BEAUTIFUL SHIVERING DOOM & HOPELESSNESS: The Million-Year-Stare in Victorian & Edwardian Fiction & Poetry

I just finished reading THE NIGHT LAND by William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918). The novel’s astonishing vision seems unique to me—and not just unique but boldly so. Unfortunately he confounds the modern reader’s experience with his choice of pseudo-antique poetic language. Nonetheless, the work’s haunting panorama, and strange framing, seems so idiosyncratic to me, and in that way, fresh and powerful. However, it does have similarities with other works, sharing the sublime Million-Year Stare.

THE NIGHT LAND describes the last humans on Earth after the sun dies living in a colossal pyramid, filled with cities. Many vivid physical and spiritual terrors besiege it, such as strange, evil heads tall as mountains, alive but frozen and staring. The physical terrors are one thing, but the spiritual threats to the humans are worse. A kind of spiritual electricity of goodness, the Earth Current, powers and protects the Great Redoubt. Further forces of good sometimes appear in the form of circles of light, or light beams, halting the advance of shuddering terrors. Hodgson frames and weaves into it a love story that, by some kind of transmigration, spans his own time with that millions of years in the future. This love story leads the narrator to find his transmuted eternal lover in a newly discovered Lesser Redoubt, which is failing.

These elements add up to a work full of strata, with depth, and breadth, which give a richness and an aesthetic validity to simply jaw-dropping visions and concepts.

The pseudo-antique heightened prose does feel consistent to me with the spiritual effort to the novel. As a style it contrasts with Hodgson’s more clear efforts in his other fine works. So I think it has a purpose. Unfortunately, I think the prose style is burden that confounds the artistic success.

James Stoddard recently rewrote the prose to fit modern tastes (THE NIGHT LAND, A STORY RETOLD, 2011). I read both versions and thought Stoddard did a good job. In addition to taming the prose, he added a lot of dialog. This improves the “showing not telling” of the story development, and includes new details to do so. I think this should be controversial. However, I appreciate that he did it, and enjoyed his revision–and I’m glad the original is easily available to readers.

Are you familiar with the literary concept of the sublime? As usual there are a lot of interpretations and examples. Mostly simply, I’d say it is the thrill we feel when we read or see a work of art that successfully combined beauty with terror (such as standing before Niagara Falls) . Samuel Taylor Coleridge specified another element, that the sublime element includes a sense of eternity. I think THE NIGHT LAND exemplifies both.

English literary visions of a dark Earth proceed THE NIGHT LAND– consider this example of the Million-Year Stare:

George Gorden, Lord Byron: Darkness (1816)

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
***

In Mary Shelly’s THE LAST MAN (1828), not exactly a dead sun but a black sun signals a plague that kills all of 21st century humanity except the narrator. This makes most of the novel’s political wrangling — the newly established English republic, the Greco-Turkish war, and a false messiah in France — futile, pointless before eternity. The novel ends with solitary narrator’s terrible grief.

As well, Arnold named the spiritual element in his pessimistic landscape of the dying earth:

Mathew Arnold: Dover Beach (~1851)

***
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
***

Of course there’s the wonderfully pessimistic vision of the devolved (de- evolved) earthly landscape the end of THE TIME MACHINE (1895). You no doubt remember the Time Traveller’s visit to the future earth with its decaying sun:

*** ‘”A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.” ***

Cut from that novel was another Time Traveller voyage. He leapt to a time after the Morlocks, but not as far to the dying earth, to a time when humans had degenerated to rabbit-like human things. (These creatures are a gentle form of some of the brutal sub-humans in THE NIGHT LAND.)

I don’t wish to try to pin down one specific inspiration for the individual works. It may be possible; for example, the ash from a volcanic eruption may be a specific contributor to Byron’s poem “Darkness”. I wish to consider it in a broader sense… These ideas are part of the zeitgeist of the era… Do they have something to do with artists feeling the cultural shock of revolutionary scientific discoveries at the same time as a limitation to the increasing freedoms and liberties? Intimations of the limits of both religion and progress?

Is the spiritual optimism in THE NIGHT LAND a kind of Edwardian “Great Redoubt” of resistance?

Well, I think I can only make the suggestion as I did, softened in the form of a question.

The million-year-stare in literature continued after Hodgson—certainly Olaf Stapleton (such as STAR MAKER) comes to mind. But I would like to strike a redoubt of framing these considerations before the French Revolution and after World War I (which killed Hodgson, at the age of 40). After that, well, changes happened faster and faster, and we reached the point where we discuss the possibility of the end of history.

Fortunately, whether history has ended or not, the sun is bright and cheerful as I write. I will go out now and plant tomatoes.

PS: Hodgsen wrote a lot of wonderful weird stories. I enjoyed his sea stories very much. (Happily, he used a clear prose style for them.) I read them all on Kindle.

Links

Hodgson:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hope_Hodgeson

Victorian pessimism, Spenglerian pessimism
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_pessimism

Schopenhauer:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schopenhauer

Byron’s poem “Darkness”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darkness_(poem)

Mary Shelly’s THE LAST MAN:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Man

Arnold’s poem Dover Beach:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dover_Beach

Olaf Stapleton:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaf_Stapleton

Stapleton’s STAR MAKER
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Maker

Dying Earth genre:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dying

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