I have a confession to make: I absolutely love the first Silent Hill movie. The acting is atrocious, the plot suffers from a third-act exposition dump, and the writing leaves you feeling that, with such a rich mythology to work from, the movie fell far short of its potential. Yet I love it, and not in the ironic way that compels me to catch every midnight screening of The Room, Birdemic, or Fateful Findings. I love it because the movie, though bad, has pleasing visuals, creepy sound design, and eerie set pieces. Plus, a girl gets her entire epidermis pulled off and thrown against the door of a church, so there’s that.
I love plenty of terrible movies like Silent Hill. It’s tough to say the same about bad books.
While I can sit through ninety minutes of plot holes and two-dimensional characters on screen, I don’t typically suffer boring books. The commitment just isn’t worth it. From time to time, however, you come across a book that, for all its flaws, absolutely inflames your imagination. Maybe for you it’s a trashy supermarket thriller. Maybe it’s a revered classic that you recognize as being swollen or pretentious (most anything by James Joyce, for example. Oh, now you’re angry). For me, that book is The Night Land.
Published in 1912, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land is a masterpiece of tone, atmosphere, and world-building. Lovecraft once described it as, “one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written.” Clark Ashton Smith – a very underrated author too often overshadowed by Lovecraft – said of The Night Land, “In all literature, there are few works so sheerly remarkable, so purely creative, as The Night Land”.
Both these giants of weird fiction were correct. The Night Land is a wondrous book. It’s also kind of shit.
The Night Land envisions Earth millions of years in the future. The sun has burned out. The planet is a dead husk. The only light comes from stars, volcanic activity, and strange phenomena lighting up portions of the world with an ethereal glow. The world is a dark, barren place peppered with fire-pits and lightning strikes.
Humans live in a colossal pyramid named The Last Redoubt. An advanced civilization flourishes between the walls of the pyramid drawing heat, light, and electricity from a mysterious power source called the earth current. Humans need all the help they can get. The world outside is teeming with monsters and supernatural forces bent on the destruction of mankind. There are the watchers, mountain-sized monsters that sit in place and stare at the Redoubt (and moving a few inches closer every year). There are the silent ones, hooded figures who can kill by simply looking in someone’s direction. To the east, an unknown entity shrieks in maniacal laughter, and has done so for centuries. As impressive as The Night Land’s bestiary is, I find myself liking the locations most of all. One particularly unsettling locale is The House of Silence, a massive, palatial manor of unknown provenance. Anyone who strays too close will see the doors open and emit a hypnotic light, drawing them into the house until, finally, the doors clang shut behind them and they are never heard from again. The world would be frightening enough for its night-hounds and fire-giants. The fact that there are spiritual and metaphysical threats only amplifies the feeling of dread and hopelessness one gets while reading the book.
There’s an awesome collection of conjectural technology in The Night Land, too. Published two years before the First World War, it’s rather humbling to realize that Hodgson was already dreaming up things like powdered food, geothermic energy, and my personal favorite, the diskos – a flaming saw blade at the end of a stick that serves as the primary weapon for the book’s protagonist. Think a giant pizza cutter that sprays fire when the disc spins. In case that last sentence didn’t get the point across, I’ll just come out and say it: The Night Land is metal as fuck.
So, our unnamed hero must leave the safety of The Last Redoubt to rescue his lady from the perils of The Night Land. Sounds great, right? It would be if the book wasn’t so horribly written.
For all its genius, The Night Land is a literary turd. Hodgson decided to write it in a very forced, very dry Elizabethan style. Maybe he thought writing in the language of the King James Bible would give the trappings of a mythic, heroic saga. What it actually did was make the book a slog – a confusing, difficult, and often pretentious chore. If you took a shot of whiskey every time a paragraph starts with “And, lo!” you would be in the ER midway through the second chapter. The book is also overly long, the majority of the story being nothing more than walking around having encounters with the denizens of the Night Land. While going around fighting monsters is certainly something I’m into, there is hardly any narrative value to following every single little step of the protagonist’s journey. For those of you who complained about LOTR just being a lot of walking, then don’t bother picking up the Night Land. About 80% of the book is going from Point A to Point B, then back again.
Despite these complaints, I love The Night Land. My description only scratched the surface of how unique and imaginative Hodgson’s world is. The core concept of the book is, while not one-of-a-kind, certainly uncommon in horror literature. In most horror, a singular force of evil is upsetting an otherwise normal world. Even in instances of a haunted house or devil-worshiping village, the rest of the world outside these danger areas is a place of safety and familiarity. The Night Land flips that dynamic. The World is evil, and humans are the sole aberration, isolated in one location and unwelcome in a world that has evolved beyond them. The writing may bore you to tears, but the ideas are worthy of all the praise Smith and Lovecraft threw its way. The Night Land is a bad book, but I love it. I’m sure all you readers have a Night Land of your own.
Plus, there’s a guy slaying monsters with a flaming pizza cutter. So, there’s that.