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 arrow 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.

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