A Life on the Borderland – The Life of William Hope Hodgson
by Sam Gafford
Editor’s Note: Over the past couple of months I’ve been taking a deeper dive into early horror literature of the 20th Century. One of the authors I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter is William Hope Hodgson, a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and one who deserves consideration. Much of my discovery of his writing is due to the work of Sam Gafford, who has taken to curating a blog (click here to read) focused solely on his works, with the goal of not only expanding the audience for his writing, but examining his work from a scholarly point of view. The following piece is re-published with permission. -Marc Patterson
William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) is known not only as the writer of such sea horror tales as The Voice in the Night, From the Tideless Sea, The Ghost Pirates and The Boats of the Glen Carrig but also for the pioneer science-fiction classics The Night Land and The House on the Borderland. His works have been hailed by many critics and writers including H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Not surprisingly, his life was just as interesting as his stories.
WHH (known as “Hope” to his family and friends) was born in 1877, the second son of Essex clergyman Samuel Hodgson and his wife, Lizzie. The family would eventually grow to include twelve children but three of WHH’s brothers would die in infancy before their second years.
By all reports, Samuel Hodgson was a difficult man to live with. This is perhaps supported by the fact that he was constantly transferred throughout most of his career. Samuel was moved at least twelve times during the years 1871-1890 and, in 1887, the family was sent to do missionary work in Ireland at Ardrahan, County Galway. This would provide the setting for one of Hodgson’s most famous novels, The House on the Borderland.
During his youth, WHH was in love with the sea and made several attempts to run away but was always returned to his family. Finally, through the intervention of his uncle, Reverend Thomas Lumsdon Brown, WHH was apprenticed to the firm of Shaw and Savill for four years as a seaman in the Merchant Marine in 1891. This would begin his long association with the sea which would leave him with such a depth of anger and hatred that WHH had no choice but to express it in his many sea stories.
In 1898, WHH would rescue a fellow crewman from shark infested waters after the man fell overboard. For this act, WHH received a medal from the Royal Human Society but even this could not keep him at sea which he finally abandoned for good in 1900.
After Samuel Hodgson’s death from throat cancer in 1892, the family was plunged into poverty. This state would exist until the death of WHH’s paternal grandfather in 1900 when he left the family an inheritance. Still, money would be a constant concern in the Hodgson home.
In 1901, WHH opened his School of Physical Culture in Blackburn. After devoting much of his attention to ‘physical culture’ during his time at sea, WHH would remain an avid follower of health and strength development. WHH had worked at increasing his own strength and physical power in order to protect himself from the bullying of other seamen even including some junior officers. He would use this interest to write several articles on the subject which were published in various physical culture magazines.
During his European tour of 1902, Harry Houdini appeared at the Palace Theatre in Blackburn where his traditional challenge to escape from any handcuffs was accepted by WHH. The result was a two hour ordeal for Houdini who finally escaped and would later remember the occurrence as one of the worst in his performing career. Hodgson, with his knowledge of muscles and physical culture, had shackled Houdini so thoroughly that Houdini would still bear the physical scars from his escape twenty years later.
Unfortunately, the School for Physical Culture did not last and WHH closed it by 1903. Having some little success at writing before, WHH now turned his attention to becoming a full-time writer. For the next several years, WHH would spend his time writing his four novels and many of his most well-known short-stories.
Even though faced with many initial rejections, WHH persevered and his first short story, The Goddess of Death was published in 1906. WHH would now publish frequently for the next ten years. His first published novel, The Boats of the Glen Carrig, appeared in 1907 followed by The House on the Borderland in 1908, The Ghost Pirates in 1909 and The Night Land in 1912. Recent criticism has presented the theory that these novels were written in the reverse order of publication which would make The Night Land (a SF masterpiece) as possibly his first novel and The Boats of the Glen Carrig (a combination of adventure and horror) his last novel.
Each one of these novels is a remarkable achievement. Together, they form much of Hodgson’s legacy. In The Boats of the Glen Carrig, an adventure on the high sea takes the reader through many supernatural events and ends in WHH’s own infamous Sargasso Sea, a part of the ocean choked by immoveable seaweed and giant sea monsters. The Ghost Pirates chronicles the last voyage of a cursed vessel and the specters that haunt it. In The House on the Borderland, a man finds himself in an isolated house that is besieged by outside forces and features passages of incredibly imaginative science fiction. Hodgson’s masterpiece, The Night Land, presents an Earth in the far future when the sun has burnt out, humanity lives in a giant metal pyramid and there are great evils that walk the land.
