Annie 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…’
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.
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.