Book review: Styx

Cover, Severn House hardback edition

As part of a new series on classic caving books, both fact and fiction, Linda Wilson reviews Styx, a 1982 adventure novel with a surprisingly up-to-date twist …

Two Japanese geologists on a visit to the Yugoslavian karst stumble on the find of the century, a previously unknown cave containing a roof decorated with what they believe are ancient paintings.

Dr David Penfold, an American academic working in Paris, is approached to validate the find, but he’s not impressed. He’s certain the paintings are fakes, and not very good ones, as the technical expertise of the art falls far short of the grace and beauty executed by Cro Magnon man in the Palaeolithic caves of France and Northern Spain.

Anton Vlasek, the amateur archaeologist who brought the news of the paintings in the cave of Subrano to Paris, is quick to correct Penfold’s assumption that the paintings are forgeries. Vlasek believes the paintings were done by Neanderthal man, as a skull found in the cave exhibits the pronounced brow ridges and other features that distinguish Neanderthals from the later Cro Magnon man, but with some subtle differences. Penfold’s interest is immediately piqued as for some time he has been working on a hypothesis that there was in fact a missing link between Neanderthal and Cro Magnon man, a transitional phase lost to archaeology until the discovery in Yugoslavia.

Penfold quickly swings into action, setting up a major international team to excavate in the cave and record the paintings. He’s joined by his son, also called David, who is heartily sick of living in his father’s shadow but goes along anyway, as he seems to lack enough strength of character to break free from his father’s influence. Also on the expedition is Penfold senior’s academic rival, the Frenchman Alain Bouchard, whose daughter Irene conveniently – or inconveniently – happens to be having a relationship with David. Naturally, her father disapproves, and Irene is keen to keep things under wraps.

Cover, Hamelyn paperback edition

Equally naturally, things quickly go spectacularly wrong when the team are trapped underground by a violent earthquake that brings down a large section of the roof and entombs the group in the cave, killing Penfold senior and several others in the process. The survivors are faced with the stark knowledge that they are trapped, and after an earthquake of that severity, it seems highly unlikely that anyone is going to come looking for them in a hurry.

Experienced caver and geologist Izo Harada, one of the cave’s original discoverers, takes charge and convinces the group that to survive they need to make their way deeper into the cave in the hope of finding a way out – otherwise they risk certain death when the next tremor hits the area and brings down the unstable roof of the cavern they had been working in. What could possibly go wrong …?

Their first obstacle is a sump, but luckily they have American cave diving expert Frank Speers with them with a full set of diving kit as he’d been brought along to investigate a large underground lake. Not every cloud has a silver lining, though, and it’s already been signalled in large letters that Speers is Not Nice, as he was introduced on a sea dive when he speared a large fish through the eyes just for the fun of it and then didn’t even have the good grace to take it home to cook for tea. Unsurprisingly, an injured member of the team doesn’t survive being taken through the sump by Speers, and the diver seems entirely unconcerned by that. Cue ominous drum roll …

Styx is a classic of the One Damn Thing After Another school of thriller writing, with the group having to face a raging underground river, surprise waterfalls, deep shafts, boiling mud and man-eating cave bugs, but it’s all right as they have seemingly everlasting torches and can float on their conveniently-salvaged inflatable rafts down 40 miles of river. Amidst that lot, a homicidal cave diver with a penchant for rape doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It’s fortunate we’ve now got rather better role models for aspiring divers to look up do!

The characterisation is wafer thin at times. Of all the team, I liked Izo the best. He’s a beacon of rational good sense, the calm centre in a maelstrom of fear. Amongst his companions is English journalist Tony Grace, a borderline claustrophobic, coping only through what is clearly an attempt to portray a self-deprecating brand of British humour. To give him some credit, Hyde mostly succeeds in bringing Grace to life as well. David Penfold junior is a very different kettle of fish. He’s not much more than an irritating wimp who feels sorry for himself while his girlfriend is being raped in his hearing. I would have happily pushed him down the nearest shaft, along with the rapist.

Irritatingly. the women aren’t much more than cardboard cut-outs who seem strangely quiescent in the face of Speers’ rampant sexism. Only the team’s artist and illustrator Mariea Tarvanin demonstrates some flashes of character. The female characters seem mainly there to provide a love interest, and there are a few cringeworthy sex scenes that really shouldn’t ever have seen the light of day. The portrayal of the women is where Hyde falls down badly, and those aspects of the book are even more noticeable now than they were 35 years ago, which can only be a good thing.

Despite the book’s very obvious deficiencies, Hyde does deliver some excellent underground descriptions – if you ignore the 40 mile river journeys! There’s a real sense of tension in places, and it’s by no means certain that anyone will make it out alive as Izo increasingly places his faith in the leader of a group of Neanderthals he believes made the journey before them, after they too became trapped in the cave. The leader who left behind the images in the cave …

When I first read Styx, any archaeologist would have been laughed out of court if they’d claimed to have found Neanderthal cave art. But thanks to the work of Alistair Pike and his colleagues, we now know that the Neanderthals could create art. Maybe a cave like the fictional Subrano with more complex paintings still awaits discovery …

Christopher Hyde
Various editions, including Hamelyn and Severn House
ISBN-10: 0600206629 (Hamelyn)
ISBN-13: 978-0600206620 (Hamelyn)
ISBN-10: 0727808370 (Severn House)

Used copies are available from amazon

Reviewed by Linda Wilson