The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

Sphere PB, art by Terry Oakes

The title alone is enough to earn Hodgson’s 1908 novel a place at the heart of any weird fiction canon. And the book’s first quarter, with its nameless narrator (known as “the Recluse” to this found-manuscript’s editor) holing himself up in a remote country house and fending off nightly attacks from noxious swine-things like a classic Doctor Who base-under-siege story, feels like the perfect set up for a weird adventure story. But then things take a ninety-degree swerve into the cosmic, visionary, and psychedelic, with a long trip through accelerated time. We see the death of our Earth and the Sun, then follow a slow, abstract path to the heart of the universe, to glimpse the truth behind “the scheme of material creation”: a pair of massive central suns, one a giant, weird green (“the abode of some vast Intelligence?”), the other utterly dark. Then back to the present and the house under siege, though not, now, by a host of fleshy-white swine-things, but one giant green glowing one, whose touch leaves a fungous infection that recalls, to my mind, the bleak and inexplicable creeping death in Lovecraft’s most coldly cosmic tale, “The Colour Out of Space”.

Ian Miller art for Panther PB

To be wrenched out of what seems like such a brilliant set up for a weird adventure novel into that rather abstract, visionary journey to the heart of the cosmos always leaves me wondering if The House on the Borderland has a single, unifying idea behind its various, brilliantly weird episodes, or is just a collection of Hodgson’s wilder imaginings. As well as the swine-things and the time journey, there’s a curtailed afterlife love story, as the Recluse has a perhaps visionary, perhaps extra-dimensional, meeting with his lost, dead love — and this is another jarring moment, because at this point it’s revealed that most of this section of the manuscript is missing. It’s almost modernistic in effect, as we experience the Recluse’s feelings of loss through having the relevant portion of the story itself missing, apart from hints and echoes.

Lovecraft loved the book (though he couldn’t help squirming at its “few touches of commonplace sentimentality”), but came to it too late for it to really be an influence. And I feel that Hodgson is far more of a gut writer than one like Lovecraft, who had a definite outlook and philosophy. (I almost wonder if the book didn’t kick off after a fevered reading of Wells’s The Time Machine, which has the same mix of beast-men (the Morlocks) and a trip to the end of time. Only, Hodgson takes things to far weirder extremes.) Still, it seems, from his author’s note at the start, that The House on the Borderland has some unifying meaning:

“The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire. And even should any fail to see, as now I see, the shadowed picture and conception of that to which one may well give the accepted titles of Heaven and Hell; yet can I promise certain thrills, merely taking the story as a story.”

The start of the novel, with its nightly assaults by semi-human swine-things, is chock full of classic Gothic imagery of the dark subconscious: a bottomless Pit, an unexplored cellar, a trapdoor opening onto unimaginable depths, an overpowering rush of water, the swine-things themselves, and the fact that they don’t seem to be seen by the Recluse’s sister, the one person with whom he lives. Plus there’s the lure of the shadow-self, and that need to stare into one’s personal Nietzschean Abyss:

“Sometimes, I have an inexplicable desire to go down to the great cellar, open the trap, and gaze into the impenetrable, spray-damp darkness. At times, the desire becomes almost overpowering, in its intensity.”

The novel feels like a wholesale reaction to all the nineteenth century’s upendings of religious certainties: Darwin’s linking of man to the animals (the swine-things), the realisation that the sun must one day die, even the germ theory of disease (in the way the dog’s eerily glowing wound infects a cut on the Recluse’s arm), plus the gradual replacement of a Christian Heaven by an astronomical cosmos of suns, planets, and nebulae.

Ace Books (1962) edition, art by Ed Emshwiller

But I think the thing that unifies Hodgson’s novel is clear in its title. This house stands on a borderland, and so it is the house, by being where it is, that unites the various weird realities it touches. Living in it, the Recluse is living between the bestial (attacks by the swine-things) and the spiritual (his visions of his dead love in her seashore afterlife); also between life and death (the gods that surround the house’s visionary twin in the Arena seem to represent “a state of life-in-death”); and between Heaven and Hell (the house has “Little curved towers and pinnacles, with outlines suggestive of leaping flames”), or hope and despair, in the way the narrator’s connection with his lost love at the Sea of Sleep, and his apprehension of the Green Sun as some sort of ultimate intelligence, are set against the swine-things, the beast-headed gods of the Plain of Silence, the Dark Sun that twins the Green Sun, and the Dark Nebula (“a very hell-fog”), which seems to contain souls trapped in agony (“A face, human in its outline; but so tortured with woe, that I stared, aghast. I had not thought there was such sorrow, as I saw there.”)

