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Fear and Nihilism in The House on the Borderland
The saying goes that the greatest fear is fear of the unknown. H.P. Lovecraft is famous for this sentiment in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and he should know - the man of Providence is credited as the father of modern horror. I think that, as prescient and true as this statement is, Lovecraft’s definition of horror is slightly inaccurate. It doesn’t go far enough. The unknown can be conquered, but the unknowable is something that truly puts us in our place.
I realized this after reading William Hope Hodgson’s 1908 novel The House on the Borderland, a seminal text in the weird fiction genre and one of the most beloved horror books on my shelf (Lovecraft would agree, having named Hodgson as one of his great influences). Following in the Gothic tradition, the story is presented as a found manuscript, with bookends detailing its discovery and footnotes from a fictional editorial staff.
The fictional document that makes up the brunt of The House on the Borderland is written by a meticulous hand and details a hermit’s time in a strange house under siege by pale, swine-like man-things and a cosmic journey to the center of all universes. In the final third of the book, the titular structure allows the hermit to travel through time at an advanced speed. He witnesses the death of our planet and the solar system before floating, bodiless, before a great green sun for three isane chapters of hallucinatory void-gazing.
Lovecraft named Hodgson as a major influence in his Yog Sogothery, and in these three cosmic chapters the literary lineage is clear. Celestial bodies that bear something resembling sentience, the horror found in differences of scale and the awe inspiring majesty of realizing your own insignificance: these are all present here in their most distilled forms. It is absolute cosmic horror and yet, it is at this point that the book lost me.
A single line summoned my 21st century humanity into Hodgson’s portrait of horrific objectivity. As the hermit’s consciousness dwells for aeons in the green light of the star he muses:
“And then, suddenly, an extraordinary question rose in my mind, whether this stupendous globe of green fire might not be the vast central sun - the great sun, round which our universe and countless others revolve.”
That’s not how the universe works, I thought to myself. There is no central sun. Hodgson, that poor bastard, brought too much of his immature turn-of-the-1900’s “science” into his book hoping to lend a little extra force to the existential gut punch of is more celestial chapters.
Over a century of scientific progress separates the words of The House on the Borderland and the astronomically enlightened world of today. We have some very detailed ideas about how the universe started, the shape it has taken, and how it will end (if indeed it ever will), and none of them involve a massive, green, possibly sentient globe of burning gas.
I thought it was a shame that Hodgson’s influential novel dated itself in such a crippling manner. Until that pseudo-scientific line, I had been amazed at the book's ability to truly stand up to the test of time. The House on the Borderland is early 20th century horror that feels fresh, modern and relevant.
The book is written in such a way to effectively produce maximum feelings of littleness. When the hermit goes on otherworldly journeys beyond the borders of human reality, he is guided by a will that is not his own. The effect is the feeling of an incredible planetary clockwork that has no room for even the most basic free will. We are thinking things guided through a violent lifetime which bears no significance on the machinations of the universe(s). Only Hodgson’s universe isn’t the one I know. How could it be? The initial steps in the development of the Big Bang theory wouldn’t be taken until four years after the book's publication.
But, as time went on, after I finished the book for the first time, the images of that green star stuck with me. When I look into the night sky I imagine the pale green light of the central sun, so immense in size and so far away, and it feels less impossible to me. Not because I don’t know any better, but because maybe I can’t know any better.
According to a 2008 article in Time Magazine, Neil deGrasse Tyson is kept up at night by a horrific question of cosmic proportions: are we intelligent enough to figure out the universe? It is certainly worrisome quandary, especially coming from a man who has become the go-to face, voice and wiggly fingers of science.
Having taken up the torch from Carl Sagan before him, Tyson’s vocation positions him on the border of humanity and the void. He lives his life in the proverbial house on the Borderland. That’s why his admission of fear is so troubling to hear. We rely on Tyson and his colleagues to stare into everything that is untouched by humanity and bring us answers, but he worries we’re just not the right living things to find them.
In essence, the worry described by Tyson is flirting with epistemological nihilism, the hyper-skeptical philosophy that it is impossible to know anything. He looks into the void and finds one growing in himself - an infectious nothing that serves to negate humanity with cosmic objectivity.
In that revelation, there is the true transcendent fear inspired by Hodgson’s hundred year old text. Just like the author could not have known the nature of the universe at the time of writing, neither can I right now as I type this very sentence. Sure, I concede that the specifics of Hodgson’s terrible cosmos are very likely inaccurate, but mine will probably look similarly primitive come 2108. My precious Big Bang theory will be my shameful Central Sun.
The quest to find our place in the universe is arguably the most pragmatic and noble pursuit a human can dedicate himself to. When faced with the base inability to understand the cosmos, however, our science - just like faith - becomes a fragile teather we cling to as we move through a dark clock work we will never even know exists. Barring a psychedelic trip through time and space, the clockwork will forever be unknowable and, to quote the late Terry Pratchett, commenting on The House on The Borderland, “This is where the screaming really starts.”