Pulp Appeal: The Journeys of the Viking Prince (Guest Post by G.W. Thomas)

(Editor’s Note: G. W. Thomas has been a published author since 1987 with “The City in the Sea” in Cthulhu Now! By 1993 he was appearing in Writer’s Digest along with other magazines such as The Writer, The Armchair Detective, The Mystery Review and Black October Magazine. In 1999 he received an Honorable Mention from Years’ Best Fantasy & Horror for “Waking Dream” (Flesh & Blood #4, June 1999). Currently he is focused on writing Mythos Noir with his Book Collector series and Sword & Sorcery fiction.

He lives in the cold, flat part of Alberta, Canada and can be found at http://darkworldsquarterly.gwthomas.org/)

Most Sword & Sorcery fans consider “Crom the Barbarian” by Gardener F. Fox and John Giunta (Out of This World #1, June 1950) the first true S&S comic. One can make the case that even earlier was the Prince Valiant comic strip back in 1937. This strip by Hal Foster influenced everything that came after. Prince Valiant follows the adventures of a knight in Arthurian times, has an encounter with a dinosaur and a witch. Does that make it S&S? Not really since the bulk of the strip isn’t supernatural but a costume drama. Fox’s Crom is truly a Howardian pastiche like no other.

But was Crom the only contender? There was another who came a little later that is worth looking at too. This is “The Viking Prince” by Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert. This comic that appeared in the first twenty-four issue of The Brave and the Bold went through three phases before being driven out by costumed superheroes. 

DC’s The Brave and the Bold began as an anthology of historical adventure comics. “The Silent Knight”, “The Golden Gladiator” and “Robin Hood” shared space with Jon the Viking Prince. From Issue #1 we learn Jon is a foundling who has lost his memory. Jon ends up in a fishing village near Lord Thorvald’s castle. Thorvald plots Jon’s death, for Jon is the rightful heir to the throne. Each episode has Thorvald coming up with a cunning plan to kill Jon, which ultimately fails. All supernatural elements, such as the Hammer of Thor, or an iceberg carved like a dragon, or an ocean volcano prove to be false. The philosophy of the comic is one John W. Campbell would have approved of in Unknown, with science lying behind everything. In this way, “The Viking Prince” was no different than the monthly escapades of Robin Hood to thwart Prince John or Marcus against Cinna. After the second issue, Kanigher handed scripting chores over to Bob Haney and Bill Finger.

After fifteen episodes of fighting with Thorvald and flirting with Gunnda, Bob Haney changed things up. A new origin and a new type of story arrived as well. Jon, still having no memory of his past, sets out to win his kingship by completing the Twelve Tasks of Thor. These include fighting giants, battling Valkyries, defeating living statues (ala Ray Harryhausen’s Talos) and giant fire birds. This second incarnation of Jon was actual Sword & Sorcery. In this version of the comic, Jon is accompanied by a minstrel who can’t speak, only sing. He knows the answer to Jon’s journey but can’t tell him. It is too bad he doesn’t tell us because the thread of the Twelve Tasks of Thor remains unfinished.

A third version of “The Viking Prince” appeared in the last two issues to feature the comic. Once again, the writer switched things up, this time returning to the original non-supernatural historical drama format. It was a sad change that fortunately didn’t last long. Jon is now the son of King Rikk, who Jon must rescue repeatedly from his enemies. 

Through these three incarnations we got to watch Joe Kubert’s art evolve. The initial phase has artwork similar to his early stuff on Son of Sinbad. By the end, it is the mature work we loved years later on Tarzan.

This was not the end for Jon the Viking. Kubert would try to re-ignite interest in the comic during the Sword & Sorcery craze that followed Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith’s Conan the Barbarian, with a reprint volume in DC Special #12 (May-June 1971). Two of the middle period stories were reprinted along with a few new pages for continuity but the experience must have failed. No new The Viking Prince appeared though DC did try with Stalker, Beowulf Dragonslayer, Hercules, Claw the Unconquered, Sword of Sorcery and several others. The only big winner here was Mike Grell’s The Warlord. Kubert would bring Jon back for a Sgt. Rock cross-over in Our Army at War #162-163 and again in Sgt. Rock Special #1 (October 1988). He would appear in later DC comics as well but now he was little more than another superhero.

