The Dancing Man was published in 1971, and is set in Welsh hill country. An engineer, Mark Hawkins travels to a remote house to collect his late brother’s belongings. Dick Hawkins was an archaeologist by profession and mountaineering was his drug of choice. He set off one day for the nearby mountains, and never returned.
The house where Dick Hawkins was staying when he disappeared is called Llanglas and it is owned by Roger Merrion, another archaeologist, who lives there with his wife Ethel and sister Cynthia. Near the house is the site of a ruined Cistercian monastery circled by a much more ancient earthwork, and the woods which surround the ruin also contain a strange obelisk on which is engraved a primitive but sinister figure – of a dancing man.
Of the Hubbard novels I have read, this one reveals most about what I believe to be one of the major influences on his work. The ghost stories of MR James are uniquely frightening, due in no small part to the writer’s skilful powers of suggestion. In A School Story, a boy in a boarding school sees something frightful trying to creep in through the window of one of the masters in the dead of night. He tries to describe it to a chum:
In The Dancing Man, Mark Hawkins describes his first sight of the shiveringly disturbing Old Evans.
“He was enormously tall. His clothes flapped round him in the wind, but I got the impression that he was very thin under them, and his head looked disproportionately small. He was too much like a walking scarecrow for comfort.”
That description also immediately brought to mind the hideous entity which conjures itself up out from bedsheets and pursues the unfortunate Professor Parkins along the seashore in Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.
In James’s A View From A Tower, Mr Fanshawe makes the mistake of using a particularly strange pair of field glasses, and finds himself in a very unfriendly wood:
Hawkins has a similar experience in the woods by Llanglas, but his is made infinitely worse by the fact that he is about to have company:
“I came to the stone as unexpectedly as I had that first evening. I never seemed to know how far it was. I stopped about fifteen yards from it, suddenly unwilling to go any further. I could see it quite clearly, standing up and motionless, while the trees threshed about over it. I started to turn my back on it, and then the dancing man came out from behind it, white all over and capering in the moonlight with his white matchstick arms straight up over his head.”
Mark Hawkins ponders his brother’s mysterious disappearance, becomes erotically involved with both Mrs and Miss Merrion, but the climax of the story involves the discovery of the hidden twin of the standing stone – and what lies beneath it.
With A Thirsty Evil (1974) Hubbard once again mines Shakespeare for his title, in this case, Measure For Measure.
“Our natures do pursue
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.”
In almost every respect this has a much less complex plot than The Tower or Flush As May, but one which is just as powerful and – ultimately – shocking. It is the story of an obsession. Ian Mackellar is a fledgling novelist with the added luxury of a private income from his family business. He sits opposite a woman on a train for a couple of hours, and although not a word – and scarcely a glance – is exchanged between them, he is hopelessly smitten. She leaves the train – and Mackellar – at her destination. He says:
“That could have been the end of it, but in fact it was only the beginning.”
By sheer chance, Mackellar sees the woman again, at a publishers’ party. She is with an older man, but convinced that this is not her husband, he makes small talk and gives her his telephone number.The next few weeks are something of an agony for Mackellar as he waits for her call, but just when he has given up hope, she does ring from a call box, reversing the charge. She makes it clear that she has only called out of good manners, and that it would be quite impossible for them to actually meet. She does, however, tell him that her name is Julia Mellors.
Her call is like one of those intrinsically harmless incidents, so beloved of Thomas Hardy, which trigger a sequence of unintended – and fatal – consequences. Mackellar traces her to a farm called Windbarrow (again, strange echoes of Hardy). Such is his persistence, Mackellar presents himself, and finds that Julia heads a household consisting of herself and her younger siblings Beth and Charlie.
The relationship between the three is complicated by Julia’s remoteness, Beth’s unashamed sexuality and Charlie’s mental condition. He is physically fit and active, but with a psychological flaw which is only controlled by medication. Despite himself, Mackellar is both magnetised and repelled by Beth:
“… it was the way she looked at you. There was nothing secretive about her. Like Cressida, there was language in her eyes, her cheeks, her looks, and like Ulysses I set her down instantaneously as a daughter of the game.”
As with the other Hubbard stories under consideration, the power of the landscape is never far away, and while he tends to deal in tumps, tumuli, barrows and other high places which our ancestors carved out of the landscape, here he gives us something quite different. In the valley carved out by the stream which runs near Windbarrow, long ago, someone dammed the stream and created a deep pool, known as Grainger’s. The Mellors use it as a swimming pool, but Charlie takes Mackellar beneath the surface – literally – and shows him a strange and menacing stone obelisk which rises from the impenetrable depths of the dam.
The story moves swiftly on. Hubbard’s novels are, anyway, relatively short but his narrative drive never lets us rest. Beth’s carnality and opportunism get the better of Mackellar in a brief but shocking encounter, but this is only a staging post on the path to a violent and tragic conclusion to the novel. Mackellar survives, but he writes his own epitaph in the very first chapter.
“She was the only woman I have ever really wanted. For the matter of that, she still is. I suppose she may always be.”
I came fresh to Hubbard’s books, and I read three or four in quick succession. I found them powerful, frightening and written with icy brilliance The novels are still available, thanks to the Orion imprint, The Murder Room. It must be said, however, that the paperbacks are very expensive, but the KIndle versions are more accessible for readers on a limited budget.