A Ghost Story

A bunch of Eagles from 1963

I spent a large part of an evening last week in two different parts of the past, one 52 years ago, the other 24 years ago: winter and summer, dark and light, boy and man linked by a handful of old issues of the Eagle.
After my recent acquisition of a dozen or so old issues from 1962, I bought a half dozen more from 1963, which had been delivered when I got home from work.
These were issues that linked in with my very first exposure to the Eagle, in November 1963, at the back end of a Church Bring-and-Buy sale where I’d already expended the shilling or so I was allowed to spend. My Dad found a bundle of Eagles that hadn’t been snapped up, and paid a couple of pence to buy them for me. Eagle was a clearly superior comic and I think he was trying to move me on towards things more worthy of my time, now I has eight, and on this occasion he was right in the bulls-eye.
Like most of the boy’s comics, Eagle wasn’t just comic stories and strips, it had a prose series as well. Most of my new acquisitions featured Horizon Unlimited, a series about two pilots and a flight engineer having 3, 4 and 5 part adventures round the world, but immediately before it had been an eight part serial, High Quest.
High Quest was a ghost story set in the Alps. Two young men found themselves compelled to visit Chamonix, base for the climb of the unconquered North Face of the Henker (The Executioner). Seventy years earlier, their grandfathers, climbing together, had died on the Henker, having gone on alone after their guides had turned back.
It quickly became clear that Killick and Blythe had been drawn in by their grandfathers, who had loathed each other, and whose hatred was not diminished by seventy years of death. Both men find themselves being possessed by their grandfather’s ghosts, and turning on each other with hatred. But when they discover bodies in a crevasse, with a rope that has been cut, with a knife, not frayed, it becomes clear that one man murdered the other.
Killick and Blythe climb on, the details of the climb exactly matching those of seventy years earlier. Their guides turn back at the exact same stage, and the two men climb on alone until they reach a certain ledge. There, Killick tries to undo the rope binding them together, to break the bond. Blythe rushes him and pushes him into space, to dangle thirty feet down, without hand or toeholds. The fall shocks Killick out of his possession, but he looks up to see Blythe’s face, twisted with hatred, and his hand withdrawing a knife.
As I said, this was an eight part serial. The trouble was, I only had parts 2, 4 , 6… and 7.
November 1963 was a pretty significant month. John Kennedy’s assassination, Doctor Who‘s first episode, and me discovering the Eagle, and of course Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. I remember far more of that Bring-and-Buy sale, coming in the aftermath of my eighth birthday (maybe it was the same day as William Hartnell’s debut) than I ought for such a long ago time, but I can envisage the main hall with the stalls arranged around its walls, the set of American Civil War bubble-gum cards I had my eye on that they wouldn’t sell me until the Sale actually started, the line of people advancing along the corridor and negotiating the price for the cards down from 3d to 2d because it was short at least one card from a complete run.
And I remember the back room, smaller but somehow more spacious, reached down another corridor, an overspill room that links in my memory to future afternoons spent at Comics Marts. The Eagles were on a table two-thirds of the way round the room and I think I hadn’t even seen them, or maybe just hadn’t paid attention to them until Dad, free of his duties as things were winding down, decided to put his hand in his pocket again to such great effect.
Either way, I had my comics, I had my few episodes of High Quest, and I had my literal cliffhanger for the remainder of the Seventies, my unexplained escape. I became a teenager, I grew out of comics (temporarily), the Eagles went to the Children’s Ward and probable distraction and that was it.
Slowly, by haphazard steps, starting with the first Dan Dare reprints from Dragon’s Dream, I started to remember Eagle, but I never sought to collect it, not even when it was possible to buy complete volumes. This was because I didn’t have the room, not until I bought my first home. By then, I’d learned that Manchester Central Reference Library had bound volumes of the first ten years of Eagle, and I spent many happy afternoons immersed in their pages.
But that took the story only up to 1960, and there were almost as many unbound years after that. I started to look for Eagles from that latter half, the Keith Watson years on Dan Dare that I grew up on. And in the summer of 1991, I was told about the Old Magazine Shop in Sheffield (still there to this day).
One extremely sunny Saturday afternoon in July, United in the close season, Lancashire somewhere away from Old Trafford, I paid my first visit. Tilleys was a cornucopia, a joyful discovery, and he had piles of Eagles, many of which I recognised from my Bring-and-Buy acquisitions, many surrounding them. I bought as many of them as I could afford on a then-manageable mortgage, drove back in the glorious golden weather, over Snake Pass, down through Glossop, along the M57, and home. Taking up a drink and a snack, I prepared to investigate my Treasure Trove, in the old, traditional comics reading position: lying on my stomach on the floor.
It was still spectacularly sunny outside, the light deepening into that pre-evening shade of rich gold, that begged to be enjoyed, if you didn’t have something more fascinating to do.
It wasn’t until I turned a page and found myself staring at High Quest part 1 that the curtains of memory parted, and everything about those four jumbled chapters of twenty-eight years earlier came tumbling out for the first time in, probably, a good twenty years. For a moment, 1991 and 1963 merged, and then I jerked myself back to the present and grabbed the to-be-read pile on the right and rapidly thumbed down.
Yes, I had it. It was there. The final part. All the chapters, come to that but, unbelievably, I was going to get the answer, nearly thirty years on, to that literal cliffhanger. Not immediately. I would read all the comics I had bought myself in the proper order, enjoy them to the full. After twenty-eight years, another half hour wouldn’t kill me!
