The Word Current
An Apology for the Linguistic Architecture of The Night Land
What can be said in defence of Hodgson's style?
The diction and linguistic techniques employed by William Hope Hodgson in writing the Night Land have been much criticised even by such luminaries as H. P. Lovecraft, who states the narrative is "told in a rather clumsy fashion". Lovecraft pulls no punches, condemning the novel as "seriously marred by painful verboseness, repetitiousness ... and an attempt at archaic language ... grotesque and absurd."
Just as Night Land Virgins are advised to skip Chapter One (see my essay 'In Defence of Chapter 1' on this site), they have to adapt their reading to the particular writing style of The Night Land. The fact that so many have overcome this seeming barrier, to appreciate the story and imagination of the novel — to quote Lovecraft again, "it is yet one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written" — proves the power of Hodgson's work.
Yet we must ask the question: should the much-maligned style of The Night Land be dismissed so readily?
In order to answer this, a closer analysis of The Night Land writing style must be undertaken.
Nothing in literature occurs without a reason, and so we must first take a peek behind the magician's curtain and attempt to reconstruct Hodgson's thinking when he decided to express his vision of the far future in this particular style.
The clues lie within the diction and prose constructs of the novel itself, particularly the use of the word 'diskos', and the repetition of sentence construction 'And ... And ... And ...'.
One element points to Classical Greek influence, the other to that of Hebraic Biblical literature.
Taking the Greek element first, the basic plot of The Night Land is that of an individual on an heroic romantic quest. Hodgson's Hero is a classical Homeric Hero — a man of strength and courage who sets out to fight and defeat many monsters. Indeed, if we were to set the adventures of X in a Classical Grecian Underworld, like the final labour of Hercules in Hades, the similarities would be apparent.
The Greeks venerated their heroes as they did their ancestors — X, in The Night Land, is a hero of his time, but is also recognised as the living reincarnation of a man from the distant past by the inhabitants of the Great Pyramid. His status as 'ancestor returned' is accepted by them without much question or ridicule — further indication that X is an Homeric Hero of the first order.
His weapon is called a Diskos. This word is derived from the Greek. The substitution of 'k' for 'c' in 'disk' points the way to a Greek form. The 'Disk/Disc' part of the word describes the shape of the spinning weapon; the '-os' ending is a Greek masculine nominative case, corresponding to the '-us' ending in the Latin. The masculine ending of the name makes sense as the diskos weapon would only be used by men venturing out into the Nightland, women being forbidden to exit the Great Pyramid (although Hodgson states that all healthy men and women possessed this weapon, and were trained in it from childhood).
Other Grecian elements in the tale of X include the manner in which he leaves the Great Pyramid on his quest — he is saluted by the two thousand of the Full Watch — a Hero setting forth, not sneaking out into the Night Land like a criminal, but holding his head high, saluted by his peers. The outcome at the end of the novel also has a Classical Greek flavour when his heroic adventures are given the highest accolade by the inhabitants of the Great Pyramid — he is immortalized as a statue in the Hall of Honour.
The inhabitants of the Night Land also bear up well when compared to the Classical Greek tale. If we substitute Hodgson's 'Forces of Darkness' and 'other Forces out to do battle with the Terror' for the capricious gods of Homer, and consider the Monsters, Giants and Beasts featured in the two literatures, the similarities of form (if not detail) become clear.
But if the content of The Night Land is infused with Classical Greek influence, the manner in which it is written is not.
The influence of Hebraic Biblical literature is apparent in The Night Land by the particular prose construction with which Hodgson chose to style his novel.
What do we mean by 'prose constuction'? An examination of the King James version of the Bible reveals a striking element: the use of a verse form to tell a prose narrative.
The Bible, and here we mean Genesis to Deuteronomy, is laid out in chapters consisting of a series of numbered verses. Each verse is often a long sentence, with its parts joined by semi-colons — the same form which Hodgson often follows within the paragraphs of the Nightland.
The verses often begin with the conjunction 'And'. One of the 'rules' of English grammar taught currently in schools is a pedantic prohibition of this use of the word 'And', despite its use in this way for many centuries. This explains its appearance at the beginning of many paragraphs in the King James Bible, and why its position there seems so odd to the 21st century reader. Yet Hodgson uses it again and again throughout The Night Land. His intention,therefore, was to imitate the linguistic landscape of the King James Bible as much as possible, creating a biblical atmosphere through which his 'Greek Hero' would move.
