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.