Dragon Under the Hill by Gordon Honeycombe

Honeycombe_DragonAfter Neither Sea Nor Sand, I thought I’d give Gordon Honeycombe’s second novel a go. Dragon Under the Hill (published 1972) takes place over a week and a day on the island of Lindisfarne, where the Wardlaw family have just arrived, so that Ed Wardlaw, a lecturer in Medieval History, can finish his PhD. With him are his Norweigian wife Runa and their seven-year-old son Erik. Ed and Erik aren’t getting on — Ed snaps orders at this son and calls him ‘the original mixed-up kid’, while his son wilfully ignores everything he says. Runa is mostly left trying to ‘prevent her champions coming to blows’. On their first day, they meet Professor Mervyn MacDougall, who has recently uncovered what he believes to be an important find: a fragment of a local chronicle which claims the first Viking landing on Great Britain was in 793AD, when a Viking king, Guthorm, sacked Lindisfarne, then was killed at nearby Bamburgh.

But this isn’t just a minor historical detail to the Wardlaws. Unknown to them, their little family unites the two sides of this conflict, with Ed descended from Sicga, Guthorm’s slayer, while Runa’s ancestors include Guthorm’s son, who vowed revenge on his father’s killer. Blond-haired Erik, of course, takes more after Runa than Ed, and once he’s on the island, supernatural forces begin to play their hand. Both Runa and Erik think they see a mysterious one-eyed man watching them, then Erik discovers Guthorm’s tomb, and begins secretly carting its treasures back to his bedroom — first some golden dragon decorations and a ring, then a shield boss and rim (which he thinks is an ancient bicycle wheel), then some arrows heads and a spear-head. Guthorm’s sword, too big for little Erik to hide, he leaves at the tomb. One night, Ed is out walking in the town square and is nearly killed by a thrown Viking spear. The blade bears the name ‘Guthorm’ in runes; the haft is a mop handle from his own kitchen…

Honeycombe_DragonHBThere’s something decidedly Oedipal in Ed and Erik’s relationship. Not only does Erik — or something acting through him — want to kill Ed, but at one point Erik spends the night sleeping in his mother’s arms while Ed is banished to his son’s room. (After which Ed vows, ‘He’s not going to take my place again — ever again. I’ll see to it.’) But Erik isn’t presented as the demon child of horror cliché. When he’s on his own, or with his mother, he’s a slightly wilful, slightly resentful, but nevertheless normal seven-year-old with a bit of a grudge against his father. Ed may think Erik’s possessed (‘Do you think he needs a doctor?’ Runa asks; ‘A witch-doctor, more likely. Or an exorcist,’ Ed says), but Runa thinks it’s more the opposite: ‘The trouble is that he is not possessed. By us.’ But, the truth is, he is possessed. The spirit of Guthorm is on the loose. Or is it one-eyed Odin All-Father?

This is the trouble I had with the book. The characters and relationships are very well drawn, and I liked the fact that the supernatural events were scattered subtly throughout a believable, slowly-advancing story. But the clues as to what was actually happening seemed a bit diverse. Is it Odin, lingering long after his proper time to oversee this final revenge, that’s driving events, or is it the power of the past, and of Ed and Erik’s ancestry? Or is it Erik’s resentment of his father, causing poltergeist activity (a great racket, like a dragon outside the house, is heard by Runa and Ed one night, but by no one else)? Or is it something about human nature itself, as Professor MacDougall says:

‘Take away the gloss of modern living, the aids, the artifice, the outer show, the shackles of convention, and you still have the natural man of instinct and emotion. These things still rule the mind in any struggle for existence… Kill, or be killed. An eye for an eye.’

A comparison that kept coming to mind is Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, another novel in which the past seeks to replay itself through modern characters. But there, I never found myself asking why: the power of pent-up emotion, both in the influence of the past and in the modern character’s current situation was ‘why’ enough. With Dragon Under the Hill, the emotional atmosphere, though tense, never seems super-charged enough to act as a conduit for the supernatural — and I think emotional charge of some sort is the supernatural, in fantasy and horror fiction. (Or at least the sort I like.) Still, it kept me reading to the end, and was rewarding enough in terms of plot and character.

Twin Peaks

Twin_Peaks_BluRayIf you plotted the quality of Twin Peaks, you’d come up with a twin-peaked graph: it started brilliantly, and ended well, but dipped somewhat in between. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t have been a parody soap opera about the town in which Laura Palmer was murdered, it would have been a weird crime series, following the adventures of David Lynch’s FBI, a bunch of borderline-shamanic all-American good boys investigating the dark forces behind the most terrible crimes. (Which sounds like a cue for The X-Files, a couple of years later.) Certainly, what drives the pilot and early episodes is following Special Agent Dale Cooper (who I like to imagine as Kyle McLachlan’s character from Blue Velvet, grown up) as he uses a combination of acute observation, sharp deduction, dream-clues, intuition and sortilege (naming possible suspects then throwing stones at a bottle, seeing which one hits) to solve the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder. Most of the parallel plots that were unrelated to the murder — the whole tangle of insurance & blackmail surrounding the burning of the Packard Mill, the mostly unfunny comedy of super-strength Nadine’s regression to her teenage-years — I could have done without.

