the whimsical fairies of a dead sun

May 18th, 2012 by paul

In 1912, William Hope Hodgson wrote the very long and very bizarre novel The Night Land. It's one of those novels that seems like it's more a D&D sourcebook than a novel. If I were running a fourth-edition game set in the Shadowfell, I'd actually take The Night Land over the D&D Gloomwrought boxed set.

The Night Land presents some obstacles to the reader. It's written in High Faux Archaic, with a ratio of five semicolons to the period. It's long and repetitive, describing every uneventful journey, camp, and meal break. It's got weird gender politics, even for 1912. But it's also got some powerful images. H. P. Lovecraft said of it, "The picture of a night-black, dead planet, with the remains of the human race concentrated in a stupendously vast metal pyramid and besieged by monstrous, hybrid, and altogether unknown forces of the darkness, is something that no reader can ever forget."

Oddly, this book, which contains a great Shadowfell setting, starts with an evocation of its fourth-edition opposite, the Feywild. The main character and his soul mate have had shared dreams of Fairyland:

And one evening, that I ever remember, as we wandered in the park-lands, she began to say—-half unthinking-—that it was truly an elves-night. And she stopped herself immediately; as though she thought I should have no understanding; but, indeed, I was upon mine own familiar ground of inward delight; and I replied in a quiet and usual voice, that the Towers of Sleep would grow that night, and I felt in my bones that it was a night to find the Giant's Tomb, or the Tree with the Great Painted Head, or-—And surely I stopped very sudden; for she gripped me in that moment, and her hand shook as she held me; but when I would ask her what ailed, she bid me, very breathless, to say on, to say on. And, with a half understanding, I told her that I had but meant to speak of the Moon Garden, that was an olden and happy fancy of mine.

Some good Feywild place names there! Also, you can see that I was not kidding about the semicolons.

5 Responses to “the whimsical fairies of a dead sun”

  1. Rick says:

    Thanks for the tip. I just downloaded The Night Land and a bunch of Hodgson’s books from Amazon.

  2. Jeff B. says:

    The Night Land is a fantastic book. I can’t think of another book like it. D&D players, particularly DMs, may find a lot to like in the book, and Gygax had apparently read it, as well as House on the Borderlands.

    The imagery of The Night Land is haunting and unsettling. Vast, evil laughter booming from the distance, fiery giants in deep pits, monsters swooping down from the darkness, roads that passed by ruined and monster-possessed “houses,” the unrelieved desolation…years later, it all comes back to me.

    I dig that Hodgson stuck with the conceit of it being the protagonist’s journal, and didn’t skip over the tedious stuff he did. The repetition of stopping and eating the food pills grew tiresome, then became amusing, and finally was comforting…then his supply began to dwindle or spill, and the alarm caused by those incidents was set on a firm foundation.

    After reading The Night Land, I was reluctant to read anything else by Hodgson. The book had affected me, sure, but the style was stilted and awkward. I’m glad I relented and read House on the Borderlands; I was surprised and delighted by how different Hodgson’s style was. It also impressed upon me how much of a genius Hodgson was – he was able to maintain that odd, often slightly dim-witted style because it was the voice of the protagonist, and wasn’t indicative of Hodgson’s style overall. House on the Borderlands is smoothly, and often beautifully, written. It has more than its share of haunting imagery, too, including a time-travel sequence that was obviously inspired by Wells, but which surpassed that of Wells in its sheer beauty. In some ways, House on the Borderlands is even more haunting than The Night Land, in that – AND THE NEXT TWO SENTENCES ARE SPOILERS – it’s a portrait of someone who is almost certainly deeply psychotic. The moment I realized the protagonist’s sister was terrified of HIM, I was blown away. END SPOILERS.

    Both books are well worth reading by anyone, and gamers can get a lot out of them, especially if one is running a game with a Lovecraftian feel.

  3. Rowboat says:

    I have to say that only the fascinatingly bizarre faux-archaic language – and the protagonist’s constant candor in emphasizing that he really has no idea what he’s talking about when speculating about the origins of various monsters and so forth – kept me going through the second half of the book, parts of which make Hodgson look like some sort of bizarre asexual advance copy of John Norman.

    The atmosphere built up before then is gold, though. Some really fascinatingly odd, less than half-explored ideas in there, which of course are often the best kind as far as concerns every book being a sourcebook.

  4. [...] previously described William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land as the Shadowfell sourcebook written in 1912, but I never got [...]

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