Further indications that this was Hodgson's intention are found near the beginning of Chapter Two: 'And yet, I do not know that I speak holy truth to say that ...' The narrator denies that his words are Holy Writ, but he does not deny the possiblity, thus opening the door wide for the reader to entertain that this as actually a Holy Writing.
Hodgson also peppers the narrative with such words as 'lo!', 'behold!', 'truly' and 'in verity'. These are a declaration of truth, the declarative voice of the prophet which reinforces the biblical tone of the book. Other phrases, such as 'she to be' and 'I did be' ring with the sound of the biblical world, not of the flavour conjured up in modern day Science Fiction or Fantasy narrative.
The techniques of biblical pastiche outlined above are especially unfamiliar to the modern reader due to the lesser acquaintance that the modern reader is likely to have with the text of the King James Bible, compared to the reader of 1912 (the year The Night Landwas first published). Nearly a century ago, many more readers would have attended Church regularly, and would have read, or listened to readings of, the King James Bible. They would have been much more familiar with the rhythms in the text, the diction used, than the 21st century reader.
Hodgson himself was the son of a curate and must have been steeped in the images and prose of the Bible throughout his formative years.
As for Hodgson's reason for employing the linguistic patina of the King James Bible, we can only speculate. It is possible that he wished to give his work the flavour of a distant time period, where momentous events occur which affect many peoples, and also individuals. It is perhaps not surprising that he chose a biblical canvas on which to paint his vision, as this would strike a strong chord within himself and his audience, resonating with the flavour required. Whether set in the distant past, or far future, the sense of time displacement for the reader remains the same.
Yet The Night Land is no mere biblical pastiche. Hodgson employs several linguistic techniques to carry his story forward, and create the powerful imagery so praised by the critics.
Linguistic foregrounding is often used throughout the novel. This is the creation of a psychological effect on the reader by various techniques, in order to make a particular word especially noticeable, or perceptually prominent.
One way this is done is by deviation from the linguistic norm. An example from the text of The Night Landincludes the description for making water: '...and the air did make an action upon that dust, as it were of chemistry...' instead of the normal syntax 'and the air acted chemically on the dust'.
Another foregrounding deviation employed is contracting words like 'looked', 'packed', stopped' into 'lookt', 'packt', 'stopt' etc. This flavours the text with the slight feel of the 17th or 18th Century, but Hodgson is careful not to take this too far, despite throwing in the occasional 'it doth occur unto me', and 'it doth be plain'.
Repetition is sometimes used at the end of paragraphs for emphasis, e.g. 'And so you shall perceive how I went' and '...as I have told.' This has the double effect of foregrounding what has been said before, as well as lending a prophetic air to the narrative (as discussed earlier).
One method of foregrounding which Hodgson does not employ is neologism, the invented word. For a tale set so far in the future, describing so many alien creatures and backgrounds, The Night Land is remarkable for its paucity of unique words. There are none, except for 'Diskos' (discussed earlier), and the term 'Monstruwacan'.
This is an interesting word, probably derived from 'Monster', to describe misshapen, malformed animals, inhumanly evil people, and huge unnatural creatures; and 'Wicca', the Old English masculine form of witchcraft or study of witchery. Thus a 'Monstruwacan' is one who engages in a study of the monstrosities which inhabit the Night Land .
Both 'diskos' and 'Monstruwacan' describe things of the Great Pyramid, not of the Night Land beyond. This is an important clue to Hodgson's thinking, because by definition those who study the Night Land monsters and the weapons of the peoples of the Great Pyramid are wholly known and understood by those therein, including the supposed Narrator of the tale.
To name something properly is to understand it, and Hodgson emphasises the unknown aspects of much beyond the Great Pyramid by never using names for anything out there — he employs descriptions only.
This has many advantages: in filling his novel with so many new concepts and creatures, Hodgson has no fear of confusing the reader with a deluge of new names to learn and remember.
Also, so much of the text of the novel has been written in the slightly archaic style of the King James Bible, with the odd 17th- or 18th-century phrase thrown in, that Descriptive Naming has the effect of simplifying the actual new elements of the tale. Indeed, even Lovecraft praises Hodgson's imagination — if the novel is inaccessible on a light reading, then the descriptions of the horrors within it are never unclear.
