Weirder Things Have Happened at Sea

[For a Thai-language version “ปลาดคดี เกิดแล้ว ในสมุทร: หลังยุคฟื้นฟูเลิฟคราฟท์อยากให้อ่านฮอดจ์สัน,” click here.]

It’s time we talk about the Shoggoth in the room.

What is weird fiction?1 To Mark Fisher’s (RIP) astute assessment that “any discussion on the weird fiction must begin with Lovecraft”, I add that any discussion of weird scholarship must begin with ST Joshi. Mr. Joshi admits in the introduction to his seminal study of this particular mode of fiction The Weird Tale that “any definition of [weird fiction] maybe impossible” as the weird tale in its nascent stage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries “did not (and perhaps does not now) exist as a genre but as the consequence of a world view” and, later, “If the weird tale exists now as a genre, it may only be because critics and publishers have deemed it so by fiat.” Joshi’s hypothesis seems to anticipate the academic divide between cultural critics such as Mr. Fisher who attempt to make sense of the weird through categorization of literary artifices and analysis of pop culture tropes and hardline weirdists belonging to the genre genealogy begun by August Derleth’s publisher Arkham House as a Lovecraft preservation effort after his untimely death.

One sure way to acquaint the uninitiated with the weird is to introduce a paradigm. Joshi’s The Weird Tale studies the six immediate progenitors of the weird – Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce, and HPL – their bibliography and their world views2. The influence of Lovecraft, the most wellknown of the six, is obscenely palpable in realms outside literature that are most of the time unable to reproduce the weird’s spirit: TV series, hollywood productions, paper roleplaying, video games, music, visual arts, and so on. As the undisputed poster boy for the weird, Lovecraft also signifies its point of stagnation in the mainstream. I would like to propose as entry point instead the british weirdist William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918), whose power of originality in my opinion far exceeds the standards set by his contemporaries. My justification for this unorthodox choice is a personal one: One of the first short stories in english I read was an abridged version of Hodgson’s masterpiece The Voice in the Night3 in an oxford collection of ghost and horror stories. Though years lapsed and I had forgotten the title and the name of the author of Voice, the overall plot and sensation – the suspicion that there was something seriously off with that nameless story, with the nodding nodding nodding figure behind the Voice glimpsed but never revealed in its last sunrise – stuck in my subconscious until an unexpected and delightful rediscovery after my initiation proper into the genre.

Joshi’s approach to the weird also applies to our understanding of WHH4. Born to Samuel Hodgson, a presumably disagreeable clergyman, WHH ran away from home at the age of 13 to become a sailor in the Merchant Marine. As a consequence a majority of his short stories, both the weird and the straightup adventure tales, are set at sea, whose proximate vastness functions as Hodgson’s early analogy to the cosmos. A few select weird gems: The Derelict, in which a seafaring crew happens upon the derelict of a reported lost ship accompanied by a faint pounding as of storm in the distance, poses the fundamental question about the fortuity required for the emergence of life out of nonlife; Out of the Storm relates the last transmissions being received in realtime from a sinking liner caught in a violent storm that is hallucinatorily experienced like a living incomprehensible monster by the dying radio operator; The Shamraken Homeward-Bounder, a narrative about the passage of a vessel carrying inexplicably ancient sailors through a sea that grows inexplicably dreamlike. Outside of the nautical shorts, WHH also contributed to the early formation of the supernatural detective genre with the serial character Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (who most of the time ironically deals with weirder manifestations than ghosts). Being himself active in physical culture5 WHH endowed his characters with strength, intrepidness, victorian morality and romanticism, traits which set them apart from the traditional Lovecraftian narrators whose futile agency serves to emphasize hopelessness. In their naive male chauvinist way, the Hodgsonian protagonists fully realize the futility of their agency yet sternly refuse to submit to some pessimistic fatalism.

In the area of what Fisher describes as the instantiation of simulated scholarship in fiction for which HPL is famous – i.e., the fabricated existence of tomes of forbidden knowledge such as Necronomicon, De Vermis Mysteriis, Cultes des Ghoules, and so on – Hodgson seems to be one step ahead of Lovecraft with his own invention of The Sigsand Manuscript6. Take this passage from the MS referencing Hodgson’s recurring transdimensional abomination:

. . . for in ye earlier life upon the world did the Hogge have power and shall again in ye end. And in that ye Hogge had once a power upon ye earth, so doth he crave sore to come again.

