I’m not making it a habit on this blog to review what little juvenile literature that I read (although there will be a few exceptions to this rule), but The Horn of Mortal Danger is such a curious tale. I’m still not entirely certain what to make of it. I picked up a copy online having read a glowing reference to it somewhere as something of a lost English classic.
Widgie and Jen, a brother and sister who seem to get on fairly well, go exploring along a disused railway line near their home in Muswell Hill, London. After traversing a few gates and entering some disused areas, they stumble upon some secret devices which allow them access to what appears to be a complete underground railway station. They discover that the station is given over to a slightly miniaturised steam engine. While exploring, Widgie is taken prisoner by a group of diminutive men calling themselves Railwaymen, led by a coarse figure called Bloggs. Jen, who has wandered down a tunnel, is caught by a rival faction, called Canallers. Split up, the brother and sister must attempt to find each other, and a way back to the surface, but they become embroiled in the ongoing war between the Railwaymen and the Canallers, each of whom have divided a subterranean world beneath the Underground stations of north London. While the origins of the hostilities between the two factions are never adequately explored, it almost seems as though the battle plays out between those transporters of goods who employed the 18th century system of English waterways, versus those who were seduced by the 19th century emergence of steam power and railways.
It is easy to imagine a world of disused railway lines – there are famously many disconnected and out-of-service branches of the Underground – and of buried rivers, but there are peculiarities to Leonard’s story, chief among them being this: where did the coal come from for the steam powered vessels and trains? The tale of the rats who have been trapped in Grue’s Pit also rings true, especially bearing in mind the somewhat alarming statistic that in London, one is never more than five metres (or was it feet?) from a rat. Whatever the proximity, this scene is enough to put me off of any rat encountered outside of a laboratory setting.
Something about this story, however, made it difficult to read, certainly to read aloud to my children, which was how we got through it. It wasn’t just the semi-Dickensian patois spoken by the Railwaymen and the Canal-folk, although that in itself was a mouthful. Honestly, I don’t know that I would have finished it had I just been reading it for myself. The ending, for that matter, seems just as though it were hurried through to meet a deadline, as there didn’t seem to be any other real solution to the never-ending pursuit through the tunnels.
So all in all, an unusual book. If someone would like to further illuminate me, or just tell me what the hell was going on, I’d appreciate it. I feel as though there is a bigger story in The Horn of Mortal Danger that, for whatever reason, I completely missed.
Originally reviewed 2 March 2012.
Find your copy of The Horn of Mortal Danger, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).