Jan Duusema and Bob Kanigher would create a new four-parter “Frozen Hell for a Viking” as a back-up feature in Arak, Son of Thunder #8-11 (April – July, 1982). The convoluted tale gives us a youth of Jon and his twin sister, Alisa. Krogg the Red kidnaps the girl setting Jon on a journey that involves having his arm re-attached by a witch after a battle with druids. Along the way, Jon gains companions in the silent bard from the previous comics, Illan, the beautiful redhead who falls for the Viking Prince, Evor the dwarf, court jester turned warrior, and the boy Nikki, who possesses a giant hawk. Together they infiltrate Krogg’s castle, only to have Alisa pointlessly throw herself out a window to her death. Jon kills Krogg before setting out on new adventures that never happened.

In the end we can accept the second version of Jon as the second true Sword & Sorcery comic of the 1950s. “Clawfang the Barbarian” Unearthly Spectaculars #2 (December 1965) would try in the 1960s along with numerous individual stories in the Warren magazines, but it would take powerhouse Conan the Cimmerian to cement the idea of Sword & Sorcery comics for all time. 

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Pulp Consumption: Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” (Guest Post by Anthony Perconti)

Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums.  His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.

I was introduced to the writings of Jorge Luis Borges through the recently departed American fantasists, Gene Wolfe. The two authors shared concurrent interests in exploring grand themes and big ideas in their respective works. Borges is the type of writer that is at once easily accessible and like Wolfe, highly perplexing. His stories are only a few pages long, yet they are densely packed with such information that relates to the metaphysical. One such tale is his 1941 offering, “The Garden of Forking Paths”. Published in English in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in August 1948, “Garden” is a ‘metaphysical detective’ yarn that prefigures such stories as Michael Moorcock’s “The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius” and The Metatemporal Detective sequence. 

“Garden” takes place in the midst of the First World War. Doctor Yu Tsun is a professor of English (of Chinese heritage) living in England. He is also an agent of the Kaiser’s military intelligence apparatus. When Tsun discovers that his cover has been compromised, he is ruthlessly pursued by Captain Richard Madden, an agent of the British Crown.  Narrowly escaping his pursuer, Tsun catches a train out of London to the village of Ashgrove. After wandering around (seemingly) aimlessly through the village, he is directed by a group of youths to the home of Sinologist, Doctor Stephen Albert. In what seems like a shocking turn of fate, Tsun discovers that Doctor Albert is something of an expert on his ancestor, Ts’ui Pen. This ancestor, who retired from the position of provincial governor, sequestered himself in his Pavilion of Limpid Solitude for thirteen years to “compose a book and a labyrinth.” The work of literature (The Garden of Forking Paths) is an indecipherable jumble in which the hero dies in the third chapter, only to be alive again in the fourth. 

Doctor Albert has cracked the mystery; the book and the labyrinth are one in the same.  “The explanation is obvious: The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as conceived by Ts’ui Pen. Unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favouring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost.”

This is Borges tackling the cosmological concept of the multiple worlds or multiverse theory. The Garden of Forking Paths is a tome whose core conceit is an exploration of parallel timelines; where any and all possible outcomes are represented. Nonlinear time is Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth; a constantly bifurcating and ever expanding cosmological tree of divergent universes. Not to spoil the ending of the tale, but suffice it to say that Tsun takes matters into his own hands and creates a new branch in the multiversal tree, while simultaneously fulfilling his duty to Germany in the war effort. 

In the decades since the publication of this tale, the theme of parallel worlds in science fiction has become commonplace. However, it should be noted that Borges was exploring these trippy metaphysical concepts in the early 1940’s; he was a trailblazer in this regard. The concepts found in “Garden”, would be taken up and expanded upon greatly a few decades later by British writer, Michael Moorcock. In Moorcock’s cosmology, every single one of his characters and stories, regardless of genre, are interlinked through the meta-concept of the Multiverse. A fan favorite character such as Elric for example, is just another aspect, another filament, in a vastly larger, interwoven tapestry. Like Tsun and Albert, it is quite possible that a multiplicity of versions of the same characters exist in neighboring timelines. In addition to exploring these grand metaphysical ideas in their fiction, Borges and Moorcock, are also extremely entertaining story tellers. You can’t go wrong with either of their works. A word of warning though; once you start reading them, it’s very difficult to stop.