Does this passage not invoke the ominous proclamation by the mad Abdul Alhazred in HPL’s Necronomicon:

Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.

(And Mayakovskys ever appropriate “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin shall live forever!!!)?

The ambitious scope of WHH’s cosmic vision could not be contained in the short story form. While most accomplished weirdists rarely venture beyond the length of the novella and risk the genuine weird sensation giving way to the banally absurd or the absurdly banal, the quintessential Hodgson can be found in his novels. This success owes much to Hodgson’s understanding of suspense and life-and-death confrontation often utilized in his sea adventure shorts. Adding to the element of cosmic terror foundational to all weird fiction, he employed – I would even say, pioneered – the siege scenario in horror that would later become a popular trope in the living dead genre. The House on the Borderland contains a few chapters in which the narrator alone must fend off a nightly invasion of voiceless humanoid hogs. These chapters signal an irreversible transition from the relatively worldly eerieness of uncharted Ireland to a hypercosmic eschatological experience, the equilibrium point in the accumulation of narrative momentum required to reach the novel’s climactic annihilation. On the contrary, The Ghost Pirates, in which a doomed crew at sea is stalked by unexplained spectral entities and picked off one sailor at a time, can be said to depend for its unflagging tension mostly on the siege scenario. In any case, both novels demonstrate the application of the paradoxical condition for terror: by the very nature of our finitude – the mortal shell of the House’s narrator, the tight confines of the ship in The Ghost Pirates – our placement within the boundless sea or the cosmos registers as claustrophobic.

No wonder that all those years ago I did not feel WHH belonged among such classic masters of the ghost story as E.F. Benson, A.M. Burrage, and even M.R. James. The constraints of fin-de-siecle conservatism on subject matters they all share are irrelevant. Even situated as a genre piece, the weird potentiality in fiction threatens to burst forth. Weird fiction renders irrelevant all attempts at organic identification because it never ceases to devour. What can be certainly said of it is that it lurks in the nebulous region disavowed by horror, fantasy, and science fiction7. And even this unholy association risks oversimplification. Observers recognize cognates of appendages and faces and agonies writhing in the amorphous jelly that crawls yet should not, but are dumbfounded, awestruck, frozen by the enticing repulsiveness and impossible entirety of what they are seeing. The old colloquialism proves here most practical. What is weird fiction? You’ll know it (and in the process perhaps come to unknow everything tainted by its touch) when you see it.


1 I use the terms weird fiction, the weird, the weird tale interchangeably.
2 Machen was the only one of the six who tried to substantially develop an aesthetic theory on the peculiar fascination with the weird, an emotion he called ecstasy, a Cartesian irrational temptation towards self-negation that Edgar Poe named The Imp of the Perverse. Perhaps further study on Lacanian psychoanalysis may help concretize these concepts.
3 Loosely adapted to the japanese silver screen as MATANGO! (1963) during the monster flick craze.
4 To keep to the introductory purpose of this article, it at least bears mentioning here that the world’s most dedicated WHH scholar was without a doubt Sam Gafford, whom I met briefly at NecronomiCon 2013. Mr. Gafford passed away on 20 July 2019. His works both fiction and scholarly can be purchased from Ulthar Press.
5 A 19th century equivalent of bodybuilding. There’s a nice anecdote about the 1902 challenge between Hodgson who was then the proprietor of the School of Physical Culture in Blackburn England, and the worldrenowned magician escape artist Harry Houdini (See Houdini v. Hodgson: The Blackburn Challenge by Sam Gafford). Incidentally, Houdini would later employ HPL’s ghostwriting service. Thus the two authors had a connection of sorts.
6 On Lovecraft’s part he most likely derived this artifice from his vast reading of mythologies. Since Hodgson’s life is not as well documented, it is as yet difficult to trace Hodgson’s influence.
7 HPL remains a competent, objective, and comprehensive chronicler of the weird’s early history. For a summary of the development of the weird tradition in fiction up to Lovecraft’s own era, the reader is encouraged to consult Supernatural Horror in Literature, now reprinted in various collections.