¨Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani¨ (1919): The Masterpiece of William Hope Hodgson, Bard of the Swine-Mother of Monstrosity
William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) has a place in the history of horror fiction, often cited as one of the primary influences on H.P. Lovecraft, and one of the forerunners of the genre of Cosmic Horror, wherein the source of horror is not a mere ghost or monstrous entity, but rather the all-encompassing fact that the entire universe is under the dominion of mad or evil gods, whose terrible ways become apparent to the more sensitive from time to time, with catastrophic results. Hodgson is now perhaps best known for the novels, The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912), and these two novels came in for extravagant praise from the aforementioned Lovecraft in his influential and comprehensive study Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927). Of The Night Land, Lovecraft writes:
Allowing for all its faults, it is yet one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written. The picture of a night-black, dead planet, with the remains of the human race concentrated in a stupendously vast metal pyramid and besieged by monstrous, hybrid, and altogether unknown forces of the darkness, is something that no reader can ever forget.
¨Allowing for all its faults” is a key element in this judgement, however. Lovecraft does find the book to be ¨seriously marred by painful verboseness, repetitiousness [and] artificial and nauseously sticky romantic sentimentality¨. It is a long and extremely difficult book, and is not infrequently risible.
The House on the Borderland is also flawed. It is a classic and founding text of cosmic horror:
The mountains were full of strange things—Beast-gods, and Horrors so atrocious and bestial that possibility and decency deny any further attempt to describe them. And I—I was filled with a terrible sense of overwhelming horror and fear and repugnance; yet, spite of these, I wondered exceedingly.
Later, a question repeated itself. What were they, those Beast-gods, and the others? […] There was something about them, an indescribable sort of silent vitality that suggested, to my broadening consciousness, a state of life-in-death—a something that was by no means life, as we understand it; but rather an inhuman form of existence, that well might be likened to a deathless trance—a condition in which it was possible to imagine their continuing, eternally.
This is Hodgsonian horror. Monsters are not merely monsters: they are gods, lurking at the back of all existence, their own existence a mockery of all human endeavour, progress and hope. Beasts are gods and gods are beasts. There is no response but the descent into madness.
Yet The House on the Borderland is a strange book, something of a structural mess which reads like two short works melded together and vaguely intertwined: one concerns the recluse´s (the narrator is not given a name in the novel) visionary journeys through time to the death of the sun; the other concerning his battles with swine-people who attack his isolated home in the west of Ireland. The former section is extremely indebted to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895); the latter echoes Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896).
These novels were rescued from obscurity by Lovecraft, and in Hodgson´s own lifetime he was better known for his shorter stories, especially those found in The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder (1913). Lovecraft is dismissive of this collection in Supernatural Horror in Literature. However, given Hodgson´s relative success with short stories, we might deviate from Lovecraft and consider that his best, or at least most accessible work, is in this format.
In Carnacki, a further two stories are set in the west of Ireland (¨The House among the Laurels¨ and ¨The Whistling Room¨), showing it was an important locus of horror for Hodgson, who had spent a part of his childhood in County Galway (1887-1890). In his west of Ireland work, a sense of the unease of the English visitor, a colonialist interloper in a revolutionary land, is echoed. Even before the monsters arrive in The House on the Borderland, the Irish are a source of disquiet:
[T]he man turned to a comrade and said something rapidly in a language that I did not understand; and, at once, the whole crowd of them fell to jabbering in what, after a few moments, I guessed to be pure Irish. At the same time they cast many glances in my direction. […] By the expression of his face I guessed that he, in turn, was questioning me; but now I had to shake my head, and indicate that I did not comprehend what it was they wanted to know; and so we stood looking at one another […]. [A]ll in the little crowd smiled and nodded in return, though their faces still betrayed their puzzlement.
It was evident, I reflected as I went toward the tent, that the inhabitants of these few huts in the wilderness did not know a word of English
“I wish we had got the driver to interpret for us before he left,” I remarked, as we sat down to our meal. “It seems so strange for the people of this place not even to know what we’ve come for.”
This uneasy relationship of the English visitor with the native Irish is also a key element in ¨The Whistling Room¨. In the Carnacki stories, the figure of the swine also returns. ¨The Hog¨ is ¨the most gruesome and disturbing¨ story in the collection, according to David Stuart Davies in his introduction to the stories (The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder, Wordsworth, 2006, 13). In this story, Carnacki meets with a Mr Bains, ¨a little sensitive man¨ haunted by swine:
I hear the sound coming up out of that enormous depth, and it is always the noise of pigs – pigs grunting, you know. It’s just simply dreadful. The dream is always the same. Sometimes I’ve had it every single night for a week, until I fight not to go to sleep; but, of course, I have to sleep sometimes. I think that’s how a person might go mad, don’t you?
