Authors: John C. Wright
Did ye live in those unknown, strange days,
When God and I conversed, and He, abroad
Upon my seething waters, spoke of you,
As of some thing that were to come at last,
In some dim future time when this round world
Was fitted for ye by the hands of Time?
—The Voice of the Ocean,
William Hope Hodgson (1921)
Dedicated to Andy Robertson
The tales in this book came into being by odd accident, and what is odder, received very generous praise from readers and critics alike. All were first published by Andy W. Robertson, to whom this volume is gratefully dedicated, but were then republished by such luminaries of the field as Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan.
In the life of every bookish person, there are a few favored books, read in the golden time of youth, that come to dwell in the imagination forever. The vividness of images, the strength of heroes, the beauty of heroines, the strangeness and wonder of the settings, are burned into the heart: every other tale read after is compared to these golden tales.
I had graduated college, and was past the age when the book of gold is found, and I was lamenting that I was, perhaps, too old and jaded to meet the wonders of youth again, when a friend recommended Hodgson’s
The Night Land
to me. I had told him once of a fantasy I was writing, called Nigh-Forgotten Sun (the unfinished manuscript still exists), and my friend thought that I was consciously copying the theme of Hodgson’s story: he was amazed that I had never heard of the book, since it was exactly suited to my own writing, both in style and theme.
So I read volume one of the Ballantine edition edited by Lin Carter. I found the golden time of youthful wonder was not past. What visions I saw!
At the time, poor as a church mouse (or, I should say, rather, poor as a law student) I had no resources to find whether the second volume was still in print. In the days before the Internet, libraries and used bookstores did not maintain inventory lists where a poor student could find them.
And so this antique tale, when I had reached the point where the nameless narrator stands before the darkened ruins of the Lesser Redoubt, which he endured much toil, heart-ache, terror and incalculable dangers to reach, instead of finding his love, his spirit senses, somewhere hidden in the metal structure, dread and fell presences waiting to destroy him. His beloved, and all her people, her culture, her world, have been wiped out. At that cliffhanger I was left, and I did not know if any copy of the ending of the tale survived.
To me it seemed as if I had found an antique sea-chest in an attic, or washed ashore from the wrack of Atlantis, containing only one half of a manuscript, and that I had no hope of ever finding the finish of the tale.
How precious that dog-eared paperback was to me! In the opening paragraphs of the first chapter, the narrator is speaking casually to Mirdath the Beautiful, a maiden of the gentry of the English rural countryside. A more comfortable and bucolic setting cannot be imagined. Then, when he says, 'It is an elf night; the Towers of Sleep rise' she answers by speaking of the Moon-Garden, the City of Twilight, and the Tree with the Great Painted Head.
By that word she reveals that she is like him: a soul that is more than mortal, that has lived other lives in other cycles of reincarnation, dimly half-forgotten.
She and he are both travelers from moon-lit elfin lands or empires of cloudy nightmare, and they hail from places far beyond the little fields we know, older than human history: they have seen the light of other suns, other days. They dance to music we cannot hear. No one of their own time will understand them.
I cannot express how eerie this seemed to me, how pregnant with secret promise. What reader of fantastic fiction has not seemed, to himself at least, to be a changling like this, someone who is more at home in stranger worlds than the mundane one around us? As a man who is out of tune with his own time (surely, dear reader, that is seen in the way I express my thought to you) I found delight to think that there might be, for me, too, a Mirdath the Beautiful awaiting.
Few books can match the strange promise of those hints:
The Night Land
overmatches it. In chapter two our narrator, mad with grief and loss, recovers memories from uncounted millions of years in the remotest future, long after the sun is dead, and he gazes from the embrasures of the Last Redoubt of Man upon the wonders and horrors of the Night Land: he sees the dim fires burning in the Giant’s Kilns; the single visible eye of the Southeastern Watcher shines from its hulking silhouette of its grim, huge head, unblinking; the Night-Hounds cry out, and the Silent Ones do not, and the doors of the House of Silence, in all eternity, have never closed.
Nothing I have ever read before or since contains such a mood of pure unearthliness. Wraiths and Dark Lords and devils from fantasy stories seem quaint and old-fashioned, and are more likely to invoke nostalgia rather than awe; aliens from science fiction stories share our laws of nature, and come from our universe. The inhuman presences and monsters of the Night Land, on the other hand, are cloaked in impenetrable mystery.
The stilted and archaic language, I find no fault with. Perhaps I am the only reader who does not. A language less formal and gravid might not serve to capture the dark, heavy, grim and gothic majesty of the piece. I know my friend Mr. Stoddard has made a brave attempt in this direction, but, for my taste, more might be lost than gained by modernizing the tongue.
Finally, after many years of wondering and waiting, I found the second volume. An archeologist finding the lost dialogs of Aristotle, the eighth book of Apollonius, or the missing ending to the epic of Lucretius could not know greater triumph than I did.
Here I met Mirdath the Beautiful, reincarnated as Naani, a daughter of the Lesser Redoubt. Many other readers find fault with her: let them. She is precious to me. I can think of no other character possessing her quirks, her cleverness, her playful heedlessness, her unparalleled bravery. She is self-sacrificing without being a martyr, shows both spirit and fortitude that would break any lesser lass, she is braver than a man and yet still humble and demure.
