Monday, November 2, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The House on the Borderland

Yes, that title does have a familiar ring to it, doesn't it? Gary Gygax didn't include the 1908 novel by British author William Hope Hodgson in Appendix N, but I've always wondered whether he might have read the book, which was a favorite of H.P. Lovecraft. Regardless, The House on the Borderland is an important work, having one foot planted firmly in the established 19th century genres of the ghost story and the Gothic novel and another planted in the nascent genre of cosmic horror. Despite this, it's comparatively little known or discussed.

The novel is the tale of two friends traveling in rural Ireland, who discover the ruins of a strange house in the middle of a large chasm. Inside the house, the friends find the journal of the man who lived here and they take it and read it. The journal explains that the man lived here with his sister and pet dog before experiencing many terrible visions of demons and pig like "swine-things" (as he calls them). Not long thereafter, he discovers a pit near his home, which he finds fascinating and attempts to explore. Within the pit dwell the very swine-things he saw in his vision. He attacks and slays several of them and seemingly drives them away. Unfortunately, the strange creatures are not the only thing that's gone awry. Time itself seems to be behaving strangely, with day and night moving at different speeds until, at last, the world seems to be enveloped in eternal dusk. From there, the journal describes even stranger events, resulting in a climax I will not spoil here.

The House on the Borderland is, like many early 20th century novels, difficult to read at times, both because of its language and because of its style. Nevertheless, I can fully understand why Lovecraft liked it so much (though he did charge Hodgson with "a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man's relation to it and to his fellows" in Supernatural Horror in Literature). This is a novel that goes beyond the traditional horrors found in the Gothic tradition and attempts something more outré and phantasmagoric. It plays with notions of rationality and sanity and the malleable nature of reality. It's definitely not as bleak a vision as that of Lovecraft but you can certainly see the beginnings of HPL's brand of horror within it.

In gaming terms, I've long found the book quite inspirational. A strange, isolated location where reality bends and warps according to other laws is an attractive idea and many an adventure has borrowed it. My recent work on The Cursed Chateau certainly has a bit of Hodgson lurking within it and I doubt I'm alone in having stolen an idea or two from the book. Though first published in 1908, it achieved wider fame in its 1948 appearance in an Arkham House collection named after it and whose cover I've posted along with this entry. I imagine it's in this edition that quite a few future game designers would have encountered Hodgson's novel for the first time.


  1. I've often wondered if Sutherland's "pig-faced orcs" were inspired by the creatures in House on the Borderland. Other than the rhyme with "pork", I can't think of any other possible inspiration for that interpretation.

    I prefer Hodgson's The Night Land, myself. It's twice as bizarre.

  2. Because of the original publication date, and not the Arkham reprint, there's a copy of House on the Boderland available at Project Gutenberg, for those so inclined.

  3. I found the first half of The House on the Borderland terrifying. The assault of the swine-things is very, very disturbing. The cosmic denouement I could take or leave.

    I agree with Howarth that the Nightland is even better. The second chapter of that book is one of the most strange and wonderful things I've ever read. The vision of humanity holed up in "the Last Redoubt", a large metal pyramid, besieged on all sides by beings and forces from the outside, and in a state of woeful ignorance is very compelling. And really weird.

  4. Having read Lovecraft's HiSL at an early age, I have always wondered about HotB, but have not yet read it.

    The Night Land, however, from what I remember of it, is, as the others have said, really very inspiring.

  5. It's a novel I've been meaning to read for some time. Thanks for teh reminder.

    For a very readable, humorous but highly surreal story with some similar tropes - strange house in rural Ireland, fantastic and disturbing happenings - check out the The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien.

  6. House on the Borderland is one of my favorites.Very worthy of inclusion in this series, James.

  7. It is weird to me that the resurgence of interest and respect for HPL has not seemed to encompass Hodgson. An intriguingly diverse writer, but one with a really distinctive sense of "the weird". Some of his Carnacki stories are very creepy--and then others read like Victorian Scooby-Doo. The setting for the Boats of Glen Carrig is also a nifty place where reality changes.

  8. Hodgson's universe seems to me as bleak as HPL's. The difference is that Hodgson's human characters are much more capable of humane love, exemplified by The Night Land. Likewise they're much more likely to confront the darkness rather than be crushed by the sense of cosmic horror. If they fail it's because they're physically defeated, not because they failed a SAN check. So, Hodgson is no more hopeful about the nature of the universe, but he's a lot more hopeful about the nature of humanity.

  9. The plot summary reminds me of HP's Rats In The Wall... especially the mysterious house, the subterrain cave exploration and the swineherd dreams. Gotta put this one on my "to read" list.


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