A Visionary Work Renew’d: Swan River Press’ The House on the Borderland
A conversational review by Sam Gafford & The joey Zone
WILLIAM HOPE HODGSON. The House on the Borderland. Introduction by Alan Moore; illustrated by John Coulthart; afterword by Iain Sinclair. Dublin, Ireland: Swan River Press, 2018. 216 pp. €30.00 unsigned hardcover; €40.00 signed hardcover; €50.00 signed hardcover with CD. ISBN: 9781783800216.
Gafford and Zone were participants in “William Hope Hodgson: An Appreciation,” a panel held at NecronomiCon 2017 in Providence, RI. Both are long admirers of Hodgson, but Gafford in particular has been one of the main authorities on the writer and his work in addition to founding Sargasso: The Journal of William Hope Hodgson Studies.
Swan River Press is an independent small press publisher based in Dublin, Ireland dedicated to supernatural and fantastic literature. It is responsible for high quality editions of authors such as Bram Stoker, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and the journal The Green Book. The Swan River Press edition of The House on the Borderland is a noteworthy appearance of Hodgson’s novel, not only in its deluxe presentation, complete with an introduction by Alan Moore, an afterword by Iain Sinclair, and illustrations by John Coulthart but due to the timing of the publication; 2018 marks the 140th anniversary of Hodgson’s birth and the 100th anniversary of his death in addition to the fact that Hodgson has slowly, but surely, seen a renewed interest and increasing popularity amongst readers.
Let this conversation not only serve as a fitting coda then to this Year of Hodgson but also to further discussion…
Sam Gafford: One hundred years after his death at the Fourth Battle of Ypres in April 1918, William Hope Hodgson still struggles for critical and popular acknowledgement. Despite his status as a pioneer of horror and science fiction literature, he still remains unknown to many. But, thanks to the efforts of people like Brian Showers and Swan River Press, Hodgson’s name stretches farther and farther each year.
Hodgson (1877–1918) lived a remarkable life by anyone’s standards. He ran away to sea at the age of 13 and joined the Merchant Marine. For ten years, he sailed the seas in what has become known as the last great age of sailing ships. He circumnavigated the globe several times, saved a crewman from shark infested waters off the coast of Australia, was a pioneer of the very early science of maritime photography (credited with taking the first pictures of ‘stalk lightning’ which is a phenomena where lightning rises from the ocean during a storm up into the sky), and even achieved his Second Mate’s certificate. However, bitter and disillusioned, Hodgson left the sea in 1900, never to return other than in his writings.
Back home in Blackburn, Hodgson opened a “School for Physical Culture.” The “school” closed shortly after a controversial attempt by Hodgson to shackle the great magician Houdini — Houdini would describe as the most brutal treatment he had ever received during his many handcuff challenges. Shortly thereafter, Hodgson began writing. His writing ‘life’ was brief. He wrote for basically only fourteen or so years from 1902 to 1916 when he joined the British Army to fight in WWI. There is evidence to indicate that his best and greatest work was done early during this time and probably completed around 1905–1906. This would include his four novels, the stories of occult detective Thomas Carnacki and several of his best-known short stories like “The Voice in the Night”.
Despite his raw imagination and talent, Hodgson never attained bestseller status as indicated by the drop in the quality of his publishers as time went on. Although his work often received favorable critical notices, he never caught the fancy of the reading majority which was something that perplexed and depressed him. While contemporary writers like Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and others were being embraced as the giants in a new literary field, Hodgson was left by the wayside.
The joey Zone: Even giants such as these need perennial literary renewal. Lovecraft, as another example, went from Arkham House to Ballantine, with smaller imprints in between, before finally gaining a more permanent “list status” with Penguin Classics.
SG: Of his four novels, The House on the Borderland is perhaps Hodgson’s most famous and influential work. Telling the story of a recluse in a house in remote Ireland via the discovery of a lost manuscript found among ruins, it is a piece of literature that stubbornly refuses categorization, summation or even examination. In parts adventure novel and other parts consciousness expanding science fiction, it has captivated readers ever since its first publication in 1908. It is a work that can mean many different things to many different readers and each interpretation can be just as valid and worthy as the next. It has influenced many writers and received accolades from others including H. P. Lovecraft in his ground-breaking essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” According to the official Hodgson bibliography, published in William Hope Hodgson: Voices from the Borderland (Hippocampus Press, 2014), it has appeared in no less than 45 editions which doesn’t even include the many Print-on-Demand versions of dubious and questionable merit.
TjZ: Artist John Coulthart was interviewed in issue nine of the magazine Esoterra in 2000. He brought up the idea of doing “an illustrated edition of The House on the Borderland (originally for Savoy Press) . . . intending that this should be as definitive as we can make it.” On his seminal blog Feuilleton in 2010 he followed up that with “I’ve been talking for years about doing a series of illustrations for HoTB and may yet make good on that threat: never say never.”
