The Curmudgeon


Sunday, July 06, 2008

Dragon Under the Hill

In 1972, about the time when the former actor Thomas Tryon produced two of the best horror novels of the twentieth century, former ITN newscaster Gordon Honeycombe published Dragon Under the Hill. A young historian, Edmund Wardlaw, moves with his Norwegian wife and their son into a cottage on the island of Lindisfarne, site of St Cuthbert's pre-Norman priory and scene of possibly the first Viking raids on Britain when, in the eighth century, a Norse king was killed by a ruthless English nobleman, and the king's son swore revenge.

The supernatural is introduced very quietly, with the sight of an apparently one-eyed man with a walking-stick on the Wednesday after the family's arrival; and if I had remembered Roger Lancelyn Green's Myths of the Norsemen, which was among my favourite childhood reading, or even Wagner's Ring cycle, I would have known who he was well before little Erik drew him astride his eight-legged horse, accompanied by the ravens Hugin and Munin. The boy's discovery of an ancient burial mound, and the haunted treasures within, coincides with increasingly odd behaviour and increasing dislike between Erik and his father, culminating in a terrifying visitation which Edmund does his best to dismiss as poltergeist phenomena.

Edmund's heroic good looks, his self-centred, mercurial character and his inability to get along with his offspring conjure up echoes of King Arthur; a Merlin figure also appears, in the shape of an elderly academic who has discovered a fragment of an ancient chronicle mentioning the Norse king's death. But for all his arcane knowledge of language and history, and his insight into the Wardlaw parents ("They had apparent faults of character - of self, of pride and possessiveness. But nothing seemed subconscious, all was known"), this Merlin is no magician; even when "all is known", the knowledge counts for very little as the ghastly ancient vendetta is played out through the Wardlaw family.

Reflecting the interpenetration of ancient and modern, Honeycombe adroitly varies his style, moving between the matter-of-fact and the near-incantatory without any jolting transitions. In its themes, and in the deftness of its execution, Dragon Under the Hill brings to mind some of Alan Garner's work, most obviously The Owl Service and perhaps Thursbitch; although Garner's endings are never quite so merciless as this book's.

The novel is beautifully structured, without a wasted word or a superfluous detail. There are some highly effective supernatural signs, notably the drawing by Erik's mother which he alters in a particularly unsettling fashion; but one of the book's many virtues is the way perfectly ordinary details, which less subtle hands would have used as mere background or local colour, are made to serve as portents equally grim. Edmund's casual jokes about returning to his roots and coming into his rightful inheritance, his chafing at the restraints placed on him by civilised life (he seems to have become a historian as a substitute for making history), and even his eccentric fondness for pigs, all take on new meaning as the story unfolds, just as the hatreds and resentments of everyday domestic life take on ever deeper and more sinister significance.


  • At 4:05 pm , Blogger J McEvoy said...

    I was pleased to find a copy of this recently. Oddly it's an ex-library book and the stamping card reads, "Bank of England Library, Threadneedle Street, London." It was loaned twice in a period of ten years.

  • At 6:23 pm , Blogger Philip said...

    Heart-warming to know that it's finally found a more appreciative home.

    From our Useless Facts Department: Gordon Honeycombe appears as a TV newscaster in the film of The Medusa Touch.


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