The Night Land

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Few masterpieces have been so little read, or so deeply misunderstood, yet so influential as The Night Land, John Rateliff says:

“In all literature, there are few works so sheerly remarkable,
so purely creative, as The Night Land. Whatever faults
the book might possess… it impresses the reader
as being… the last epic of a world beleaguered
by eternal night and by the unvisageable
spawn of darkness. Only a great poet
could have conceived and written
this story.”

— Clark Ashton Smith

Imagine that you were lucky enough to find true love, your destined soulmate who completed you. That you and your love were happy together as man and wife. That you lost your beloved to untimely death. Imagine that you had a vision of a future life, a reincarnation millions of year in the future, in a time when the sun had died and humankind was almost extinct. Imagine you lived on one of two great fortresses, besieged by the monsters that stalked the darkened Earth outside.

Then imagine that you discover that your beloved has been reborn into the other fortress, separated from your own by vast distances across a nightmare landscape haunted by evils that can devour the soul as well as the body. That the other fortress was being overrun and its people slaughtered, and your beloved in dire peril of not just death but annihilation, from which there would be no rebirth. Imagine that you ventured forth alone into the Night Land in an attempt to save her . . .

“. . . one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written.
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. Shapes and entities
of an altogether non-human and inconceivable sort — the prowlers
of the black, man-forsaken, and unexplored world outside the pyramid
— are suggested and partly described with ineffable potency;
while the night-bound landscape with its chasms and slopes
and dying volcanism takes on an almost sentient terror
beneath the author’s touch.”

— H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

The Dream of X

Welcome to The Night Land. Few masterpieces have been so little read, or so deeply misunderstood, yet so influential; among the writers directly inspired by it are Clark Ashton Smith (the best of the Weird Tales writers, in his Zothique sequence), Jack Vance (The Dying Earth/The Eyes of the Overworld), and very probably Roger Zelazny as well (Jack of Shadows, possibly Damnation Alley). This is all the more remarkable for its being the first novel by an author who died after all-too-brief a career (he was blown apart by a direct hit from a mortar shell in the last days of World War I; his remnants lie in an unmarked grave on the Western Front), leaving behind only four novels and a few dozen short stories. [1]

The Night Land (1912) is an uncompromising work that demands to be taken entirely on its own terms; Hodgson even invented his own dialect of English to write the story in, anticipating the efforts of Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange, 1962, with its punker slang) and Russell Hoban (Riddley Walker, 1981, with its post-apocalypse English) by more than half a century. Based on the language of 16th and 17th century writers such as Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678) and Hakluyt (Hakluyt’s Voyages, 1589), it is as distinctive a distancing device as Tolkien’s Elvish nomenclature or Lovecraft’s 18th century affectations, immediately establishing that this is not a Connecticut Yankee or a modern-day mind translated into a fantastic setting a la Twain or Wells but a heroic figure from the past (the narrator’s “present” seems to have been late Tudor or perhaps Stuart times) relating a vision of a fantastically distant future. Even more impressively, for a language largely devoid of finite verbs (Hodgson prefers emphatic tenses and infinitives), the reader rapidly becomes acclimatized; though it appears odd when excerpted, his pseudo-archaic English reads very naturally after only a few pages. [2]

And some shall read and say this was not,
and some shall dispute with them; but to them all
I say naught, save “Read!” And having read
that which I set down, then shall one and all
have looked towards Eternity with me — aye,
unto its very portals. And so to my telling:

— The beginning of the vision

A Darkened World

A deft blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Hodgson’s imagined world depicts the End Times, when once-human monsters and otherworldly supernatural horrors inhabit a landscape unlit by the dying sun; it is as if Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones were finally free to roam the world and wreak havoc on all that fell into their grasp. Building on the ideas of Sheridan Le Fanu (and, to a lesser extent, M. R. James), Hodgson evolved a mythos that posits a malign supernatural realm abutting the human world from which we are fortunately shielded; at times Forces from that realm break through into our reality, with invariably catastrophic results. In The Night Land the barriers between this nightmare dimension and our once-mundane human world have broken down, and with it what we liked to think of as reality has come to an end. The only oasis remaining for the surviving humans are the two Redoubts, great metal pyramids within which the last humans live out their lives, besieged by Watchers (Great Old Ones), hovering like sharks around their prey, and a plethora of lesser evils: the Night Hounds, the Giants and Humped Men, the Silent Ones, and a host of other beings.