Sadly, despite many positive reviews, WHH did not make a great deal of money with these novels. This is likely why he abandoned novels to concentrate more on short stories. Many of these tales would become recognized as classics of weird fiction including The Voice in the Night which has been reprinted many times and also adapted (most notably as the Japanese film, Matango, in 1963). Adrift in the ocean, several sailors are hailed by a mysterious figure in a distant rowboat that begs their mercy for supplies for he and his fiancee but refuses to come closer or into the light. When pressed, he tells the sailors a gruesome tale of horror that remains long after the story is read.
One of Hodgson’s most famous creations was the Sargasso Sea. First appearing in print in From the Tideless Sea in 1906, this setting appears several times throughout WHH’s fiction. It is a real spot in the North Atlantic Ocean where the tides cause the seaweed to grow large and thick. In WHH’s fiction, this seaweed actually traps ships inside it much in the same way that ice traps ships in the Artic Ocean. But, to make matters worse, the Sargasso Sea is the home of many huge sea-monsters who constantly attack those ships unlucky enough to get caught in the weeds.
Undaunted, WHH created one of his most famous characters, the occult investigator, Carnacki. Appearing in several stories in 1910 (collected into an anthology in 1913), the Carnacki stories remain one of the most popular of WHH works. Carnacki is a ‘ghost-finder’ but, where he differs from more traditional psychic detectives, Carnacki uses modern devices such as photography and vacuum tubes to combat the evil. The Whistling Room is one of the best of these stories and remains WHH’s most reprinted story. Carnacki himself has remained popular and new stories by other authors featuring the ‘ghost-finder’ have appeared and the character himself has made an appearance in Alan Moore’s graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
In 1913, WHH marries Bessie G. Farnworth and the couple move to France apparently in an effort to save money. WHH continues writing but most of his most notable stories are now behind him. When England declares war on Germany in 1914, the couple returns to England and WHH joins the Officer Training Corps of the University of London.
Ever patriotic, WHH receives his commission as a Lieutenant in the 171st Battery of the Royal Field Artillery but, while training new soldiers, WHH is thrown from his horse and suffers a broken jaw and a concussion. Due to his injuries, WHH is discharged and sent back to his family in Borth.
But Hodgson refused to sit out the war on the sidelines. Due in great part to his lifelong physical training, WHH recovered and re-enlists in October, 1917. He is assigned to the 11th Brigade which is sent to Ypres. From there, he joins the 84th Battery which, in turn, relieves a forward Battery south of Rugby Dump.
In March of 1918, the 84th Brigade takes over positions at Brombeek and suffers heavy gas and high velocity shelling at the Tourelle Crossroads. After being relieved by Belgian Artillery, the 84th marches to Ploegsteert area and takes position at Le Touguet Berthe. A German attack briefly hospitalizes WHH but he recovers in time for the 84th Battery to withdraw and set up a Forward Observation Post (FOP).
Despite it being virtually a ‘suicide mission’, WHH volunteers for duty at the FOP with another soldier. On April 19th, 1918, the FOP suffers a direct hit from German mortar fire which kills both men and leaves little in the way of remains. They are buried by French soldiers on the eastern slope of Mont Kemmel in Belguim.
After WHH’s death, Bessie returned to her family and oversaw WHH’s literary estate until her death in 1943. At that point, the estate reverted to WHH’s sister, Lissie, who handled it (not the best way) until her own death in 1959.
Since WHH’s death, his fame has increased. Despite some episodes of rarity, much (if not all) of Hodgson’s fiction is now available either online or via Print on Demand publishers. As we move towards the 100th anniversary of his death, let us take up the banner of this talented author and carry it forward into a new century!
(I would like to acknowledge my debt to those Hodgson biographers who have gone before me. Much of the information here is a result of their work so I thank R. Alain Everts, Sam Moskowitz and Jane Frank.—Sam Gafford)