I Get it Now

With thanks to the Deuce, I’ve been looking at some other authors’ Night Land pastiches, as well as Hodgson’s original, and I understand why Wright’s work is held in such incredibly high regard among those who know about this stuff. Hodgson’s original book is interesting and certainly incredibly imaginative but highly flawed, by which I mean the prose is awful. It is written in some weird faux archaic/medieval style that on occasion becomes barely recognizable as what most people would recognize as “English”, bearing only the loosest connection to formal grammatical rules and structure. I get why he was trying it, and even appreciate the attempt, but Hodgson simply doesn’t have the writing chops. His imagination is nearly unparalleled (There’s still Tolkien but that’s hardly fair), but the man is just not good at writing prose.  I like the idea of a futuristic society speaking with a semi-medieval dialect, but I would have liked it more if the dialect was actually believably semi-medieval and not just “crap put together to sound sort of medieval-ish”.

The vast majority of the pastiches seem to take the path that the prose is a lost cause and instead just write their stories in entirely different styles. This is mostly fine but the stories seem less like extensions of the Night Land universe and more like fan fiction set in the Night Land universe, which I suppose is true. Nevertheless, when you read the stories it’s easy to tell that something about the stories is being intentionally altered – perhaps to improve it, but altered nevertheless.

Now enter John C. Wright.

Wright’s prose in “Awake in the Night Land” is perhaps the best I’ve ever read outside of “The Book Thief”. But instead of feeling like the prose of a fan fiction writer it feels as if you’re reading the prose that William Hope Hodgson WOULD have written if he was a good writer. “Awake in the Night Land” is the book Hodgson wanted to write and attempted to write. It has all of the Lovecraftian power of the eerie and fantastical Night Land setting combined with prose that sounds grand, old-fashioned, and formal without sounding absurd and grammatically obscure at best. In fact, the opposite occurred. The prose is positively Promethean in scope and power, and in fact it saves some of the worse sections of the stories just because of how much fun it is to read.

But the remarkable thing about it isn’t even how good it is. It’s that it’s as good as it is while still feeling like prose written for the Night Land. The style of speech isn’t just well-written speech, it is the speech of William Hope Hodgson refined and perfected.

So I’m starting to really get it now. I understand why Wright’s work in this collection is held in such high regard. He took a masterwork of the imagination, kept what made it great, and then improved all of the flaws. How can you not be impressed by that?

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6 Responses to I Get it Now

  1. Hrodgar says:

    To be honest, I actually really liked Hodgson’s writing. Now, I haven’t studied language or writing enough to feel confident saying his prose is in fact good, but I am fairly confident that at the very least awful is something of an overstatement. Yes, it is a bit difficult, and at times awkward, but it is very well suited for the task in hand. It emphasizes the alien nature of that far world, as well as the scope and grandeur, and probably accomplishes some other things which I am not able to discern or articulate.

    And I don’t think he was trying to be faux-medieval. Sure, it was a little bit archaic, but from what I’ve read of other fiction written about that time (including E.R. Eddison, among others), the sort of speech used seems to be fairly common, intended to evoke the feel of odes and ballads and epics more than to imitate actual medieval speech. And even writers like Jules Verne (or, heck, E.E. Smith) use prose that strikes the modern ear as a bit formal and stiff. Read Around the World in 80 days some time; it’s fairly short. Hodgson may not have been a great writer (I think he was a pretty decent one, but claim no special expertise). I am absolutely certain he was not a bad one.

    This helps explain, I suppose, why I tend to hold Wright’s prose in somewhat higher esteem than you. To me, Wright’s prose, with all its clear and unashamed embrace of drama and tradition or even ancientry and the far reaches of the English vocabulary combining with something almost poetic that I have seen in few other writers, is a breath of fresh air, writing that I wish I could speak like. It’s a little like a really solid bass line in a choral piece. Sure, I recognize that basses are support roles, and I even prefer it, and that the bass section must necessarily accommodate itself to the rest of the choir. But every now and then you get a bit where you’re hanging out right at the bottom of your comfortable range and the whole thing comes together and it is just so very satisfying. That’s kind of what Wright’s, and, yes, Hodgson’s (and a few others’), prose do for me. Satisfying is the word, I think.

