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Narrative Techniques and The Night Land


William Hope Hodgson's novel THE NIGHT LAND (1912) is "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." So says H.P. Lovecraft. Yet the power of Hodgson's novel goes beyond that conjured up by his imagination. Hodgson uses solid narrative techniques to tell his story; techniques which are worth a closer look by any writer interested in writing a gripping story.

Strip a story down to its essentials, and we end up with a definition of 'story' as 'a motivated sympathetic character attempts to solve their problem'. That's it. Yet it's a Golden Guide which practically guarantees reader's interest. Hodgson had learned this lesson well when he set out to write The Night Land. It carries the reader along despite the archaic murky style in which Hodgson chose to write the book. Regardless of how many encounters with exotic, unimaginable creatures his Hero has, The Night Land remains a page-turner.

Spoiler alert: if you haven't yet read The Night Land, I'm going to be discussing elements of the plot ... but actually it's such a simple plot that the pleasure of the work lies in other directions — so don't worry about it.

Anyway, first, you have to have a Problem in a plot. X, the protagonist in The Night Land has a biggie — the love of his life is in danger, so he's compelled to rescue her. Written in the First Person as well, this aids the reader in identifying with the Hero; he's on a rescue mission ... it's easy to cheer him on! That takes care of the 'sympathetic character' bit. What about 'motivated'? Hodgson solves this in a clever way. You see, the Girl to be rescued resides in another vast Pyramid, far away across the unimaginable dangers and terrors of The Night Land. X has been in telepathic contact with her. He's built up a relationship with her... maybe enough to risk his own life to go out and rescue her... but Hodgson cleverly ratchets up the motivation a notch by making the Girl the reincarnated Love of X's life. This adds to X's motivations, despite him never physically meeting her in their current life.

Now we come to another 'Golden Guide': Show, don't Tell. Hodgson executes this brilliantly when it comes to describing the horrors of The Night Land. Before X ventures outside himself, we do get, at first, a description of the lands around the Great Pyramid. This is a quick, economical way of putting the reader into such an unfamiliar place. But Hodgson doesn't stop there. He then shows us what happens when others first venture outside their refuge. Five hundred men set out on a rescue mission first. Their fate, described in graphic detail, is a visceral, emotional experience. By the time X, on his own, ventures outside, the tension for the reader is palpable.

Next we come to 'character attempts to solve the problem'. This makes up the main body of the novel; essentially X's physical and mental struggles against his foes in The Night Land. Although it's an important part of any story, I can't stress enough how crucial the groundwork must be laid before the part is read, otherwise any story becomes 'so what?'. Lots of flashy action can take place before a reader's eyes ... this may dazzle momentarily, but unless the reader has an emotional stake in the outcome, the story becomes unengaging.

An incident takes place at the end of the book which demonstrates how to end a story perfectly. You have to do more than show the character solving, or failing to solve, the problem. Don't forget the reader! The reader has to know that the story is over. Something has to happen in the story to tell the reader this; the oldest version is "and they all lived happily ever after." That's fine, but you can't do that every time ... readers like subtlety now and then! The Night Land ends with X being shown a statue of himself commemorating his great adventure. After this, we know that no more will happen to him. It is truly ...

The End


From Nigel Atkinson:

Nigel Brown’s definition of a story as ‘a motivated, sympathetic character attempting to solve a problem’ is, to an extent, an evocation of the ‘hero’s journey’ model of story structure. This is a highly valid analysis but, as I will suggest later, other models are possible.

The concept of the ‘hero’s journey’ arose from the writings of Joseph Campbell, in particular his 1998 book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. In many aspects, the ‘hero’s journey’ resembles a traditional ‘rite of passage’, when an initiate is taken from his familiar world (literally in X’s case), and thrust into a new, unfamiliar world, where he (or she) must acquire new skills and often a more balanced worldview. On returning home, the hero will find that his fellows view him in a different light and appreciate his new maturity.

The ‘hero’s journey’ is often broken down into eight sub-stages covering various aspects of his transformation. There is no need to go into them here, but for anyone interested, I would recommend these web sites:

[These links have since broken. — KC.]

Since Campbell’s book was published, his ideas were seized upon gleefully by the academic community, who applied the model widely to many forms of literature. It is easy to see how the concepts apply to epics such as The Iliad, but the model has also been applied to everything from Wuthering Heights to Zadie Smith.

