Wednesday, September 24, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
I am not a great fan of science fiction, fantasy or horror stories, except for Ray Bradbury, and C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy; however, I did stumble across a horror/fantasy novel some time ago that I found vastly entertaining.
The House on the Borderland, first published in 1908, was written by British author William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson led an interesting and varied, but relatively short life (he was killed during WWI at the age of 40), and became a writer primarily from economic necessity. He authored a number of stories about the sea, many based on his experiences as a sailor, but eventually found his real niche as a highly original and imaginative writer of strange tales (according to the article linked above, he was an important influence on H.P. Lovecraft).
Borderland is considered to be a classic among fantasy stories, and I can easily understand why. The action in the novel is not strictly “linear”, but rather, a series of more or less "free-standing" episodes linked together in a curious manuscript discovered in the ruins of an old house by two men on a fishing trip. The setting is an eerie wasteland in Ireland, and there is, throughout the novel, the running theme of a veil that generally, and mercifully, but not always, closes us off from the knowledge of another, and more savage, reality.
The narrator describes the environs of the country, which his friend Tonnison had come across on a previous walking tour, and which has prompted the two to take a vacation in the area in order to have a go at fishing in the local river. From the outset, there is an undertone of vague menace, due, in part, to the sheer remoteness of the place:
“Right away in the west of Ireland lies a tiny hamlet called Kraighten. It is situated, alone, at the base of a low hill. Far around there spreads a waste of bleak and totally inhospitable country, where, here and there at great intervals, one may come upon the ruins of some long desolate cottage – unthatched and stark. The whole land is bare and unpeopled, the very earth scarcely covering the rock that lies beneath it, and with which the country abounds, in places rising out of the soil in wave-shaped ridges…I have said that the river is without name; I may add that no map that I have hitherto consulted has shown either village or stream…”
The two men follow the river downstream one day, and find that it disappears into the ground. Scouting about they find that the river reemerges farther on into a huge chasm, and that on the far side stands an old ruin. They eventually find a way to the place, and discover a moldering diary half buried under loose rock. The balance of the novel is concerned with the contents of that diary, and of the horrible events described therein by the original owner of the house that once stood alone in this desolate country, and that is now hardly more than a crumbling wall and a mound of rubble.
The author of the diary recounts a descent into a living hell of supposed nightmares that turn out to be true, of demons from a great pit, of a vision of the death of the world (strikingly imagined), and of the final deadly encounter with a thing only heard, not seen.
It is a strange, but mesmerizing, novel, and there is imagery here that I still recall as clearly as if I had read the book only yesterday, though it has easily been ten years since, in my mind’s eye, I have stood at the edge of the chasm with the two fishermen, looking through the fine mist of the roaring cataract at the ruins of the house on the borderland.