want you to try to understand,” his narrator cries urgently in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder as he describes the advent of the evil Hog. “I wonder if I make it clear to you,” he says. “Can you understand ... Do you understand at all?” Hodgson was serious about his monsters, as Lovecraft was serious about his Old Ones even when he was giving them ridiculous names.
The Hog is “a seemingly motionless, pallid swine-face rising upward out of the depth.” A page later it is “a pallid, floating swine-face” and then “the dreadful pallid head.” Like Lovecraft, Hodgson is trying to write about forces so alien to nature that they can’t be described with any accuracy. Our human language can only grope around them, throwing out the word “pallid” again and again in the frustrated hope that it will give the reader a faint idea as to the colour of this unearthly thing.
No wonder H.P. found him inspirational. “Despite,” he wrote, “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.”
Hodgson died in 1918, which means that he is not around to complain about copyright and some helpful people have put large parts of his work on the internet. You can find him at Project Gutenberg, but I prefer the cleaner-looking site at Adelaide Uni. I’d recommend that you start with The House on the Borderland and move on to Carnacki the Ghost Finder, then The Night Land. After that, take the rest at your leisure.
(On a tangent, the Adelaide University site also has Virginia Woolf’s wonderful Two Parsons, which stays in my mind like no other book review I have ever read.)