I bought this book because of the cover. Not the cover pictured here on the left but a different cover.
I get regular posts about retro-science fiction/fantasy book covers on Instagram. A while ago, there was one featuring a cover for William Hope Hodgson’s novella, The House on the Borderland. The cover featured a bunch of nude human figures all reaching for a glowing sphere hanging above them. It was pretty good artwork. Probably late 1960’s.
In the comments someone said that this was a very important book for them, that it was a very trippy book and that it changed the way they think about the world. Something like that.
I’m game, I thought. I’ll give it a go.
I’ll brave just about anything if it looks even a little interesting and if it’s at my local library. The House on the Borderland is not at my library and it’s mostly out of print. You can still order it at your local independent bookstore, but you may have to wait a week or two for it to arrive.
From the title, I thought it would be about fairies or fairyland, that’s what I think of when I think of the “borderland”. Turns out, William Hope Hodgson is much more in line with H.P. Lovecraft than he is with Welcome to Bordertown. H.P. Lovecraft was an admirer of his work.
The narration is a classic madman-alone-in-the-spooky-setting type thriller. Our narrator lives with his grown sister in a very big, very isolated house. He sets out to explore the wilderness around it and finds a large crevice, almost a canyon, with a river/waterfall and a cave in it.
Later that evening he sees men with swine like heads trying to get into the locked house. For a while the book is about him trying to keep out the swine men. It’s pretty good stuff. Spooky, campfire tale fodder.
After a few chapters of this I realized that he is keeping his panicked sister locked in her room because she keeps trying to open the door. He thinks she has lost her mind to the swine men, but could she be the sane one? She wants to get away while he’s trying to keep her locked in afriad of what the swine men might do to her. Just who is the one who has lost their mind?
This is a better story in my opinion, and a pretty common on for the late 19th/early 20th century.
Ages ago I read Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness in which he describes the series of paranoid/schizophrenic visions he suffered which put him in the asylum multiple times throughout his life. One thing that was so striking to me about his story was how complicated and complete his delusions were. He believed we were all controlled by a race of aliens that manipulated us through a complex system of strings. But this was more than a simple delusion/ he believed he had uncovered an organized system of oppression that took an entire book to explain. It’s a fascinating read and it’s still in print.
Hodgson’s narrator eventually falls into a sort of trancelike state that lasts for days in our world, multiple chapters on paper and eons in his own perception. He goes into a strange reverie while he watches the sun spin round the earth faster and faster until it becomes a blur in the sky. He sees the universe as it expands, while stars die until everything comes to an end.
This section really did follow the science for this, as far as I can tell. It was almost like something out of Carl Sagan’s old series Cosmos. And it was well written enough to be interesting. I did only minimal skimming myself.
By this point the possibility that the narrator was the insane one was gone. So was the sister, more-or-less. Nothing happened to her, she just left the narrative. This is a great loss as far as I’m concerned. Making more of her character would have lifted the book into something more than excellent campfire fodder.
By the books closing chapters it’s clear that what the narrator says happened to him is supposed to be believed. The house is swallowed up, for the most part, by the pit where the swine men live. The narrator and his sister disappear. It all becomes the stuff of local legend.
Which leaves me wondering if this really lived up to the promise of the book cover’s artwork. I’ve posted as many of them as I could find in a quick Google search.
My edition, featured at the top of this post, is simply a generic haunted house. From it you can’t prove to me that the art department even read the plot summary on the back of the book. That’s the artwork you get from the title.
The one to the right here is much better. It features the cosmic vision of the sun’s death, the paranoia of the narrator and his monstrous swine men as well as the house itself. You definitely know what you’re in for with this one.
I also like the cosmic sky/haunted house/running man in the second one featured above. These two really show an understanding of the book and its plot/themes.
You could argue that both are a little busy, but this is pretty typical for artwork from their time. The House on the Borderland was first printed in 1907, so who knows how many editions there are and how much artwork was done to go with them. Once things fall out of copyright anyone can publish them.
While the one to the left here is very typical of its time, (I’m guessing early 1970’s) I can’t imagine anyone being able to figure out much about the book from it.
There is just so much going on here that I’m at a loss trying to figure out where to start.
What is the central image here? What is this artwork about?
What exactly is going on here?
This one to the right is not much better, but it is simpler, which I like.
Something about a spooky house.
A broken pocket watch. Honestly, I think there was a broken pocket watch in the book, but it’s been a few days since I finished reading it. It wasn’t all that important a factor in what I liked about the book.
This is the earliest cover my Google search came up with. A dust jacket on a hardcover edition that looks like a 1940’s edition, maybe earlier.
I quite like it.
We get the horror of the narrator inside his house while a swine man looks inside.
I realy like the expression on the swine creature’s head. He’s not openly threatening the man, but he’s going to be back with his friends, and he knows how to get inside.
“You just sit tight,” he seems to say. Just the kind of line you want in story told round a campfire.
2 thoughts on “The House on the Borderland by Willaim Hope Hodgson”
I rather like both with the “cosmic suns.” I read a public domain ebook with no good cover. I have two more Hodgson books on my Classic Club list after making it through House on the Borderlands, The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and The Ghost Pirates. Obviously, I like him well enough for some early 20th century weirdness.
Nice to hear from someone who has also read the book. I stumbled on a “complete works” set of Hodgson a while back. Everything in four large volumes, probably 1950’s or so. It was an impressive body of work. I may read more of him sometime..
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