And when the Pyramid was built, the last millions, who were
the Builders thereof, went within, and made themselves a great house
and city of this Last Redoubt. And thus began the Second History
of this world… And, later, through hundreds and thousands of years, there grew up in the Outer Lands… mighty and lost races
of terrible creatures, half men and half beast and evil and dreadful . . .
And, at whiles, through the forgotten centuries, had the Creatures
been glutted time and again upon such odd bands of daring ones
as had adventured forth to explore through the mystery of the
Night Lands; for of those who went, scarce any did return;
for there were eyes in all that dark; and Powers and
Forces abroad which had all knowledge; or so
we must fain believe.

This is not the whole story, however. In a striking departure from the similar conception later evolved by Lovecraft (the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”), Hodgson believes there are forces of good as well as of evil loose in the world, though they move in mysterious ways and cannot be evoked in any way by mere mortals; they simply sometimes manifest to intervene at (some) crucial moments. Decades later, August Derleth took this concept from Hodgson (whose complete novels he published in the early days of Arkham House, along with two collections of his short stories) and grafted it onto Lovecraft’s Mythos, where it was ludicrously inappropriate, and then made matters worse by claiming that the resulting amalgam of “Elder Gods” vs. “Great Old Ones” represented Lovecraft’s true intentions. On its own terms, however, Hodgson’s mythos works exceedingly well. The unexpected interventions having the effect of sudden, unexpected, exceptionally rare miracles that relieve what would otherwise be the intolerable bleakness of his dying world:

[T]here were other forces than evil at work in the Night Land,
about the Last Redoubt… even as the Forces of Darkness
were loose upon the End of Man; so were there other Forces
out to do battle with the Terror; though in ways
most strange and unthought of by the human soul. And of this
I shall have more to tell anon.

Love Among the Ruins

The most controversial element about The Night Land, however, even more than the archaic dialect Hodgson invented to tell his story in, is the love story at the heart of his tale. A number of critics who have otherwise enjoyed and admired the book for its stunning imaginary world and the detailed description of the hero’s exploits as he makes his way across the blasted landscape, dodging horrors and battling monsters all the way, come down sharply on Hodgson’s choice to focus not purely on the setting and the hero’s quest but also on the passion that inspires it — which is rather like criticizing The Lord of the Rings for including hobbits, or Gone with the Wind for focusing on the home front. [3]

Yet, though I did call many a time unto the everlasting night,
there came no more the voice of [my beloved],
speaking strangely within my spirit; but only at times
a weak thrilling of the aether about me.
And, at the last I grew maddened with the sorrow of this thing,
and the sense and knowledge of harm about the maid;
and I stood upright upon my feet, and I raised my hands,
and gave word and honour unto [her] through all the blackness
of the night, that I would abide no more within the Mighty Pyramid
to my safety, whilst she, that had been mine Own through Eternity,
came to horror and destruction by the Beasts and Evil Powers of that
Dark World. And I gave the word [telepathically], and bade her
to be of heart; for that until I died I would seek her.
But out of the Darkness there came naught but silence.

— Our hero sets forth

Thus C. S. Lewis, discussing the very best works ever written that create their own imaginary worlds (in which he includes not just The Lord of the Rings and The Worm Ouroboros but works by Morris, Coleridge, Spenser, Malory, Homer, and Ray Bradbury, among others), ends by stating that “W. H. Hodgson’s The Night Land would have made it in eminence from the unforgettable sombre splendour of the images it presents, if it were not disfigured by a sentimental and irrelevant erotic interest” (On Science Fiction”, 1955; italics mine). This is eerily similar to Lovecraft’s remark that, for all its virtues, the book was “seriously marred by… artificial and nauseously sticky romantic sentimentality” (Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1934).[4] In deploring the “distraction” of the love-story, Lovecraft and Lewis are exactly like those wrong-headed critics Tolkien mocked in his classic essay Beowulf: The Monsters & the Critics (1936), who lamented that we had the story of Beowulf fighting Grendel and the Dragon when the poet could have written instead about internecine feuds of the Danes, a top of interest to the historians but no one else. Note that Smith, a better writer than either, did not voice the same criticism, though he did find the book a trifle long (“In Appreciation of Wm Hope Hodgson”, 1944).

And I stood upright, for there did be no more use to hide;
and I knew that I must walk forever until that I have Mine Own
to the Shelter of the Mighty Refuge, or to walk until I die;
for only with speed might I save her . . .

