Tag Archives: supermatural

Kehua! by Fay Weldon

In the extraordinary, funny metafictional novel, Kehua! British author Fay Weldon explores the lives of two sets of characters surrounded by supernatural elements that interrupt and accompany the non-linear narrative. An unnamed writer, obviously a fictional stand in for Fay Weldon, tries to complete her novel in the basement of her haunted house. She frequently interjects her own thoughts into the text even as she tries, with moderate success, to control her fictional characters who develop and evolve sometimes beyond her control. If this sounds confusing, it isn’t, and instead we see the way the writer’s fictional characters become their own beings, get “out of hand,” and capable of acts that “shock[s] even” the author who creates them. This fictional author doesn’t hesitate to demystify the writing process for her audience, and at one point states that “your couple of hours’ reading is my half-year’s work.” Indeed we readers get a sense of the difficulties of the writer’s life as her characters grow increasingly out of control, plot developments pop up like toadstools, and the author is interrupted by the various ghosts who haunt her Victorian mansion. The fictional author occasionally despairs at the way her plot meanders, and that she feels “less real [while] these characters get more real.” But then so much of Weldon’s personal life seeps through the pages, it’s no wonder Weldon’s fictional characters need a great deal of herding towards the desired plot developments.

Kehua!This is a tale of murder, adultery, incest, family, and the way the actions and decisions of one generation work upon those that follow. The latter, incidentally, is a favoured interest of Fay Weldon whose works concentrate on the lives of women with themes that include: female identity & self-image, revenge, transformation & reinvention, gender inequality, female madness and the vicious relationships between women. While Weldon’s work, full of dark, bitingly wicked humour, obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Weldon is a very inventive writer which sounds peculiar as fiction writers are supposed to be inventive since they are, after all, in the biz of imagination, creation and keeping us amused.

Now to the plot …

And this is how the novel begins, and this quote, is, I think, the essence of Weldon, for who else (certainly not Wordsworth) would connect “a host of golden daffodils” with a “life lesson” in rampant male sexuality:

Your writer, in telling you this tale of murder, adultery, incest, ghosts, redemption and remorse, takes you first to a comfortable house in Highgate, North London, where outside the kitchen window, dancing in the breeze, the daffodils are in glorious bloom: a host of yellow male stamens in vigorous competition, eager to puff their special pollen out into the world. No two daffodils are alike, nor are any two humans. We attribute free will to human, but not to daffodils–with whom we share 35 per cent of our DNA–though perhaps rashly, when we consider the way some human families behave.

The family under examination consists of 4 generations of women–there’s matriarch Beverley, originally from New Zealand, a veritable Black Widow who’s been married 3 times to three very different men with each marriage representing a specific phase in Beverley’s life. Her first husband, who traded Beverley for political favours, was a Marxist “who disappeared on his way to join Che Guevara in the jungle,” the second killed himself following a “homosexual scandal,” and the third was a “right-wing journalist and notable drunk.” There was also an early childhood phase, spent in New Zealand, in which Beverley’s past was reinvented for her by the couple who cared for her.

Beverley’s daughter Alice, probably in some sort of fundamental knee-jerk response to her mother’s unconventionality, is very religious. Then there are Alice’s daughters Cynara and Scarlet whose birth names were very boring–Mary and Joan (no wonder they changed them), and Cynara’s precocious daughter, 16-year-old “wayward nymphet,” Lola. Lola left home after her mother threw out her husband, “declared herself a lesbian,”  and moved her S&M fixated lover, D’Dora, with her whips, handcuffs and chains, into the house. D’Dora is a member of LGS “a gay and lesbian subgroup whose members prefixed their given names with D for Dyke.” Lola, disgusted and rebellious, moves in with her aunt Scarlet temporarily while she supposedly waits for the paperwork necessary to travel to Haiti as an aid worker. Lola’s mother, Cynara tells Scarlet “for your sake pray she leaves the country soon.” Scarlet soon has reason to regret allowing Lola to move in, especially when Lola notes Scarlet’s abbreviated sex life with her husband, and with faux innocence comments: “it usually goes on only for about ten minutes, shouldn’t it be longer?” But then perhaps there’s no keeping Lola happy:

“When Mum did it with Dad, you could hardly hear when they had sex,” she goes on. “Now she’s with D’Dora there’s more noise. A lot of giggling and slapping and dressing up. I think perhaps it’s S&M. It can go on for hours. They never even think about my exams and how at my age I need sleep.”

The story opens with Scarlet at her grandmother, Beverley’s house. Scarlet is married to Louis, the owner of an eccentrically designed house, built in the 30s named Nopasaran. The house has become a point of division between Scarlet and Louis, and very possibly a good excuse for Scarlet to indulge in a torrid affair with not particularly bright, but good-looking television actor, Jackson, whose career is in the toilet, but who still has a legion of teen fans swooning over Jackson’s Vampire Rising films. Scarlet confides in her grandmother, and Beverley, who knows rather a lot about affairs has some advice:

Leaving home can cause all kinds of unexpected problems. But I don’t suppose Louis is the kind to go after you with the kitchen knife. But you haven’t got any children he can put in the back of the car and suffocate with exhaust fumes. So I expect you’re okay. But you can never quite be sure what manner of man you have, until you try to get away.

