|Author||William Hope Hodgson|
|Genre||Fantasy, horror, science fiction|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
The Night Land is a horror/fantasy novel by English writer William Hope Hodgson, first published in 1912. As a work of fantasy it belongs to the Dying Earth subgenre. Hodgson also published a much shorter version of the novel, entitled The Dream of X (1912).
H. P. Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" describes the novel as "one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written". Clark Ashton Smith wrote of it that "In all literature, there are few works so sheerly remarkable, so purely creative, as The Night Land. Whatever faults this book may possess, however inordinate its length may seem, it impresses the reader as being the ultimate saga of a perishing cosmos, the last epic of a world beleaguered by eternal night and by the unvisageable spawn of darkness. Only a great poet could have conceived and written this story; and it is perhaps not illegitimate to wonder how much of actual prophecy may have been mingled with the poesy."
When the book was written, the nature of the energy source that powers stars was not known: Lord Kelvin had published calculations based on the hypothesis that the energy came from the gravitational collapse of the gas cloud that had formed the sun and found that this mechanism gave the Sun a lifetime of only a few tens of million of years. Starting from this premise, Hodgson wrote a novel describing a time, millions of years in the future, when the Sun has gone dark.
The beginning of the book establishes the framework in which a 17th-century gentleman, mourning the death of his beloved, Lady Mirdath, is given a vision of a far-distant future where their souls will be re-united, and sees the world of that time through the eyes of a future incarnation. The language and style used are intended to resemble that of the 17th century, though the prose has features characteristic of no period whatsoever: the almost-complete lack of dialogue and proper names, for example. Critic Ian Bell has suggested that John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost" (1667) is probably a partial literary inspiration for Hodgson's novel, especially due to the hellish visions of sombre intensity which mark both works, and other similarities including the use of massive structures (the Temple of Pandemonium in Milton and the Last Redoubt in The Night Land).
Once into the book, the 17th century framing is mostly inconsequential. Instead, the story focuses on the future. The Sun has gone out and the Earth is lit only by the glow of residual vulcanism. The last few millions of the human race are gathered together in a gigantic metal pyramid, nearly eight miles high - the Last Redoubt, under siege from unknown forces and Powers outside in the dark. These are held back by a shield known as the "air clog", powered from a subterranean energy source called the "Earth Current". For millennia, vast living shapes--the Watchers--have waited in the darkness near the pyramid. It is thought they are waiting for the inevitable time when the Circle's power finally weakens and dies. Other living things have been seen in the darkness beyond, some of unknown origins, and others that may once have been human.
To leave the protection of the Circle means almost certain death, or worse an ultimate destruction of the soul. As the story commences, the narrator establishes mind contact with an inhabitant of another, forgotten Lesser Redoubt. First one expedition sets off to succour the inhabitants of the Lesser Redoubt, whose own Earth Current has been exhausted, only to meet with disaster. After that, the narrator sets off alone into the darkness to find the girl he has made contact with, knowing now that she is the reincarnation of his past love.
At the conclusion of the adventure, the narrative does not return to the framework story, instead ending with the homecoming of the couple and his inauguration into the ranks of their most honoured heroes.
The term "Abhuman" was used by Hodgson in The Night Land to name (apparently) several different species of intelligent beings evolved from humans who interbred with alien species or adapted to changed environmental conditions and were seen as decayed or malign by those living inside the Last Redoubt, who preserved artificially (to an unspecified extent) their human characteristics, though they were not fit for the new environmental conditions.
The abridged version of the novel was first published in the United States in 1912 in chapbook form as Poems and a Dream of X (New York: R. H. Paget, 1912), in an extremely limited print run. In this edition, the 200,000-word novel was condensed to a 20,000-word novelette, originally for the purpose of establishing copyright; also included was a novelette entitled Mutiny, an abridged version of the story "'Prentices' Mutiny," and thirteen of Hodgson's poems, which were later included in his other posthumously published books of poetry. The abridgement by itself was republished in a limited edition in 1977, with an introduction by Sam Moskowitz and color illustrations by Stephen Fabian, under the title The Dream of X (West Kingston, R.I.: Donald M. Grant, 1977).
While the entire human population seems to have some capacity for telepathic communication (in the book called "The Night Hearing"), the main character has unusually strong abilities and is capable of communicating with his lost love using his "brain-elements." This seems to indicate a specialised organ in the brain, perhaps evolved or genetically engineered, or perhaps some kind of implant. Hodgson also introduces a kind of authentication known as the "master word." This is reminiscent of a modern public-key cryptography; humans can apparently generate a correct response, while the non-human monsters who attempt to lead them astray by intercepting and forging telepathic communications can't do so.
Hodgson's hero sets out into the Night Land carrying lightweight food tablets and a sealed tube full of "water-powder." When a small quantity of this powder is exposed to air, it rapidly condenses moisture and produces drinkable water. While lightweight dehydrated foods exist, water-powder is scientifically implausible (though see deliquescence), but together these serve to explain how the hero can carry enough food and drink to survive his journey in the inhospitable Night Land.
The diskos is a weapon featuring a razor-sharp spinning disk on a retractable handle. When activated the disk glows and shoots out sparks. This invention may have been inspired by a hand-held children's toy that shoots sparks when a button is pressed to start a small spinning disk. It is also indicated that the diskos develops a special affinity for its owner during training and should not be handled by anyone else. Each diskos is powered from an initial charge taken from the Earth Current. When its owner dies, the Diskos and its charge are returned to the Earth Current.
