The trouble is I’m dead

Elizabeth Lowry

  • Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
    Fourth Estate, 451 pp, £16.99, May 2005, ISBN 0 00 715775 4

Hilary Mantel’s dark, unsettling and gleefully tasteless new novel about spiritualism, Hell and the condition of contemporary England is part ghost story, part mystery, and as alarmingly funny as it is disturbing. Shakespeare makes an appearance – he passes in the spirit world as ‘Wagstaffe’, something of a louche lad about town – and is caught on tape having a squabble with another spirit:

Wagstaffe: This sceptred isle . . .
Morris: My sceptred –
Wagstaffe: This other Eden –
Morris: My sceptred arse.

The Britain of Beyond Black is a squalid nest of crumbling viaducts and graffiti-covered bridges, traffic-crazed towns, choked slip roads, sewage works and incinerators, twee housing developments built on hills of compacted waste. A sense of menace hangs over the landscape: ‘There are citadels underground, there are potholes and sunken shafts, there are secret chambers in the hearts of men, sometimes of women too. There are unlicensed workings and laboratories underground, mutants breeding in the tunnels; there are cannibal moo-cows and toxic bunnikins, and behind the drawn curtains of hospital wards there are bugs that eat the flesh.’

There is an unnerving supernatural dimension to this sinister setting. Alison Harte, an overweight, middle-aged medium, works the dormitory towns of the M25, accompanied by her prim assistant, Colette, and her spirit guide, Morris, whom Alison describes to her audience as a former circus clown, ‘a darling little bloke, always laughing, tumbling, doing his tricks’. The séances make cloying reading, deliberately so: this is the public, sanitised version of life ‘beyond black’. Alison’s performances, in village halls and frowsy civic buildings, are enervatingly banal: ‘Oh you’re so lovely . . . Such a lovely, warm and understanding audience, I can always count on a good time whenever I come in your direction. Now I want you to sit back, I want you to relax, I want you to smile, and I want you to send some lovely positive thoughts up here to me.’ The spirit world is characterised during these sessions as an eventless realm, ‘neither cold nor hot, hilly nor flat’, where the dead coexist peacefully. In between gigs, however, Alison recalls her childhood in a squat in Aldershot, and these sequences have a hellish edge.

More keenly than perhaps any other British novelist writing today, Mantel understands how drably and ineluctably evil is embedded in the world. In The Giant, O’Brien (1998), the idiot Pybus watches two of his friends committing rape:

He saw that on the ground was Bride Caskey, and Claffey was on top of her. He saw that Claffey’s buttocks were white, and meagre in form though energetic in action, and that the woman’s eyes were closed and that she was bleeding from her mouth. Her kerchief was pulled off her head and laid beside her, lifting in the wind; the merest inch was trapped beneath the boot of the man Slig, and Pybus watched it flapping, fighting to be free. Slig was unbuttoned, and he held his member in his hand, rubbing the tip and watching and listening as the woman’s skull tapped the cobbles, tip, tap, tip, tap, with every lunge of Claffey . . . Pybus opened his breeches. He looked back over his shoulder. Surely by now they were forcing a dead woman? There was a sort of blot on the cobbles by Caskey’s head, but he did not want to think about its nature.

The scrupulous matter-of-factness of the domestic detail, the disconcerting verbal appositions (those pale buttocks ‘meagre in form though energetic in action’) and the sense of something awful only imperfectly glimpsed or understood: all contribute to an authentic sense of terror, and all carry Mantel’s hallmark.

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[*] HarperPerennial, 252 pp., £7.99, June 2004, 0 00 714272 2. Parts of it first appeared in the LRB in January and February 2003.