Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Of the Night Land, and the End of Man

Recently, I stumbled into a website (with the above title) devoted to William Hope Hodgson’s bizarre and beautiful novel, The Night Land, with an array of art, fan fiction, timelines, maps, and essays. The site is very worth checking out, especially the art. For example, this painting of the ab-humans at their meal:

What a chill ran through me at this brooding image, at the looking about of these ghouls at some small sound, at their impending leap to their feet to chase fresh prey. For those new to The Night Land, the novel is set in a future so distant that the sun has burnt out and an eternal dark covers the earth. Humanity through its tampering with the natural universe has long since opened Doorways through which various predatory or malicious Forces have dropped into our existence. The remnants of the species live in the Last Redoubt, a pyramid refuge beset by the misshapen creatures that have populated our dying earth, some of those creatures having burst in through the Doorways which humans learned to open but not to close, and some of them (like those above) our own descendants. Here is one of the Forces, spinning angrily in the forever dark:

William Hope Hodgson at his artistic best presents us with mythic and terrifying nightscapes (never I will forget the screams in the dark and the patter of running feet as unseen and giant creatures chased the fleeing humans across a dry seabed). At his misogynist worst, his narrator makes James Bond and Buck Rogers appear staunch feminists by comparison:

And I shook her a little, for this naughty spirit which did not be gone from her. For I perceived that my manhood had but stirred the woman in her to that strange quick humbleness that had seemed to be only a quenching of her wayward unwisdom...and I to know that Mine Own did be a wondrous maiden, full of all life and spirit, and to be held wisely and to be loosed wisely, all as did be for the best to bring out the uttermost of her goodness which did be in all her being, and to be very lovely, and to make me feel as that I did be a giant that held a white flower very tender; but I to feel also that I did be her Master.

Even that would serve simply as an unabashed celebration of the d/s lifestyle, if, that is, there were any bondage in the book, and if it were not that the hero’s love interest has the intellectual and emotional awareness of a very young child.

But even given the flaws of the novel, the Night Land that Hodgson creates is difficult to forget. It is a hellscape that haunts the imagination long after the initial read.

In this, I realize I am only parroting the reviews of many writers and editors, from Lovecraft to this day. What I want to say separately from this is: the art! the art! It can’t be missed: much of it is as atmospheric and desperate as the novel itself. Also, the timeline and the assemblage of essays and scraps of reviews (on the pages called Night Thoughts and Night Voices) is a prodigious archival feat: the creator of the website is to be commended. Among the highlights are several discussions of The Night Land in relation to The Time Machine, reviews of Hodgson by other writers of science fiction, and extracts from biographical writings on Hodgson. There are also, as you might expect, debates over Hodgson’s treatment of femininity and the erotic. The website is updated with new materials and links a few times a month. If you have read The Night Land, definitely take a look. If you haven’t, view the gallery, and it may be inspiration to track down the book.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle is no longer with us

Returning from vacation to get my fix from the Endicott blog, I have just read the saddest news: of Madeleine L'Engle's death, at age 88. I cannot possibly write an obituary or memorial here that would do justice to our loss. Endicott has written the best memorial there will probably be. But now I find myself picking up my tattered old copy of A Wind in the Door with sadness, such sadness, and my insides are a winter day. Madeleine L'Engle was one of the great ones, and had the deepest heart and spirit - it shows in all of her work. She lived life kindly and fully, and knew, like the characters in Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, how to make the clock strike the right time:

Kairos. Real time. God's time. That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we are constantly checking our watches for chronological time. The saint in contemplation, lost (discovered) to self in the mind of God is in kairos. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside himself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation.

And she understood fairy tales better than anyone:

I am a writer. When I am grappling with ideas which are radical enough to upset grown-ups, then I am likely to put these ideas into a story which will be marketed for children, because children understand what their parents have rejected and forgotten.

She was the first great storyteller I met as a child, and she has been the one to whom I've returned many times as an adult to remind myself to listen to the heart's own music. Losing her is like losing a grandmother. I believe she is in a beautiful place, but she is not here, telling stories.

When I was thirteen, I started writing a letter in my horrible penmanship to tell her how much her books meant. I never finished or sent the letter.

Mourn with me. And celebrate her many books - novels, poems, plays, faith journals (such as Walking on Water, which is the source of the passages I've quoted) - which have taught so many young readers so many things about love, death, loss, faith, art, and hope. Long may her stories live in our memories.

Ciruelo 2008

Ciruelo's 2008 dragons calendar is available - take a look! The art is of uneven quality, but afew paintings are so breathtaking that one would have to be mad to miss out on them. Only Michael Whelan is a match for white dragons!

I seem to be on a dragons kick of late. Does anyone remember Patricia A. McKillip's Forgotten Beasts of Eld? The book appears to have become as forgotten as the magical beasts it celebrates; I have been blessed enough to know a medievalist who remembers it. These days you are only likely to find this book in the young adult section of the bookstore, though it may be a rare young adult who will enjoy it. But ah! what a book. I remember the dragon, Gyld: The great wings unfurled, black against the stars. The huge bulk lifted slowly, incredibly, away from the cold earth, through the wind-torn, whispering trees.

When the sorceress whom the dragon obeys consents to leave her mountain fastness for the sake of love, she and her beau try to figure out where to put the dragon. We can store it in the wine cellar, her beloved remarks cheerfully.

That poor, cramped behemoth with its wings tight around it, sleeping in the dark in the scent of wine.

Another book worth reading - this one more recent - Elizabeth Kerner's Song in the Silence, now a complete trilogy. I must warn you that to read Kerner's novel(s) you must be in the mood for a very starry-eyed romance, but the books are alive with a vibrant and desperate poetry, and a deep humanity. The dragons are truly both new and ancient to the reader, and desperately memorable. There is one scene in which Lanen, the woman who heroes her way dauntlessly through the novel, midwifes a dragon through a breach birth, though the heat of the dragon mother sears her arms almost to the bone. Kerner's imagination is both raw and elegant.