When one pictures an author of cosmic horror, the image of a sickly pale and perpetually nervous-type comes to mind. H.P. Lovecraft’s famous character, the writer of weird fiction Randolph Carter, is emblematic of this archetype. What certainly does not come to mind is a bodybuilding, shark fighting, sailor with movie-star good looks and a debonair manner. Enter William Hope Hodgson, the forgotten inventor of cosmic horror.
Today, people mistakenly credit Lovecraft as the inventor of this genre. In Michel Houellebecq’s words, the creator of the Cthulhu mythos is seen as the first author to confront the chilling fact that:
The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. (Houellebecq, 32)
But twenty years before Lovecraft fictionalized his vision of a meaningless universe in “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), William Hope Hodgson created the first true work of cosmic horror: his 1908 novel The House on the Borderland.
Here, the eponymous ‘House’ is inhabited by an unnamed old man who realizes that his new home is a trans-dimensional portal. As a result, he is unpredictably transported to the far reaches of our universe and to terrifying anti-human dimensions. Grotesque ‘Swine-Things’ described as “superhumanly foul” emerge from the dimensional rift and try to break into the House throughout the novel (Hodgson, 66). At the book’s climax, the old man witnesses the extinction of all life on Earth and the heat death of the universe through the window of his study as the House hurtles forwards in time.
Lovecraft himself named Hodgson as one of his greatest influences in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927). Awed by the forgotten author’s ability to reveal “the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details,” Lovecraft asserted that Hodgson’s work is “known today far less than it deserves to be.”
Only within the past forty years has a renewed interest in Hodgson’s impressive body of work brought to light the details of his equally impressive life. Born in Essex, England in 1877, Hodgson fostered a lifelong love of the sea. In 1891 he joined the Merchant Navy where his experiences inspired his two nautical horror novels, The Boats of ‘Glen Carrig’ (1907) and The Ghost Pirates (1909).
The sea in these works is a vast mystical surface that hides submerged horrors, a theme he would extend to the whole of the universe in The House on the Borderland. The Boats of ‘Glen Carrig’ ends in Hodgson’s fictional ‘Sargasso Sea’ or an area of the ocean choked by immovable seaweed and filled with leviathan aquatic monsters. In 1898, Hodgson received a medal from The Royal Humane Society for diving into shark infested waters to save a fellow crew member. He kept his unconscious shipmate afloat for twenty-five minutes, assumedly staving off the hungry sharks by punching them in the nose with his one free hand. This undoubtedly influenced The Boats of ‘Glen Carrig ‘ in which the protagonists are attacked by a slew of different sea beasts including: humanoid tentacled creatures, ghoulish ‘weed-men,’ and a giant blood-sucking squid.
While at sea, Hodgson also became an accomplished photographer. His photos dealt in the strange and macabre: maggots in the food given to sailors, cyclones, and the aurora borealis were among his subjects. He was the first to capture the seemingly supernatural phenomenon of ‘stalk lightning,’ in which lightning appears to rise from the sea during a storm. Unfortunately, most of Hodgson’s photographs have been lost or are in private collection, but some can be found in his incredibly titled autobiography The Luck of the Strong.
In response to the bullying that he endured as an apprentice sailor (because apparently shark fighting wasn’t enough to make you cool in the nineteenth century), Hodgson took up the sport of bodybuilding and founded a School of Physical Culture from 1901 to 1903. Here Hodgson trained the entire Blackburn Police Department in self-defense.
During these years, he also became an expert in muscular anatomy, so much so that in 1902, Hodgson accused Harry Houdini of fraud for his “anatomically impossible handcuff feat.” He offered the magician a chance to prove himself on the condition that Hodgson alone would shackle him using irons from the Blackburn Police Department. Houdini accepted the challenge though he later regretted it: Hodgson shackled the magician so tightly about the wrists that it cut of his circulation and left permanent scars.
As The Northern Daily Telegraph reported on October 25, 1902, it took Houdini three-quarters of an hour to free himself after which time he announced to the audience that “he had performed fourteen years, and had never been so brutally treated.” For the rest of his career the magician maintained that Hodgson had cheated by plugging some of the irons, but it is more likely that the author, with his acute knowledge of muscular anatomy, had actually come close to besting the famous escape artist.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Hodgson was eager to enlist. In the beginning the strongman, sailor, shark fighter, and undying patriot, was enthusiastic and unafraid. In 1915 he was commissioned to the rank of Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. But the war was not the great “game” that propagandists depicted it to be; rather, it was a cold slaughter where hordes of young men died “as cattle” in vermin-infested trenches. After three years of fighting, Hodgson compared the war to his science fiction horror masterpiece The Nightland, in a letter to his to his mother:
The sun was pretty low as I came back, and far off across that desolation, here and there they showed–just formless, squarish, cornerless masses erected by man against the infernal Storm that sweeps for ever, night and day, day and night, across that most atrocious Plain of Destruction. My God! talk about a Lost World–talk about the end of the World; talk about the ‘Night Land’–it is all here, not more than two hundred odd miles from where you sit infinitely remote. And the infinite, monstrous, dreadful pathos of the things one sees–the great shell-hole with over thirty crosses sticking in it; some just up out of the water–and the dead below them, submerged….If I live and come somehow out of this (and certainly, please God, I shall and hope to), what a book I shall write if my old ‘ability’ with the pen has not forsaken me. (Hodgson quoted in Out of the Storm: Uncollected Fantasies compiled by Donald Grant, 115)
Hodgson’s vision of a horrifying, indifferent antagonism turned out to be even closer than the thin veil separating the Borderland from human perception; it was in our world, in us, in the hot metal that sprayed from assembly line machine guns. He died at Ypres just a few months after that letter was sent.
Essential to the mounting sense of dread in all works of cosmic horror is the revelation that things are not as they appear. In this sense, William Hope Hodgson embodied his art form to the fullest extent. No diaries of his have been found, so we may never know what horrors truly lurked behind his chiseled handsome exterior. Perhaps some secrets are best left buried.
Scholarship on Hodgson is still in its infancy due to a lack of primary resources. If you would like to know more about this incredible forgotten literary figure visit this the excellent William Hope Hodgson Blog.
Hodgson, William Hope, and Sam Moskowitz. Out of the Storm: Uncollected Fantasies. West Kingston, RI: D.M. Grant, 1975. Print.
Hodgson, William Hope. The House on the Borderland … Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1976. Print.
Houellebecq, Michel, Dorna Khazeni, and Stephen King. H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, against Life. San Francisco, CA: Believer, 2005. Print.