CHECKPOINT BOOK REVIEWS
(An occasional supplement to Checkpoint itself. Books for review are always welcome, particularly those modern novels on the borderline of fantasy or science fiction.)
THE NIGHT LAND (2 volumes) William Hope Hodgson (Pan/Ballantine – 40p)
Some time ago I read Hodgson's short novel, The House on the Borderland, and was surprised to find it enjoyable: it managed to evoke an atmosphere of peculiar horror, by which I mean not only an eeriness of its own making, but also one which seemed to echo half-forgotten nightmares and dismal fantasies of my own.
The Night Land impressed me in the same way. The description of the Last Redoubt and the hellish landscape which surrounds it is potent and monstrous, a fine piece of fantastic horror rarely equalled in a genre which usually offers its readers the lesser terrors of ghastly bad writing. In the remote future the last millions of mankind live on in a gigantic fortress, looking out into the sunless Night Land where the forces of utter evil can dimly be seen to surround the Redoubt, waiting patiently for signs of weakness and the inevitable end. The geography of the Night Land is marked by vast and unknown Things, creatures that occasionally twitch, or nod, or laugh, but always watch and wait, dimly and fitfully lit by pits of fire or bleak and solitary lights.
On this nightmare description of the Last Redoubt lies the success and the limited fame of The Night Land. Unfortunately, this accounts for some fifteen pages of the first volume, and the whole work is 490 pages in length. The rest is pretty terrible. Like The Worm Ouroboros, the novel has a cumbersome opening, soon forgotten (despite continual references throughout the book); it is also written in an absurd, mock archaic language which takes some stomaching. However, these gross faults might almost be excused if the novel had any redeeming virtues. Sadly, it has none. The first volume is a blow by blow account of a tedious quest to a second Redoubt; believe it or not, the second volume is a blow by blow account of the return (where the hero falls foul of all the monsters he just managed to avoid in the outward journey). The inexplicable, unknown, and hellish Things of the initial description soon give way to the hack-writer's bestiary of giant slugs and Really Big scorpions. The hero kills these with his super-battleaxe (though he wastes no time with the scorpions and simply kicks them out of the way). He gets his girl and comes home – this part is (wisely) abridged in this edition, for Hodgson indulges in what the editor calls "High Victorian love scenes", but what I would call petty Edwardian pornography – lots of bathing, tattered clothes, gratuitous stripping, and monsters slashing expertly to leave The Maiden naked; the second volume degenerates into a rather sick erotic fantasy on Hodgson's part.
The virtue of The Night Land lies almost entirely in the second chapter, therefore. The vivid vision of hell is not sustained and the novel drifts wearily into pulp fiction. That one chapter almost makes the whole work worthwhile, however. Take a look at it sometime.
THE SORCERER'S SHIP and BEYOND THE GOLDEN STAIR Hannes Bok (Pan/Ballentine – 40p each)
Hannes Bok is something of a cult figure in fantasy circles, largely because of his artwork. It certainly can't be the result of his fiction, if these two novels are anything to go by. The Sorcerer's Ship is an extremely poor fantasy novel which must even fail by the low standards of sword and sorcery; it's a lacklustre creation even if your tastes are satisfied by action and monsters, or exploring alien worlds. The ship sails about a bit, but the sorcerer isn't very energetic. If you keep reading it on the assumption that something will happen soon (having quickly abandoned any hope of literate entertainment), let me tell you now that nothing does.
Beyond The Golden Stair is so badly written that I just couldn't face it; I think some crooks and gangsters (talking in a child's idea of underworld argot) discover a world of fantasy in Florida. I think I'd almost prefer to read about Disney World. On second thoughts, I'll avoid both. The revelation that Hannes Bok is an exceedingly poor writer leaves me rather disappointed. I had looked forward to reading his novels. Ah well.
THE WINDS OF GATH, TOYMAN, and DERAI E.C.Tubb (Arrow – 35p each)
Three novels from the Dumarest series which have, I believe, been unavailable for some considerable time; I rather think they should have remained that way. They're hack action fiction, progressing by endless series of fights and suchlike climaxes. I must say, however, that they seem competently and even expertly written, given their aims and standards. If you're happy with those standards, then I would seriously recommend them. There's plenty of stuff around (like the Bok, reviewed above) which doesn't even measure up to its own ideals. It seems to me that these Dumarest books accomplish all they set out to do – if you're entertained by simple sf action, then these should provide good reading. Not for me, I'm afraid, however.
TALES FROM THE GALAXIES ed. Amabel Williams-Ellis & Michael Pearson (Piccolo – 25p)
This is a collection of abridged sf stories for kids; I'm not sure what age the editors are aiming at, but I rather question the need for anthologies like this. Any child who can read these can just as easily cope with the unabridged stories ("Exploration Team", and so one), so I really don't see why anyone should go to the trouble of cutting them. A cartoon strip is also included, but one of dubious moral virtue (and there's little beyond the moral). I think I'd turn to a dependable straight sf anthology if I was looking for an sf gift for a kid – this collection is thin and pretty unexciting.
That's about it for this time. I'll briefly mention some of the other paperbacks received recently which I hope to review shortly: Day Million (Fred Pohl – Pan/35p); Beyond Tomorrow (ed.Knight – Pan/40p); the excellent Borges collection, The Aleph (Picador/50p); Briefing For A Descent Into Hell (Lessing – Panther/40p); Travels in Nihilon (Sillitoe – Pan/40p); Mindswap (Sheckley – Pan/30p); and Profiles of the Future (Pan/40p).