The book begins in the 17th century. The narrator recounts his wooing of his love, the Lady Mirdath and her death after she gives birth to a child. He experiences a vision of the far future when their future incarnations will meet again.
His future self lives in the Last Redoubt, a gigantic pyramidal structure which houses the last remnants of humanity on an Earth plunged into eternal night. The Last Redoubt is encircled by monstrous horrors waiting through millennia for its power source (the Earth Current) to fail. These nightmarish creatures and forces map out the surrounding landscape with names that really capture their power and horror: the House of Silence, the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk, the Watching Thing of the South-East, the Valley of the Hounds are so on. I had not really expected the geography to be so busy or so poetic.
The hero makes mental contact with a woman from a lesser redoubt, a reincarnation of Mirdath. When the earth current protecting her people fails, he dons armor like a knight of old, and sets out to find her.
Sounds pretty compelling, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the book itself is much less so.
Firstly, there is the language barrier. Because the book is written from the perspective of a 17th century gentleman, Hodgson employs a lot of archaic terms and spelling which might put people off. Having said that, I got used to these stock words pretty early on and they were worn into my memory by repeated use.
Everything is repeated repeatedly. The most egregious example is the focus on food and sleeping. Let’s take a few examples of the former for a moment.
I did ope my scrip, and take thereform three tablets, the which I chewed and did eat.
And I sat me down in a little clear place among the bushes, and did eat three of the tablets.
And I eat my three tablets, and drank the water that I did get from the powder.
I eat two tablets, the while my belly did cry out for an wholesome and proper filling
I should now eat four of the tablets
I eat two of the tablets and drank some of the water
And here I eat four of the tablets; for truly so many were my due
I had eat three of the tablets, and drunk some of the water.
And it goes on and on, a dreary, lulling beat between digressions and places where nothing happened, other places where something almost happened. and the occasional place where something actually did. It became so numbing that when some crisis occurred it took a surprising length of time for its import to seep through my oppressing ennui and my emotions to properly engage with the narrative once again.
This improves somewhat once he finds his beloved. There are some frenetic scenes and powerful images. However, they are islands on a sea of gloppy sentimentality out of place with the supposed omnipresent danger the hero and his companion face. It’s as if the lights go on for vast sections of the book, the birds begin to sing, and flowers blossom.
Worse, this syrup is tainted with poison. In the midst of all the repetitious talk of love and devotion and the daintiness of the girl’s feet, the main character considers whipping his ‘Baby-Slave’ for an act of ‘naughtiness’, considers it again and again, before finally acting on his impulse. The first mention of whipping her killed any sympathy I had for him, and the later incidents confirmed my initial reaction.
The Night Land is often described as a flawed masterwork. In some ways, the deliberately aged language inadvertently works to excuse its glaring faults. It fools the reader into placing it into the 17th century instead of the year it was published (1912). War of the Worlds was already over a decade old for example.
I think it would be more accurate to say that this work contains elements of imaginary brilliance combined with baser and more toxic substances to form an ore that glitters at a distance but is dull up close. It is up to you to decide for yourself if it is worth the effort to extract the value from it.