— His beloved is mortally wounded

That Lewis could dismiss the main theme of the story as “irrelevant” to the monster-bashing he evidently preferred is a prime example of mistaking the trappings of a tale for its core (the book’s subtitle is, after all, “A Love Tale”): it’s as if playgoers shouted out for the actors to stop saying dialogue and get out of the way so the audience could enjoy viewing the stage-sets. What unifies Hodgson’s book, all the loving detail of this strange new world, the minutia of the hero’s journey, the vivid battles, is the story of a knight-errant on a quest to rescue his lady fair. Hodgson has cunningly transported his characters from medieval or renaissance times, where his theme would fit in perfectly with dozens of similar tales, to a horrific science-fictional setting where the threat of human extinction hovers not very distantly in the background. But the essential story is the same: his hero wears armor, carries a magical weapon, and walks through a wasteland more deadly than anything Sir Gawain or Child Roland ever faced, braving every peril to rescue the damsel because nothing is more important to him than his utter devotion to their love. It’s not a theme for everyone, this story of courtly love transposed to the end of time, but in the end Hodgson’s tale is deeply moving precisely because the microcosmic human world is, after all, where we live. The grand scope and magnificent setting are, quite properly, only the backdrop for a very human story:[5]

And… I to be now scarce fifty paces from [safety];
and did be nigh to fall; for I did be all wounded with the fight,
and ill with a vast weariness and the despair and madness
of my journey; and moreover… I not to have slept,
but to have carried the Maid… through days and nights,
and to have fought oft…. [A]nd I to gather my strength, and to charge with despair and to smite and never be
ceased of smiting; so there did be dead creatures all about.
And behold! I brake through the herd, with Mine Own,
and… I stept over the Circle; and a thousand hands
did come forward to help me

— The final desperate struggle to reach the Great Redoubt

An Utterly Appropriate Miracle

In the end The Night Land is, like many works of genius, a difficult book: intensely personal, apt to provoke extreme reactions (both favorable and very much otherwise) from its readers, unlike anything else ever attempted before or since in fantasy, science fiction, or horror. It offers a supreme example of what Tolkien called “Eucatastrophe”: that heartbreaking moment when everything suddenly comes together and tragedy turns to rejoicing, when the reader feels that everything the characters have suffered has been worth it to reach this perfect ending.

For those daunted by a 583-page book that combines three genres, written in its own new dialect of English, upon which so much praise and derision has been heaped, there is fortunately a perfect way to first experience Hodgson’s sublime vision. To secure his American copyright, back in 1912 Hodgson prepared a “best parts” version of the story only one-tenth the length of the original book. Published as The Dream of X, it contains the most moving scenes from the full-length book, presented as the remaining fragments of a destroyed manuscript left behind by the hero. Reading this short version of the tale is by far the best way to enter Hodgson’s future world; those who like it will be eager to get the full tale, while those it leaves cold are better off searching out other books more to their liking. [6]

. . . for there did stand in the midst of the Hall of Honour,
. . . a Statue of a man in broken armour, that did carry a maid forever.
And I did be dumb; and how of this Age shall you know the Honour
that this to mean in that; for it did be an Honour that was given only
to the Great Dead; and I to be but a young man, and did be
so utter far off from greatness; save that I love with all mine heart and with all my spirit, and therefore death to be but a little thing
before love . . .
And I to have gained honour; yet to have learned
that Honour doth be but as the ash of Life, if that
you not to have Love. And I to have Love.
And to have Love is to have all . . .

— The final scene in the narrator’s vision.

Other Works

All three of Hodgson’s other novels are of interest: The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” recounts the horrors encountered by survivors in the two lifeboats from a sunken ship; like much of Hodgson’s other sea stories, it makes much use of the Sargasso Sea and floating derelicts of uncertain age. The House on the Borderland contains some memorable bits but unfortunately is his worst novel, since the story stops dead half-way through. The Ghost Pirates tells the grim fate that awaits all who sail on a haunted ship; it is his most straightforward novel and very effective within its limits.

Hodgson was also a gifted short story writer, having to his credit at least two of the best sea-horror stories ever written: “The Voice in the Night” and “The Derelict”. In addition, his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1910, expanded edition 1947) is still the best psychic detective series, bar none, and will be the topic of a future column in its own right.

“[T]alk about the Night Land — it is all here,
not more than two hundred miles from where you sit,
infinitely remote…. If I live and come out of this
(and certainly, please God, I shall and hope to)
what a book I shall write if my old ability
with the pen has not forsaken me.”