The Last Redoubt is a mountain-sized building described to contain millions of people and feature vast farmlands underground, powered by the mysterious "earth-current." The upper levels of the redoubt are at so high an altitude that they must be pressurized, and the residents have developed enlarged lung capacity. Each level of the Pyramid contains a great city so that there are, in total, "one thousand, three hundred and twenty cities of the Pyramid."
Hodgson's hero describes the Redoubt in Chapter 2:
And when the humans had built the great Pyramid, it had one thousand three hundred and twenty floors; and the thickness of each floor was according to the strength of its need. And the whole height of this pyramid exceeded seven miles, by near a mile, and above it was a tower from which the Watchmen looked (these being called the Monstruwacans). But where the Redoubt was built, I know not; save that I believe in a mighty valley, of which I may tell more in due time.
Additionally Hodgson's narrator describes the base of the Redoubt stretching "five and one-quarter miles every way."
Directly beneath the Redoubt, "an hundred miles deep in the earth below the Redoubt" lay the Underground Fields:
And of the Underground Fields (though in that age we called them no more than "The Fields") I should set down a little; for they were the mightiest work of this world; so that even the Last Redoubt was but a small thing beside them. An hundred miles deep lay the lowest of the Underground Fields, and was an hundred miles from side to side, every way; and above it there were three hundred and six fields, each one less in area than that beneath; and in this wise they tapered, until the topmost field which lay direct beneath the lowermost floor of the Great Redoubt, was but four miles every way.
The fields are "sheathed-in at the sides with the grey metal of which the Redoubt was built", the grey metal may also lie beneath the soil of each field, acting as a subfloor through which "the monsters could not dig into that mighty garden from without". Each field is upheld by pillars and lit by the Earth-Current. The Earth-Current also runs through the soil of the fields supplying the plants and trees with the nutrition necessary to support life far beneath the Pyramid.
The dirt and rock excavated during the making of the Fields was dumped into the bottomless "Crack" from which the Pyramid draws the Earth-Current. The narrator supposes that the Fields have their own air system that is not connected with the "monster air-shafts of the Pyramid", but cannot verify this due to the immensity of the Redoubt and the knowledge lost during the years since its construction. The narrator recounts fields of corn, grain and poppies growing in the vast chambers beneath the Redoubt.
Near the end of the novel (chapter XIV), after talking about the Underground Fields, Hodgson wrote about hidden conduits bringing water from distant seas. Those conduits "did be mighty underground pipes that went across the Night Land, and did be, mayhap, oft so much as twenty great miles deep in the world, and did come upward into the seas of the Land; and all to have been made secret and hid from the monsters of the Land, as I to know from much reading of the Histories."
The majority of The Night Land is devoted to the hero's quest to find a Lesser Redoubt in which he believes his reincarnated long-lost love awaits him. This second Redoubt was built sometime after the completion of the original by a large group of humans who wandered the land "who had grown weary of wandering, and weary of the danger of night attacks by the tribes of half-human monsters which began to inhabit the earth even so early as the days when the half-gloom was upon the world." This second Redoubt was originally built on the far shore of a sea that has disappeared by the narrator's lifetime. The Lesser Redoubt is a three-sided Pyramid, smaller than the original standing at little more than a mile in height and only three-quarters of a mile along the bases. The architect of the Lesser Redoubt was a man who had once lived in the Great Redoubt, but who had been punished for disturbing the order of the Redoubt with his "spirit of irresponsibility" by those in the lowest city of the great Pyramid.
The Lesser Redoubt was built in a "great valley" leading from the shore where signs of the Earth-Current were detected. After a time, however, the Earth-Current began to wane and no greater source for the Current could be discovered despite thousands of years of searching. Eventually communications between the two Redoubts ceased as the Lesser no longer had the power to transmit messages; during this time humans still struggled to live within the Lesser Redoubt, despite their failing powers and resources.
"And thereafter came a million years, maybe, of silence; with ever the birthing and marrying and dying of those lonesome humans. And they grew less; and some put this to the lack of the Earth-Current, which dwindled slowly through the centuries of that Eternity."
Greg Bear's short story, "The Way of All Ghosts", dedicated to William Hope Hodgson, is set in the Way, the artificial space-time structure featured in several of Bear's novels, beginning with Eon (1985). A recurring character from these novels, Ser Olmy, is given a mission to investigate an experiment which had gone horribly wrong. The experimenters had attempted to open a gate into a universe of pure order, and the survivors find themselves trapped in a region of the Way that has transformed to a chaotic state resembling the Night Land.
Another work of Greg Bear's, City at the End of Time (2008), shares a number of plot elements with The Night Land and contains a specific reference to the Last Redoubt, giving William Hope Hodgson himself a cameo role in the story line.
The short-fiction collections William Hope Hodgson's Night Lands: Eternal Love (2003) and William Hope Hodgson's Night Lands: Nightmares of the Fall (2007) contain short stories set in a universe combining The Night Land with The House on the Borderland. A third collection (to be titled The Days of Darkening) was still in progress as of 2008 . The first collection was nominated for a British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology by the British Fantasy Society in 2004.
John Stoddard's novel, The Night Land, A Story Retold (2011) is a retelling of The Night Land, intended for modern readers who may be unwilling to read the archaic language of the original. While retaining the story of The Night Land, it departs from the original by naming the main character, adding brief scenes, and using dialogue (the original version had none). An early draft of the second chapter of Stoddard's rewrite appears in William Hope Hodgson's Night Lands: Eternal Love.