Mystery and Imagination

Stephen Bann

Tales of the supernatural have come a long way over the past two decades. When Fontana published their collections of ‘Great Ghost Stories’ in the early 1960s, it might have seemed as if the genre had become canonical and almost complete. A long and distinguished line led back, through such expert modern practitioners as L.P. Hartley and Walter de la Mare, to the definitive achievements of M.R. James, Stevenson and Le Fanu, and their Gothic predecessors. The ghost story, or original tale of the supernatural, was essentially a short story, delicately crafted to obtain the maximum effect from its metaphysical equivocations. If it did not aspire to the mathematical rigour of Poe, it set great store by the gradual development of an exquisite suspense, preparing the reader for the decisive point at which the balance of belief and disbelief could be tipped – ever so slightly – in favour of the impossible fictional world. What has happened since the 1960s is that the true ghost story has been overhauled by its bastard brother, the horror story. Discreet, poetic effects have been replaced by grand guignol, polite complicity with the reader by a sadistic desire to shock at all costs; in place of the short story, there is the gross and overblown novel which strains its every sinew to the state of commercial apotheosis which is awaiting it upon the cinema screen.

Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and William Peter Blatty’s Legion (‘The sequel to The Exorcist’) very neatly illustrate this parting of the ways. If Susan Hill’s ‘ghost story’ is not a pastiche, it is undoubtedly an essay in recreating the almost exhausted genre. We are back in that indefinable period when English society could still be epitomised in terms of Christmas parties around the fire in the Drawing Room, journeys through the fog in steam locomotives, and excursions with a pony and trap across a deserted marsh. As we are told at one point of ‘the sort of spot where, a hundred years or more earlier, romantically-minded poets would have lingered and been inspired to compose some cloyingly sad verse’, we can make a guess at circa 1910. The fact that our hero only aspires to a half-bottle of claret with his ‘home-made broth, sirloin of beef, apple and raisin tart with cream, and some Stilton cheese’, suggests a Wellsian decorum rather than a Dickensian extravagance.

Against this reassuring decor, Susan Hill manages her gradual escalation of uncanny effects. The drama is never over-pitched: a ‘sound like a regular yet intermittent bump or rumble’ is about as much as we get for the first intimation of unearthly goings-on in the isolated Eel Marsh House, and it is in describing the narrator’s complicated reactions to this stimulus that she attains her most authentic tone of eloquence:

I do not know how long I stood there in fear and trembling and in dreadful bewilderment. I lost all sense of time and ordinary reality. Through my head went a tumbling confusion of half-thoughts and emotions, visions of spectres and of real fleshy intruders, ideas of murder and violence, and all manner of odd, distorted fears. And, all the time, the door stood wide open and the rocking continued. Rocking. Yes. I came to, because I had realised at last what the noise within the room was – or at least, what it reminded me of closely. It was the sound of the wooden runners of my nurse’s rocking chair, when she had sat beside me every night while I went to sleep, as a small child, rocking, rocking.

Such fine points, in which the familiar flips over into the unfamiliar (and vice versa), recur throughout The Woman in Black, and impel us to disregard its flavour of mild archaism. Susan Hill has carefully managed the sequence of chapters, giving to each a structure, and a title, which suggest a succession of self-contained episodes, several of them being individual ‘ghost stories’ in their own right. (It must however be said that the greatest mystery of all, which survives the end of the novel, is that the chapter with a reminiscent title, ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’, is about discovering a packet of letters, while the previous chapter, ‘A Packet of Letters’, is about a dog being summoned by a ghostly whistle. Has M.R. James been tinkering around from beyond the grave?) A final credit should be given to the admirable illustrations by John Lawrence, which themselves suggest the interesting precedent of Brisley Le Fanu’s wash drawings to accompany Sheridan’s tales. In giving us an additional, visual register against which to check the ambiguities and intimations of the narrative, the illustrator is not just offering a decorative border: he is contributing to an integral experience of reading, in which the disparity between text and image is subsumed in the reader’s pleasurable exploration of states of credulity and disbelief. We look at the picture to be sure of what is going on. But, of course, the picture returns us perpetually to the text.