These extremes of Heaven and Hell, hope and despair, are part of a package. You can’t have one without at least risking the other. Or so the Recluse’s dead love tells him, at one point:

“Strangely, she warned me; warned me passionately against this house; begged me to leave it; but admitted, when I questioned her, that she could not have come to me, had I been elsewhere.”

William Hope Hodgson

And if it’s the house that unifies the various elements in Hodgson’s weird novel, then it’s not much of a leap to taking that house as a metaphor for the human condition. Its cellars are the outermost regions of the unconscious, whose key the narrator keeps with him at all times (though he only, at first, goes down there to store and retrieve wine, inebriation being one way into the realms of the unconscious). Below these are far vaster, perhaps limitless depths. The Recluse spends most of his time, though, in his study, a room which symbolises the intellect. It’s this room that has the weakest external door, and where the swine-things get closest to breaking in. As a final indicator that the house and the man who lives in it are one, it’s only when the Recluse’s body is invaded by the giant green swine-beast’s infection that the swine-thing(s) manage to get inside the house.

It seems to me that, though The House on the Borderland’s depiction of humankind as standing on the edge of all sorts of weird realms is undoubtedly cosmic, it’s not as despairing as Lovecraft’s cosmicism. Hodgson isn’t saying, as Lovecraft did, that humankind is utterly insignificant compared to the vastness of the cosmos, but he is saying that it’s possible, in such enormous and strange spaces, to be infinitely lonely:

“…I realised, despairingly, that the world might wander forever, through that enormous night. For a while, the unwholesome idea filled me, with a sensation of overbearing desolation; so that I could have cried like a child.”

But this could just be a depiction of the Recluse’s own particular type of Hell. He seems to have become locked in loss since the death of his loved one. He still, for instance, lives with a woman (his sister), but appears to have absolutely no emotional or intellectual connection with her (“I have made a rule never to speak to her about the strange things that happen in this great, old house”). Similarly, after his dog dies, he acquires another one, but can’t bring himself to take it into the house, even when it’s being attacked at night by the massive green swine-thing. His one physical contact with it results in his own infection.

The House on the Borderland is undoubtedly a classic of weird fiction. I still find the central time-travel section too slow-moving and abstract, and the Doctor Who fan in me would love to read a version that was only about the swine-things assailing the house at night, but perhaps it’s the unforgiving strangeness of the book’s jarring shifts in narrative direction that really encapsulate its meaning and power: we’re all of us living in houses on many strange and disquieting borderlands, and had better watch out.

The House on the Borderland is available at Project Gutenberg. The William Hope Hodgson blog contains a lot of information about the writer and his works.

What is Doctor Who?

An Adventure In Space And TimeI can’t let Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary pass without a Whovian post. For me, the highpoint has been Mark Gatiss’s excellent, and wonderfully moving, drama about William Hartnell and the beginning of the whole thing, An Adventure in Space and Time, plus the recovery of The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World. Though I wrote a while ago about Why I Like Doctor Who, I’ve been thinking that that blog entry only answers — or, perhaps, asks — half the question. I might know why I like it, but what is it, exactly, that I like? What is the thing I’m liking when I say I like Doctor Who?

Kim Newman, in his excellent little critical appraisal of the show for BFI TV Classics, offers a few nuggets. It is, he says:

“BBC-TV’s most eccentric saga, at once cosily familiar and cosmically terrifying.”

(Though I wouldn’t say it’s cosmically terrifying in the Lovecraftian sense — something else I wrote about a while back, on Lovecraftian Who. It is, however, most certainly eccentric and cosy.)

It is, he says:

“…a continually rewritten fiction…”

BFI TV Classics: Doctor Who by Kim NewmanWhich answers my own feeling that I don’t really care too much about the continuity, or world-building, aspect of the show. It doesn’t matter to me that, for instance, Atlantis gets its comeuppance in — is it three different ways? They might be alternative Atlantises in alternative time streams. I don’t care. I don’t care either that the Time Lords in The War Games seem to be different to the Time Lords in The Deadly Assassin. All I care is that there are good stories, and that each one is in done in, as a lawyer might say, a good and Doctor Who-like fashion.