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Pulp Consumption: Pulp Modern Tech Noir

Yes, this actually captures the mood quite well.

Pulp Modern Tech Noir is the second barrel of bleak dark futurism that came out this fall (the first being from Switchblade which we covered last week). As it turned out, it was originally supposed to be a Switchblade only venture, but Scotch Rutherford had so many quality entries, he was able to talk Alec Cizak into taking some on. If Switchblade’s theme was the deal gone wrong and plans upended, this volume focused on the sex trade of the future because if one thing is true about humanity, it’s we haven’t lost our interest in the prurient, and the writers here don’t think we ever will.

Ran Scott provides a fantastic Blade Runner by way of a red-light district wrap around cover, as well as lead in illustrations for each story to set the tone.

C.W. Blackwell kicks things off with “A Deviant Skein” where a private investigator is brought in to look into a series of suicide bombings at a corporate headquarters. It’s a story that questions where humanity ends and machines begin, and at what exactly is the difference between something able to act human and being human? What will blurring that line cost?

In “The Moderator,” Nils Gilbertson extrapolates what is going to happen to content moderators in the future. Forced not only to watch but to experience firsthand the worst of human depravity and working hard to shield people from viewing it, what toll does that ultimately take on the soul and on the psyche? And what happens when some of the content providers start turning up dead? Can a single moderator get to the bottom of it, or will he find himself next on someone’s list?

Tom Barlow’s “Love in the Time of Silicone” follows a hitman brought in to find out who destroyed a robotic prostitute and kill them. But when the perpetrator turns out to be a cop with at least a bedroom worth of dark secrets, simply putting a bullet in the man doesn’t seem like it would be the smart play. The interesting part of this for me was the world building Barlow baked into the story without needing pages worth of exposition to get there, and a hitman whose greatest weapon is his mind.

“Leaving Red Foot Prints” by Deborah Davitt follows a former security officer down on her luck having had pieces of her soul sliced off by the galaxy a sliver at a time. Now, finding herself on a world where the wind can slice you into pieces, she’s confronted with an alien who is peddling experiences… and some of his customers are ending up dead. But when she is offered the choice, the ability to live someone else’s life instead of her own, is she able to bear the weight of her experiences?

I enjoyed the broken apart narrative of Angelique Fawns “A Time to Forget” with each small snippet from another character’s point of view layering together to build a complete narrative, even as each character is themselves unaware of the whole. A dirty little story of dark secrets and estranged family, of trying to make it through the day and how a little part of you might die with every decision you take… this story is the least tech dependent, but most like our own time now, in that it could be twenty minutes into the future.

What happens when missionaries need colonists for a new world? Well, that’s what J.D. Graves looks into in “Three, Two, One Zebra-Stripe Shake Off” where a prisoner is given an opportunity for a new life on a new world. There’s just the catch where he has to get married first. And they’ve already chosen the bride. And she’s got some of her own secrets to keep. So what’s a man to do except keep his eyes open for an exit, and hope that it’s not too late.

What happens when a company sets out to give everyone their fifteen minutes of fame? What happens when that fifteen minutes lasts a lot longer? That’s what Don Stoll’s “15 Minutes” explores and how it ends up impacting everyday people who are in now way prepared for the fallout that even fifteen minutes of fame (or infamy) can bring.

“Lights Out” by Jo Perry explores what it would be like to be the sole human in a robotic warehouse, responsible for making sure the machines do as the machines are programmed to do. But when something from outside intrudes on the closed system, can even one person handle it? A dark tale that peers into the future of what working for an unnamed ecommerce giant might look like… and the dangers that might bring.

Finally, “Walking Out” by Zakariah Johnson is tale of a prison guard, a warden, a prison doc, and a death row inmate… and how their interests intertwine and compete with each other in a world where antibiotics fail to work so even a minor wound can lead to infection, and implants and replacement organs aren’t viable any more. This is one of those stories where at the end I hate myself a little for having cheered on the narrator, but I can live with that kind of darkness in my life.

So yeah, if you can handle the thought of a dark future, you’re going to want to pick up Pulp Modern Tech Noir.

