Today, I’d like to examine a recurring symbol in the work of my favorite weird author.
In his “Dying Earth” epic The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson depicts a bleak future in which the sun has died and the earth exists in a state of perpetual darkness. The last remnants of humanity have taken refuge inside a superstructure dubbed the “Great Redoubt,” which provides protection not only against the harsh physical conditions outside, but also from “Evil Forces” that prey upon the human soul.
While many of these “Forces” are distinguished by the sounds they make, the most threatening is characterized by its silence:
. . .there stood, very far away, the House of Silence, upon a low hill. And in that House were many lights, and no sound. And so had it been through an uncountable Eternity of Years. Always those steady lights, and no whisper of sound—not even such as our distance-microphones could have discovered. And the danger of this House was accounted the greatest danger of all those Lands.
The silence is not merely physical, but spiritual as well. After a group of youths are drawn in to the House of Silence, the telepathic narrator fears he will be overwhelmed by their feelings of “agony,” but instead, “there came no sound, to the hearing of the soul; neither then nor in all the years that were to come; for, in verity, had those Youths passed into a Silence of which the heart cannot think. ”
In Hodgson’s short story “The Whistling Room,” the paranormal antagonist is characterized by the sound it produces (the eponymous whistling), yet as in The Night Land, Hodgson uses silence to convey the danger it poses:
I realised [sic] that the room was full of an abominable silence; can you understand that? A sort of purposeful silence, just as sickening as any of the filthy noises the Things have power to make. . .the beastly quietness of a thing that is looking at you and not seeable itself, and thinks that it has got you.
As with the House of Silence, the presence in the room is explicitly stated to pose a threat to the human soul.
This motif of silence as representing danger to the soul also appears in Hodgson’s short story, “The Hog.” As the soul destroying antagonist of that story manifests its presence, the narrator becomes aware of the room’s silence having a tangible quality:
The way in which my brain insisted that the silence was trickling round the room, interests me enormously; for I was either in a state approximating a phase of madness, or else I was, psychically, tuned to some abnormal pitch of awaredness and sensitiveness in which silence had ceased to be an abstract quality, and had become to me a definite concrete element, much as. . .the invisible moisture of the atmosphere becomes a visible and concrete element when it becomes deposited as water.
A final example to consider comes from Hodgson’s novel The House on the Borderland. In one particularly memorable sequence, the narrator’s soul is drawn out of his body and pulled across the universe to an unimaginably distant world. There, the narrator sees a vast “amphitheater of mountains” characterized (naturally) by its silence:
From a rapid survey, my glance passed quickly upwards, along the slopes of the circling mountains. How silent they were. I think that this same abominable stillness was more trying to me, than anything that I had, so far, seen or imagined.
Note that Hodgson’s phrasing here (“abominable stillness”) is nearly identical to his description of silence in “The Whistling Room,” suggesting he wanted to use silence to convey the same effect in both instances.
As the narrator looks up at the mountains, he discovers that he is surrounded by gargantuan figures who he recognizes as pagan deities. The two he names explicitly are “Kali, the Hindu goddess of death,” and “the ancient Egyptian god Set, or Seth, the Destroyer of Souls.”
I’ll admit here that I don’t know enough about Egyptian mythology to say whether or not Hodgson’s description of Set is accurate; however, for the purposes of this analysis, it doesn’t really matter. Within the world of the novel at least, Set is the destroyer of souls. Thus, we see that this place is linked to both death and soul destruction.
From the above examples, one could infer that Hodgson frequently uses silence to represent the annihilation of the soul. While this is not an inaccurate interpretation, it fails to consider the full complexity of Hodgson’s use of silence. We’ll see this in my next post in which we’ll consider instances where Hodgson uses silence to the opposite effect of the examples we’ve seen so far.
Until Next Time. . . .