In his introduction to The Weird Tales of William Hope Hodgson, a new anthology of Hodgson’s short stories, editor Xavier Aldana Reyes writes: “Hodgson has not always been as well-known or admired, however, and had remained rather forgotten until the late 1980s…it is not difficult to see why. Hodgson’s writing is certainly uneven and…prone to repetition…” But, Reyes writes, Hodgson’s “stylistic shortcomings” are compensated for by his “imaginative invention and ability to conjure up a strong feeling of dread of the unknown”.
I find it less easy to overlook Hodgson’s shortcomings than some contemporary critics and I suspect that the innovation we can see in his writing would have been more evident in Lovecraft’s times – Lovecraft, who spoke very fondly of Hodgson’s work – when we readers were less spoilt for choice. Although, as the British Library’s other recent collection, Doorway to Dilemma shows, there are authors of weird fiction to be found who are much stronger writers.
Hodgson seems to be a writer of good ideas rather than good writing and maybe my tolerance is simply too low to enjoy the weird riches on offer in his stories. And there are plenty of weird riches to be found: abhuman creatures that display a gross evolution of the human form, monstrous marine beasts of unknown origin, and a constant unease conjured by the unknowable.
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However, Hodgson clearly didn’t have any of those annoying acquaintances who, having read a book on how to write a book, like reminding others to “show and not tell.” And it’s a pity, because I think Hodgson would have done well to heed this sort of advice as he continually tells his readers that they, like his characters, should be dumbfounded and terrified, rather than allowing the writing to make the effort.
Out upon the Thing, I saw gleams, horrid and suggestive, below the crests of the waves. I have never seen them until this time. I saw a rough sailorman washed away from the vessel. One of the huge breakers snapped at him!–Those things were teeth. It has teeth. I heard them clash. I heard his yell. It was no more a mosquito’s shrilling amid all that laughter; but it was very terrible. There is worse that death. – “Out of the Storm”, p. 46, conveying the monstrosity and sublime horror of the sea
I was hoping that the Carnacki stories – of which there are four in this anthology – would at least generate some enthusiasm in me, called as he was the “king of the supernatural detectives” in the headline to an article in the Guardian. But these occult goings-on are described in such a tedious manner, it is hard to care whether or not these are genuine cases of the supernatural and none of the events possess the ability to shock or surprise or even simply amuse.
In an effort to see what doesn’t reveal itself to me in Hodgon’s writing, I have gone away and read others’ interpretations and, clearly, there are those, who like Lovecraft, find his stories to have some power. Many of those interpretations seems vastly over-generous in their praise but at they at least shed some light on the virtues of Hodgson’s work. I cannot recommend this collection on the strength of the writing but William Hope Hodgson is an important figure in the development of weird fiction and therefore – especially if you’ve read his work before and liked it – this collection is worthy of your attention.