Beverley knows what she’s talking about. She survived the jealousy-based murder-suicide of her parents back in New Zealand when she was three years old. But wait… . Was this murder-suicide or was it murder-murder? And just who was Beverley’s father after all? Was he the man married to Beverley’s mother or was Beverley fathered by the charismatic doctor who sneaked around making ‘house calls’? The question of fatherhood, and just who impregnated several female members of this eccentric family comes up more than once in this tale. So much so in fact that there’s a family myth which conveniently pops up from time-to-time involving a mystery man met while on holiday.

The men in Weldon’s novels are often seen as Attractive Nuisances, temporary fixtures that float in and out of the lives of the women, either leaving them pregnant and fending for themselves or else simply disappearing to greener pastures. They are seen primarily as mostly superfluous beings to the matriarchal structure–at  best trophies for the female characters who scheme against one another to either stir trouble (as Beverley does) or steal another woman’s male (as Lola tries to do). Ultimately, Weldon tells us that women survive and have the scars to prove it. As Beverley ruminates:

it’s all women do, really, isn’t it, run. Tuck the children under the arm and try and find somewhere better, safer. You get into the habit when they’re small and then just carry on.

One of the remarkable things about the novels of Fay Weldon and one of the reasons she ranks as one of my all-time favourite modern British authors is that she has no sacred cows and simply isn’t afraid to take the piss out of everything, so there are references to Lady Gaga, Beryl Bainbridge, and we learn a little bit about Louis and his mother through a very funny reference to yet another author:

Louis’ mother is called Annabel: she is a lone parent with genteel aspirations and family money. See him as the child an Anita Brookner heroine might have had, supposing an acceptable suitor had turned up to woo her and then she’d turn him away, although pregnant, on moral grounds. Perhaps he was already married and she didn’t wish to upset his wife.

I loved this quote–not only for its humorous dig at another novelist whose work is so different from Weldon’s but also because the quote shows how the author is in complete control of the narrative. Louis and his mother seem a little out-of-place in this Weldon novel, a little overwhelmed and shoved aside by the other characters who are made of far stronger stuff. Sensitive Louis, whose nickname is “poofter,” is a man who “became hysterical and threatened” suicide at the very mention of the slightest modernizing of his beloved house, Nopasaran. So Weldon’s explanation that Louis and his mother belong in a Brookner novel makes perfect sense.

While in Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, we see a woman who reinvents herself through plastic surgery, here the plot goes back and forth between the fictional writer in the basement and four generations of the McLean family–women who reinvent themselves through their marriages and relationships. Weldon’s females are by far the more interesting sex. They tend to be creative, and capable of making tremendous mistakes, especially in the male and sexual appetites departments, yet they transform themselves to fit life as it is offered to them until that moment when they decide to seize life and make it subordinate to their desires. As always, Weldon’s women are at their best if and when they can patch up relationships with their own sex and finally put that troublesome many-headed beast, Divide and Conquer in its grave.

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The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis

“I did not recognize the sound at first. It arrived as nothing more than a subtle incursion: something seeping between the accumulated layers of silence.”

One of the benefits of experience is that we grow to know what we like, so while after reading some plot outlines, I tend to steer away from certain books, I am attracted to others. The Sleep Room had an unappealing cover, but the storyline checked a lot of boxes for me:

  • written by a psychologist
  • set in a mental hospital/asylum
  • treatment/therapy for mental problems
  • anything to do with sleep and dreams

British author F.R. Tallis was new to me, and in spite of the fact that the book had its attractions, I approached it still with some doubts because, after all, you never know just how well written a book will be until you take that chance and open it.

The sleep roomThe Sleep Room is outstanding. Suspenseful, compelling, and atmospheric, this has to be the creepiest book I’ve read in a long time, but far more than that, this is also a very intelligent story which questions the validity of medicating mental problems, which is, as it turns out, a preferred method in this tale, over the snidely dismissed ‘talking cure’ of Freudian therapists.

It’s 1955, and the novel opens with James Richardson, a young psychiatrist working in London, interviewing for a job with Dr. Hugh Maitland. To Richardson, Maitland is a hero of sorts–an eminent psychiatrist regularly published and the head of “psychological medicine at Saint Thomas’s.” Richardson is particularly interested in sleep studies, so he leaps at Maitland’s offer of a job at Wyldehope, a remote hospital located in Suffolk for ‘special’ cases. This sounds like a dream job: 24 beds “two wards and a narcosis room,” supported by nine nurses, a caretaker and his wife. In addition, Maitland in vigorously opposed to Freudian methods:

Freudian techniques are hopelessly ineffective. All that talk. All those wasted hours. Three hundred milligrams of Chlormazine is worth months of analysis! Don’t you agree? Dreams, the  unconscious, primitive urges! Psychiatry is a branch of medicine, not philosophy. Mental illness  arises in the brain, a physical organ, and must be treated accordingly.

