The Sun has gone out: the Earth is lit only by the glow of residual vulcanism. The last few millions of the human race are gathered together in a gigantic metal pyramid, the Last Redoubt, under siege from unknown forces and Powers outside in the dark. These are held back by a Circle of energy, known as the "air clog," powered from the Earth's internal energy. For millennia, vast living shapes - the Watchers - have waited in the darkness near the pyramid: it is thought they are waiting for the inevitable time when the Circle's power finally weakens and dies. Other living things have been seen in the darkness beyond, some of unknown origins, and others that may once have been human.
To leave the protection of the Circle means almost certain death, or worse, but as the story commences, the narrator establishes mind contact with an inhabitant of another, forgotten, Redoubt, and sets off into the darkness to find her.
The Night Land is a classic horror novel by William Hope Hodgson, first published in 1912. As a work of fantasy it belongs to the Dying Earth subgenre. Hodgson also published a much shorter version of the novel, entitled The Dream of X.
The importance of The Night Land was recognised by its later revival in paperback by Ballantine Books, which republished the work in two parts as the forty-ninth and fiftieth volumes of its celebrated Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in July 1972.
H. P. Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" describes the novel as "one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written". Clark Ashton Smith wrote of it that "In all literature, there are few works so sheerly remarkable, so purely creative, as The Night Land. Whatever faults this book may possess, however inordinate its length may seem, it impresses the reader as being the ultimate saga of a perishing cosmos, the last epic of a world beleaguered by eternal night and by the unvisageable spawn of darkness. Only a great poet could have conceived and written this story; and it is perhaps not illegitimate to wonder how much of actual prophecy may have been mingled with the poesy."
When the book was written, the nature of the energy source that powers stars was not known: Lord Kelvin had published calculations based on the hypothesis that the energy came from the gravitational collapse of the gas cloud that had formed the sun, and found that this mechanism gave the Sun a lifetime of only a few tens of million of years. Starting from this premise, Hodgson wrote a novel describing a time, millions of years in the future, when the Sun has gone dark.
The beginning of the book establishes the framework in which a 17th-century gentleman, mourning the death of his beloved, Lady Mirdath, is given a vision of a far-distant future where their souls will be re-united, and sees the world of that time through the eyes of a future incarnation. The language and style used are intended to resemble that of the 17th century, though the prose has features characteristic of no period whatsoever: the almost-complete lack of dialogue and proper names, for example. Critic Ian Bell has suggested that John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost" (1667) is probably a partial literary inspiration for Hodgson's novel, especially due to the hellish visions of sombre intensity which mark both works, and other similarities including the use of massive structures (the Temple of Pandemonium in Milton and the Last Redoubt in The Night Land).