The problem of evil is always with us, yet for most of us it is a problem only in theory. Evil is what happens to others, and those responsible for it are somehow never the people we know. We are assured that in the right—that is, the wrong, the catastrophically wrong—circumstances our neighbors will turn into a mob, most likely with us among them. But in our hearts we cannot quite believe it. What circumstances, we ask ourselves, would compel the Smiths and the Joneses to take to the streets with burning brands, baying for the blood of the innocent? And what social disaster, however terrible, would drive us to join them? All the same, it happens; history reverberates with the roars of the mob and the cries of its victims.
Evil does not have to be a public event, and works most insidiously in private. Nor does it always involve blood and burnings. Henry James, an artist with the most acute ear for the nuances of wickedness, takes us into the darkest depths of the human heart: think of that moment in The Portrait of a Lady when we realize what Madame Merle has been up to all along, and how she has sacrificed everything, even her daughter, to her thwarted love for the devilish Gilbert Osmond. And when T.S. Eliot in The Family Reunion unleashes the Furies in Lady Monchensey’s drawing room it is to show us not the barbarousness of ancient Greece but the savagery at the heart of modern civilization.
Religions account for evil by personifying it as the work of this or that kind of devil. The Prince of Darkness invades the lightsome souls of men and makes them mad. Or perhaps, in a subtler formulation, the Devil resides in us, or is ourselves. As Emerson has it, a man is a god in ruins, and what, one asks, should a ruined god naturally do but evil? The English novelist Hilary Mantel had, according to her own account, a moment of Jamesian vastation, at the age of seven, in the back garden of her mother’s house. Playing there, she catches sight, if that is the word, of something in the long grass, “the faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air.”
There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave. I can sense—at the periphery, the limit of all my senses—the dimensions of the creature. It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking; as if pinned to the moment, I cannot wrench my gaze away. I am looking at a space occupied by nothing. It has no edges, no mass, no dimension, no shape except the formless; it moves. I beg it, stay away, stay away. Within the space of a thought it is inside me, and has set up a sick resonance within my bones and in all the cavities of my body.
This is one moment, though the most strikingly ghastly, among many such in her beautiful, haunted, and haunting memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), a book which any prospective reader of Mantel’s new novel, Beyond Black, would do well to consult. Not that Beyond Black is directly autobiographical, or more so than any other novel, but the same spirits that “wrapped a strangling hand around my life” flicker throughout in its pages. Mantel, in the way of all true artists, has transfigured the facts of her life into a darkly luminous fiction.
Despite the supernatural trappings, however, Beyond Black bears no relation to those magical realist novels of the past two or three decades which feature spirits and spiritual effects. Indeed, it shows up most such novels for the whimsical and self-indulgent efforts that they are. If there is such a thing as the common reader, then Hilary Mantel is the common writer, in the best sense. She has written novels on a variety of subjects, among them the French Revolution, the life of an eighteenth-century Irish giant, black magic in Africa, Saudi Arabian politics. All of her work is concerned, at one level or another, with the causes, the nature, and the consequences of evil; God does not deign to dabble in the world as Mantel conceives it. This is surely not unconnected to the fact that she has suffered a great deal of ill health and misfortune in her life; germs, microbes, viruses—these are devils, too, of a kind.
Hilary Mantel was born in the village of Hadfield, near Manchester, in 1952. Her people were working-class Irish Catholic immigrants, probably from “traveler” stock—the family names, Connor, Ward, are common names for traditionally itinerant clans in Ireland still—who worked in the textile trades in the north of England. She was educated first at the village school, an account of which in Giving Up the Ghost is both harrowing and wonderfully funny, and then, when the family moved to Cheshire, at Harrytown Convent; later she studied at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University.
From the start Hilary was a sickly child, prey to raging headaches, prostrating fevers, and all manner of inexplicable or at least unexplained pains and aches; the family doctor, impatient of her complaints, dubbed her Little Miss Neverwell. She studied the antics of the grown-ups around her with a beady and disenchanted eye. And what antics they were. When she was seven, a mysterious man by the name of Jack Mantel began to visit the house, sitting with Hilary’s mother over cups of tea in the kitchen and staying for longer and longer periods, while Hilary’s father Henry skulked in the living room. Eventually the day came when Jack moved in, unannounced and unremarked, and Henry faded from the scene. “No one quarrels, no one cries—only me; no words are exchanged; the situation remains unspoken, indefinite.” Then Hilary’s mother informed her that from now on Jack would be her father, and Mantel her name. Meanwhile
the spirits gather thickly in the half-finished house, falling from their places in the glass-fronted cupboards to the right of the fireplace, waking and stretching from their sooty slumbers behind the demolished range. They discharge from the burnt walls in puffs, they are scraped into slivers as the old wallpaper peels away, and lie curled on the floors, mocking the bristle brush. Our daily life is hushed, driven into corners. We move in a rush between the house’s safe areas, and the ones less safe, where, as you enter a room, you get the impression someone is waiting for you.