So, what is a good and Doctor Who-like fashion? What is the essence of this thing called Doctor Who? Newman says:

“Boiled down to its simplest format, Doctor Who is a character actor and a police box.”

The best definition of fantasy, as a genre, comes from, I think, Brian Atterby, who says it is a “fuzzy set”. A fuzzy set is a group of things where we’re more sure of what belongs to the set than why. “Games”, for instance, is a fuzzy set. If you try to define “a game” as, say, “something with rules”, then you realise that some games don’t have rules — childhood make-believe games, for instance — or if you define it as “something done for fun”, then you realise that sports are games done by professionals, and so on. For everything you can say is a defining feature of “a game”, there will always be at least one example of something that is a game, but doesn’t have that feature, yet it shares enough other features with other games to be a game. Doctor Who is a fuzzy set, too. There have been episodes without the Doctor, and stories without the TARDIS, but they were still Doctor Who. Each story simply has to have enough Doctor Who-ish ingredients to overcome any potential non-Doctor Who-ishess, and then it can be classed as Doctor Who.

Doctor Who Weekly 1Of course, Kim Newman was writing about the TV show, and Doctor Who is so much more than that. For me, at the start, although the TV show was the focus of it all, it was such a rare event (only 26 or so episodes per year, a poor-but-perfect 25 minutes each), that other things had to make up the bulk of my Doctor Who focus. And for me, this meant the Target books and the weekly/monthly magazine (as well as an awful lot of making up stories in my head).

Without access to the TV show, you had to be a sort of archeologist, piecing together fragments of the past. Doctor Who and the Web of Fear (cover)The magazine had photos and plot summaries, the books had covers and fleshed-out stories. You married it all together in your own head. I remember, at the Brighton World Horror Convention a couple of years ago, a panel discussing people’s experience of the old black & white classic horror movies, where someone said they first learned of these old horror movies through books and magazines, where all you’d have would be the same small set of stills, and that these stills were full of such promise, it made you long to see the film. But when you got to finally see the film, the result was often a slight disappointment. My experience of much old Doctor Who has been the same. I knew those few oft-recycled stills from the old shows so well, and each new, not-seen-before photo was like a treasure. Seeing the actual shows often came as a shock — mostly, for instance, at how clumsy those fantastic-looking monsters moved (the Ice Warriors, so fearsome, noble and warrior-like in photographs, so clumsy in actual motion). Similarly, though I loved the Third Doctor’s Earth-bound adventures in the novelisations, I found him off-puttingly arrogant and short-tempered in the actual TV shows. But I wonder how much part of my experience of Doctor Who was all about that effort of reconstruction — putting together the stories with the photos, archeologically reconstructing those (as I thought) never-to-be-seen adventures of yesteryear from what remained. Being involved in Doctor Who was as much an effort of imagination as it was of passive appreciation.

Doctor Who, junkyard

I recently re-watched the first ever episode of Doctor Who — still one of its best — and realised how appropriate it is that it all starts in a junkyard. Because, if it’s anything, Doctor Who is a junkyard, a junkyard of the imagination, as much full of wonders as rubbish — and often of things that are both at the same time. Like a junkyard, one of the great charms of Doctor Who is unusual juxtaposition, the fantastic beside the familiar — Daleks trundling over Westminster Bridge, Cybermen emerging from the sewers, a hulking Krynoid charging round the grounds of some old country house, Egyptian mummies in a Victorian Gothic folly.

