The Lovecraft Reread

Measuring Doom With Precision Instruments: William Hope Hodgson’s “The Hog”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at William Hope Hodgson’s “The Hog,” first published in Weird Tales in 1947 but certainly written much earlier since the author died in 1918. Spoilers ahead.

“I’ve heard it. A sort of swinish clamouring melody that grunts and roars and shrieks in chunks of grunting sounds, all tied together with squealings and shot through with pig howls. I’ve sometimes thought there was a definite beat in it; for every now and again there comes a gargantuan GRUNT, breaking through the million pig-voiced roaring—a stupendous GRUNT that comes in with a beat. Can you understand me?”

Summary

Beside a cozy postprandial fire, narrator Dodgson and other friends listen to Carnacki the Ghost Finder’s tale of a recent catastrophic experiment. Dr. Witton, a decent but intractably practical physician, told Carnacki about a patient called Bains. Carnacki thinks Bains might have a gap or flaw in the “protection barrier” which would otherwise spiritually “insulate” him from the “Outer Monstrosities.”

Carnacki invites Bains to visit. Bains describes dreams so real they seem like actual experiences. In them he wanders a “deep, vague place,” surrounded by unseen horrors, a “hellplace” which some “sudden knowledge” insists he escape. He fights to wake before he turns the corner beyond which a soul-destroying monster waits. He seems to wake, sees his room around him, but the “real” Bains remains in the hellplace. Rigid in bed he makes an agonized effort and reunites body and soul. Then, as he lies exhausted, he hears from enormous depths piggish grunts and squeals and howls. At regular intervals, a stupendous GRUNT punctuates the swine chorus. Is he bound for a madhouse, or can Carnacki help him?

Carnacki’s willing to try—though he warns Bains of the danger, and the need for absolute obedience. He prepares his experimenting room with his new “spectrum defense”: seven glass vacuum circles, concentric, laid on the floor. The outermost produces red light, the innermost violet, with orange, yellow, green, blue and indigo circles in between. Carnacki controls the lighting of the circles with a keyboard and can try out many combinations. Red and violets, he knows, are most dangerous, as they have a “drawing” or focusing effect on forces, whereas blue is “God’s own” color. (He must use the spectrum defense with Bains as he wants both to draw energies and defend against them, whereas his electric pentacle will only defend.)

Bains confesses with shame what he omitted before—he grunts along with the pigs while recovering from a dream bout. Carnacki outfits them both with rubber suits and has Bains lie on a glass-legged table within the spectrum defense. He attaches an electrode band to Bains’s head, and to a glass disk composed of intricately twined vacuum tubes. Now Bains must concentrate on the pig noises he hears when waking, but for God’s sake, he mustn’t fall asleep.

Carnacki uses a modified camera and phonograph to capture Bains’s thoughts and translate them into sound. Sure enough, he’s treated to the swine chorus and punctuating monstrous GRUNTS. Another phenomenon draws his attention—a circular shadow is forming under Bains’s table. Carnacki tells Bains to stop concentrating. But Bains has fallen asleep, and Carnacki can’t wake him, though Bains opens eyes mad with horror. Then Bains starts grunting. The shadow widens like the mouth of a black pit, into which they appear to sink even as the floor remains solid under Carnacki’s feet.

Carnacki lifts Bains but can’t carry him out of the defense, for “dangerous tensions” surround the spectrum circle in the form of a swirling black funnel cloud. Desperate, he tries to recall Bains’s wandering “essence” by pricking blood from him. Of course as the Sigsand mentions, blood also calls the Monsters of the Deep. The pit mouth spreads to fill the whole defended zone. To escape Carnacki steps between the lit violet and indigo circles, cradling the rigid Bains. Now they’re trapped between pit and funnel cloud!

The room shakes. A storm of swinish noise surrounds the stranded men, punctuated by gargantuan GRUNTS from the pit. The silence that follows presages such spiritual doom that Carnacki considers shooting Bains and himself. Down in the pit a luminous spot appears and slowly rises. It resolves into a tremendous pig-face. Meanwhile pig snouts and trotters momentarily pop out of the swirling funnel-wall, and Bains’s grunts answer the renewed chorus.

Carnacki realizes the pig-face is that of the Hog, which the Sigsand calls an Outer Monstrous One, once powerful on the earth and eager to return. With Bains as a conduit, it’s on its way!

Only a psychic message from the inscrutable “Protective Force” stops Carnacki from using his pistol. Instead he starts dragging the blue-emitting vacuum tube outward, along with Bains. The funnel cloud recedes before it. Oops, the Hog physically possesses Bains, who rushes on all fours towards its now protruding snout and eye. The blue circle traps Bains, however. He tries to shove Carnacki out of it, but Carnacki manages to dodge and tie him up with his suspenders.