David-Lynch_MJEBut, I’m a David Lynch fan (though a rare one, in that I like Dune but don’t like Eraserhead), and what made me re-watch the show for the first time since it was on TV wasn’t a desire to revisit the characters or world of Twin Peaks, but a desire to revisit David Lynch and his world. For me, creative as the others can be, the episodes Lynch directed stand out. The question is why. There’s a scene in the final episode (directed by Lynch) that’s nothing but a slow advance down an empty corridor, yet somehow it’s full of brooding tension. Or take another scene, this time at the end of the pilot episode, when Laura’s mother has a vision of a hand retrieving a necklace that’s been buried in the woods. Her sudden panicked reaction makes it seem like some sort of horrendous psychic violation is taking place. What Lynch brings to these scenes isn’t just in the scenes themselves, but the world he creates around them, one in which there’s a constant potential for reality to rip open and reveal something behind it, something full of irrational terror. His world is beset by a constant note of anxiety that adds meaning, or the threat of it, to the most mundane moments. It’s one of Twin Peaks’ most notable characteristics that, though it’s mostly played as a quirky comedy, it contains moments of genuine horror. But it isn’t a horror-comedy as, say, Shaun of the Dead is. Rather, the horror is made all the more horrific by being couched in such light comedy. And what’s different in Lynch’s episodes is that, while others might contain the same quirkiness (Dale Cooper coming face to face with a llama) or directorial inventiveness (a long, slow zoom out of a hole in a wall-tile), none of them catch the uppermost peaks of outright terror or downright strangeness that Lynch does.

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Throughout Lynch’s work, innocence is always coming face-to-face with horror — and, in his best work, not just coming face-to-face with it, but being corrupted by it, and then, crucially, coming through that corruption to a new, more profound and hard-won innocence, a redemption or a rebirth. This type of story is only ever played out lightly, if at all, in the TV series (whose characters, in line with most comedy, don’t really change), but it’s the core of the 1992 film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In my view, the TV series is utterly blown away by the film, which is one my favourites, along with Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. (Having just watched it again, after watching the whole run of the TV show, I found I’d enjoyed it more when I watched it standalone, away from the TV series.)

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Lynch’s own view of the relationship between the TV series and the film is perhaps best expressed by the very first shot of Fire Walk With Me, in which a TV set, showing only static, is smashed by a baseball bat. Fire Walk With Me is Twin Peaks freed of its TV fetters. The opening half-hour — a further episode in the adventures of Lynch’s FBI boys, this time Chris Isaak as Special Agent Chester Desmond — is set in an out-of-the-way nowhere-place that’s all the town of Twin Peaks isn’t: its sheriff, unlike donut-noshing Harry S Truman, is utterly unhelpful and actively obstructive to the FBI (a deleted scene shows a fist-fight between him & Chester Desmond), the diner is manned not by former Miss Twin Peaks Norma Jennings, but fag-in-the-mouth cynic Irene, and the main residential area isn’t Twin Peaks’ upper middle-class suburbia but a rundown trailer park. The film still has the TV series’ surrealness and some moments of quirky comedy, but it has darkness in oodles — in nerve-jangling, nail-baiting, razor-laden dollops, until it’s almost too much to take. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is one of the most harrowing films I’ve ever seen, but one that nevertheless keeps me watching, and leaves me, at the end, feeling I’ve been through a genuine catharsis.

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In it, Lynch raises Laura Palmer from being the clichéd beautiful murder victim of a serial killer to sort of a scapegoat, a victim of the disconnect between the town of Twin Peaks’ cosy surface and its dark underside. Caught between having to play the homecoming queen and dealing with the horror of abuse by the demonic Bob (whose supernatural nature can be taken as her own refusal to see who’s really abusing her — though this is a position undermined by the less ambiguous TV series), what sense of self she has grows thinner and thinner, till she has to say to her best friend: ‘Your Laura has disappeared. It’s just me now.’ It’s a drama that can only be resolved by switching from the normal reality of Twin Peaks (all cherry pie and damned fine coffee) to the weird, dreamlike otherworld of the Red Room, where the White Lodge and the Black Lodge are battling for her soul. Or are they working together for her redemption? It’s characteristic that Fire Walk With Me has less of the good-versus-evil, White Lodge-versus-Black Lodge feel to it: Red Room, White Lodge, Black Lodge — the alchemical significance of the colours Laura passes through is perhaps the key here, not the sort of duality the TV show was setting up.

