Terry Pratchett’s 1988 summary of The House on the Borderland begins: “Man buys House. House attacked Nightly by Horrible Swine Things from Hole in Garden. Man Fights Back with Determination and Lack of Imagination of Political Proportions.” It ends: “The journey to the Central Suns sold me infinity.” Infinity is a rather lofty reward for persevering through a battle with pig-men. But Pratchett was right. William Hope Hodgson’s novel, published in 1908 (but likely written in 1904) is one of the most startling accounts of infinity that I’ve ever read.
The novel came to me serendipitously: my friend Mike stumbled across it while googling some Dungeons & Dragons thing called “Into the Borderlands.” He read the book, loved it, and passed it on to me. I read it with no knowledge of who Hodgson was or what I was getting into. As an immigrant, I often experience the delight of belated discovery: Frederick Douglass, Star Wars, Lolita. But with Hodgson, I’m not alone. After his death in Ypres at age forty-one, Hodgson was mostly forgotten until a brief—and apparently unsuccessful—revival in the thirties. When fiction reappears after a spell of obscurity, we often say it was before its time. To me, The House on the Borderland is untimely in another, more enthralling way: it undoes time. It begins conventionally enough. The narrator (a figure for the author) and his friend decide to take a fishing trip to “a tiny hamlet called Kraighten” in the west of Ireland—an unusual place for a vacation, but a classic frame for a Gothic tale all the same. One day, the two men go exploring. Tracking a strange spray of water shooting up above the canopy, they find themselves in a kind of jungly lowland with a pit in the middle of it. Jutting into this pit is a protruding rock, at the tip of which sits the ruins of an old house. In the rubble, they find a half-destroyed book—a diary. Smoking their pipes at camp that night, “Hodgson” reads it aloud.
The entries feel at first like a haunted-house story, with echoes of Edgar Allan Poe: a rambling old mansion bought by folks from out of town, a canine companion named Pepper who tugs at our heartstrings, intimations of a long-lost love, and a hero unaccountably drawn to investigate holes in the ground. But then the diarist recounts a strange vision of spinning out into the universe and descending upon an unearthly plain ringed with mountains, a black sun limned by a ring of fire hovering over it. In the middle of the amphitheater, he sees what appears to be a replica of the house in which he lives on Earth—this one, though, has an eerie, green glow. In the mountains above, he makes out the giant shapes of ancient gods—Kali, Set—and a hideous beast that moves “with a curious lope, going almost upright, after the manner of a man. It was quite unclothed, and had a remarkable luminous appearance. Yet it was the face that attracted and frightened me the most. It was the face of a swine.”
This creepy vision turns out to be prophetic. Soon the novel tells the strange tale of a battle between the diarist and a horde of these pig-men, of smaller size but fleshier and more horrific presence than the vision. Hodgson ingeniously weaves together the horror of Circe turning Odysseus’s men into pigs, the biblical overtones of demon-possessed swine, and the pig-human hybrids of H. G. Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau. Indeed, the prose begins to resemble something out of Wells, as a science-minded explorer tries to discern the line between the unnatural and the supernatural. The narrator’s experiments are exaggeratedly methodical, which of course makes us skeptical of him. When the horde vanishes without a trace, his sister seems afraid of him and makes no mention of the pig-men. Later, he measures a subterranean pit in the cellars of the house by placing candles around its perimeter: “Although they showed me nothing that I wanted to see; yet the contrast they afforded to the heavy darkness, pleased me, curiously. It was as though fifteen tiny stars shone through the subterranean night.” His efforts to map space seem futile or, rather, aesthetic. There’s a tinge of the sublime horror of weird architecture and eldritch space to all of this. In effect, this metaphor, which likens the abyssal candelabra to stars, converts an obsession with space into an obsession with time.
The narrator is reading (“curiously enough”) the Bible when he has another vision. It begins with a sound: “A faint and distant, whirring buzz, that grew rapidly into a far, muffled screaming. It reminded me, in a queer, gigantic way, of the noise that a clock makes, when the catch is released, and it is allowed to run down.” But the clock in the study is in fact speeding up, the minute hand “moving ’round the dial, faster than an ordinary second-hand,” the hour hand moving “quickly from space to space.” The narrator looks out the window. What follows—a kind of ekphrasis of time-lapse film—is astonishing. While The Time Machine (1895) also describes time sped up, to my mind, Hodgson’s language and imagery far surpass Wells’s.
Surrounded by the “blur” of “world-noise,” the narrator watches the sun go from orb to arc to streak to flicker to quiver of light. He sees clouds “scampering” and “whisking” across the sky; the “stealthy, writhing creep of the shadows of the wind-stirred trees”; and when winter comes, “a sweat of snow” that abruptly comes and goes, “as though an invisible giant ‘flitted’ a white sheet off and on the earth.” He sees “a heavy, everlasting rolling, a vast, seamless sky of grey clouds—a cloud-sky that would have seemed motionless, through all the length of an ordinary earth-day.” He grows used to “the vision of the swiftly leaping sun, and nights that came and went like shadows.” The advancing edge of a black thundercloud flaps “like a monstrous black cloth in the heaven, twirling and undulating rapidly.” He catches “glimpses of a ghostly track of fire that swayed thin and darkly towards the sun-stream … it was the scarcely visible moon-stream.” Poor Pepper turns to dust. His own face has grown old in the looking glass. Eventually, he sees a long, rounded shape under the “aeon-carpet of sleeping dust” in the room—his corpse. It has been “years—and years.” He has become “a bodiless thing.”
At this point, the novel gets even weirder, merging spiritual and scientific language into a grand, universal theory of ghosts, angels, demons, heaven, hell, as well as planetary orbits and star deaths. Our ghostly narrator repeatedly hints that he has reached the end of time—yet time presses on. He drifts, without will, into unknown dimensions via large bubbles with human faces locked within them. Eventually, he watches as his house on the borderland—the borderland between what and what exactly?—is overrun with pig-men, set aflame as the Earth flies into the sun, and then rises again in the phosphorescent incarnation of the house from his first vision. He is borne toward it, steps inside, and wakes in his study. All is well, it was just a dream … except that poor Pepper is still a heap of dust.
The House on the Borderland closes with the vengeance and the patness of genre fiction. Pig-men, of a sort, return. The narrator gets another dog, who is also sacrificed to plot. H. P. Lovecraft (of all people) noted a touch of sentimentality to the novel, too. But I have never read a more remarkable account of time beyond a human scale. This account feels especially worth revisiting now, when time poses a new problem for humans: we’re running out of it. Or it’s running out of us—we are the grains of sand falling through the thin neck of years left before we reach three degrees too far.
How can we conceive of the time of climate change, the time of planetary death? The House on the Borderland tried to conceive of exactly this a century ago. Yes, the narrator’s acts are fruitless. He gets haplessly carted about the universe to witness the end of time, which never really ends, is always at the edge, nearing an asymptote, on the borderland. Sure, his diary breaks off midspeech and Hodgson slams the frame story shut with an unsatisfying clunk. Still, I urge you to dwell in The House on the Borderland, to explore both its means—its ragged form and otherworldly atmosphere—and its ends: the sublimity and humility of recognizing just how uneasily we sit within the endless spinning of time.
Namwali Serpell is a professor of English at Harvard University and the author of Seven Modes of Uncertainty (2014), The Old Drift: A Novel (2019), and Stranger Faces (2020).
Excerpted from B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites, edited by John Plotz. Copyright © 2021 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. B-Sides—a celebration of great books that time forgot—is also a series at Public Books.