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Pulp Consumption: Switchblade TechNoir

By now most of the New Pulp and PulpRev folk must have been exposed to the advertising for the crossover event of the year. Yes, I’m talking about the TechNoir special editions of Switchblade and Pulp Modern. Maybe Matt or I will cover the Pulp Modern issue next week, but today I’m going to focus on Switchblade.

First off, the covers for Switchblade are amazing. Editor Scotch Rutherford and I had a brief Twitter exchange this past week discussing good art–prompted by A.B. Patterson‘s tweet about putting together a collection of his stories. I said something about needing to pay good money for good art, and Scotch replied that good covers don’t always have to cost a lot. While that may be true for those with strong visual arts skills, I don’t think either Matt or I have the artistic eye to capture photographs quite the way Scotch can. He may not have to pay an artist, but that’s because he himself is one. And if you like the cover of the TechNoir special, wait until you get a load of the cover photo for Switchblade Issue 11, which is a bit racier than we’d be comfortable publishing on our own covers, but damn what a picture…

Anyway, you didn’t stop by to read a love-fest post from one indie pub to another. You wanted to know if this issue is for you. Well, if you’re here, then TechNoir is clearly for you.

The issue starts off, like many publications do, with an editorial note. If you’d read this note 20 years ago, you’d think Scotch was describing a fictional dystopian cyber-hell from the fevered mind of Sterling or Gibson. But he isn’t. This is a straight-up cataloging of our present, and if that doesn’t set your alarm bells ringing about the direction the world seems to be headed, then the stories that make up this collection damn well ought to.

First up is Eric Beetner’s “Killer App.” This is a tight little morality tale of some sleazy memory pushers who hatch an overly ambitious plan to rob superstars of their memories to sell to junkies on the street, only everything goes wrong. There are elements of this story that wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen Brothers movie, specifically the heist that goes catastrophically belly up upon first contact with reality, sort of the overall theme for this whole issue. While we aren’t yet technologically advanced enough to actually capture and replay memories, if you think humanity won’t find a way to turn memories into narcotic salves to paper over our collective ennui, our existential dread, then you haven’t been paying attention.

“Baby on Board” by Callum McSorley traces a future where Oink, a failed narcotics officer, has taken on a job as an inside man for a burglary ring. The job goes sideways when it’s revealed the group could simply kidnap the mark’s young child for an even bigger payday, something Oink objects to as one of his duties as inside man is caring for the child during late night drives to soothe the baby’s crying.

Up next is John Moralee’s “Bad Score.” The story starts with a woman waking up in a body that clearly isn’t her own. Without giving away too much, the body is a rental as the main character, Maggie, has been killed after getting doublecrossed in a score gone wrong. It seems that messing with the Rebel Preachers and their stash of money is probably not a good choice for a career, especially if your consciousness can be moved about through bodies simply if you have the right insurance coverage.

“Folie a Deux” by Mandi Jourdan reads a bit like the 90’s flick Grosse Point Blank crossed with a bit of Blade Runner. The assassin Drew is cautioned against taking on two jobs back to back and lives to regret ignoring that advice. His mark is more than she seems, and Drew will be forced to pick sides in an underground battle between androids, who can be bought and sold for upwards of $50,000, and a covert human group known as The Division.

“Muscle Memory” by Hugh Lessig is about Custer Barnes, a retired vice president with a failing memory and a war veteran daughter living on the streets who shows up just in time to die in his arms. Custer is something a living legend, with multiple arrests for assaults and murders, and is left to decode a corporate/government health scam that is leading to a rash of apparent suicides among first-generation veterans with electro-mechanical prosthetics.

We’ve already reviewed Nick Kolakowski’s Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, and the story “Night Mayor” is an excerpt from that novel. We really liked that book, and this story is one of the chapters that stood out most for me. The story follows Maxine, a convoy escort driver for a transportation company that maintains some semblance of order in the broken down post-apocalyptic landscape. She encounters a highwayman who calls himself the Night Mayor and is forced to make some tough choices.

“Post-Biological-Stress-Disorder” by Alec Cizak is a rather depressing look at what could be a future devoid of human emotions, particularly from the ruling class that has enough cash to upload their consciousnesses into artificial android bodies. It’s hard to empathize with Deanna Hanson, the main character, as she ultimately chooses to abandon her only connection with humanity, a prostitute named Polly, when their sexual encounters slide off-kilter caused by Deanna’s inability to actually understand emotional connections.