It is perhaps unfair, but surely it is realistic, to envisage Blatty’s Legion in the light of the cinematic horror effects which it is destined to inspire. One of these, in particular, is so overwhelmingly disgusting that the very thought of seeing it in colour on the wide screen has to be excluded from the mind. (I will not waste my time, or spoil the novelist’s effects, by trying to describe it, except by hinting that it involves quite inordinate amounts of blood.) Just as the multi-coloured effects of Blatty’s work far exceed what it would be in the power of a humble illustrator to evoke, so the metaphysical pretentions go much further than Susan Hill, and her predecessors, would be willing to go. A traditional ghost story assumes little more than the desire of the dead to work off an unhealthy surplus of human emotions like hatred and revenge. The new horror story is bathed in Gnosticism, and takes Lucifer very seriously. In fact, the very title of Legion, which is borrowed from the Gospel of St Mark, presupposes a cosmological theory of considerable precision and sophistication. Rarely has the detective’s need to trace the link between a series of apparently unco-ordinated killings sought justification in so imposing a theological scheme.

What the ‘Legion’ motif certainly does not connote is Roland Barthes’s use of the same Biblical quotation in his essay ‘From Work to Text’. Barthes used the reply of the man possessed by spirits – ‘My name is Legion, for we are many’ – to conjure up the multifarious voices of the Modernist text. For Blatty, the extreme degree of metaphysical licence is kept in check by the iron hand of a traditional narrative strategy. It is actually very well done, if you submit yourself willingly to this kind of manipulative grasp. But what has been lost is any sense that the writer is more than an accomplished technician, for whom even Lucifer and all his angels must be made to perform on cue.

What makes the novels of Alan Sillitoe infinitely superior to this kind of journeyman’s work, is the abiding sense that the strong narrative line, though traditionally conceived and carried through, is at the same time a vehicle for allegory or, if that is too strong a word, anagogical reading of the author’s own attitude to his art. Kipling chose to picture the great novel which he never wrote as a ship, ‘a veritable three-decker out of chosen and long-stored timber – teak, green-heart, and ten-year-old oak knees – each curve melting deliciously into the next ...’ Sillitoe’s evidently well-informed portrayal of The Lost Flying Boat goes beyond the reminiscences of the former member of the RAFVR, who has done his homework, and evokes a more general analogy with the ethos of humane craftsmanship:

A flying boat is built by people who guide each strut, float, stringer, tailplane, aileron and leading edge into place, I said. The anatomical diagram is adhered to as a blueprint for every component from a tiny screw to the whole engine. After launching, the flying boat retains the touch of human hands. Even if few felt that they were creating a work of beauty, it justified what I was trying to say – which Nash admitted might be true enough.

The ‘loss’ of the flying boat, for which we are prepared in the title, is therefore compensated on the symbolic level by the narrator’s closing vision: ‘All parts intact, its beautiful form flew just above the sea, belly glistening in the sun.’ And this rehabilitation of the lost object is achieved precisely because the narrator is, by his own recognition, a communicator: a wireless operator for whom ‘Reality was when I twiddled the tuning knob of the radiogram and heard morse chirping from the speaker.’ It is at this closing stage of the novel that we begin to sense the many overtones of what has been, up to that point, a gripping adventure story, and our retrospective view of the action is greatly enriched.

Even such an elliptical comment on The Lost Flying Boat prepares us for the likelihood that this will remain an important novel in Sillitoe’s later career. The dedication lets slip the information that it was ‘promised a long time ago’, and it is evident that the superb command of aeronautical detail has been carried over from the time when Sillitoe himself was a radio operator, before he was invalided out of the service and became a writer. No doubt the experience was stored until it could be utilised to create, not a mere adventure story, but a fable about the warring principles of communication and action, art and authority. Bennett, the obsessional captain of the rogue flying boat, is the only character who usurps, for one brief section, the narrator’s otherwise consistent point of view. It is Bennett who creates the wireless operator/narrator’s central dilemma, which is whether or not to send out false signals as a necessary safeguard for the illegal expedition, and thereby break the iron laws of his profession. But by setting up this dilemma, Bennett does not bind his communicator to him in unreserved loyalty:

I would have stayed in any case, acceptance being composed of pride, tradition, greed, honour and a desire to explore my nature to the utmost. There was nothing more attractive to me at that time. I thought of fate as the unbreakable spider’s web, but did not know whether by being drawn to it I was the spider or the victim. In my imaginary conversation I told Bennett none of this.

