The Thin, Black Line
Every once in a while, the universe surprises you.
The appearance of Richard Corben and Simon Revelstroke’s adaptation, The House on the Borderland, is a cause for much unexpected celebration. For far too long has the work of William Hope Hodgson lain dormant, forgotten by all but a few devoted horror literature students. His work spanned the gamut of the imagination with stories of nightmare futures, shipwrecked sailors on islands of terror, and demons of the sea rising through ocean-choking seaweed. Unfortunately, Hodgson has hardly ever been adapted by anyone in comics and is largely forgotten by the average reader. No longer!
The combining of accomplished comic book artists with a classic horror novel, namely Hodgson’s major work The House on the Borderland, couldn’t be better. Corben has had a long and varied career in the comic field since breaking into the business during the birth of underground comics in the early 1970s. His work has appeared in countless magazines and his Den series remains one of the high points of the early issues of Heavy Metal. Corben’s fondness for ‘classic’ horror literature has been long in evidence with his many and varied adaptations of Poe and Lovecraft among others. But, it is surprising that Corben chose to adapt this novel and that it is published by mainstream publisher DC Comics in such a high-prestige format. In terms of bankability, Hodgson is not one of the ‘big guns’ of horror.
William Hope Hodgson was a fascinating individual as pointed out in this book’s foreword by Alan Moore (comic writer/god and co-creator of Watchmen and From Hell). Hodgson ran away to become a ship’s apprentice when he was 13 in 1890 and became so bitter about his life on the sea that it soured the rest of his life and writing. Hodgson turned to fiction as a way to make a living and, despite some shortcomings in this area, produced some of the most frightening and imaginative works ever published. Sadly, his works never became hugely popular and the success he desired always eluded him. When he died during the closing months of W.W.I in 1918, his work slowly faded into oblivion. August Derleth and Arkham House briefly revived interest in Hodgson from the late 1940s to the 1960s, but it has always been an uphill climb for Hodgson Which is why the appearance of this book is so intriguing. A book like this could make readers want to search out the original source material and, from there, jump over to Hodgson’s other novels and short stories. Assuming, that is, that they can find them.
Under other hands, this book could have been clumsy or incomprehensible. The House on the Borderland stands with The Night Land as one of Hodgson’s masterpieces. Borderland opens with an ancient manuscript being found in the ruins of an ancient house in Ireland. This journal tells the strange experiences of the house’s owner as he defends it and his sister against invasion from creatures living in the ‘pit’ near the house and under the cellar. The novel itself contains much psychological and mental imagery and meaning but is also a deeply strange tale of the supernatural with more than a little Olaf Stapledon influence thrown in. Admittedly, it is clumsy at times, but always fascinating and imaginative. Its selection for adaptation is noteworthy in first place it would not seem to lend itself well to a visual presentation.
Corben’s art captures the tone and feeling of invasion and assault and the text stays very close to the source material. He managed to convey visually the same issues that Hodgson incorporated into the story and uses the artwork to highlight different aspects to the tale. First: isolation, being separated from everything and everyone and then being assaulted by the outside forces determined to eliminate the iconoclast. But, there are also themes of fear of sexuality of the perverse. Of the damp, dark things that creep into our minds at our lowest moments and drive us over the edge. The house stands both metaphorically and physically on a borderland: a dividing line between safety and the danger of the pit, on the borderland between light and dark, between this world and another more sinister world ever-ready to consume our own and consign us to the abyss.
Hodgson’s best work concerns the invasion of the ‘outside’ into the ordered and regular world. He was not what one could call the strongest stylist. His work is often stilted and obscures the subject matter. But in this novel, Hodgson was able to incorporate several of his most compelling themes. Such as, the concept of forces ‘outside’ our reality that are intent upon inserting themselves upon our own, normal worlds. These forces can be evil or just plain uncaring about humanity, and it is difficult to decide which is worse. The question then becomes one of definition. What is ‘normal’? What is ‘reality’? Is it ‘normal’ for a man to lock himself and his sister away in a strange house and forego all other human contact? This is far more than just some ‘haunted house’ book. It is a symbolic investigation into the dangers of creating our own ‘houses’, staunchly defended from assault by the outside. In doing this, the questionable impulses that led to the isolation become normal and are protected at all costs. The narrator is attacked on all fronts. The pig-monsters try to break in from the outside and through the cellar but, more importantly, his sister also becomes a source of attack. She represents the betrayal by those who are the most trusted when she tries to open the ‘house’ to the monsters. The narrator has allowed another to cross the battlements of his house only to be betrayed by her to the ‘hellish’ forces laying siege to his island of isolation. This only serves to confirm the rationale for the construction of the ‘house’ for, if he cannot trust his own blood, than can he ever trust anyone?
The House on the Borderland is a deeply disturbing book yet deserves to be read and re-read as often as possible. Especially today, when isolation and alienation are so much more prevalent than during Hodgson’s lifetime, does this book warrant reading. The modern world often encourages isolation and alienation with the advantages of technology and fear of social contact and conflict. When one withdraws so entirely within oneself, your body becomes the house and the borderland becomes your mind. It is amazing that a novel, nearly 100 years old, can still speak to us so strongly.
Yes, sometimes the universe can still surprise you and I live for those moments.