Sunday, September 02, 2012

A Thirsty Evil (1974) by P. M. Hubbard

Thirsty EvilIn a letter to a fellow novelist, Hubbard described this book as not one I'm very keen on myself, so you don't have even to say you like it. This may be sincere, or the extreme modesty of someone who seems to have been a rather retiring, solitary person. I do, however, have to say that I liked it very much - as much as, if not more than, the tour-de-force of The Holm Oaks. This present novel is a more restrained affair - no gothic thunderstorms, virtually no violence until the last few pages, and no blood whatsoever. There are some major similarities, though.

In the first paragraph the narrator, a young writer, Ian Mackellar, sees a girl on a train and states immediately that no other woman will ever do for him. There is no attempt to explain what it is exactly that makes him fall so hard for Julia. It is implied that she is not a rare beauty, but there is no description of her looks. This is very similar to Jake's unexplained obsession with Carol Wainwright in The Holm Oaks. It is, in fact, very similar to some situations that everyone's found himself in at one time or another: there are people or faces, met by chance, that haunt us, but we seldom do much about it, unlike the teller of this tale. That is perhaps one of the reasons that Hubbard is so easy to respond to: he starts with a sort of psychological commonplace - in this case, love as a thunderbolt, - and then takes it in a direction we would perhaps never follow in 'real life' but would be only too eager to trace vicariously. But his subject, of course, is not love at first sight; it is obsession that he studies. He invites the reader to witness what self-destruction is really like.

As fate would have it, Ian finds a way to track Julia down to a farm that she owns. She has a sister and a brother, and the brother has something wrong with him: the 'something' is hereditary, but there are no further details. The way Charlie's behaviour rolls out, coupled with the fact that the exact nature of his deficiency is left obscure, produces an oddly chilling effect - which is the definition of Hubbard's writing. Again, as in The Holm Oaks, there is the central metaphor for the subconscious - a magnetic and sinister artificial pond around which much of the book is set, with something yet more frightening just below its surface. As usual, Hubbard creates an unforgettable mood and sense of place, but very little actually happens. Ian is the usual driven Hubbard protagonist whose plain statements sometimes sound a little disingenuous. Charlie, his antagonist, is in some sense the mirror image - or, in Jungian terms, Shadow, - of Ian.

Ian pursues Julia, but Julia is burdened - or armed - with an obsession of her own. In fact, there seem to be very few characters in Hubbard who aren't. The intensity of all those emotions meeting at cross-purpose and just out of grasp is what gives the book its unsettling quality. There is, of course, also that Shakespearean leitmotif (Hubbard is a master at linking his plots or situations to the more obscure but striking quotes from the Bard):

Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.

The book may be less powerful than The Holm Oaks, but it gets under your skin more, and more insidiously.

The Rousseauesque cover has a story attached to it.

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