Friday, December 5, 2014

A Monster Story from Hodgson

It was a pleasure to discover a story by William Hope Hodgson that I had not seen before, his Island of the Ud.  The version I have is from a wonderful anthology just published this fall, The Baen Big Book of Monsters, (2014).  Island of the Ud is one of two “Captain Jat” stories, the other being The Adventure of the Headland.  Both were published in 1912, several years after three of his important longer works saw print.  These include The Boats of the “Glenn Carrig” (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Ghost Pirates (1909).  The Captain Jat stories are roughly cotemporaneous with several of Hodgson’s short stories that feature Carnacki, the psychic detective, and some of his creepy “Sargasso Sea” tales.   

Regarding the work of William Hope Hodgson, H.P. Lovecraft once wrote:

Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be.  Despite a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality.  Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and abnormal in connection with regions or buildings.
—from Supernatural Horror in Literature.

Lovecraft was just 22 when Island of the Ud was published.  At the time, he was nearing the end of his “blank period”, a dark time in his life bracketed by his mental and physical breakdown of 1908 and his re-emergence about 6 years later as a contributor to the amateur press movement.

The two authors occupy distinctively different times in history, though there is some overlap in their periods of activity.  Hodgson was a decade older, and had died in the Great War just as Lovecraft was beginning to publish his earliest stories.  Of the two, Hodgson was the more successful and prolific, his fiction encompassing a variety of characters and settings.  The scope of his work reflects the diversity of his life experience.  In contrast, Lovecraft’s limited employment, lack of success in school, and problematic social and family relationships reduced the range of his subject matter, as well as his ability to create different characters, or express much insight about his fellow human beings.

Hodgson’s experience as a young man in service aboard merchant sailing ships provided him a detailed knowledge of a sailor’s life, an experience reflected in novels and numerous stories that take place on boats of various kinds.  Hodgson’s observation of the oppressive treatment of sailors in the merchant marine industry led him later on in life to become an advocate for better and safer working conditions.  He was also a part of the “physical culture” movement of the late nineteenth century, became an early body builder, and opened his own gym.  His writing career included poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, and war correspondence.  He was killed in an artillery attack in 1918.

Island of the Ud (1912) combines elements of a number of story types.  It is an adventure, the tale of a “lost world”, and a monster story.  Island of the Ud also resembles a picaresque novel in that the two principle characters, Captain Jat and his Cabin-boy Pibby Tawles, are both anti-heroes ethically indistinguishable from pirates.  There is a mysterious island, a beautiful maiden in need of rescue, a secret treasure, and a monster.  But these are really of secondary importance to the relationship between the captain and the boy.  There are a few suspenseful scenes involving a stealthy approach to the mysterious island in the dead of night. 

The tone is light, similar to Hodgson’s novella We Too and Bully Dunkan (1914). It contains a similar plot structure:  whatever misadventures befall the characters, Pibby the long suffering underling is going to find a way to pull one over on the greedy and abusive captain.  In this plot line can be seen Hodgson’s attempt to right the many wrongs endured by sailors in the merchant marine circa the late nineteenth century.  Yet the theme is consistently picaresque: good does not win in the end—cleverness and cunning do, and it is clear that the boy is learning important, if not particularly elevating, life lessons.

There have been a number of collections of Hodgson’s work published over the past few years.  As H.P. Lovecraft has commented, this is an author whose work is “known today far less than it deserves to be.”    

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