If I sound like a man infatuated, let this be a testament to the skill of Hodgson’s writing. Keep your joyless Galadriel, your spiteful Titania, your lascivious Helen, your treacherous Guinevere and deadly Clytemnestra, your cunning Penelope, your absurd Xena: to match her for charm, perhaps you can hold up Nausicaä or Miranda as her equals; to match her for courage and endurance, who is there?
The love-story that C.S. Lewis so casually dismisses as a fatuous erotic interest, I thought was almost Promethean in its power. Here is a man who reaches across a billion years of time, and braves the unthinkable dangers of the Night, to save the woman who is his own true love, because he hears in his mind the whisper of her plea for help, as if in a dream. By the mysterious aetheric sympathy they share, from far-off, he hears her voice in the night, and he knows her. Based only on that whisper, and his hope, into the eternal darkness, like Orpheus, he goes. (The only other story that is even close in its scope and power is “At the Eschaton” by Charles Sheffield, appearing in the Far Futures anthology. With apologies to Sheffield, I found the short story more striking than the novel-version). Neither all the aeons of eternity, nor all the darkness and horror of the hopeless night, nor even death itself, can part the lovers.
The Victorianisms other readers find galling, I find as refreshing as an oasis in a wasteland of ash. The way sex is handled in
Stranger in a Strange Land
The Left Hand of Darkness
is the norm I was to meet, over and over again, unchanged, unchallenged, unquestioned, in every story I found in my childhood. The casual fornications of James Bond and Captain Kirk were presented as normal, their penismanship as praiseworthy. Self-control, chastity, romance, marriage, family, even though they are the most normal things in the world (I am tempted to say, the only normal things in the world) were dismissed by all modern writers as psychopathologies of the Dark Ages.
Perhaps when Heinlein first wrote the idea of having a sloppy sex-life might seem boldly non-conformist, and shocking. Now it is the conformity, and the only way boldly to shock the new conformists is to suggest that some sort of self-discipline in the sexual appetites might be useful, wise and comely.
Self-control, temperance, prudence, and moderation are values much praised by ancient pagan philosophers, the iron-hearted Stoics of Greece and Rome. Odd as this sounds, the final theme that endears the Night Lands to me is this very iron-heartedness: it is the kind of book a stoic might approve.
The universe is utterly hostile, utterly malevolent, incomprehensible, dark, brooding, malefic, and filled with dread. While there is reincarnation in this world, every indication in the text is that this is not a supernatural phenomenon, not a matter of religion, but of some yet-to-be-discovered science of etheric rays or spirit-vibrations.
In the Night Land, there are benevolent powers whose mysterious actions sometimes save a stranded wanderer. Hodgson might have added them to have something analogous to dolphins (which sailors' tall tales say aid drowning men), to contrast with his soul-destroying monsters, who circle the last redoubt of man as sharks follow a ship laden with bullocks.
But these are entities whose true purposes are unknown, who neither seek nor are given worship, and who appear only about as frequently as reports of UFO’s or Abominable Snowmen appear among modern men. They are not Valkyries, waiting to draw fallen heroes up to feast in Valhalla; they are not Mercury, waiting to escort shades to Elysium; and they are not angels waiting to welcome the faithful to paradise. Ultimately, there is no comfort to be had from them. There is no comfort to be found anywhere in Hogdson’s black and agnostic universe: save in the arms of love itself.
And, since this is a fairy tale, we are told the love can endure even if the eons change, even if the sun goes out, even if the beloved seems to die.
Like the real universe, the terror-haunted universe of
The Night Land
is both utterly hopeless, and utterly filled with hope: as inescapable as death itself, is love.
Years and years ago, I spent a dreamy summer inventing tales to set into Hodgson's background, imagining the culture, traditions, and lore, filling in bits of the history of the Last Redoubt, of the final race of man. I was certain that no one had ever read this book but me; I was sure such stories would never find a home. It seemed like providence, miraculous, that I came across Mr. Andy Robertson’s call for stories set in this background in a trade journal, after I had so long ago dismissed all hope of such a thing.
While my humble work falls appallingly short of Hodgson’s genius, to honor the favorite story of one’s young life by writing a story of one’s own, was a chance not often given to writers, for which my gratitude is endless. For honor him I ought: all the secret, youthful, golden places in my imagination are still touched by images and echoes from his work.
Still, I seem to behold the mighty Home of Man, surrounded by the sacred aura of its air-clog, windows and balconies ablaze, defying (though doomed to fall to them) the silent and motionless monstrosities crouching at its eaves; still the Silent Ones slide forward from the gray gloom, noiseless, draped in gauze.
In some place in my heart, the Masters of the Watch are always raising their weapons in salute to the brave and nameless traveler who stands at the valves of the gate leading out into the Night, with all lamps quenched, so that the horrors will not know a child of man creeps forth. Still the warm scent of the last kiss of Mirdath the Beautiful lingers on the bereaved lover's lips, though that kiss was kissed twenty-five million years ago; still he hears her voice across the nightland of a darkened world, calling.
Years ago, my friend Perithoös went into the Night Lands. His whole company had perished in their flesh, or had been Destroyed in their souls. I am awake in the night, and I hear his voice.