Broadswords and Blasters co-editor Matthew X. Gomez also has a story here: “Galatea in the Garden of Eden.” Being a beta reader for my partner-in-crime here means I frequently get early looks at some stories I’d have paid to read later (many of which I have paid to read later, because you have to support your friends when you’re able). You lucky readers finally get to read a story I first clapped eyes on back in February. The story follows private investigator Tremblay and his paid muscle T’Anna as they are hired by a rich suit-type to trace a woman’s location, only they wind up in a brothel–and in deep over their heads, at least for the moment.

Next up is “Torna Nails, Mindbender” by James Edward O’Brien. A woman is being interrogated but refuses at first to break. Turns out maybe she isn’t the one who is really being questioned, because she is Torna Nails, a mindbender, and that comes with it some real danger for everyone else around. You don’t want this woman mucking about in your head. Come to think of it, how can you even be sure whether she is or isn’t?

And finally, the last story in this issue is “Sundown” by Rob D. Smith. Manny, a former grunt, has tired of his job protecting a stuck-up snob son of a bit-coin magnate, and goes out in style, but that leaves him short on cash and in need of another occupation. And who should walk into a bar while he’s drinking through his troubles but the head of a corporate security firm? If you think the new job is going to go any direction except sideways, have you read anything I’ve written?

Switchblade’s TechNoir special issue can be found at Amazon. So can Pulp Modern’s TechNoir issue and issue 11 of Switchblade.

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Pulp Appeal: The Boonies

The Boonies is a high school mystery film starring tarring Cody Ko, Andi Matichak (Halloween), Calum Worthy (The Act) and J.J. Nolan (You, The Mindy Project). The premise is that a member of the group, Doug, recently died in a horrific car explosion at school. As a parting gift to five former friends, he sends them a message telling them of a fortune of money he hid on the school grounds. To motivate them, he also happens to tell the rest of the school. As a result, two separate groups end up in the mix as well – the Cheerleaders who are after the money, and the Outsiders, the leader of which is the ex of one of the Boonies, along with the criminals who the money belonged to originally.

Meet your heroes

The result is a mash up of The Goonies meets The Breakfast Club, but unfortunately this particular film fails to live up to its predecessors. The main cast comes off as one dimensional (you have the nerdy one, the bitchy one, the goth, the drunken idiot, and the manipulator), to the point where I was a little sad this wasn’t a horror movie. Part of the premise is that in order to survive the night, each of the main characters has to reveal a secret to the other members of the group in order to proceed.

The smug one with the glasses (Doug) sets off the events.

For the most part, the movie harkens back more to the raunchy teen comedies of the ‘80s, but even then it comes off more tame than it might otherwise seem. Unlike The Breakfast Club, there’s no great revelation about any of the characters, no moment of self-realization. Even when the characters do acknowledge how they act, it is a fleeting moment of self-realization that gets remarked but doesn’t result in any of the characters actually changing. The big reveal for one of the characters is that he’s slept with almost all of the female characters in the film. It’s played for laughs, even if there is a meta moment where he realizes why he does that and the effect its had on his friendships. By the end of the film, however, nothing has changed.

The worst part, for me, is that I ended up not caring what happened to the characters. There wasn’t a strong sense that I wanted them to succeed (one of the main characters’ father is referenced as already having a lot of money) and there isn’t a sense that their lives are in any way in bad shape. Compare to the Goonies who are being forced apart due to real estate being bought up, or again, The Breakfast Club, each of which is damaged in some fundamental way that makes the audience care about what happens to them.

What everyone is after.

Then again, maybe I’m hoping for too much from a simple teen mystery comedy. The actors do try their best with the script that’s given them, but I’d have preferred a little more depth to the jokes and the relationships than what was ultimately served up. It’s entirely possible that I’m not the target audience for this film, and I’m hoping for too much out of it. Then again, if you are going to directly reference The Goonies at the start of you film, expect comparisons to be made.

The Boonies will be available November 11th on Amazon, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, FANDANGO.

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Pulp Appeal: MAXINE UNLEASHES DOOMSDAY

Maxine Unleashes Doomsday by Nick Kolakowski
You wish your cover popped like this.