In other words…we’ve been waiting 18 years for this!
SG: All of these previous publishers, and anyone in the future considering reprinting The House on the Borderland can now pack it in and give up the ghost because Swan River Press has produced the best version ever. There is no need for any other for none will match this triumph.
Beginning with an effective and atmospheric cover by John Coulthart (and, believe me, most previous editions DON’T have appropriate covers like the 1977 Manor paperback with an ear of corn in the foreground and a farm scene in the back), you know that this is a production of superior quality. Here is a publisher who is giving the work the respect and dedication it deserves.
TjZ: There are a LOT of deluxe versions of Lovecraft, Poe, etc. THIS HoTB is really. . . incomparable. The bar has been raised on Hodgsonian illustration. Collectors of the many editions of THE HOUSE such as Gafford (and Brian Showers) call this…an affliction. We would posit the term affection.
SG: The famed writer, Alan Moore (who is himself a Hodgson fan and has included Carnacki in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series), provides a thought-provoking introduction to the novel which effectively summarizes Hodgson’s life and places the novel in perspective of both its own time and today. Moore makes the brilliant observation that The House on the Borderland is a literary equivalent of the recent “found footage” film genre and discusses it as a piece of psychogeography. Moore also wrote an introduction to the graphic novel adaptation of the novel by Richard Corben (Vertigo, 2000) which is worth checking out but his essay here is new and written specifically for this edition.
Next comes a beautifully designed text with stunning artwork by John Coulthart. It would be easy for me to say that, so far, none have come as close as Coulthart in capturing the spirit and terror of Hodgson’s writing. The very first plate is especially stunning and evocative.
TjZ: The illustration for the “Searching of The Gardens” chapter is reminiscent of the work of Thomas Cole in its quiet yet sinister sublimity. This edition’s images go beyond the usual delineations of swine things into the visionary tableaus encountered by the narrator.
SG: All of Coulthart’s illustrations should be collected and printed as a separate portfolio of prints. A limited edition run of the book also includes a CD of accompanying music by Jon Mueller which provides an appropriately moody addition to the experience.
TjZ: An elephant folio would do justice to the detail! The illustrato r had quite a “Annus Mirabilis” in 2017: As of December, John “only” did at least eighty-seven or so illustrations including Editorial Alma’s Spanish edition of Edgar Allan Poe with definitive versions of the tales that surpass some images by Wilfred Satty and even Harry Clarke.
In a way, this presentation of THE HOUSE could be compared to Savoy Books’ edition of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, the plus being that he fully illustrated the text as well. Coulthart said of the binding: “Nothing elaborate, a solarized collage of Gothic window and a starry sky” — yet! that more than succeeds in emphasizing the cosmic dimension as much as the horror. The latter usually overwhelms the former when it comes to illustration of this work even though its only about half of the novel. It is almost a crime then that a dust wrapper covers the boards on this!
SG: Finishing the book is a reprint of an essay by Iain Sinclair which appeared in an earlier edition of The House on the Borderland. Sinclair’s thoughts are interesting and provocative and, although I’m not sure I agree with them, are worth reading. I am not entirely convinced by Sinclair’s theory that, underlying the plot, is an element of incest between the narrator and his sister. Perhaps this is because of the fact that, in most of Hodgson’s fiction, he portrays women as a ‘romantic ideal’, a damsel to be rescued. This is certainly true when we consider that the novel was written early in Hodgson’s career when his conceptions of women were perhaps a little naïve and unworldly. It is interesting to consider that these opinions appear to have changed by 1916 when, during his Captain Gault series, women are portrayed as manipulative and dishonest. In any case, Sinclair’s comments here shown that there is much to study in both the novel and Hodgson’s attitude towards women.
TjZ: All of William Hope Hodgson’s work engenders depth: In discussion towards differing interpretations. The perennial renewal of his visionary art is justified in following years as well as this one. In other words, this is just the start of the conversation on Hope!
SG: I wish that all of Hodgson’s novels could receive such an appreciative and affectionate reprint. How wonderful would that be to see them lined up on my bookshelf as the pinnacle of Hodgson editions? For now, we need to be grateful to Brian Showers and Swan River Press for this handsome volume of one of the most truly unique novels in the history of horror or science fiction.
Originally published in Dead Reckonings no. 24.
Sam Gafford has been published in a wide variety of anthologies and publications. Recently, he wrote Some Notes on a Non-Entity: The Life of H. P. Lovecraft, a graphic novel biography of Lovecraft.
Joe Shea aka The joey Zone is an artist and illustrator. A sample of his work can be found at http://www.joeyzoneillustration.com/