— Hope Hodgson, 1918, in a letter written from the Front just before his death

The Night Land and Your Game

No one has ever dared to publish a game setting as bleak as Hodgson envisioned here; even Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, nihilist as it is in theory, in practice emphasizes the heroism of the microcosmic human world, not the bleakness, while D&D‘s Ravenloft and White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade similarly keep the emphasis on the human and near-human rather than the end-of-time cosmic horrors Hodgson describes. Dark Sun, which from its name might be expected to project a Hodgsonesque world, instead focused on an uber-Conan sand-and-barbarians campaign. Perhaps the best use of his material for an ambitious DM would be to create a scenario or short-term campaign in which characters from a more typical campaign were projected into the Night Land; they will be guaranteed to be exceedingly grateful to get back out again.

By contrast, Hodgson’s Carnacki stories have been the inspiration for a Forgotten Futures expansion (Forgotten Futures #4: The Carnacki Cylinders, 1996), though this has never been made available as a print product (it originally circulated on a subscription-only disk and is currently available as an HTML download). A few concepts from Hodgson’s work have also crept into the Call of Cthulhu game, mostly anonymously; though many a Keeper has created homebrew scenarios inspired by the Carnacki stories none of these have ever seen print.


[1] Hodgson’s other three novels are The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), and The Ghost Pirates (1909), all well worth reading. Although it was published last, The Night Land was actually written first, in about 1905; all of his novels have been published in reverse order.

Thanks to the wonders of the modern-day small press movement, all Hodgson’s novels are currently in print from specialty houses: The Night Land itself from Wildside Press (2001), ISBN 1587156042 (trade paperback) or 1587156059 (hardcover). Be warned that some editions of the book are censored (see note 4 below).

While Hodgson scholarship is still in its infancy, those interested in The Night Land can find an excellent website devoted to the book at

[2] Hodgson was fond of writing his stories in mildly archaic dialogue; The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” takes place in the early 1700s (we are told at the beginning this account was set down a generation later in 1757) and seems to derive its style mainly from Daniel Foe (or “Defoe”, as he preferred to be called). The House on the Borderland is presented as a scavenged manuscript written sometime in the early 1800s but is generally devoid of quaintness. Only The Ghost Pirates is more or less contemporary, making excellent use of Hodgson’s years as a sailor to capture the talk of ordinary uneducated people as well as the more literate narrator.

[3] Similarly, some have criticized Jane Austin for focusing in her novels upon whom her heroine will spend the rest of her life with rather than, say, the Napoleonic Wars that raged at the time her books were written and published (and which Austin was well aware of since several of her brothers served in the conflicts). For a work in which the love-interest, while present, is firmly kept off center stage and in the background, see Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, especially the section of Appendix A called “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen.” Tolkien’s point is the opposite of Hodgson’s, that sometimes quiet virtues like friendship, decency, or a simple sense of duty can motivate greatness.

[4] Lewis and Lovecraft also both expressed distaste over Hodgson’s archaic diction, with CSL calling it “a foolish and flat archaism of style” and HPL “painful verboseness, repetitiousness,. . . an attempt at archaic language” he found “grotesque and absurd”. That Lovecraft, with his own bizarre idiosyncratic vocabulary (including “eldritch,” “squamous,” and “rugose,” to name only a few, occasionally with New England rural dialect and 18th century orthography thrown in), should criticize another writer’s style is simply an example of how tastes differ. Some writers prefer a bluff plainstyle such as Lewis typically employed, while others craft a more ornate style tailored for a more individualized flavor (e.g. Dunsany and Morris). Both approaches can be extremely effective; insisting all writers subscribe to one or the other is simply foolish.

[5] Which is not to say the book is perfect by any means. Those two chapters where Hodgson describes the sexual politics of ninety-plus years ago and the petty struggles for dominance between the lovers once they are united (Chapters One and Thirteen) in particular has not aged well, and first-time readers might do well to skim through these sections on a first reading. In fact Lin Carter, despite otherwise being a Hodgson fan, disliked this part of the story so deeply that in his two-volume edition of the book for Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series (1972) he deleted most of Chapter Thirteen, thus creating essentially a 500-page abridgment of a 550-page book, which is an extremely unsatisfactory solution. LC also included The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” in the AFS (1971), wisely choosing Hodgson’s two best novels for his series.

[6] The Dream of X was reprinted by Donald Grant publishing in 1977 in a handsome slim edition very effectively illustrated by Stephen Fabian. This edition is unfortunately long out of print but well worth tracking down, and you may find it readily available through online used book searches (e.g., for little more than the original cover price. A new edition has been announced as forthcoming from Night Shade Books as part of volume five of their Collected Fiction of Wm Hope Hodgson project, the first volume of which is due later in 2003.


  1. Gwern says:

    Sounds like quite a read.

    /starts at

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