Nick Kolakowski (Boise Longpig Hunting Club, Slaughterhouse Blues, Main Bad Guy, et al) dropped this bomb of a book in our laps with a mad cackle before leaping into a stripped down war buggy with a fifty cal mounted on top…

Okay, so that’s not quite true, but this is one hell of a ride of a book packed with gun fights, snow plow thefts, rogue AI, car chases and crime. It’s a twenty minute leap into the future when the world (or at least humanity) is shuffling a bit closer to the edge of extinction, where all the current problems we’re seeing now (rising sea levels, crumbling infrastructure, corporations at the expense of people) is turned up to 11.

Enter Maxine, a born-loser, born into poverty and crime and with no clear way out. Her mother is reliant on her drugs and welfare and her uncle lives out in the woods, a hillbilly gangster whose word carries further than his deeds. Maxine scrambles and claws and clambers, trying to make her life a better one starting with minor crime but then accelerating into harder and more daring escapades… though often with disastrous consequences. What’s most telling about the character of Maxine is her utter inability to stop going. Granted, it could be viewed that her inability to stop, her sheer unwillingness to bend, is what gets her into the most trouble throughout the book, but damn if she isn’t a more interesting character because of it.

While the world building is spot on, where Kolakowski excels is looking at how the future isn’t so different from the present we live in now. There’s still crime (violent and white collar, sanctioned and unsanctioned), people still fall in love, fall out of friendship, screw up and try to make amends. People carry the weight of their mistakes with them, and that often informs the next mistake they make. The characters that inhabit the book are flawed, dangerous, often broken people physically and emotionally, but they remain extremely human in their approaches to life.

This is a book if you enjoy The Warriors and Mad Max, if you don’t think people will automatically turn on their neighbors at the first sign of things getting rough, and if you think Alexa and Siri might be plotting the downfall of the human race. Honestly, I can’t recommend this enough.

You can grab MAXINE UNLEASHES DOOMSDAY direct from Down&Out Books as well as Amazon and other fine retailers.

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Pulp Appeal: The House on the Borderland (Guest Post by J. Rohr)

Editors’ Note: J. Rohr is a Chicago native known for his dark humor, and love of history.  He can be found online at www.honestyisnotcontagious.com dealing with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life, and on Twitter at @JackBlankHSH.

Horror isn’t always about blood, screams, and terror.  Sometimes it’s unsettling truths which conjure crushing revelations.  Blood washes away, screams fade, but knowledge is inescapable.  It’s almost cancerous.  In that regard, The House on the Borderland is certainly carcinogenic. 

As such, the only hope is that the source of its knowledge is unreliable, perhaps even mad.  However, when the only hope is for an insane narrator there is no hope.  Irrevocable revelations about reality have speared the mind of whoever is lamentable enough to learn:  the dust mites don’t control the universe.  This is an element at the heart of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland.  However, like the cosmos, it isn’t the entirety, merely a disturbing facet; the more looked at the more it bends the world like a hideous lens. 

Published circa 1908, The House on the Borderland, starts in a vein familiar to any horror fan.  Two friends go on a camping trip to fish.  What at first feels like a plot derived from Algernon Blackwood’s novella The Willows soon twists into a surprisingly layered series of unreal events.  Yet, the contents are no less familiar, though this familiarity saves the story from an inadvertent fault in many past works.  The accidental staleness of a plot overused by every writer it inspires.  Here the story feels like discovering the origin of a genre rather than retreading a worn path.

The campers come across signs of a ruin beside an incredible chasm.  Amidst the ruins they find a partially destroyed manuscript.  It’s these pages which propel the rest of the narrative, though this story within a story adds a tantalizing layer.  After all, from there on out it’s possible to consider the growing unease of those reading about the area they’re in. 

The manuscript concerns a recluse living in a mansion with his sister.  His only other companion is a beloved dog named Pepper.  They purchased the place cheap thanks to the location’s sinister reputation.  An ancient structure, locals claim the Devil built it.  The recluse’s reaction: “I neither know nor care, save as it may have helped cheapen it.”  From there the skeptic is hurled into events beyond comprehension, birthing crippling dread in him and the readers. 

It’s hard to relate the exact events without spoiling the entire narrative.  Allow the following to suffice.  However, keep in mind these are just the bones of the beast.