The Lost Flying Boat has a wealth of poignant implications that distinguish it as a work of mid to late career. It is hardly surprising that Antony Lambton’s Snow, and Other Stories should come across as one-dimensional by comparison. The author has a disturbing habit of picking up characters, polishing them assiduously in such a way as to secure our attention, and then abandoning them irretrievably. In the title story of the collection, this careless habit even becomes the mainspring of the narrative. The story follows the course of an episodic journal written by a Richmond housewife, as Britain is saturated in Snow from a Siberian weather station. Her husband hardly makes an appearance, her lover is merely a name, and even the communal organisation of the block of flats finally breaks down, leaving this mother of two in virtual isolation. Waiting for the white apocalypse becomes a tedious business under these conditions, with only the kind advice of a local FO man and the press conferences of President Reagan to keep morale ticking over. Yet there are one or two stories in this collection which show a high level of accomplishment. Lord Lambton excels at the cameo portrait, only lightly disguised as a short story. And it is hardly surprising if his most successful portraits come from the social stratum of which he, unlike most of his readers, has an expert knowledge. ‘Service’ begins appropriately: ‘There were in 1888 few more beautiful houses in England than Highwood, the property of Lord Pewsey.’ Country-house cognoscenti will recognise the ensuing description as being, more than approximately, an evocation of the largely vanished glories of Bowood, in Wiltshire. But they will greet as a fresh illumination the fine if forbidding portrait of an aristocratic dowager, impressing upon her sceptical daughter the need to marry well. Lord Lambton performs a small public service in showing us that life among the aristocracy is not a bed of roses, and that ‘Charlotte Gwynne’, though daughter of a Marquess and toast of the gossip columnists, has to put up at temperance hotels as she fills in the gap between weekends at the grandest of country houses. It reminds me a little of Fourier’s generous plea on behalf of the Princesses of the House of Orleans: that they were by no means as fortunate as people imagined, because they were consumed with the idea that other European royal houses looked down on them.

Lord Lambton’s heroines are of the same flesh as us, though their blood may be bluer. Maria Luisa Bombal specialises in the portrayal of another kind of aristocratic heroine, commuting between the labyrinthine South American cities and dense, tropical landscapes which secrete occasional, decaying estates, taking refuge from the alienating world of men in a fantasy of ideal love or fusion with nature, which produces a perpetual state of delirium. Sometimes the signs of this alienation become plain for the menfolk to see, and it appears that such a woman is an evolutionary throwback, bearing on her body the marks of an original fusion with the world which preceded civilisation and colonisation:

Reaching the gate, he crosses the park and goes past the camellias in the garden to a certain window, where he wipes the pane free of fog and then stands transfixed as before his eyes a fairy tale unfolds.

   Yolanda is standing naked in the bathroom, absorbed in the contemplation of her right shoulder.

   Her right shoulder – on which something light and flexible looms, drooping down to cover a small portion of her back. A wing, or rather, the beginning of a wing. Or more exactly, the stump of a wing. A small atrophied member which she now strokes carefully, as if dreading the touch.

It is a pleasure, if not a surprise, to discover from this collection that South American literature has yet another fine writer of the older generation, who amply deserves the endorsement which she receives from Borges’s brief but laudatory preface. That she is a woman writer, who was born in Chile in 1910 and died as recently as 1980, puts her beyond doubt among those whom the dust-jacket terms ‘the precursors of a modern feminist sensibility, a new kind of writing about women by women’. But it is not only in her subject-matter of abandoned and abject women that Maria Luisa Bombal displays originality. What is more remarkable – because more sharply divergent from the realist techniques of the great women novelists of the 19th century – is her concern with the minute inflections of tense and grammatical structure that spin the attentive reader into his own, purely imaginary state of delirium. Note the effect in the following brief passage, where (like Flaubert) Bombal lulls us with an ‘iterrative’ present, marking an action repeated over an indefinite number of occasions, and then unexpectedly focuses on the singular, specific scene:

I take walks, go deep into the forest, dawdle on my return although it is late – shortening my steps to gain time, to gain time, to give the day one last opportunity to produce a miracle. As I enter the drawing-room, my heart is pounding.

Daniel lies on the divan, yawning among his dogs.

Hardly a page of this fine collection is without some comparable finesse of style, and the two translators, Richard and Lucia Cunningham, have worked hard for the marvellous combined effect of limpidity and obscurity which Maria Luisa Bombal creates.

