Musty Books: “The Giant Under The Snow” by John Gordon (1968)

Putting a Scandinavian fir tree in a baking hot front room for the best part of a month? Singing jolly songs about snow to celebrate the traumatic birth of a Middle-Eastern baby? Actually drinking and enjoying Warninks Advocaat? The sheer surreality of Christmas is perhaps a little uncelebrated: the season is a giddy, sprawling mish-mish of arcane ritual, tangled folklore and tacky commerce, squashed into an intense, sherry-soaked bundle of both merriment and foul temper. Be honest… it’s all a bit weird. And, in this delightfully quirky novel, John Gordon employs this spirit of seasonal oddness as the catalyst to invoke the dormant mythology and magic of the Norfolk countryside.

The premise: on a damp school trip to the local woods in the last week of term, the sensitive and implausibly-named Jonquil Winter (“Jonk” to her friends) becomes separated from her classmates, a situation that swiftly takes on hallucinatory, dream-like qualities. Atop five splayed ridges of sodden earth, she perceives the outline of a giant hand and – exploring further – unearths an ancient gold brooch. She sees trees moving of their own volition, and is attacked by a gigantic, wild-eyed dog: perhaps even the dreaded Black Shuck of Norfolk legend. Rescued by the impish and equally implausibly-named Mary Goodenough, the sole inhabitant of a isolated, tumbledown woodland cottage, she is returned to the school bus and the dreary reality of her bickering teachers. But her immersion in the dangerous world of magic is already irreversible.

Two friends are at hand to help with her investigations: the hot-headed Bill Smith and the cynical, rationalist Arf Minnett. As a trio, they’re like the wires of an old school plug: Jonk is Earth, profoundly connected to the local landscape; Bill is live, fuelled by the bubbling turmoil of adolescent emotions. And Arf, to splendid comic effect, remains resolutely neutral – frequently questioning whether the outlandish events of the book are merely the result of some woozy group hallucination. These events themselves will hold few surprises to readers familiar with the well-trodden tropes of mid-20th children’s fantasy. Mary Goodenough is a seemingly immortal guardian, struggling to prevent the resurgence of an ancient warlord who seeks Jonk’s new-found brooch to gain control of the (very real) giant: A “Green Man” hill carving on the verge of waking from centuries-old slumber. There is, inevitably, the vague threat of some ultimate battle between light and darkness, a prospect only slightly less alarming than a Boxing Day encounter between Norwich City and Ipswich Town.

But Gordon’s books triumph in two striking respects. Firstly, like his contemporaries Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, he walks with unerring precision the line between the fantastical and the mundane. Readers lured by the irresistible temptation to use the word “palimpsest” can fill their boots here, for the children’s unnamed home city (unmistakably Norwich, Gordon’s own adopted home) has been built upon the ancient warlord’s one-time stamping ground, and he claims the derelict warehouses of a riverside industrial estate as the dominion of his terrifying army of “leather men”. At this juncture, set aside all inclinations to make jokes about the Village People: Gordon’s depiction of oblivious festive crowds being infiltrated by these blank-faced soldiers of the netherworld, invisible to all but the chosen children, is truly chilling.

And, amid that mundanity, there is plenty to delight readers whose childhood Christmasses were spent in the pre-central heating wilderness of the 1960s and ’70s. Going hand-in-hand with the dreadful reawakening of ancient forces are the familiar pre-teen feelings of “three more sleeps” anticipation. Gordon captures perfectly both the demob happiness and the fraying patience of the final days of school term, and – indeed – the intimidating freedom of that sprawling fortnight’s holiday. Even when that freedom is somewhat compromised by the presence of murderous, mythological hounds prowling and growling around the garden gates of ordinary suburban streets. The children’s home lives are evocatively portrayed too. Those of us with vivid memories of candlelit Ker-Plunk drives during the Winter of Discontent will be delighted by Arf’s tactic for escaping the family home for one daring midnight escapade: he turns off the electricity at the mains to feign a power cut and force his family to bed.

Secondly, as with his later book The Ghost On The Hill, Gordon uses the power of the natural world to create powerfully affecting atmospheres. In The Ghost On The Hill, it’s the stultifying heat of a 1970s summer that binds its teenage protagonists in a listless, haunted torpor. In The Giant Under The Snow, it’s the trappings of winter that lend the book a poetic elegance. Initially through the wet, suffocating claustrophobia of fog (“damp sand deadened their footballs, and behind them the whine of the occasional car crawling through the fog in low gear was muffled and then extinguished. They were alone”) and then, delightfully, through the expansive rolling wilderness of the snow-coated Norfolk fens.

These latter sequences in particular will find resonance with any readers who – and I do not confess this lightly – still harbour fuzzy childhood memories of inexplicable nocturnal flight. Treat this as a support group: surely it can’t be just me? Amid the tangle of my earliest memories are hazy recollections of floating up the staircase of the house my parents bought in the summer of 1976, when I was only three years old. I remember inspecting at close quarter the patterns on the wallpaper above the bathroom doorway and – occasionally, blissfully – somehow exiting the bedroom window completely and bobbing freely on the breeze above the smoking chimney stack. These intense, liberating dreams still occasionally return to haunt my adult sleep: the sheer naturalness of flight, and the ease of stretching out my arms and soaring above the twilit streets of my 2021 existence, returns with exhilarating swiftness. In these moments, it seems more unnatural – amid the dreary banality of mortgage payments and bin days – that I’m not ordinarily able to throw myself into a headwind and wheel gracefully above the busy dual carriageways and retail parks of Teesside.

Gordon captures these feelings with breathtaking vividness. Because Mary Goodenough gifts the children – in the form of mysterious black haversacks – the power of flight. And, in the latter half of the book, their quest to thwart the sinister warlord and his leather men is frequently conducted on the wing above the streets, shops and suburbs of late 1960s Norwich and – even more romantically – the snow-coated fields and woodland of rural Norfolk. Readers concerned with such literary fripperies as progressive, linear plot may baulk at these lengthy sequences, but admit it: plot is overrated. True poetry is found in atmosphere, in emotional resonance, in what Gordon undoubtedly never called “the feels”. And it’s in these freewheeling, beautifully descriptive moments that The Giant Under The Snow truly soars above the everyday humdrum, and compounds the underappreciated oddness of the festive season with an extra layer of delicious, dark magic.

“The moon flared, cold and bright, and they rose like two fish slipping through broken water. Then the air was steadier, a huge river full of flying flecks that stuck to them, whitening their heads and shoulders and loading their arms so that they had to shake it off. They flew across it, slicing sideways into it, dipping and lifting with first one on top and then the other.

“Gradually they fought their way across the city, and struggled upwards as they approached the cathedral. The wind whistled at the spire’s tip and the gaunt cockerel breasted the gale in his private world above the city. They came up on his leeward side, slowly, elbows bent, and clutched at him together. There was no snow on him. The wind had wiped the metal clean…”

Merry Christmas, everyone.

MUSTINESS REPORT: 2/10. My copy of The Giant Under The Snow is a 1984 reprint with a disappointingly crisp fragrance, although it does appear to have once belonged to Helen Simpson, who has inscribed the inside cover with the legends “78” and “T.B.T.” Maybe she was an ardent Tim Brooke-Taylor fan as a child? I certainly was, I loved The Goodies. As ever, Helen… if you see this, get in touch, and I’d be delighted to return your childhood book to you on the lightest of winter breezes. Just as I did with Debbie Wilson and her long-lost copy of Mandog.

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