Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


P. M. HUBBARD – The Dancing Man. Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1971. Atheneum, US, hardcover, 1971.

   “This time I heard the noise of the leaves. It came quietly at first. I could not have heard it at all if the silence had not been so complete. It grew louder … getting nearer …”

   That evocative moment is the true voice of P. M. Hubbard, one of the most interesting thriller writers of his time and one too little known on this side of the Atlantic.

   Philip Michael Hubbard made his debut with the fine thriller Flush as May, and continued at the same high level throughout his career as a writer. Among his many books were the spy thriller Kill Claudio, the Gothic The Tower, Hive of Glass, High Tide, Whisper in the Glen and others.

   His novels have remarkably well drawn settings that are characters in themselves, Gothic atmosphere of the true definition of the term without a governess to be seen, often good bits about small sail boats, and interesting heroes who tend to be on the amoral side and not always the nicest of people. His secondary characters are often exceptionally well drawn and his villains human but with a Luciferian air.

   The Dancing Man is perhaps the best of his thrillers on all these accounts, the cast stripped down to a handful of individuals; the hero Mark Hawkins; his missing brother Dick; Merrion on whose land Dick has gone missing; Merrion’s virginal sister; Merrion’s sexy wife; and a local madman (according to fiction every village in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales has one) of the lurking threatening type.

   And of course two other characters: a Victorian house in northern Wales, and a megalithic statue on which is carved the figure of a dancing man: “Someone had carved a human figure, a matchstick man sketched in single strokes but still horribly alive. It danced on the stone holding its stick-like arms over its head and kicking its legs outward, its enormous penis stiffly in front of it.”

   Hubbard was a master of evoking and using settings, and here he has been compared to M. R. James and Arthur Machen in his ability to suggest something evil lurking just beyond the ken of the average man. A large neolithic circle also figures in the action, and a 9th century Latin edict.

   Hubbard also has a happy facility with words, calling the figure a “happy little ithyphallic manikin … consciously and deliberately devilish.” It’s a good example of the pleasure of reading the highly literate Hubbard, at once evoking the absurdity of the figure and the horror lurking behind it.

   Hubbard is a minimalist, his novels short, to the point, deftly drawn without burying the reader in extraneous detail. You learn just enough about Mark and Dick Hawkins and the people surrounding them to care what happens so that the suspense and atmosphere have real impact. Kill Claudio, a Buchanesque thriller, is practically a novella, and a hundred times more suspenseful than today’s overwritten over long thrillers. Above all the writing, the vivid settings, and often the hint of brimstone and sulfur lingering in the air make his novels unique among the thriller writers of his era.

   Dick Hawkins is fascinated by prehistory and the sinister megalith. Merrion is an archaeologist more interested in Medieval history and a Cistercian abbey that once stood near the house. The two men are at loggerheads in their obsessions. Into this walks Mark Hawkins, a catalyst like all Hubbard protagonists, who will trigger ancient violence and modern murder, and as in any Hubbard a novel hints of the erotic as obvious as that “ithyphallic manikin”, among the often amoral and violent set of characters. Merrion’s sister may be virginal but you can’t expect that to last in a Hubbard novel and may not mean quite the same as in other gothics.

   The Dancing Man builds to a fine creepy violent ending, happy of course, or as happy as Hubbard’s less than admirable heroes are likely to find.

   Anthony Boucher and other critics championed Hubbard, and with good reason. He was a superb writer and an exceptional storyteller capable of weaving a spell that held the reader for the short span of a Hubbard novel. If ever there was a ‘can’t put them down’ writer it was him. You may be grateful they are short, because I read most of them in one sitting.

   Flush as May, High Tide, and Kill Claudio all had American paperback editions, and The Dancing Man was a choice of the Mystery Book Club so those at least should not be too hard to find.

   If you don’t know Hubbard’s work look him up, I think you will be entranced by his dark atavistic world, amoral heroes, and sinister settings. He spun a good plot as well. I really can’t think of anyone to compare his work to, he’s an original, and unique in that I cannot think of another Gothic writer I would call a minimalist.

Editorial Note:   P. M. Hubbard, the man and his work, has also been covered on the primary Mystery*File website. Check it out here.