This week’s read for me is The Night Land, which I last read ten years ago, and previously, ten years before that. That novel, published in 1912, was incredibly formative for me, and I have never read another book that rivals it for extravagance and scope of imagination; in that respect, it dwarfs later science fiction and fantasy. Tolkien and Lovecraft and early sword and sorcery pulp writers all borrowed a great deal of imagery and mood from it; Minas Morgul is the House of Silence rebuilt, and the volcanic and ashen desolation of Mordor owes much to the magma-lit and poisoned emptiness of the Night Land, and the chill dread of the Ringwraiths to Hodgson’s silent Shrouded Ones; Lovecraft’s more abstract horrors are the love-children of Hodgson’s pneumavores and the alien gods of late nineteenth-century horror, and the mood of cosmic, existential horror is something he gets directly from Hodgson, who was less racist than H.P. (by a lot) and probably more sexist; Conan and Jirel of Joiry both fought the offspring of the Night Land’s monsters; Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance both wrote their own night lands in response. The Night Land stands in the distant past of the genre like the Watching Thing in its own pages: grotesque, immense, unmoving, a brooding presence watching a tortured landscape.
The Night Land is both obnoxiously brilliant in its imagination and command of mood, and obnoxiously bad in its treatment of its characters. It is also famously difficult to read, though I think that difficulty is overstated; I personally don’t mind baroque and archaic prose at all, but then, I am an odd duck who once wrote a dissertation on Shakespeare and seventeenth century drama, and who gets more joy out of Homer and Sappho than Hemingway or Heinlein or Asimov.
No, the flaw isn’t really the prose; it’s the author’s shipwrecked commitment to writing an erotic story in the second half of his fantasy novel, impaired by a complete inability to do so. He has a thirteen-year-old Edwardian-era virgin’s idea of how to write a woman or scenes of romantic love, and those parts are just obnoxiously bad. Really obnoxiously bad. His hero and heroine are intended to have a BDSM relationship, but while in another writer’s hands that would be romantic and exciting, in William’s hands… well, there’s only so many pages of ‘she giggled and was most full of Naughtiness, and I did spank her again, as you will understand surely’ that a reader can take.
So I don’t usually recommend The Night Land as a read for my readers, but I mention it as a key influence on the worlds and mood in my fiction. It was the first of the ‘dying earth’ genre, and as a younger writer I wanted to create stories in the dark world of The Night Land, where, millions of years in the future, the Last of Humanity (consisting of the survivors and descendants of every culture on earth) hold cosmic horrors at bay with only heroism, love, and spinning saws that flare and flash in the dark. So in 2014 I wrote Ansible 15715 as a kind of fan fiction (an origin story about the arrival of the pneumavores on our earth); then I wrote another story, and another. And if The Night Land tells the middle of the story of that far-future world, the Ansible Saga — Ansible: A Thousand Faces, consisting of ten episodes ranging from short story to novel in length — dissects and retells the middle and adds the origin and also the story of its end (and new beginning).
Ansible is an elegy for humanity as well as a horror fiction and a love story, and ultimately, against all odds, a tale of the possibility and triumph of love of the other. Like Hodgson’s original, it becomes, midway through, a love story charged with romance, but here the patriarchal power-fantasy hero-telepath and his inexplicably vapid spankette are replaced by a time traveling, shapeshifter, hijabi heroine-telepath and the bi, lesbian, and pan women who love and are loved by her across millons of years of the defense of humanity and across transitions between bodies, species, and worlds. But the mood is intact, and the theme of love and courage when faced with what absolutely appears to be the final dark, in a tale that pendulum-swings between the extremes of utter and irrevocable loneliness and scenes of human intimacy that can survive any nightfall. Like the villain of Ansible 15718 (the fifth of the ten chapters in Ansible), in writing this saga, I devoured what I loved (The Night Land) and took up residence inside its shell and carcass — but I hope that, like the heroines of Ansible, I sung such a song of fresh beauty inside that shell. It is, though, ultimately less fan fiction than a fan-hijacking, where The Night Land becomes a chrysalis for a new tale that nonetheless consists chemically of all the ingredients of the original.
Now Ansible: A Thousand Faces is finished, and has been finished for eleven months. You can find it here: https://stantlitore.com/product/ansible-thousand-faces/ I think it’s my best work. (So far.) If Jurassic Park inspired (at a distance) my dinosaur fiction, and The Night of the Living Dead provoked my Zombie Bible, The Night Land became the rough map across which my Ansibles traveled. It’s The Night Land reimagined from another century’s perspective (our own).
Now I return to read The Night Land a third time, in all its beauties and its awfulness too. I read it for the high-voltage charge it gives to my imagination, making ideas explode in the sky of my mind like dying stars. Again I will curl up in a blanket on the barren Downward Slope with X, alone in a world of total darkness, listening in the terrible silence for the faint, longing telepathic call of the beloved, somewhere out there across the emptiness of a dead world; again I will peer out through the telescopes mounted above humanity’s last library; again I will gaze up in wonder at a crashed spaceship, derelict on a tower of rock for four million years, a relic of humanity’s voyages; again I will stand on the decks of the walking cities, following the dying sun forever westward during the long centuries of the earth’s slowing rotation. And who knows what ideas will drive me to my notebook to scribble and sketch and muse, this time.
I would like to think, maybe a little arrogantly – or maybe just hopefully – that my own Ansible: A Thousand Faces will have that very effect on some other readers and writers, while proving considerably less difficult to read. From the beginning of the earth to the end of the universe and beyond, from a telepathic gift to the australopithecines to a pitched battle in a future of forever night, from a medieval library (in what’s now Uzbekistan) to an alien planet of rain forests populated by sentient trees, Ansible is my imagination run loose and amuck, with all of time and space as its canvas, and I hope you will enjoy the story, which is about the story of humanity as an ever-changing and neverending song, endlessly varied yet woven on one chorus of hope and community, through all of time. And I think you may fall in love with Sahira and Rasha and the Sentinel of the Night Land and their companions. They have quite a story to share with you.
P.S. You can find The Night Land everywhere; it is 109 years old and public domain. There is also a fandom site for it — https://nightland.website/index.php/artwork/image-galleries — with fan fiction and art depicting The Night Land. A little music, too.
You can find Ansible: A Thousand Faces here:
Audiobook, performed by the talented Amy McFadden: https://www.audible.com/pd/Ansible-A-Thousand-Faces-Audiobook/B08KTT9WP2