And, of course, junkyards are full of old things. Doctor Who is full of old things, too. And old things means nostalgia. There are, I’d say, three types of Doctor Who nostalgia. The Making of Doctor WhoThere’s the most obvious one, of revisiting the episodes I watched as a kid — and not just that, but re-experiencing the whole texture of TV back then, something that, for me, is particularly evident in something like The Brain of Morbius, with its gloomy studio feel, its flash-bang effects, and the peculiar look of the period’s video technology, that conjures up a whole aesthetic of that time. Another sort of Doctor Who nostalgia is a borrowed nostalgia that comes from learning about shows from the past that I never saw, and vicariously experiencing other people’s fondness for them — the whole quaintness of Dalekmania, for instance, or realising just how 60s the 60s shows were. But there’s a third sort of nostalgia, which is about how Doctor Who plugs you into a much larger stream of the culture as a whole. Mostly, it has to be said, this comes from the show’s own junkyard mentality, of grabbing ideas from elsewhere and trying them out — Doctor Who does Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Who does Hammer Horror, or Doctor Who does dinosaurs — but also from the way it makes use, as any long-lived, pulpy kind of story-anthology of its type can’t help but do, of all those stock characters and situations of adventure fiction, or science fiction, or British fiction — the retired colonels, the stuffy bureaucrats, the stodgily unimaginative politicians, the mad scientists, the embittered ex-soliders-turned-mercenaries, the fanatic idealists intent on reshaping the world, the dangerously eccentric millionaires, the disfigured geniuses lurking in catacombs — from the way, then, that it plugs you into a cultural nostalgia for archetypal adventure stories.

Wheetabix QuarkPresiding over this junkyard is, of course, the Doctor — I. M. Foreman from 76 Totters Lane — who lives, and travels, in a box. It may take the outward form of a Police Box, but this is, really “the box” — the telly itself — and it is through this, the medium of telefantasy, that the Doctor travels, changing time zones and planets as you might change channel, then pausing to observe them through his own TV screen. I’ve never really cared that Doctor Who’s effects haven’t been that great; I like, in fact, its very televisualness, its staginess, its sets-and-rubber-monsters-ishness, its wobbly spaceships on strings. Perhaps this is because my initial experience of what Doctor Who was came as much from those still photos and book covers, which allowed my imagination to bring the stories to life way before I got the chance to see them (again, or for the first time) on DVD. And so I know that the TV show itself can only ever be an approximation to the real thing that is Doctor Who, which is formed within my head.

So to me, Doctor Who isn’t just a TV program. It’s a whole bunch of stuff. Particularly, it’s a whole bunch of random, weird stuff shoved haphazardly together, presided over by a cantankerous and oddly changeable proprietor, who occasionally fits these cultural cast-offs and odd bits of the past together into futuristic or fantastic shapes, and puts them to strange but ingenious uses.

When I say Doctor Who is a junkyard, I really do mean it as a compliment.

Sign off with a Zygon...

Sign off with a Zygon…

Hawkwind 1970-1975

Hawkwind - Warrior on the Edge of Time2013 is a bit of a year for long-awaited reissues. First off, in March (in the UK, anyway — the US got it earlier), there was the Blue Öyster Cult’s Columbia Albums Collection, a box set that polished off the band’s back catalogue, digitally remastered and extra’d up with rarities and archive live material, meaning I could finally replace my vinyl rip of Imaginos. (Ditto for 1975’s double live album, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, whose opening riff to its second track made me take up the guitar.) And this September will hopefully see the last classic-era Doctor Who finally make it to DVD: Terror of the Zygons, also from 1975. (It feels I’ve been waiting for that one since 1975.) And last month Atomhenge brought out a hard-fought-for deluxe remaster of Hawkwind’s Warrior On The Edge Of Time… Also from 1975. It’s the kind of thing to make me want to look back at the massive output of one of my favourite bands and try to make sense of it. And, at over forty years of mostly continuous studio albums, live albums and touring, it’s not going to be done in one Mewsings post. So, for now, Hawkwind’s first major musical era: from their self-titled debut in 1970 to 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time.

Hawkwind on Stage

A note on the sleeve of their first album outlined the band’s initial intentions:

“We started out trying to freak people (trippers), now we are trying to levitate their minds, in a nice way, without acid, with ultimately a complete audio-visual thing. Using a complex of electronics, lights and environmental experiences.”

Hawkwind - HawkwindI like that “in a nice way”. Because there’s nothing nice about Hawkwind’s debut. Aside from two songs that are basically Dave Brock busking numbers Hawkwinded up (both of them about breaking out of a complacent worldview to see life for the potentially miserable thing — “it may bring war”, “the tears you’ve shed” — it is), the rest of the album is a series of frankly terrifying instrumentals, full of moans, groans, echoes and disorientatingly weird sounds. Two of them are called “Paranoia (Part 1)” and “Paranoia (Part 2)”, for Heaven’s sake. (And the theme of mental illness keeps popping up in songs of this era, from the robotised weirdness of the next album’s “Adjust Me”, to its successor’s “Brainstorm”, a B-side called “Brainbox Pollution”, and Warrior‘s “The Demented Man”. If Hawkwind really were trying to sell the psychedelic experience, they weren’t putting the best face on it.)