The Night Land fits the ‘hero’s journey’ model pretty well: X is called to The Night Land, and is mentored by the Master Monstruwacan, until he is ready to cross the threshold into the unknown (both aspects of the ‘separation from the known’). As part of his ‘initiation and transformation’ he faces many challenges, revealing strengths that he did not known he had. Ultimately, he returns to the Great Redoubt, bearing a great gift for his people (another archetype of the model). I would argue that the gift here is two-fold: X is seen as a great hero who offers hope to his people — but he also brings Naani with him — who may be the greater gift. In my opinion her journey, though not covered in great depth in the book, is the more ‘heroic’ one. Ill-equipped, naked even, and untrained in combat, she survived for several weeks, growing considerably as a person (although, from a modern perspective, her submissive behaviour seems the opposite of maturity). On the other hand, it is difficult to see much character growth in X!

Though widely used, the ‘hero’s journey’ is not the only tool available to view stories. Orson Scott Card in his 1988 book Characters and Viewpoints suggests analysing stories based on what he calls ‘The MICE quotient’ (see also his Hattrack River website at: MICE stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Environment, and presents a more rounded view of storytelling. Of course, no story consists of just one these elements. Most are an amalgam of Card’s four modes of storytelling.

The Night Land, in my opinion, falls best into the Milieu mode. Here the environment can be regarded as a ‘character’ in the story. The point as Card puts it, is not to explore the soul of a character, or tell a thrilling story but to explore a world different from ours. To be sure, The Night Land tells a thrilling story, but it is a story, which, if translated to a different, but equally threatening milieu — a World War One battlefield, for example — would lose much of its potency. In this model, characterisation is not emphasised. For example, there is some character work in The Lord of the Rings, especially with Frodo, but most characters are archetypes. Indeed, the two people who are arguably most imperilled and see most of Middle Earth are Merry and Pippin — and they are almost impossible to tell apart.

The Idea mode emphasises problem solving. Detective stories are the classic example here — a body is found, and the rest of the story is devoted to finding whodunit and why. The Night Land doesn’t fit well with this mode. X has problems to solve, but uses no great intellectual or inspiration leaps to achieve his goals.

The third mode, Character, is the one that dominates modern ‘literature’. Here characterisation is everything; a story might recall the most dreary, insignificant microcosm of a life providing the character is well drawn and shows some development. There is, frankly, little characterisation in The Night Land and, as noted earlier, of the three people we meet (X, the Master Monstruwacan, and Naani) only Naani shows any character growth. Were it written today, The Night Land would probably not be in line for a Booker or Whitbread award. But since writers, such as Peter F. Hamilton, who are capable of creating great characters in epic frameworks, are never considered either, William Hope-Hodgson would be in good company.

Cancelling ‘rant mode’, I will move on to Card’s final classification — the Event story — where the story turns on some event, great or small. This might be the outbreak of a war, a murder, or a great love affair. The point of an Event story is to discover whether the protagonist succeeds, or fails, in the goal the event defines for him. This type of story seems to have the most overlap with the other models, and it is easy to see elements of it in The Night Land. I would suggest that the trigger event here is the fall of the Lesser Redoubt, without which X and Naani’s ‘meeting of minds’ would be less considerably urgent. Although the story is told by X, and from his point of view, it is ultimately about the rescue of Naani.

Speaking of POV, Nigel Brown stresses the importance of the story being told from X’s perspective. As Nigel suggests, this does help the reader identify strongly with the protagonist, although it does beg the question of just how reliable a narrator X is. This is partially answered at the end with the raising of the statue to commemorate his great deeds (where is Naani’s statue?), but the modern reader is bound to wonder whether his relationship with Naani follows the path he describes.

I would suggest that first person narration also helps in maintaining the mystery in The Night Land. The alternative is third person, where a narrator who is divorced from the action tells the story. This is the ‘standard model’ for modern story-writing and is widely recommended to new writers (although the first person model seems to be alive and kicking in short genre fiction!). The most important question a writer has to ask with third person narration is ‘how much should I tell the reader?’ Put another way: how omniscient is the narrator? Some authors explain everything and provide insights into every major character’s motivations (Frank Herbert’s Dune is an example). Modern writers prefer the limited omniscience model. Typically, the actions and thoughts of a single character form the basis of the story, although POV may change from chapter to chapter.

Normally, the narrator knows only as much as the viewpoint character. This leaves the writer the technical problem of to how explain the world to the reader — the viewpoint character lives in it so doesn’t need to be told which button to press to fire up his Diskos. Typically this is done either in conversation with a naïve character who needs the world explained, or in straightforward narrative inclusions (aka dumps!). The first option is out of the question in The Night Land — X is on his own. The second, I would suggest, would remove the mystery of The Night Land — the Watchers are all the more troubling because neither X nor we know anything about their history or motivation. William Hope Hodgson’s worldview is remarkably consistent, but it is one that would be diminished by over-explanation, and this perhaps is the great conundrum facing modern writers tackling his masterpiece.

Essay © 2002 by Nigel Brown.
This essay first appeared in Scheherazade magazine.