More than two decades ago, I sat in a courthouse in the English country town of Dursley. The murderer Fred West had just killed himself. It was a cold week in February, and we had all gathered—lawyers, reporters, grieving mothers and fathers—to hear evidence in a pretrial hearing centering around Rosemary West, Fred’s widow, a remarkably stupid woman who was later found to have participated in the murders of ten young women, including her own stepdaughter. Most of the victims were buried under the Wests’ house in Gloucester or in their garden. With the local accents, the frozen fields, and the elaborate tales of family cruelty, there was more than a whiff of Thomas Hardy about the proceedings. The cameras outside appeared to feast on the idea of a monster in our midst, not only a bad mother but a dark reflecting pool wherein we might inspect our Victorian family values.
At one point during the hearing, the late novelist Gordon Burn, who sat close by, turned a notebook toward me on which he’d written two words in large letters: “The Uncanny.” To Burn, the whole case represented an almost supernatural perversion of the family romance, and he later told me it had given him nightmares. That was quite something: here was a man who had written a book about the Yorkshire Ripper, the serial killer of prostitutes, and another book that dwelled on the Moors Murderers, a boyfriend-and-girlfriend team who molested, tortured, and killed at least five children in the early 1960s. Yet something about this typical English home, this West Midlands charnel house, had tapped a nerve in that otherwise nerveless writer of Thatcherite Gothic.
“Freud’s famous essay,” Sigrid Rausing writes in her beautiful memoir Mayhem,
was published in 1919. The first part of the text includes page after page of definitions of the term unheimlich, as though the uncanny itself had possessed the text. He then reminds us of the philosopher Friedrich Schelling’s definition of the uncanny: “Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open.”
Rausing goes on to define a connection, especially in her native Swedish, between “the home and the secret; the home and the horrible.” The author is a well-known editor and publisher in London, but here she turns our attention to dark machinations in her own family. Though she measures them perfectly, the weight of the past and the depths of her family crisis continue to overwhelm her, and her story is told, one feels, in medias res, while the psychological force of the events is still raw and the final toll on the survivors unknown.
Mayhem is a work of Nordic noir. We have become used to that form, on television,…
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