She began writing fiction in 1974, at the age of twenty-two. She had graduated in law, but ill health prevented her from taking up a career as a lawyer. In 1972 she had married Gerald McEwan, a geologist, and five years later the couple moved to Botswana where McEwan had been offered a job. They stayed for five years, then moved to Saudi Arabia and lived in Jeddah for four more years, during which time Hilary was deeply unhappy and increasingly, and as yet mysteriously, ill. Despairing of doctors, she took her health or lack of it into her own hands and began to consult medical books, from which she deduced that she was suffering from endometriosis, the painful growth of uterine tissue outside the womb. In 1979 she underwent a hysterectomy—the children she never had are among the ghosts that haunt her still. The drugs with which she was treated for her illness and in her recuperation after surgery led to a serious increase in her weight. “Nowadays,” she writes in Giving Up the Ghost, “more than twenty years on from my trip to St George’s Hospital, everything about me—my physiology, my psychology—feels constantly under assault: I am a shabby old building in an area of heavy shelling, which the inhabitants have vacated years ago.”
The biographical information to be gleaned from Giving Up the Ghost and from subsequent interviews with Mantel—the circumstances of her illness, her appalling weight problem, the fact that she divorced her husband and subsequently married him again, even the account of the couple’s buying and later selling a house in the country—are particularly pertinent to the new novel. She insists in the memoir that the descriptions of her misfortunes, often mordantly funny in tone, are not written to solicit sympathy. In contemplating herself and her predicament she is as dispassionate and blackly humorous as she is in her fiction. “If, like me,” she told an interviewer, “you’ve had a lot of health problems in the course of your life, you try to learn to turn weaknesses into strengths, and transform your deprivations into material for your work.” This might well be Alison Hart, the heroine of Beyond Black, speaking.
Alison is a medium, plying her trade along the ragged outskirts of London and points north—“Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potter’s Bar”—her task to put a little spirit into these dispiriting places. In run-down theaters and community halls she gathers to her the lost and the lonely, the sick, the maimed, or the merely curious: “They were all ages. The old had brought cushions for their bad backs; the young had bare midriffs and piercings.” Her audiences, almost exclusively made up of women, expect much of Alison, and frequently she finds herself able to provide it, even though the arcana to which she is privy are on a higher, or a far lower, level than the humble needs of these widows and bereaved mothers and loveless girls. Alison, although a skilled performer, is no fraud. Her head is abuzz with the voices of the dead, and she has a direct link to Spirit World through her “familiar,” or spirit medium, Morris Warren, a circus performer when he was “airside”—“he did sawing the lady in half”—and now something of a bane upon her life:
It was only when she got older and moved among a different set of psychics that she realized how vulgar and stupid Morris really was. Other mediums have spirit guides with a bit more about them—dignified impassive medicine men or ancient Persian sages—but she had this grizzled grinning apparition in a bookmaker’s checked jacket, and suede shoes with bald toe caps.
The dreadful Morris is only one among many marvelous inventions in Mantel’s strange, funny, and affecting novel. It is a testimony to Mantel’s skill that from the opening pages the reader is lured into a wholly impossible and yet wholly credible world—in this place beyond black you will believe in ghosts, and accept Alison’s matter-of-fact, mundane profession as just another way of making a living in an England that is long past its best. Alison’s attitude toward her gift, if gift it can be called, is complacent in a way that baffles and frequently infuriates her assistant, manager, and difficult friend, Colette Waynflete. But then, bafflement and fury are pretty well the conditions of Colette’s life and character. The most significant fact about Alison, aside from her psychic powers, is her “unfeasible size,” her “plump creamy shoulders, rounded calves, thighs and hips that overflowed her chair,” and against such fleshly opulence Colette cannot compete, Colette the beanpole, whose identifying markings are uniformly drab—her clothes, her skin, her hair, even her eyes are of a more or less pale shade of beige.