Neither the Sea nor the Sand by Gordon Honeycombe

Honeycombe_NTSNTSAnnie Robins, in her first venture away from an unloving mother and stroke-disabled father, travels on a whim to St Helier, Jersey, and there, despite her ‘unsociable, solitary nature’, falls deeply in love with Hugh Dabernon, seven years older but of a similarly solitary nature. They move in together, first into the house Hugh shares with his disapproving brother George, then into their own, more solitary home, above the island’s coast near the lighthouse at Corbière. Wanting, somehow, to get even further from human society, they take an unseasonal holiday in the far northwest of Scotland, and there, on a beach, Hugh drops dead. He gets up again some time later, but he’s still dead. Dumb (because breathless), blind to all but Annie (his gaze follows her even when she’s in another room), he does his limited best to obey the commands of the one and only love of his short life, though he can barely climb stairs. It’s all that Annie, in her distress, can do to get him home to Jersey, thinking there everything will be alright. When it isn’t, she calls George Dabernon, hoping he’ll know what to do with this dead-yet-not-dead brother, but she doesn’t get the response she hoped for:

‘It was the worst moment of George’s life, for it was unexpected, inexplicable, and tinged with blasphemy. Appalled at this resurrection, he gaped at the two of them…’

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Gordon Honeycombe

This is a strange book, of just the sort of strangeness I like. It’s one, I can’t help feeling, that could only have been published before the Stephen King-led horror boom of the 1970s (Neither the Sea nor the Sand first came out in 1969), after which, commercial pressures would have skewed it more to outright horror than the ambiguous weird it is. Though it does feature a walking corpse, it’s not really horror; nor is it properly a love story, though love is the driving force. Whatever it is that binds Annie and Hugh together, the novel is more about Annie’s attempt to catch up with her always-just-out-of-reach Hugh, who is older, taller, more knowledgeable, more adventurous, and more robustly solitary than she is. The book opens with her trailing behind as he clambers up a steep hill in the Scottish wilds and she can barely keep up. Later, even when it’s he (now dead) who’s following her, the feeling is that he’s gone ahead, this time into death, though there’s a lingering part of him drawn back to her, as though she, or her love for him, were a lighthouse shining into the dark realm where he’s fallen. (The image of a lighthouse haunts the book, as does the sea.) The book is full of sequences of Annie following Hugh or Hugh following Annie, with one trailing behind, trying to catch up — right to the end, when we, as readers, follow a policeman, a doctor, a boy and a dog, who are following Annie, who’s following Hugh…

When we’re not following Annie or Hugh, we’re usually in the presence of some other character or (more often) pair of characters — a farmer and his wife, a GP and a neurologist, a policeman and his son — trying to understand what’s going on. They make no headway, whether they use common sense (the farmer and his wife), religious dogma (brother George), medical knowledge (the GP and the neurologist) or logical deduction (the policeman and his son). Annie, on the other hand, accepts Hugh’s return without the need to understand it, and it’s only when she has a moment of rational clarity, and sees him for what he is — a corpse, still walking — that she reacts with horror, and falls her furthest behind. Love, for these two, has to remain a shared irrationality, a thing that exists on the border between life and death, not at all a clearly-defined or explicable thing, which is perhaps why the pair need such solitude, as then there’s no need to explain. Annie comes through — after falling into her own death-like state, as though to experience this new way of being that Hugh has discovered — and finally finds a way of catching up with the man she loves.

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Neither the Sea nor the Sand was the first novel of Gordon Honeycombe, best known as a newsreader for ITN in the 1970s, and for TV-AM in the 1980s, though a quick glance at his site’s biography reveals him to be a man of many accomplishments: an actor on stage (including with the RSC) and screen, a theatre director, adapter, writer, a TV and radio presenter. I can’t remember what brought me to this novel, but I was prompted into re-reading it when I recently found it had been filmed, in 1972. Honeycombe is credited with the screenplay (additional dialogue by Rosemary Davies). The main change is that Anna, played by Susan Hampshire, isn’t fleeing loveless parents but a collapsed marriage. This, for me, strikes the wrong note, as part of the reason the book works is that Anna is so young, vulnerable, innocent, and wilfully self-blinded to anything but the desperate fact of her one true experience of love, you can believe her unwillingness to accept Hugh’s death because she so needs it not to be true. The film’s Anna seems more down-to-earth, and the uniqueness of the bond between the two becomes that much less charged with whatever anguished power it is that draws Hugh back from the dead. Still, it’s an interesting film, part 60s in style, part 70s. Ex-Doctor Who companion Michael Craze is in it. It was retitled The Exorcism of Hugh in the US.

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