Hawkwind - X In Search of SpaceThe band needed something better than paranoia and despair if they wanted to present their audience with a truly immersive experience. Fortunately, “oral space-age poet” Robert Calvert had the answer. He decided the band needed a mythology, or at least a viable stash of imagery and story that could take the place of their bleak inward mental journeys of doubt, disintegration and “a world of emptiness”. The answer was science fiction. Michael Moorcock was already associated with the band. (His first impression: “They seemed like barbarians who’d got hold of a load of electrical gear.”) He provided some poetry, as did Calvert. Calvert also penned the “Hawklog”, a booklet included with the band’s second album, X In Search of Space, which told of how the technicians of Spaceship Hawkwind arrived on Earth only to be transformed into a two dimensional black platter, indistinguishable in size, shape and function from what you Earth people call a vinyl LP. Hawkwind were now a — if not the — Space Rock band, and suddenly they had a universe of dystopian nightmares to take the place of their previously merely psychotic ones.

Hawkwind - Doremi Fasol LatidoThe message remained bleak: “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago” and “Time We Left This World Today” are just two SF-tinged tales of pessimistic environmentalism. “The Watcher” was looking in on us, had found us wanting, and promised that “The last thing you will feel is fear” before avarice destroys our sphere. The tales of psychic disintegration took on a science fictional tone — “Space is Deep” taking its cue from the opening passages to Moorcock’s 1969 novel The Black Corridor, about a man getting cabin fever in the utter nullity of deep space (and which was itself read out to freaky-spacey trip-music at concerts); meanwhile “Master of the Universe” hints at how hitting the borders of madness might at least help you break out of the complacent worldview attacked in the first album (“If you call this living I must be blind”). There were bursts of optimism: in the sheer vitality of Bob Calvert’s lyrics (and their delivery) in his paean to the spaceward urge, “Born to Go”; in the defiantly solipsistic hedonism of his “Orgone Accumulator”; or in the gleeful destructiveness of his “Urban Guerrilla”; also in the rather more gentle optimism of Nik Turner’s SF-tinged flower-power dreams like “Children of the Sun” and “D-Rider”. Even Dave Brock’s shamanic “Assault & Battery/The Golden Void”, though it may make him “Lose my body, lose my mind”, at least has a message of hope:

Lives of great men all remind us
we may make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
footprints in the sands of time

(Even if it is nicked from Longfellow’s “Psalm Of Life“.)

Hawkwind enlightenment, it seems, is enlightenment through psychosis. As Brock says in “You’d Better Believe It”:

The gentle madness touched my hand
Now I’m just a cosmic man

Hawkwind - Hall of the Mountain GrillOne thing that’s notable about Hawkwind’s output in these five years — particularly when compared to the next five, which is dominated by the fierce Icarus-like individualism of Robert Calvert’s manic side — is how much the lyrics are about “we” and “us”: “Deep in our minds”, “we shall be as one”, “So that we might learn to see/The foolishness that lives in us”. Consciously tribal, Hawkwind were seeking to create a communal experience. Their trance-inducing guitar grunge and join-in chanted choruses were trying to lift everyone to the same plane — if not through the previously promised levitation, maybe through a blast of sci-fi rocket power.

Hawkwind - Space RitualThey achieved their goal of presenting the “complete audio-visual thing” in their Space Ritual tour, whose double live album (1973) is the quintessence of this era’s recorded output. By this point they weren’t just a band of musicians. They had their poets (Moorcock and Calvert), their artists (Barney Bubbles), their light show (Liquid Len), their dancers (Miss Stacia). They had their tribe. They were the Technicians of Spaceship Hawkwind, and had achieved lift-off.

At the end of their confusingly-titled 1999 Party album (recorded live in 1974, released in 1997), someone says: “You have been experiencing the imagination of Hawkwind.” A shared imaginative experience. As it says in their first recorded song, “Hurry on Sundown”:

Look into your mind’s eye, see what you can see
There’s hundreds of people like you and me

Or in the later “Brainbox Pollution”:

Take my hand, I’ll lead you on
To learn so far, my dream’s your own

Hawkwind had shared their dream. Oh, and they also released a silly one-hit wonder single called “Silver Machine”.