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.

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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