Reading High Quest again in 2015 ties me into those two, widely-separated times: the boy I was, the man I was, connected by a serial in a boy’s comic, written by a unknown writer, denied credit for his having entertained more than just his target audience. I’d love to know his name, to say a public thanks for the enjoyment I’ve had out of his work and, if indeed he is still with us, given that the just-turned eight year old boy will be turning sixty himself this year. Because High Quest holds up now as a well-told, skilfully paced story that puts its cards on the table from the outset, and holds attention throughout its short, but not short-changed length.
The serial takes an episode to set things up, introducing Killick, his recent breakdown and need for recuperation, his interest in rock-climbing and the background of his grandfather’s death. A photo of Henry Killick, in an old, privately printed book of memoirs that Killick has inherited, puts the idea of Chamonix into his head, but the reference to the elder Killick’s pale, burning eyes, is the primary hint that there may be more than mere familial curiosity here. That is, until the episode ends on a tall, fair-haired Englishman in Chamonix introducing himself to Killick as Blythe…
The scene is well set-up next week, when Blythe divulges that, whilst he hasn’t followed Killick here, he has been drawn by a newspaper story about the young scientist. The two men hit it off after such a potentially suspicious start, and do some exploring together. But the story starts to hit with a vengeance when, after a minor argument that reflects the class-based animosities between their respective grandfathers, Killick follows Blythe and a stranger to the town’s museum and tries to brain Blythe with Henry Killick’s ice-axe.
The stranger is the grandson of one of the two guides who accompanied the elder Killick and Blythe on their final expedition. The young men visit his home and talk with his father, who recollects many details told by his father: the ghost of Henry Killick looks through the window. Then, with the aid of a second guide – who is the great-nephew of the other original guide – the two amateur climbers make an expedition to the climbing hut at the base of the Henker’s evil, brutal North Face, an easy climb, within their limited capacities.
There, Blythe is taken over by his grandfather, leading himself and Killick to an ice-crevasse in which they discover their grandfathers’ never-recovered bodies, and the severed rope. Both men are well aware of what is happening to them, and Killick wants to withdraw, but Blythe is insistent that they go on, that they repeat the climb of the Henker, and let their possessing spirits lead them to the truth of who murdered who.
Two whole episodes are devoted to the climb itself, and these are some of the finest writing in the story. The writer is clearly an experienced climber himself, and this shows less in the technical details of the ascent (which could be produced by anyone who researches well, though it’s highly unlikely that the writing fee would have been sufficient to permit this) than in the philosophical attitudes expressed by the second guide, the phlegmatic Laborde, who demonstrates a deep understanding of the relationship between man and danger, man and mountain and man and other man climbing on a safety rope that yokes and bonds them.
The first part of this double-episode leads the climb to where the guides refuse to go on, in the same terms as seventy years ago, and Blythe and Killick press on, wholly possessed now. The second details that part of the climb that history could not record, wholly unforeshadowed but as inevitable as death. Killick emerges in his own mind only twice. Unfortunately, the second such moment comes as he dangles thirty foot down, watching Blythe prepare to cut the rope.
The ending that I waited twenty-eight years to read now comes over as risible, even bathetic, though it’s built upon the only sound, plausible solution possible. Killick tries to get through to Blythe the Sergeant, the man from the Nineteen Sixties, by using contemporary language, modern slang that would be meaningless to Victorian Albert Blythe. Unfortunately, the use of the word ‘clot’, even to Nineteen Nineties ears, was unbearably clunky, which rather mars the effect.
Nevertheless it works to draw Blythe out of Albert. He hauls Killick up, and the two climb some twenty feet further up, to another, exceedingly narrow ledge, but a point from where they are safe, because it’s a point that Henry Killick and Albert Blythe never lived to reach.
They now know all they need to know about what happened, and have come to understand the psychological roots of the anger and rivalry between the slim, finely-drawn, independently wealthy Killick, and the rougher, blunter, burlier ex-steeplejack and successful businessman, Blythe. From there, they go on to complete the climb of the Henker, return down its softer, easier south flank, and keep wholly to themselves that they have solved the mystery.
What I like most is that the events of the story, which was meant for young boys, are based wholly in class rivalries and hatreds being acted out in a metaphorical manner. On the mountain, the upstart Blythe, the working (class) man, is the stronger, more powerful, climber, with the resilience needed to outlast and outdo the amateur gentleman, the product of breeding, the upper class, refined ‘natural’ leader. It’s a strongly socialist metaphor that was equally apt to the nascent Sixties: only six months earlier, a song called “Love Me Do” had taken a new Liverpool pop group into the lower half of the Hit Parade.
Wisely, the writer presents this class, power and political struggle as happening in the past, but shows that it still echoes ‘today’. The hints are subtle, and the only moment of animosity between Killick and Blythe in their own selves is brief, and not more than niggly, but it is class-based. Killick is a scientist, a highly intelligent man, whilst Blythe is merely a soldier, and a non-commissioned one and that. In a further subtle touch, the writer doesn’t even allow Blythe a first name: like a servant, a member of the underclass, he is known by his surname throughout.
Of course, this was written and set in an era where the use of first names between men who were not close friends was very rare, and whilst it might seem strange for Killick and Blythe to address each other by their surnames only, it’s in keeping with the times. But we are constantly led to John Killick, and it is his thoughts to which we are privy, which reinforces my point.
If there’s one flaw in the tale, it lies in the impromptu ascent of the North Face. The party has gone out on an expedition intended to last two to three days, and which will be provisioned appropriately. Suddenly it takes off on an all-out assault on an unclimbed rock-face several thousand feet in height, without needing any extra food and drink.
This aside, High Quest was a decent, strong, even somewhat subversive story that still reads well today. It’s a genuine pity that it can only be read by finding extant copies of eight issues of Eagle more than fifty years old. Though if you find those issues, you will not share the experience I have whenever I re-read them, of being at one and the same time in three very different times.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s