    Again, I realize that this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re as good as advertised. I recognize that some things I really like aren’t actually that great and somethings that are great just don’t click for me personally, and such study as I have done of stories (other than simply reading them without much analysis) has been more to do with the narrative than the prose in any case. That said, it seems to me that you have mistaken difficult prose for bad prose, and the two are distinct.

    • This helps explain, I suppose, why I tend to hold Wright’s prose in somewhat higher esteem than you.

      Hmmmm, I don’t know where you got that. Quoting me:

      …it feels as if you’re reading the prose that William Hope Hodgson WOULD have written if he was a good writer. “Awake in the Night Land” is the book Hodgson wanted to write and attempted to write. It has all of the Lovecraftian power of the eerie and fantastical Night Land setting combined with prose that sounds grand, old-fashioned, and formal without sounding absurd and grammatically obscure at best. In fact, the opposite occurred. The prose is positively Promethean in scope and power, and in fact it saves some of the worse sections of the stories just because of how much fun it is to read.

      I think that Wright is a brilliant prose writer, and the Night Land stories are the best examples of that.

      I want to stress again.just how much I loved the original novella in the Night Land collection. It was a masterpiece, one of the great fantasy novellas ever written. It flowed with divine power. And I didn’t dislike any of the stories, and I would also say I greatly enjoyed “Cry of the Night Hound”. “Silence in the Night” was a bit anti-climactic compared to the other two, and I’m sorry, I know that some consider this story the best in the whole collection but “The Last of All Suns” is too weird for me to really get into…but it’s good, for sure.

      And even in the weaker stories, the best part is the prose.

      That said, it seems to me that you have mistaken difficult prose for bad prose, and the two are distinct.

      At least I’m in good company. James Stoddard actually re-wrote the book in more modern prose, John C. Wright himself admits he might be the only one who likes the prose, and H.P. freaking Lovecraft said the prose takes away from the book. I want you to go on that Night Land site linked by Deuce and tell me how many people think that prose was good. Two? Three? And that’s counting Wright.

      I don’t think this one is in my head. With that said, Wright seemed to love it and look where it got him, so maybe we really are all wrong.

      • Hrodgar says:

        Eh, like I said, I’m not confident saying it’s really good, only that I like it, and it is not awful. Perhaps we need to define what makes prose awful? How would you define it? I do not expect your definition to necessarily be comprehensive, but it would give us a starting point for reaching some sort of accord on the matter

        Fair enough about esteem for Wright’s prose. I apologize for not reading you more carefully.

      • Fair enough. I don’t have the book in front of me (the computer I’m sitting at isn’t at my house), but I’d say that what I don’t like about it is that it plays fast and loose with grammar, capitalizes random things (some of the stuff adds to the style, some makes no sense), and the old-timey English he attempts feels unbelievable and fake.

    • Also, I love “Around the World in Eighty Days”.

  2. Mudz says:

    I actually liked the prose as well. I echo Hrodgar’s sentiment in that I have no idea if it’s not actually a terrible bastardisation or hilarious caricature with pretensions of antiquity; but I nonetheless enjoyed it with the happy ignorance of a wallowed pig. For me personally, it occupies a good medium between weirdness and readability. (As great as ‘The Worm Ouroborous’ is, it baffled my interpolation occasionally.)

    The grammar was strange, and the cadence of it was alien, the spelling slightly permuted; and in its own way it leveraged a illusion of otherness peculiar to its own setting.

    Not saying you guys are wrong, but just that at the least, I’m dumb enough to enjoy it. 😀

    The only grievance I have against the book is that even early on I was thinking ‘wait, so are we going to watch him walk back over the exact same road again?’ And then he walked back over the exact same road again, and not solving this tedium with say, that conveniently Chekov’d air-ship. (Then again, that’s probably the exact reason it couldn’t be done. Star Trek fantasy and Night Land stranded realism wouldn’t mix well. A scarcity on convenient plot devices.)

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