But Colette is invaluable to Alison, organizing her bookings on computer spreadsheets, filling out her income tax returns, investing her earnings. What gives Beyond Black its powerful uniqueness is the masterly way in which Mantel weaves together the day-to-day doings of Alison and her minder—the two could easily have inhabited one of those kitchen-sink, north-of-England novels of the 1950s by Alan Sillitoe or Stan Barstow—with the hair-raising antics of the gallimaufry of ghosts and demons who constantly batten upon Alison and her fellow psychics. It is the groundedness of Mantel’s social realism that compels us to suspend our disbelief in her ghosts: If you believe that, she seems to say to us, then you’ll bloody well have to believe this, too.
In the subtlest, most innovative, and oddest way, Beyond Black is an old-fashioned State-of-England novel. Alison’s struggles to come to terms with the horrors of a childhood spent—endured—in what would nowadays be called a dysfunctional household, and Colette’s determination to make a worthy life for herself despite her lack of color and her awful husband, make up a chronicle of contemporary English life which is depressing in its accuracy but exhilarating for the artistry with which it is executed. Mantel has Philip Larkin’s lugubriously penetrating eye for the poetry of the commonplace, and at times her prose attains a level of grim sublimity which the English master poet might have envied:
The weather affects the motorway as it affects the sea. The traffic has its rising tides. The road surface glistens with a pearly sheen, or heaves its black wet deeps. They find themselves at distant service stations as dawn breaks, where yellow light spills out into an oily dimness and a line of huddled birds watches them from above. On the M40 near High Wycombe, a kestrel glides on the updraught, swoops to pluck small squealing creatures from the rough grass of the margins. Magpies toddle amid the roadkill.
Spirit World—Alison always speaks of it without the definite article—is another version of England. It is a place of “eventless calm, neither cold nor hot, neither hilly nor flat, where the dead, each at their own best age and marooned in an eternal afternoon, pass the ages with sod-all going on.” The dead have a “certain nineteen-fifties…or early sixties” air about them; “they’re clean and respectable and they don’t stink of factories: as if they came after white nylon shirts and indoor sanitation but before satire, certainly before sexual intercourse”—a conscious nod, there, to Larkin’s disenchanted “Annus Mirabilis.” The lost ones are, like us, subject to discomforts, delays, disappointments, confusions:
There are the lights, she said, the noises, the waiting, the loneliness. Everything slips out of focus. They suppose they’re in a queue for attention but nobody attends. Sometimes they think they’re in a room, sometimes they sense air and space and they think they’ve been abandoned in a car park. Sometimes they think they’re in a corridor, lying on a trolley, and nobody comes. They start to cry, but still nobody comes. You see, she said, they’ve actually gone over, but they think it’s just the National Health.
Mantel’s dead are as dull and hapless and persnickety as the living, constantly engaged in baffled searches for misplaced buttons, dropped sixpences, lost friends. Among the many more or less homely furies who pursue Alison there is a little woman who keeps popping up and asking after her pal Maureen Harrison for whom she has been looking “this thirty year” and whom, in the closing pages of the book, she finds. There are Elvis impersonators, and Princess Diana look-alikes.* Most of the people on the other side are just as unbrilliant as they were in life. “You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead,” Alison points out. “You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy.” Those who have “gone over” have undergone no angelic transformation: “They don’t become decent people just because they’re dead…. If you get people who are bad in life—I mean, cruel people, dangerous people—why do you think they’re going to be any better after they’re dead?”
Among Alison’s legion of the gone-before there are many cruel and dangerous people. A large part of the novel’s plot hinges on the “fiends” who in her childhood, when they were still living, abused and maimed her, and who now threaten to return and overwhelm her. Morris, her seedy spirit guide, is one of them; then there is Bob Fox, who taps on windows, and the dreaded Donald Aitkenside, and Pikey Pete, and one-eyed MacArthur, and Keith (“Keef”) Capside, and a certain Wagstaffe from another time who is allowed to shake the spear of his wit at us from time to time—at one point he even quotes Oscar Wilde—and dirty Derek whom Alison suspects might be her dad.
The question of Alison’s paternity is a vexed one, for her mother, another of the haunted, was an amateur prostitute and ran her house in Aldershot as a neighborhood bordello, where in a Librium-and-alcohol-induced haze she entertained MacArthur and Keef Capside and the rest of the gang, and where Alison was inducted into the household trade as soon as she reached puberty, if not before. “How long you expect me to keep you fed and housed, how long, eh?” her mother demands. “Lie on your back and take it, that’s what I had to do. And regular!”