All the grunts, squeals and howls blend into one brutal chaos of sound – only it isn’t a chaos. It all blends in a queer horrible way. I’ve heard it. A sort of swinish clamouring melody that grunts and roars and shrieks in chunks of grunting sounds, all tied together with squealings and shot through with pig howls. I’ve sometimes thought there was a definite beat in it; for every now and again there comes a gargantuan GRUNT, breaking through the million pig-voiced roaring – a stupendous GRUNT that comes in with a beat. Can you understand me? It seems to shake everything…. It’s like a spiritual earthquake. The howling, squealing, grunting, rolling clamour of swinish noise coming up out of that place, and then the monstrous GRUNT rising up through it all, an ever-recurring beat out of the depth – the voice of the swine-mother of monstrosity beating up from below through that chorus of mad swine-hunger.
The importance of the swine points to an element that is central to Hodgsonian horror: disgust. The pig is an animal considered, at least in figurative language, to embody some of the most traits found most repulsive in humans: filth, greed, laziness, and so. Hodgson´s protagonists are haunted not by swine alone, but by a truly horrifying sense of human kinship with these same swine:
I grunt too. I know it’s horrible. When I lie there in bed and hear those sounds after I’ve come up, I just grunt back as if in reply. I can’t stop myself. I just do it. Something makes me. I never told Doctor Witton that. I couldn’t. I’m sure now you think me mad[.]
A pig alone is simply an alien thing, but true horror is borne of the realization of the swinishness within oneself. Hodgson´s work if full of this sense of repulsion before humanity and its alliance to beastliness. For Hodgson, it is almost always a male figure that is the focus of the horror. The narrators, too, are all male, so the books present situations of men regarding men with horror and yet fascination. In a study of The House on the Borderland, Amanda Boulter finds an element of strong ¨sexual failure and fear¨ in Hodgson´s writings, as well as the idea that the monster is the¨desiring man¨, and that seems equally applicable to this story. (Boulter, ¨The House on the Borderland: The Sexual Politics of Fear¨, in Clive Bloom, Creepers: British Horror and Fantasy in the Twentieth Century, Pluto, 1993)
Less visceral than ¨The Hog¨, but certainly one of Hodgson´s best works is the searingly powerful short story, ¨Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani¨ (which translates as¨My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?¨. The title quotes the words of Jesus on the cross, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The story is also known as ¨The Baumoff Explosive¨). Hodgson died in World War I, and this was one of the last works he produced, not published until after his death, and it constitutes a chilling last word on Hodgsonian horror. It concerns an ¨Experimental Chemist” named Baumoff but, like most Hodgson stories, the story is told through a frame device. The narrator hears it from a friend in a gentlemen´s club, but witnesses none of it himself. The friend, named Stafford, recounts that Baumoff – ¨the most enthusiastic intelligent believer in Christ that it will ever be possible to produce¨ (italics in original) – came up with a theory according to which the Darkness of the Cross, between the sixth and ninth hours of Christ´s crucifixion, was merely an extreme form of a notable phenomenon whereby great emotional stress could produce a darkening in the surrounding atmosphere. This was related to a ¨disturbance of the Aether in the immediate vicinity of the person suffering.¨ Baumoff has discovered or concocted a certain substance which can produce a similar temporary darkening. His idea, then, is to introduce this substance into his own body and to produce effects similar to those the crucifixion had on Christ.
This is where the importance of Baumoff being an enthusiastic and intelligent believer in Christ comes in, implicitly: Baumoff is an almost Christ-like figure, capable of such fine suffering that he is the fittest subject for testing his own invention. Baumoff, then, will undergo the agony of the cross using his ¨explosive¨ and other pain-inducing mechanisms. Needless to say, it does not go well. As a committed Christian, Baumoff is opening himself to God, but in a Hodgsonian cosmos, this is really not a good idea – even aside from the suffering his experiment will entail.
What follows in ¨Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani¨ is perhaps the ultimate statement of Hodgson´s brand of cosmic horror, contained in a short and perfectly formed work without the longueurs, repetitions and misjudgements of The House on the Borderland and, especially, The Night Land. It may be doing Hodgson a disservice to claim his best work is in the novels as his short stories are far more accessible and crafted and one of them, at least, is a masterpiece.