Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Holm Oaks (1965) by P. M. Hubbard

P. M. Hubbard may well be to the psychological thriller what Robert Aickman is to the ghost story: a brilliant original with a pessimistic worldview and an oblique style, weaving a note of despair into baroque and sometimes violent imagery with flashes of subliminal horror.

A married couple, Jake and Elizabeth, move from London to a remote coastal area where Jake's recently deceased uncle left him a house. The house used to go with a nearby wood of the eponymous holm oaks, but shortly before his death the uncle had sold the wood to a neighbour living on the other side of it, Dennis Wainwright. Dennis is the epitome of inarticulate menace, a kind of evil Sterling Hayden character who says nothing, smiles thinly and carries a large stick. At first sight, Jake falls in love with his wife Carol. But even before that both Jake and Elizabeth fall in love with the wood, although for different reasons.

Hubbard never plotted his books in advance, and this shows here, but not to the novel's detriment. For about half the book's length nothing much happens while it's clear that something is bound to. Hubbard lays on the atmosphere, mood and sense of place layer after layer so that the overall effect is like a particularly vivid landscape painting, sticking in the mind forever together with the drama that's set to play out in the foreground. Dennis gets some wind of his wife's secret assignations in the wood and plans to cut the trees down. The long set-up lulls the reader even as it prepares him for the inevitable violence. When this comes, it is so out of the left field that the shock is almost transcendental.

But the horror alone would have made the book an effective little chiller and nothing more. What ultimately disturbs more than any external turn of events is Hubbard's trick - closely reminiscent of Aickman's - of implying things just out of the reader's grasp. To give a very brief example, Stella tells Jake at a certain point, meaning Dennis and Carol: He is an odd kind of monster, anyway - she won't be any good to you, not after him. The implied power of relationships to shape people, whether physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is what Hubbard seems to be all about, without much overt reference to anything specific, but with a strong sense that the shaping is mostly done into twisted forms. Jake is, of course, in a relationship himself, and his wife, just like Carol, is also tramping the woods alone. How much are the two couples mirror images of each other? Would Carol be attracted to Jake if he hadn't, in some respects at least, been a throwback to what initially brought her together with Dennis? Hubbard never makes such questions explicit - rather, his narrator buries them very deep in his subconscious mind, of which the wood of the title is an oblique metaphor. Jake's word for anything cannot be taken not because he's out to deceive, but simply because he is, like so many people, heavily invested in a deceptive self-image. The self-deception becomes palpable once, at the final climax, when a special relationship with guns has to be invented (or hastily introduced) to justify a fatal but most convenient turn of events. But throughout his narrative the reader is subtly made to doubt and wonder.

Like Aickman, Hubbard finds a lurking otherness in everyday things, but where in Aickman the otherness is ghostly or uncanny, in Hubbard it is closely related to character and its flaws. Freud, of course, has much to do with both kinds. The strong elemental background in Hubbard puts emphasis on human weaknesses: his elements are always cold, distant, overpowering, inimical to man. Hubbard was a Scorpio, and serves almost as a textbook illustration of plutonic polarities when compared with that other great scorpionic thriller writer, Dick Francis: the latter writes of the limits of strength, endurance and achievement while the former is concerned with the destructive power of (mostly male) weakness (based on the two books I've read so far). Artistically, though, Hubbard is in a different league.

This would have made a great - potentially brilliant - Robert Hossein film, with Hossein himself playing Jake, Sterling Hayden (in a dream cast) as Dennis, Marie-France Pisier as Carol, Catherine Deneuve as Elizabeth and, in an inspired bit of imaginary casting that almost takes my breath away, Alexandra Stewart as Stella.


Anonymous said...

A brand new author for me, thanks very much for the detailed review - I will definitely see about tracking it down (I've just been recommended Aickman too incidentally). Well back to the blogosphere by the way ...

polecat said...

Thank you Sergio! I never completely left, just was too busy even for these little reviews, although I enjoy writing them.

Regarding Hubbard, people seem either to 'get' him or not at all, judging by some pretty low book ratings on LibraryThings. But those who do get him tend to feel very strongly about him. His books are slow and not overloaded with plot and incident, but as psychological thrillers go, they are exactly my cup of tea. I hope you enjoy him.

Incidentally, The Holm Oaks is available for Kindle, and several other Hubbards are being released electronically in the next couple of weeks.