Without warning, the recluse is swept off world in a frightening voyage to an arena surrounded by the tremendous looming visages of bestial horrors which seem statues but may be alive.  After returning home, the mansion comes under attack by a horde of hideous humanoid swine-things.  Their terrible cries assail the house and sanity as they attempt to break in.  Though the swine-things are seemingly defeated, a sense of their presence lingers, especially as the recluse searches for their source in nearby caves.  There it’s revealed the mansion is built atop a veritable bottomless abyss.  The recluse then takes another mind-altering journey wherein he witnesses the very death of the universe, and the graveyard of the stars. 

Once a contented skeptic, the recluse unintentionally witnesses entities beyond comprehension on an alien world.  Then, following a satisfying stretch of shotgun laced action, repelling the swine-things seems to reinvigorate the recluse’s sense of control over reality.  Only to have it striped away by witnessing the death of suns, and the terrible cemetery that seems to consume the corpses of stars.  Made small by the revelation of godlike beings the recluse reclaims a sense of strength blasting swine monsters only to be reminded even the sun is a pinpoint in the sky destined to die.

The story concludes with the campers finishing the read.  The manuscript ends midsentence.  In fact, mid-word.  Whether the recluse dies from suicide, a supernatural infection, or another monstrous entity is open to debate.  The case may be made for all three.  As such, it’s no wonder one camper immediately asks, “Was he mad?”  It’s the only safe presumption after reading what’s described as a “history of a man’s terror and hope and despair.”  Still, even if insane, the recluse’s story is no less disturbing because it contained an undeniable unnerving truth – the insignificance of humanity on a cosmic scale.

Yet, the two campers find it hard to dismiss the manuscript.  Unable to obtain more evidence, they’re left only with local rumors.  That a house existed, yes, but it disappeared when the area flooded, submerged by the sudden appearance of a lake.  As for the recluse, none knew him or his sister because they were, well, reclusive. 

The consequence is an insinuation of truth that can never be confirmed.  For in the absence of proof all is potentially true.  It’s just a matter of what one chooses to believe, and herein lies the most sinister aspect of the story. 

The House on the Borderland, similar to epistolatory narratives like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, constitutes a literary variation on cinema’s found footage genre.  The story is meant to be presented as true.  While the same could be said of any fiction, given the inherent suspension of disbelief expected of all audiences, epistolatory and found footage ask the audience to go further.  To willingly consider the material as documentary rather than fiction.  Yes, the safety of denial always exists, but isn’t that the same denial asking, “Was he mad?”

That said, if merely regarded as fiction, Hodgson’s novel is still a distinct treasure.  The action during the swine-thing invasion is as thrilling as any ever written.  It’s easy to picture the recluse scrambling desperately towards the sounds of windows smashed open, blasting a shotgun at hideous pig monsters.  The tension of exploring the caves is palpable.  Meanwhile, revelations of one’s smallness in comparison to the cosmos, are the kind of grinding slow burn annihilation that linger.  The real horror hitting hours, even days later as that new knowledge metastasizes, corrupting the reader it afflicts. 

It may sound anathema to book sharks, but I found myself often reflecting on a variety of other mediums while reading.  The House on the Borderland conjured memories of playing video games from the Amnesia series.  The hallucinatory voyages into cosmic destruction as well as the general atmosphere of the manuscript left me wondering how Panos Cosmatos, director of Mandy, might bring this to life.  I even wondered how the material might inspire musicians such as Devin Townsend, Sleep, or Carpenter Brut.  The point being, this book lights up a reader’s brain. 

It’s no wonder author Terry Pratchett referred to it as, “the Big Bang in my private universe.”

The House on the Borderland is a treasure for any fan of cosmic horror.  It’s a brick wrapped in gold foil bound to smash cosmic nihilism into a reader’s brain.  Because one can kill dozens of swine-things, but the sun will still burn out, the universe ends, and no one will believe you even existed.

Editors’ Note: In 2000 the book was adapted by DC Comics Vertigo imprint. The graphic novel mostly follows the novel, but the ending definitely does not. I’ll leave the quality of that decision to readers to determine, but I’m not a fan.

Cover of the Vertigo imprint graphic novel adaptation of The House on the Borderland
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