Ron Breznay’s The Old Masters of Horror – William Hope Hodgsonposted by
[This is an updated reprint of a column which originally appeared in the November 18, 2004, issue of Hellnotes.]
William Hope Hodgson is best known for his Sargasso Sea stories and for his novels The House on The Borderland and The Night Land. The former are stories set in that strange part of the Atlantic Ocean, where seaweed and creatures of the imagination abound. The latter are landlubber novels that explore cosmic horror.
William Hope Hodgson, known as Hope to family and friends, was born on November 15, 1877, in Blackmore End, Essex, England. Hodgson was in love with the sea, and at age 13, he ran away to be a sailor. He was quickly brought back, but was soon allowed to sign on for a four-year stint as a cabin boy in the Merchant Marine. A slightly built person, he took up judo and body-building as means of self-defense.
In 1895, he went to a technical school and earned a Third Mate’s certificate. He returned to the sea in 1897. During this time, he acquired an interest in photography, with his favorite subject being storms at sea. It was during this period aboard ship that he began to hate the sea – with a passion. He wrote in the September 1905 issue of The Grand Magazine: “I am not at sea because I object to bad treatment, poor food, poor wages, and worse prospects. I am not at sea because very early I discovered that it is a comfortless, weariful, and thankless life – a life compact of hardness and sordidness such as shore people can scarcely conceive.” This loathing eventually showed up in his stories, where the sea was portrayed as horrible and evil.
Hodgson returned to land in 1902. He set up a body-building school and published articles on the subject, which included photographs of his own physique. However, this business eventually failed.
In 1904, Hodgson decided to try working as a writer. His first published stories were “The Goddess of Death” (1904) and “A Tropical Horror” (1905). His next story, “From the Tideless Sea,” which appeared in the April 1906 issue of The Monthly Story Magazine, was the first of the Sargasso Sea stories. Among other stories which followed is one that is considered his best, “The Voice in the Night,” which was published in The Blue Book Magazine in November 1907.
Earlier in 1907, The Boats of The “Glen Carrig” was published. This episodic novel relates weird events at sea. His next novel, The House on the Borderland (1908), which tells of an evil seacoast house that is on the edge of both a physical abyss and a psychic abyss, is considered to be his masterpiece. H.P. Lovecraft wrote in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” that this novel was “perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson’s works” and shows “the author’s power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery.”
His next novel was The Ghost Pirates (1909), the story of a haunted ship on its last voyage, which is beset by “sea-devils.” The Night Land (1912), a story set billions of years into the future about the earth after the death of the sun, is not well-regarded stylistically by Lovecraft but praised by him as being “one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written.” In terms of style, Hodgson lacks in characterization and plot, and overuses sentimentality. Hodgson’s next book was Carnacki, The Ghost Finder (1913), a collection of six previously published short stories which tell of a psychic investigator (several other Carnacki stories were published elsewhere).
In 1913, Hodgson married Betty Farnsworth, and they moved to France. He wrote very little after this, though three collections of his were published: Men of the Deep Waters (1914), The Luck of The Strong (1916), and Captain Gault, Being the Exceedingly Private Log of a Sea-Captain (1917).
Hodgson’s poetry was published during his lifetime in Poems; And a Dream of X (1912) and Cargunka and Poems and Anecdotes (1914). Posthumously, his poems appeared in The Calling of the Sea (1920) and The Voice of the Ocean (1921), which were later collected in Poems of the Sea (1977).
After World War I broke out in 1914, Hodgson returned to England to train as an artillery lieutenant. He was sent to the front lines near Ypres, Belgium, where, on April 17, 1918, he was killed by a German shell.
Hodgson’s literary career was thus cut short. His writing spanned only a decade, and most of his horror work was penned from 1906 to 1910. His maritime stories after 1910 dealt more with treasure and smuggling than sea-monsters, most likely because he had a hard time selling his weird fiction.
After his death, Hodgson seemed destined for obscurity were it not for the efforts of two Americans. H.C. Koenig had vaguely heard of Hodgson and embarked on a quest to learn more about the man and his work. He researched tirelessly and was eventually rewarded for his efforts. He was so impressed with Hodgson’s writing that he had The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and The Ghost Pirates reprinted in the American magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and “The Hog” in Weird Tales. August Derleth’s Arkham House brought out an omnibus collection of four Hodgson novels, The House on the Borderland and Other Novels, in 1946, and obtained some unpublished manuscripts for Deep Waters (1967), a collection of his weird sea stories. R. Alain Everts, Sam Gafford, and the late Sam Moskowitz published both scholarly work on Hodgson and previously unpublished manuscripts of his.
Hodgson was brought into the living rooms of America on May 26, 1958, when Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion television series showed an hour-long adaptation of “The Voice in the Night.”
Night Shade Books has undertaken an ambitious project to publish the “definitive texts” of all of Hodgson’s fiction in the five-volume The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson, four volumes of which have been published. Wildside Press, Ash-Tree Press, and Tartarus Press have published a number of Hodgson books. These volumes are available from the publishers or on-line and neighborhood bookstores.