Alison has forgotten, or suppressed, many of the traumas she suffered in the house in Aldershot, where aside from the sexual abuse—MacArthur says of her in wonderment, “She’ll do anything for a bag of chocolate raisins”—she was beaten by her mother, attacked by half-wild dogs, and had the calves of her legs slashed with knives. The slashing was “a lesson she won’t forget,” administered by her mother’s clients as punishment for a twin act of mutilation she herself committed—MacArthur’s lack of an eye is Alison’s doing, as is Keef Capstick’s loss of another pair of orbs. Alison’s present troubles are intimately linked to the nightmares of the past. She is engaged in a constant battle against her demons, who seem irresistible in their quotidian dreadfulness. Yet she survives, and the novel ends, in something of a straggle, with Colette returning to her hopeless husband and Alison setting off for Sevenoaks in the company not of Morris but of two potential new spirit guides, the “little woman” and her friend Maureen Harrison, both of them looking forward to tea and cakes and hijinks on the motorway—“Pedal faster, miss, see if you can beat that one!”
Yet it is not these friendly spirits we are meant to remember, but the fiendish others. And this is where the novel runs into difficulty, and encounters its main failure, although it is a difficulty that was unavoidable, given the author’s ambitions, and the failure is an honorable one.
The problem is the problem of evil, and how to represent it. In her attempt to freeze our hearts with a glimpse into the core of the inferno, Mantel piles on the Grand Guignol effects. Novel readers, however, are notoriously bloodthirsty, and quickly become jaded with even the extremest representations of cruelty and violence. Mantel is aware of this melancholy fact, and seeks to circumvent it by adopting a light-hearted tone—in homage, one suspects, to Muriel Spark—meant to lull us into a false sense of security out of which her gradually doled out disclosures of wickedness will jerk us, gasping. Murder, sexual abuse, child prostitution, feral dogs, plucked-out eyes, dismembered bodies, these things and more are presented to us with a sort of bleak insouciance that may be intended to increase their shockingness, but does not. And the gallows humor, while entertaining and for the most part expertly timed, does in places seem contrived, for instance when the subject is the Devil himself—who, it is hinted, may be Alison’s real, supernatural, father.
Al said, “Is Nick management?”
“You’re joking me!” Morris said. “Is Nick management? He is the manager of us all. He is in charge of the whole blooming world. Don’t you know nothing, girl?”
She said, “Nick’s the devil, isn’t he? I remember seeing him, in the kitchen at Aldershot.”
“You should have taken more notice. You should have been respectful.”
Here, as elsewhere, the jauntiness does not convince, or if it does it serves only to dissipate the stink of brimstone which frequently seeps up out of these pages to sting the nos-trils and burn the eyes. Mantel knows a great deal about many things, from the affliction of being fat to the immanence of the diabolical in the world; her ambitions are high, and her achievement is considerable. Beyond Black is a fine work, and from a lesser novelist would have seemed a masterpiece. It is too long—Muriel Spark would have managed the same effect in a hundred or so crisp pages—and despite the self-deprecating humor it shows too overtly its grand intentions.
Yet what a writer Hilary Mantel is, the possessor of a peerless prose style. What other novelist working today could produce an opening paragraph as poetic and exact as this?
Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o’clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potter’s Bar. There are nights when you don’t want to do it, but you have to do it anyway. Nights when you look down from the stage and see closed stupid faces. Messages from the dead arrive at random. You don’t want them and you can’t send them back. The dead won’t be coaxed and they won’t be coerced. But the public has paid its money and it wants results.
Diana's violent death and the mass hysteria that followed it serve to drum up brisk business for Alison, as a grieving public seeks to assuage its grief by hearing how its beloved princess is getting on in Spirit World. In the ordinary world, Alison has a funny and peculiarly moving encounter with the real, though dead, Diana, who has forgotten her son's names: "Diana dropped her eyes. They rolled, under her blue lids. Her painted lips fumbled for names. 'It's on the tip of my tongue,' she said. 'Anyway, whatever. You tell them, because you know. Give my love to... Kingy. And the other kid. Kingy and Thingy.' There was a sickly glow behind her now, like the glow from a fire in a chemical factory."↩
Diana’s violent death and the mass hysteria that followed it serve to drum up brisk business for Alison, as a grieving public seeks to assuage its grief by hearing how its beloved princess is getting on in Spirit World. In the ordinary world, Alison has a funny and peculiarly moving encounter with the real, though dead, Diana, who has forgotten her son’s names: “Diana dropped her eyes. They rolled, under her blue lids. Her painted lips fumbled for names. ‘It’s on the tip of my tongue,’ she said. ‘Anyway, whatever. You tell them, because you know. Give my love to… Kingy. And the other kid. Kingy and Thingy.’ There was a sickly glow behind her now, like the glow from a fire in a chemical factory.”↩