The inexorably rising Hog lifts the inner violet tube and melts it. It starts lifting the indigo circle, the only defense left between it and the men. Luckily “certain Powers” are watching from afar. They send a dome of green-striped blue light which dispels Hog and funnel cloud, no problem.

Bains wakes, thinking he’s dreamt again. Carnacki hypnotizes him into a sleep from which he’s commanded to wake if he has any more such dreams. All that remains of their ordeal is the melted violet tube and damaged indigo one.

End of tale. During the question and answer session that follows, Carnacki describes his theory that Earth (and presumably other planets) are surrounded by concentric spheres of “emanations.” The Outer Circle starts about 100,000 miles off and extends five to ten million miles out. In this “Psychic” Circle reside such forces and intelligences as the Hog, which hunger for the psychic entities or souls of men. Got that? Dodgson says yes and no, but Carnacki’s too sleepy to lecture on and says good night.

What’s Cyclopean: Carnacki really likes the phrase “spiritual insulation from the Outer Monstrosities.” We do too, maybe even enough to say it twice like he does.

The Degenerate Dutch: Carnacki’s world appears to consist solely of upper crust British gentlemen—not only no women or people of other ethnicities, but no one who can’t be imagined smoking a pipe.

Mythos Making: Carnacki’s books and rituals later appear in Mythosian stories by Ramsey Campbell and Barbara Hambly.

Libronomicon: The Sigsand manuscript speaks about colors in the most ominous terms. Maybe Lovecraft had a point when he made his “color” with no reference to the everyday spectrum, because “the devil gets totally freaked out by reddish purple” isn’t the most awe-inspiring concept.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Bains’s original doctor thinks him “booked for the asylum.” Carnacki begs to differ.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

You all know that I can be pretty picky when it comes to the Mythos. However, my detached analysis goes completely out the window when it comes to Mad! Science! Mad Science Mythos just makes me bounce and declaim Capitalized Equipment Specs squeefully at my wife: The New Spectrum Defense! Dream Recording Record Players! By Jove! Carnacki announces, “I must tell you,” before imparting minute descriptions that never come up again—oh, it’s beautiful!

“There may be horrible danger.” And horrible dialogue. Wonderful, horrible dialogue. “Now, just let me fix this band on your head.”

But then, just as I’m settling in for a really good goggle-eyed rant, the tone shifts. All this absurdity at the beginning, and then imperceptibly we shift ‘til we’re standing frozen between horror and horror, listening to the rhythmic rise and fall of the swine noises. Suddenly they stop… and then… the silence trickles. Perfect. Does it seem more horrible in contrast to the joyously absurd science-ing and Carnacki’s ultra-specific measurements? Is a satanic hog worse if you know the exact dimensions of the room in which it threatens to appear?

The rising and falling rhythm of Carnacki’s fear, mirroring the pattern of swinish grunts and whines, weaves wonderfully through this part of the story. He goes from near-suicidal terror to bone-deep revulsion to that false calm where strangeness overwhelms horror. “Can you understand? I want you to try to understand.” The emotions are as precisely detailed as the measurements.

Bains, grunting and unable to wake or be woken, is creepy. So very creepy. As is the moveable, inescapable hole. The imagery is both unique and built over universal nightmares: knowing danger is coming and being unable to run, friends in grave danger who won’t awaken, that desperate thin circle between equal terrors.

When it looked for a moment as if Bains was lost to the Hog, I was really horrified—and mad at Carnacki, for missing the obvious risk of his little experiment—a worse betrayal after Bains told him how safe he felt. And mad, too, knowing he was going to survive the thing. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that reversal before, where the knowledge that the storyteller is going to survive adds to the situation’s horror.

The story ends in a Deux ex machina. And weirdly so—Christian framing is used throughout, and yet it never occurs to Carnackie to make the sign of the cross as his book suggests. Why not? He talks about souls, but the only strategy he considers is his machine. And while his work on that machine probably buys a few crucial seconds, the Blue Rescuer comes in its own time and of its own accord. Maybe this is the world’s weirdest analogy for Calvinism?

And then… we’re back in the safety of Carnacki’s parlor for a little Q&A. Like an academic talk with soul-destroying horror in the middle. I’ve been to some of those. At story’s end, though, it’s clear that Ether and Celestial Spheres and Science! stand in for comfort and normalcy. Knowing now what lurks beyond the comfort of Carnacki’s parlor, it’s just a little harder than it was at the beginning to cackle blithely with mad glee.

