Classic Review: House on the Borderland
There are a lot of people that will tell you that H P Lovecraft is the point of origin for all weird fiction, and while he certainly left his grubby squid smelling handprints all over the genre, weird tales mingling fantasy, horror and science fiction stretch back quite a bit further than that particular racist. There were a plethora of earlier writers turning out stories just as insidious through the years, including my personal favourites Robert Chambers, who produced the haunting King in Yellow stories and Ambrose Bierce who wrote weird tales just as proficiently as he lived one.
If you want to pinpoint cosmic horror in these older stories there are sprinklings of it here and there but there is only one novel that really hammers it home. The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is not the easiest book that you are ever going to read and towards the end it goes in the direction of many old scifi books, zipping off into universal concepts and treating the reader to a kaleidoscope of ideas and impressions without ever rooting them in any specific meaning.
The main plot of the book before it goes ambling off among the stars, is told through the diaries of an unnamed narrator, generally referred to as “the Recluse.” This book may be the very first example of the “found footage” horror genre, playing with its framing device by having whole sections of the story missing due to damage inflicted on the diary during the events that are described and the aftermath.
The Recluse lived with his sister and dog in the titular house in rural Ireland and gradually comes to realise that the house occupies a strange position on the border between different dimensions. Despite framing himself as supremely rational, he experiences visions and encounters monstrous creatures. These monsters eventually lay siege to the House, in what may also be the first example of a “spam in a can” horror scenario as he tries to fend them off. While rationality would normally make a person flee these circumstances, the Recluse remains because one of the people that he visits during his pan-dimensional explorations is the lost love who drove him to his life of solitude, with the implication that in the “real world” she has died.
The passages when he is being attacked by the “swine things” that are neither human nor pig, for all that the prose is a little purple in places, are genuinely unsettling and the depth of description given to the house grants it a degree of unwanted reality. The strongest part of the story is in its construction. Due to his isolation, you are never entirely certain how reliable the narrator is, with the only other human being in his life, his sister, described by him as having gone mad during the attack of the swine-things to the degree that she insisted that it had never happened.
This book, like most weird fiction, sits on the borderlands between the genres of horror, scifi and fantasy, and it would be of a great benefit to any fans of those three genres to read it. Fair warning though; dogs lovers may be a little upset by the fate of the Recluse’s stalwart canine companions.