This book, written in 1912 by William Hope Hodgson is an imaginative tour-de-force, filled with spectacular imagery and grotesque monsters. It’s an epic story that riffs off the Orpheus myths; about a man going entering the underworld to rescue the woman he loves.
Unfortunately, the story is also gratingly written, with large info-dumps, dull meticulous travel details, and a nauseating love story that made me want to pull my teeth out. It’s told in a sort of faux-17th century style that is dull and repetitious. I much preferred the style of the other Hodgson novel I read, ‘The House on the Borderlands’.
In the Night Land, our protagonist in the framing story romances his lover, Lady Mirdath. She dies tragically in childbirth, but luckily, our protagonist is able to dream of the far future, where both he and Mirdath are luckily reincarnated. So while he’s in the past, he’s aware of his future self, and interestingly, in the future flash-forward, the future incarnation can remember the past or current incarnation.
In this future, the sun has died, and all of humanity’s remnants huddles in the Last Redoubt, a giant pyramid that is besieged by strange creatures called the Watchers; gigantic,unknowable creatures or monsters that are moving towards the Last Redoubt at a glacial pace. They reminded me of the Colossuses in ‘Shadow of the Colossus’:
A million years gone, as I have told, came it [the Watcher] out from the blackness of the South, and grew steadily nearer through twenty thousand years; but so slow that in no one year could a man perceive that it had moved.
Beside the Watchers there are “…grotesque and horrible Creatures, which now beset the humans of this world. And where there was no power to take on material form, there had been allowed to certain dreadful Forces to have power to affect the life of the human spirit.” These monsters include the Silent Ones, Giants and Night Hounds, Ab-humans and bestial humans, which inhabit evocative locations in the Night Land like the ‘The Place Where The Silent Ones Kill’, ‘The Lights of the Quiet City’ and ‘The Plain of Blue Fire’.
Humanity’s last millions live in the Last Redoubt, a pyramid mega-city, with a culture that reminds me of something you’d encounter on a 1970s Doctor Who episode. There are 1, 320 cities within the pyramid. At the top is the Tower of Observation, which looks upon the Night Land. The Master Monstruwacan and his scholars inhabit the Tower, and that’s where the protagonist ends up working, thanks to his telepathic gifts. In fact, the plot finally starts after several chapters of world-building when the protagonist enters a long-distance telepathic relationship with a woman who belongs to lost colony on the far side of the Night Land. And, gasp, she is the reincarnation of the Lady Mirdath! Her colony is in a bad way, as they have run out of ‘Earth Current’, the soil is bad and monster attacks are frequent. Armies set off to rescue the lost colony and fail miserably. That only leaves our protagonist to journey across the Night Land, and return with the survivors.
Aimed with a handy diskos (a weapon I kept imagining as a giant pizza cutter that glows with fire), the protagonist makes his way across the Night Land, hiding from and slaying monsters. Unfortunately, this is told in a rather tedious style; we’re told how many food tablets he eats, and how much time has past… all the time. Still, that’s quite bearable compared to the second half of the book, where our protagonist finds his girlfriend (the last survivor) and then they spend their time tediously snugging and kissing all the way back. While Naani is a competent survivor (she survived for a while in the Night Land after the rest of her people got eaten by monsters) she’s also an irritatingly happy, flirty, gigglesome love interest and the protagonist’s reaction isn’t that much better; in fact it reads a bit like a proto-Gor novel at some points.
And she made protest that she should truly walk; for that I was all a-weary, and she come to her strength again. And, indeed, I carried her a certain way, and did then put her down to her feet; and truly her knees did so tremble that she had not stood, let be to walk! And I caught her up again; and I kist her, and I told her that I did be surely her Master, in verity, and she mine own Baby-Slave. And truly you shall not laugh upon me; for I was so human as any; and a man doth talk this way with his maid.
Anyway, after much monster killing, snuggling, whipping and survivalness, the protagonist and his heroine return to the Last Redoubt in true epic, metal style. Tailed by monsters, our protagonists are saved when the Last Redoubt folk turn on an ancient superweapon and laser the monsters chasing them to death. Tragically (actually, I cheered a bit) Naani dies on the way back, and there’s this brilliant scene:
And I came in through the Great Gateway, and the Full Watch did stand there silent in their armour; and they made the Salute of Honour. And I went onward with the dead Maid that I did bring out of Eternity.
Unfortunately, this was ruined later on when Naani comes back to life again later on through the power of love. Or something.
Anyway, I have mixed opinions about this book. I love its imagery and scope; I hate the tedious, ponderous way the story is told to me. The epic love story doesn’t work, but the ideas of this relationship spanning different incarnations is fantastic, along with the imagery revealed of previous incarnations that Naani discusses with the protagonist.
This is something I’d love to see the movie version of.