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Thursday, November 21, 2013

The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson

The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson

Book Review
The House on the Borderland (1908)
by William Hope Hodgson

  The question of "what is literature?" comes to the forefront in the 20th century.  The continued growth of a "popular" Audience for newspapers, magazines and novels far out paced the growth in critical/serious /academic attention to literature, especially in the area of market impact.  The critical/serious/academic community was slow to come to terms with this development.  The attitude of late 19th century/early 20th century literary critics towards "popular" literature and art is well treated in Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by Lawrence Levine.

 In literature, perhaps the earliest genre to challenge the divide was science fiction/fantasy/horror.  The Gothic tradition of horror was present at the birth of the Novel itself, and had periodic revivals between the end of the 18th and end of the 19th century: A period over one hundred years.   The earliest common example is The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, published in 1794.  Gothic/horror fiction "revived" 25 years later in the 1820s.  This period saw more well developed literary themes, typified by books by Authors like Charles Maturin (See Melmoth the Wanderer published 1820) and James Hogg (See The Private Memories and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published 1824), moved the genre of gothic/horror away from simple reoccurring motifs like "deserted castle," "ghosts in the hall" into the more serious and advanced area of literary themes like doubling.

 After the Gothic literary revival/amplification of the 1820s, Edgar Allan Poe happened.  Poe is perhaps the patron saint of genre fictions, since he straddles the horror/detective/literature divide so effectively. Poe "invented" the Detective story, though it is important to note that the full blossoming of detective fiction did not take place until a half century after his death.  In terms of horror, Poe established it as a powerful genre to use in the short story format, and as that format increasingly gained a popular audience through printed magazines and newspapers, Poe's artistic vision but increasingly be seen as prophetic.

 By the last 25 years of the 19th century, genre fiction was becoming increasingly popular AND artistically diverse, spawning several Authors who would essentially define new Genres of popular fiction.  The most significant of these is H.G. Wells.  You can certainly nit pick with the statement that Wells "invented" science fiction but in terms of a popular understanding of that word, yeah he did. Science Fiction was differentiates from prior fantasy/horror novels by the use of science and a complete withdrawal from classical/romantic /gothic tropes of description, plot and theme. Wells was not the only one inventing new popular genres, during the 1880s H. Rider Haggard wrote Adventure/fantasy cross-over novels that laid the way for what we would today call "Action-Adventure" literature.

  The 20th century would bring a virtual explosion of literature in all these areas, and in new mediums like the graphic novel/comic book, film, etc.  One early 20th century development was the evolution of supernatural horror- which is essentially a synonym for "Gothic Fiction" between the late 18th century and the early 19th century into something different.  That something different would come to fruition in the pulp fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, but Lovecraft was a phenomenon of the 1920s.  The House on the Borderland is the first novel to head down that road of post-Gothic supernatural horror.

  Framed as a typical "discovered narrative" ("We were fishing in the wilds of Ireland, Jeeves and I, when one day I uncovered this worn out journal in a tiny crevasse by the shore, entranced, we began reading immediately.") The House on the Borderland quickly detours into a weird, surreal narrative about a man in a house at the end of time.  There are snorting pig men, fifty page descriptions of the end of the universe, and enough "unknown madness" type purple prose to fill up a London tube car.  And it is FANTASTIC.  I'm not sure if Hodgson was appreciated at the time or if he was "rediscovered" due to a combination of Lovecraft's popularity and his obviously surreal tendencies but either way I really recommend this book.

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