Monday, February 06, 2006

Gothic Psychedelia: The House on the Borderland

I finished the second book on my handpicked list about a week ago. This was William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. And I realised why, in spite of the travesty that was The Night Land, Hodgson was consistently ranked one of the best Golden Age science fiction writers.

The tale begins quite slowly, with the engaging account of two Englishmen visiting Ireland, with the sole intention of occupying themselves with fishing and camping. In their quest to find the perfect place to set up camp, they come across a village whose inhabitants do not speak English. Camping next to the village, they find a strange castle-like building in ruins. And thus the scene is set, for a classic Gothic tale.

Pure Gothic horror has always had its steadfast adherents and worshippers; I count myself among them. The macabre goosebumpy feeling that one gets upon mentally picturing an abandoned house, with furniture creaking softly in the light, and a gibbous moon hanging across the striated cloud-filled sky, is one which is unparalleled. Wuthering Heights, Kidnapped, Frankenstein - the monopoly for Gothic tales has always been tightly clasped by the classics. This book surely deserves to be ranked along with the best of this genre.

STYLE: The book, thankfully enough, is written in a style reminiscent of the masters of literature, without any specific harnessing of form peculiar to read and impossible to digest. It was an easy read throughout.

DEVICES: Present in this book are the classic elements of Gothic horror. To begin with, we have the recently discovered manuscript, written by some recluse/initiate with access to deep secrets of the cosmos. The recluse (for such is the term employed by Hodgson) writes calmly and clinically, though the subject matter of his journal is anything but, as the reader discovers soon enough.
We find next the abandoned house, in the middle of dense foliage and overgrown gardens. A sense of dull fear shimmers through the pages which describe the house and its surroundings, and one can almost hear the quite-close sniff of a hidden pursuing 'beast'. The abandoned house is one of the stock images of Gothic horror, one found in nearly every book belonging to this genre, and the diligent reader would discover a wry reference to this fact by the author himself, as is shown in the following passage:

Reaching the ruin, we clambered 'round it cautiously, and, on the further side, came upon a mass of fallen stones and rubble. The ruin itself seemed to me, as I proceeded now to examine it minutely, to be a portion of the outer wall of some prodigious structure, it was so thick and substantially built; yet what it was doing in such a position I could by no means conjecture. Where was the rest of the house, or castle, or whatever there had been?

I went back to the outer side of the wall, and thence to the edge of the chasm, leaving Tonnison rooting systematically among the heap of stones and rubbish on the outer side. Then I commenced to examine the surface of the ground, near the edge of the abyss, to see whether there were not left other remnants of the building to which the fragment of ruin evidently belonged. But though I scrutinized the earth with the greatest care, I could see no signs of anything to show that there had ever been a building erected on the spot, and I grew more puzzled than ever.

One can almost imagine Hodgson chuckling to himself as he places the house in his fictional Ireland, at a place where no building had ever been erected before.

The other piece of the Gothic puzzle that falls into place with ease is the appearance of the Other; in the case of this book, this is in the form of alien gods, mysterious spirits and implacable pit-demons. The abyss which forms the central theme of the book keeps reminding us of the limitless depths of darkness to which the human form and psyche can descend.

NARRATIVE: Psychedelia. There is no other word to describe the book. Hodgson was, if nothing else, one of the greatest hippies never to have been a part of the Swingin' Sixties. The loss is keenly felt, for, as one goes through the book, the feeling invariably arises as to how close the visual metaphors are to the mind-expanding reality-de(re)constructing pharmaceutical-induced visions that PKD and members of his ilk explained to us so breathlessly. For, in major portions of this book, the author describes journeys of the recluse into distant realms of space and time, of the death of stars and the whirling away of the Earth into infinity, of magically towering images of ancient pagan Gods and buildings of quartz. Read this book for its mystic descriptions of the passage of time alone; it's worth the effort.

PLUS POINTS: Plenty. In fact, but for the decisive but unsatisfying ending which left a slightly disappointed feel for the text, the rest of the book was a study in rigorous construction of classic horror, while also being the very picture of modern fantasy.

BOTTOMLINE: A beautiful book, one worth treasuring for a long time. It surely deserves an easily accessible place in the huge canon of the world's classic works of literature.

I have started reading, and am mid-way into, the next book on the list.

1 comment:

chaitanya said...

hi, would've liked to have known you better too, so keep commenting :), anyway check out poe's "the raven" if you haven't.