 

Anne’s Commentary

In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft praised Hodgson’s novels of horror on the high seas, The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’ and The Ghost Pirates, for their nautical authenticity, not surprising given Hodgson’s early career as a sailor. The House on the Borderlands (1908) featured many tropes close to Lovecraft’s heart: otherworldly forces, hybrid anomalies deep underground, a narrator who psychically travels through time and space, even witnessing the final destruction of our solar system. The Night Land (1912), set billions of years after the death of Earth’s sun, won his admiration for the potency of its macabre imagination, though like House on the Borderlands, it was tainted by “nauseatingly sticky romantic sentimentality.” Does that mean girl cooties or just generalized icky emotionality?

Too bad Hodgson died early in his literary career, victim of an artillery shell at Ypres in 1918. WWI had a way of kicking the sentimentality out of its soldiers.

Regarding this week’s hero, Thomas Carnacki, Lovecraft wasn’t much impressed: “In quality [the Carnacki collection] falls conspicuously below the level of the other books. We here find a more or less conventional stock figure of the ‘infallible detective’ type—the progeny of M. Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and the close kin of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence—moving through scenes and events badly marred by an atmosphere of professional ‘occultism’. A few of the episodes, however, are of undeniable power; and afford glimpses of the peculiar genius characteristic of the author.”

I wonder if Lovecraft would have considered “The Hog” one of these episodes? From what I can discover, it wasn’t published until 1947, ten years after his death. “Hog” keeps clear of the sentimental, although it’s steeped in “professional occultism” and its paraphernalia. But come on, how could Howard not have enjoyed that spectrum defense and that camera-phonograph thought-translator? Surely they’re worthy of installation in the Fictional Gadgets Hall of Fame, along with the brain-canisters of the Yuggothians and the consciousness-projectors of the Yith. The visual power of the black pit and funnel-cloud wouldn’t have left him unmoved, likewise the fine descriptions of spiritual terror in the face of Outer Monstrosities. I fear he wouldn’t have liked the literal deus ex machina of the saving blue-green dome. I don’t like it, either. Why despair over Outer Monstrosities when there are also Outer Benevolences to counter them before things get too hairy? Also, Carnacki’s cosmic scale isn’t all that cosmic. His Outer Sphere is only 100,000 miles from Earth? That doesn’t even make it halfway to the moon! And it only extends 10 million miles? The sun’s more than nine times farther off. That long denouement might also have irked him. If you’re going to infodump, do it before the Outer Monster appears. And again, Outer Monsters shouldn’t be scared off so easily. Let the Hog snack on Bains at least—he’s come all that way!

And what about that Hog and Its Thousand (Million) Piglets? I figure the entities themselves don’t really LOOK like pigs—that’s just how we humans perceive—picture forth—their tremendous greed and hunger. (Similarly, we perceive the voracious Tindalos beings as “hounds.”) Still, how innately scary is the pig image, at least for those who haven’t had run-ins with feral swine? Aren’t pigs kind of cute? Funny? All pink and cuddly? Like in Winnie the Pooh and Babe? Yet, yet, yeah, Hodgson’s Hog is pretty nasty. And the noises pigs make can be chilling. A film would have to make sure to give the Hog big old boar jowls and tusks. (I keep seeing Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web emerging from the pit, and that’s just not spiritually terrifying enough.)

They didn’t have the Sigsand Manuscript at my local library. Alas, I understand it’s only to be found among the other invented tomes in the Miskatonic University Archives; worse, they won’t lend it out to nonfictional characters. Hodgson gifted the 14th century MS to Thomas Carnacki for his protection from the semi-material Aeiirii entities and less ethereal Saiitii manifestations. It contains the Saaamaaa Ritual and mentions an Incantation of Raaaee. Obviously the author of the Sigsand had too many vowels lying around the house and couldn’t stand to throw them out. However, in an uncanny instance of great fantasists thinking alike, “Sigsand” must have read the Necronomicon, for he writes:

“…ye Hogge doth be of ye outer Monstrous Ones, nor shall any human come nigh him nor continue meddling when ye hear his voice, for in ye earlier life upon the world did the Hogge have power, and shall again in ye end.”

I shivered, instantly recalling Alhazred’s warning:

“Man rules now where [the Old Ones] ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.”

Maybe the Hog with a Thousand Piglets is the Goat with a Thousand Young, after all! Ai, Shub-Niggurath! I’ll text the girls from Boras and see what they think.

 

Next week, Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” offers a very different take on a Mythosian monster that rarely gets sympathy.

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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