Crispin Kitto’s The Antarctica Cookbook is more of a confidence trick than a novel. But the reason why such a shoddy piece of writing should be easy, even attractive to read is worthy of a little – just a little – attention. Novelists from Balzac, Dickens and Huysmans to Lampedusa have given us set-piece descriptions of elaborate meals, and Kurt Vonnegut has recently (in Deadeye Dick) done us the courtesy of providing a few exotic recipes. But not till The Antarctica Cookbook, as far as I know, has there been a novel whose fictional resources were exclusively directed to the introduction of a clutch of recipes. The cover offers an enticing vision of ‘Floating Islands’ suspended against an Antarctic landscape. But the Antarctic landscape evoked in title and narrative is, we may conclude, only a projection of the narrator’s fantasy of ending up in the refrigerator, which he has to consult as frequently as most writers use libraries. Innumerable characters crowd in upon the action of this novel, going to quite outrageous lengths to secure our attention. But they are all perfectly unmemorable, compared with the pornographic antics of the yeast which involves ‘grandparents mating with their grandchildren’ before the end of the prologue, or the manic liveliness of the vegetables of whom it can be said: ‘So perfectly al dente were Guy’s stir-fried vegetables, so more-alive were they from being cooked, that one would not have been surprised had they jumped off the plate and taken root nearby.’ All this energy could be contagious, and readers may even find themselves experimenting with Crispin Kitto’s recipes. But they should beware of supposing (among other things) that Pierre Bouchard et Fils is a Bordeaux merchant, or that the correct way to make a beurre blanc involves three cups of thick cream. After all, this is a work of fiction, isn’t it?

Crispin Kitto’s Antarctica may be an innocent fantasy compared with the half-primeval, half-civilised South America of Maria Luisa Bombal, or the starkly observed landscape of the Kerguelen Islands in the South Indian Ocean which is the goal of Alan Sillitoe’s expedition. Maurice Gee’s New Zealand is neither fantastic nor stark, and there is little room in it for the primeval. But the vision which he achieves in Sole Survivor has the clarity of an image seen through the wrong end of a telescope. The names, of places and of people, are mostly English or Scottish. The period is obviously our own post-war period, and the political and cultural tensions which form the novel’s wider context are devastatingly close to our own. But Gee brings out the strangeness within the familiarity. Up to this point, my only acquaintance with New Zealand fiction had been through the delicate and evocative short stories of Frank Sargeson, recently re-edited in a useful Penguin collection.[*] If Sargeson presents the life of the country through the lyric medium of the short (and often very short) story, Gee has courageously attempted to produce an epic. Sole Survivor is the last part of a trilogy which follows the fortunes of two interrelated New Zealand families throughout the 20th century.

Even at this late stage in the work, the fascination is still to a large extent with the way in which the vestiges of a traditional, colonial society have been sedulously preserved, like flies in amber. Grandma Sole may not be as exalted as Lord Lambton’s Dowager. But her front room testifies, no less than the splendours of Highwood, to the abiding memory of an Empire upon which the sun never sets:

It was a box, ten by ten; but for us, Aladdin’s cave. It was her treat as much as mine. She softened in there, she blossomed. She never turned the light on and never drew back the curtains. Clack went the door behind us. I heard her breathe. Her eyes shone in the dark, her face opened like a flower. And the room took on a magic for me. The firescreen, the tongs, poker, and iron, gleamed like gold. The knick-knacks on the china cabinet were as rich as the crown jewels; and the crockery inside – plates like shells, cups like butterflies – seemed to me the finest in the world. I could not imagine the king and queen having better.

Against this rich tapestry, Gee maps out a relationship (and conflict) between cousins which has the same emblematic significance as Sillitoe’s drama of art and action. Duggie Plumb is the cousin who means to rise in the world: even his schoolboy escapades are carried out with a greater determination and ruthlessness than those of his companions (as the narrator explains, ‘seeing was never enough for Duggie’). Where Duggie enters political life and achieves ministerial office as a member of the National Party, his cousin acquires the narrative voice through a habit of detached observation and a hard schooling in local journalism. ‘What a creepy boy,’ his future wife exclaims of him. The motto for the emblem might read: ‘Out of the creepy comes forth fiction.’

[*] The Stories of Frank Sargeson, Penguin, 358 pp., £2.95, 25 November 1982, 0 1400 6068 5.