In high school we learned about Ypres. Heard of it? (One thing that I’ll say for my small town high school — we got EXCELLENT educations, probably the equivalent of what most people walk away from liberal arts colleges with. Don’t know why we had such a density of fantastic teachers in a little, dry town… but we did and thank god for that) Anyhow, Ypres.
In World War I Ypres stood between the Germans and France. First the allies (just about everyone) took it back from the Germans. Then the Germans used gas. First time. Chlorine and mustard. The third battle ended with half a million dead, a destroyed town, and a couple of miles gained by the allies.
When people talk about WWI and the horror it brought home to the modern world, the shell shocked and disillusioned decade it ushered in, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.
Sometime in April of 1918 a British soldier named William Hope Hodgson was killed by an artillery shell at Ypres.
The irony is astounding.
Hodgson, (read about him on Wikipedia), in addition to having been a mate, a sailor, an early proponent of “Physical Culture”, photographer and philatelist was an author of, among other things, spooky stories.
I highly recommend checking out his freely available works. The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, if you can get past the diction, bears reading. Seriously, why isn’t this a movie? He has a firm hand of the uncanny. But all this is beside my point.
Hodgson might be most renowned for 2 works, both of which were influential on H.P. Lovecraft, The House on the Borderland and The Night Land, and through Lovecraft, pretty much every other spooky story writer you’ve ever heard of, movie you’ve seen or show you watched.
I just read The Night Land, and that’s where I find the irony of Hodgson’s death rich. In a nutshell, the story is about a man in the 17th who falls in true love, his love dies, and he has a vision of sorts of the last humans living millions of years in the future in a giant pyramid amidst darkness (sun’s gone out, you see) and strange giant creatures and whatnot. Really crazy stuff. BUT – here’s what I love. It’s not pessimistic. Consistently, the narrator addresses the fact that it might seem weird to us but everything is just the way it is for these far distant humans. They have not problem living in the middle of a blighted earth surrounded by ab-humans and communicating telepathically. That’s just life.
So there’s the irony. This guy, envisioning the millions of years hence lonely heat death of the earth and the last humans thinks “Hey, maybe they won’t find it so bad.” Then he re-ups as a soldier and gets killed in one of the most terrible fronts of WWI. He didn’t even have time to imagine that humans might take care of themselves well before the sun burnt out, or if he did he didn’t set it to paper.
Why am I writing this?: I’m circling in on something. Hodgson was writing fiction, the Night Land and House on the Borderland in particular, that wasn’t afraid to think big. And people read it. I mean, this stuff is out there, and yeah, the Night Land reads like a veiled, vaguely S&M, completely suppressed sexual fantasy (completely chaste, but every word in the second half feels like it’s carrying some kind of late-Victorian tension) as the protagonist and his true love make their way through the darkness, BUT — like Olaf Stapledon he’s thinking OUT and UP. And I think that’s worth thinking about now, where we’re so vested in the immediate, in the span of our own days not the bigger picture.