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The Fifth Horseman

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Panther, London, 1976
(price: 60p; 192 pages)

The blurb on the back:

The Big Tilt.
North Sea oil was supposed to be Britain's economic salvation. But the sea was not to be robbed of its treasures so easily. Extracting the oil caused a massive collapse of the seabed with the consequent catastrophic flooding of vast areas of northern Europe - and the tilting of half of Britain beneath the raging ocean.
Through scenes of horrendous disaster, expert scientist Lorca Shand made his way across the devastated remains of the country. As the other survivors of the new order reverted to primal savagery, Shand fought with increasing ferocity to escape the living nightmare that had engulfed a whole nation...
The Fifth Horseman is a powerful novel of the disaster that could be starting in the silent depths of our seas at this very moment.

opening lines:
The sixteen-coach Carlisle to London train slid from Carlisle station in the early morning like a python from undergrowth.

This is the third of Walter Harris’ novels that has appeared on this site, and I have to say it’s the best of them. The basic situation is as explained in the sleeve-notes: the exploitation of the North Sea oil fields causes the sea-bed to collapse and sends a tidal wave crashing over Northern Europe and Britain. With the country underwater from Portsmouth to Aberdeen, and with twenty million dead in the South-East alone, the survivors struggle to reach the apparent safety of Wales.

The science is a bit ropy, of course – it doesn’t get much beyond ‘Nature abhors a vacuum … We’re taking out oil and gas, and putting nothing back’ (p.48) – but it’s a perfectly sound premise for an exploitation novel. And that, after all, is precisely what we’re dealing with. Just to prove the point, the geophysicist, whose story we’re following, manages to pick up two women on his travels (one of them an international movie star) and proceeds to enjoy what the tabloid would call ‘kinky three-in-a-bed sex romps’.

It’s a decent disaster thriller, but far from unflawed. In particular, there’s a lack of focus, stemming from a desire to put too much in. We spend substantial periods of time worrying about issues – the stability of the oil rigs, the spread of disease through a migrating rat population – that come and go, leaving little trace behind as we pass on to the next concern. Essentially it falls between two stools: it’s too detailed for a piece of pure, disposable trash, but nowhere near long enough for the kind of post-Apocalyptic epic that it sometimes feels like it wants to be.

On a personal note, my reading of the novel was coloured heavily by the fact that I bought it in the first days of 2005, just a week after the tsunami that wreaked such damage in the Indian Ocean. With the reality of that in one’s mind, it wasn’t entirely comfortable reading a fictional version from thirty years earlier. In that context, I think it’s testament to Mr Harris’ undoubted writing ability that it still worked.


from the maker of:
The Mistress of Downing Street