Saturday, September 14, 2013

When Less Is More, or, Wm Hope Hodgson gets Colley Cibber'd

So, a week ago (W.9/4) I was pleasantly surprised to find that the local Barnes and Noble had a copy of Wm Hope Hodgson's dark masterpiece, THE NIGHT LAND, right there on the shelf. Since I consider this one  of the ten greatest works of fantasy ever written, seeing it available and out where it might entice new readers is altogether a good thing. But when I pulled it off the shelf for a closer look, my enthusiasm took a hit.

 For one thing, this is not the whole book, but an abridged text, lacking the first chapter and the final third of the novel.  You can make a case of abridging THE NIGHT LAND, which is a long and difficult book.  Hodgson even invented his own dialect of English to write the story in, one that leans heavily on infinitives and emphatics. As a distancing device it's brilliant, but it's not for those who want an easy read: like Clark Ashton Smith he requires effort, and like Smith he vastly repays it.

But abridgment is one thing and drastic surgery another. As Erik Davis makes plain in his Introduction to this HiLoBooks edition (part of their 'Radium Age of Science Fiction' series*), they feel they've done Hodgson a service by censoring his novel, improving it by lopping off the happy ending. This is the equivalent of preparing a new edition of THE LORD OF THE RINGS and dropping the first chapter (since it deals with Bilbo, not Frodo, and forms the prologue to the main story) and everything after Frodo and Sam collapse on Mount Doom. It certainly makes for a more Stephen Donaldish ending, but in Tolkien's case the long denouement is a key part of the novel, as prophecies come to pass, demonstrating the fading of the old world into reality as we know it. Similarly, the final chapters of Hodgson's THE NIGHT LAND contain one of the purest eucatastrophes ever written, on par with that which ends Hughart's THE BRIDGE OF BIRDS. To lose it is a pity; to be forced to omit it a shame; to boast about mutilating Hodgson's book a sign that you really, truly, don't understand Hodgson.

What's more, we know that Hodgson himself would have rejected this procedure. When he himself produced a drastically abridged version of this book (called THE DREAM OF X) in order to secure American copyright, he cut almost 90% of the original but was careful to include the eucatastrophe, devoting a good bit of his precious space to that most important moment in the book. So we know that while Hodgson was open to abridgment, even radical abridgment, this was one of the few sections of the long story which he felt must be included.

So, good intentions, but regrettable results. Cutting THE NIGHT LAND is like cutting Lindsay's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS (another complex and difficult work that rewards those who get caught up in its daemonic energy): why would anyone read a large percentage of a masterpiece? Is there anyone who wishes Tolkien had let Collins cut THE LORD OF THE RINGS back in 1952? Or anyone who'd prefer a Reader's Digest version of Eddison's THE WORM OUROBOROS?

For those who just want a taste to see what Hodgson's best is like, THE DREAM OF X is ideal for that purpose, presenting a sequence of excerpts of the major scenes. Those unafraid of a long book (a description that can fairly be applied to many of the most beloved books in fantasy) I'd advise to take the plunge and read THE NIGHT LAND as Hodgson actually wrote, and published, it. If it's not for you, you'll probably put it down after a few chapters; if it is, you'll be enthralled and want to read the whole thing. A skillful abridgment might do to give you a taste of the real thing, but this HiLo abridgment reshapes the book into the one the editor wishes the author had written.


current reading, Kindle: THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON (reads like an al-Qadim novelization)
current reading, actual book: THE GHOST STORIES OF EDITH WHARTON (bought in the Brookfield Schwartz in 1993, back when there was still a Harry Schwartz bookstore in Milwaukee).
current music: several early EMERSON, LAKE, and PALMER albums, courtesy of Sam (thanks, Sam).

*minor works by Jack London (The Scarlet Plague), Conan Doyle (The Poison Belt), Kipling (the two Night Mail/ABE books), Haggard (When the World Shook), et al.   The introduction does a good job relating Hodgson's book (the first written but last published among his four novels) to contemporary traditions of fantasy, science fiction, and horror.


N.E. Brigand said...

I only read any of Hodgson for the first time last night: his short story "The Baumoff Exposion" as anthologized in Douglas Anderson's Tales before Tolkien. Doug relates Hodgson's evocation of darkness to Tolkien's descriptions of Moria; Shelob's Lair may be an ever better fit, but what particularly struck me was the titular character's demonic possession, in which "a horrible mocking voice" uses Christ's words on the cross: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!" This is just what the Un-man, i.e. Weston possessed, says to Ransom just before they begin to fight in Perelandra, quoting Christ "in hideous parody".

Douglas A. Anderson said...

Unfortunately, the published who has eviscerated The Night Land, one HiLo Books, has done a similar hatchet job on other books they have reissued, like Edward Shanks's The People of the Ruins and H. Rider Haggard's When the World Shook. This attitude just makes me ignore their entire output, which is unfortunate, as some of their other books I would like to read---just not in their editions.