Another advantage of this technique of Descriptive Naming: Great Pyramid, Earth-Current, Watcher, House of Silence, The Headland From Which Strange Things Peer — is that the inhabitants themselves claim no greater knowledge of these things than the reader does. The peoples of the Great Pyramid are forced to talk of things in descriptive terms only as they do not understand them (rather like our modern science of Biology which began as desciptive taxonomy and only later advanced to molecular physiology and genetics).
Yet another advantage is that naming everything in this way creates the linguistic effect of a slight distancing for the reader. This enhances the sense of alienation to the Night Land which saturates the novel.
In summary, it appears that Hodgson intended to narrate his story of the far future using several techniques in a pioneering fusion of Greek, Hebraic and English terminologies. He did this to maximize the impact of his tale upon the reader and, whether he was successful or not, created an experimental form of writing designed to affect the reader at a psychological level deeper than that attained before in genre writing of this kind.
The linguistic architecture of The Night Land demonstrates another facet of Hodgson's genius which has hitherto been unappreciated, and can only add to the reputation of his unique vision.
From Alfred Krause
In regard to Mr. Brown's essay The Word Current, I am of two minds.
I have read the Night Land at regular intervals since 1972.
I love it and relish a periodic return to that far cold place.
In general, I am not bothered by Hodgson's prose style, the imprecision of which which preserves much of the mystery of the land.
It resembles Lovecraft's unwillingness to describe his horrors, which can make them more disquieting, as with the tittering thing in "The Horror at Red Hook" or the final horror in At the Mountains of Madness.
There is one regrettably frequent exception to this — and it occurs on almost every page.
This is the use of the preposition "to" as something approaching an imperative verb form, as in "This to be love..."
I have at least a modest acquaintance with English literature from Mallory to Samuel Johnson, but I have never encountered this usage before.
Is there something about this in the OED?
Is it simply an alternative form of "do": "This do be love..."?
Is it imperative: "Let this truly be love... "?
Is it emphatic declarative: "This truly is what love is..."?
Is it an element of seventeenth-century grammar invented by Hodgson?
This is only one of the simplest uses of "to" in the Night Land. The other archaic words and usages mentioned by Mr. Brown are a small impediment compared with this. The mind recoils, and is distracted from the immediate circumstance and any empathy with the speaker by having to pause to unravel this construction and sort among the possible explanations for the latest "to".
Eliminating the "to" usage would justify a cautiously rewritten edition of the Night Land (that and tossing a few pieces of Edwardian pillow talk).
These very limited modifications could mean a much greater success for any future edition of the book. I would welcome Mr. Brown's opinion in this matter.
Nigel Brown replies:
Thanks for your interesting comments. If you're not bothered by Hodgson's prose style, then you're an exception, even amongst readers used to rambling in the wider fields of fantasy writing. As you may have gathered from my essay, I positively enjoy the style Hodgson uses in the Night Land.
I disagree about Hodgson's use of "to" in the text. Thanks for pointing it out, though. I missed it because, I think, it didn't bother me at all, and therefore failed to stand out as something worth inclusion in the essay.
I would say that the usage of "to" that you refer to is, as you state, in the imperative form as part of Hodgson's 'King James' biblical style for this book. By this, I mean it parallels the biblical phrases "And it came TO pass", and "he said UNTO him". Hodgson's use of "to" therefore adds a patina of gravitas to the story. I wasn't distracted by this: I was carried along with it. If it doesn't work for you — fair enough. It's a fascinating point, though.
I agree that this "to" use isolates the reader a little ... empathy is harmed. I don't think this is a bad thing, however. It adds to the generally bewitching atmosphere that is part of The Night Land's appeal: we're drawn in by the dramatic tension of the story, and slightly repelled by the style. A tension is set up within us ... it's part of the uniqueness of this book.
Nevertheless, I'm grateful to see this "to" use pointed out ... thanks.
That isn't to say I cannot be critical about The Night Land as well. There are faults in the book. There must be. If I can think of any I'll let you know!
From: Sandy Petersen
Speaking as a church-going Mormon, we still use the King James Bible, and our other sacred texts, such as the Book of Mormon, are likewise written in King Jamesian style, so the style of Hodgson’s book never bothered me either. So that makes two of us.
© 2001 by Nigel Brown.