Maitland’s anti-Freudian stance matches Richardson’s beliefs, so he takes the job, agreeing with everything Maitland says, thinking that this will be the first step in a brilliant career. Apart from occasional relief from local doctors, Richardson will be the only doctor on staff–a situation Richardson initially questions, but then he’s reassured by Maitland, who’s a rather domineering character, and after all a senior doctor, that all of the treatments are handled expertly by the nurses, and that the work load will not be unmanageable. While the patients are divided into male and female wards, Maitland is obsessed with the patients in The Sleep Room:

I will always remember entering the sleep room for the very first time: descending the stairs that led to the basement, Maitland at my side, immaculately dressed, talking energetically, cutting the air with his hands, the door opening and stepping across the threshold that seemed not merely physical, but psychological. The nurse, seated at her station–a solitary desk lamp creating a well-defined pool of light in the darkness–the sound of the quivering EEG pens and, of course, the six occupied beds. All women–in white gowns–fast asleep: one of them with wires erupting from her scalp like a tribal headdress.

The six patients are undergoing Narcosis (deep sleep) treatment with the goal of keeping the patients asleep for about 21 hours a day. Each patient is woken up–but perhaps it’s more accurate to say each patient is ‘disturbed’ every 6 hours and taken to the toilet, washed, fed, and given more drugs. Enemas are administered in case of “falling bowel activity.” One of the arguments for Narcosis is that patients could be given more ECT (Electroshock) therapy when they are asleep, and Maitland’s patients receive weekly ECTs with the controls set “at their uppermost limits.” Maitland sees little difference between the patients, is disinterested in the details of how they became damaged people, and describes them collectively as schizophrenic.

“Of course,” Maitland continued, “the great advantage of administering ECT while patients are asleep, is that they experience no anxiety–which means one can prescribe longer and more intensive courses.”

Maitland returns to London leaving Richardson in charge. For the most part, the patient care–especially for those in the sleep room–is on auto pilot with Richardson monitoring the sleeping patients and their bodily functions.  The patients who are not undergoing narcosis are also bombarded with medication, and any failure to “respond” leads to a doubling of medication, so even those not asleep are like zombies. Richardson is naturally curious about the patients and the circumstances that brought them to Wyldehope, but this is not a subject up for discussion, and “case histories were entirely irrelevant.” It’s not so much that it’s a secret as much as it simply doesn’t matter, but then neither does a “cure” seem to be part of the agenda. In fact, as time goes on, Richardson, who is plagued by headaches and disturbing dreams, begins to suspect that Maitland’s goal is to see how long people can be kept in this vegetative state.

Richardson isn’t exactly comfortable with his duties, but his doubts and questions are answered or dismissed so smoothly by Maitland, that he bows to his authority and reputation. However, once Maitland is gone from Wyldehope, Richardson is left in charge, and some bizarre things begin to occur. He feels a presence in his isolated room, items disappear, a patient complains that his bed moves back and forth making sleep impossible, and a nurse is terrified to stay in the Sleep Room alone at night. Since the patient population is delusional, perhaps some of this can be explained away. Richardson’s discomfort grows even as he attempts to quell his growing alarm, and he is forced to acknowledge “the idea of the dead returning to annoy the living.” Yet as a doctor, he knows all too well that if he begins to acknowledge any supernatural presence he places his professional standing in jeopardy.

A psychiatrist cannot admit to seeing things that cannot be explained. As soon as he does so, he crosses the line that separates himself from his patients.

As events spiral out of control, Richardson wonders what happened to his predecessor. The atmosphere at Wyldehope, a rambling mansion, glows darkly with the sense of impending doom–especially so when Richardson, continually observing those in the Sleep Room, discovers that the sleepers are dreaming in synchronicity.  

The Sleep Room is an entertaining, suspenseful page turner which questions the poisonous structure of professional hierarchy, the prevalent attitudes towards female sexuality, and the power of dreams.  This well-crafted book, told through Richardson’s eyes, moves smoothly from skepticism and the solidity of scientific facts to sheer terror of the unknown and the unexplainable. There are some real names here, and the treatments, as outlandish and barbaric as they seem to the modern reader, were the MO of the day, and the character of Maitland appears to share some basic commonalities with Dr. William Sargent. We may finish the book and reassure ourselves that mental patients in the western world fare better these days, but an uneasy feeling remains that pills have become a replacement for therapy. Author F. R. Tallis, a psychologist, certainly seems to know how to push those reader buttons, and the narrative moves along very cleverly by feeding with hints such as “it is ironic–given what happened next” which left this reader eager to continue and very annoyed by any interruptions.  Some of the issues raised by the plot are left unanswered, but it’s easy to connect the dots and come to one’s own conclusions. The final chapter overworked the book’s premise, but in spite of that minor flaw, this is a helluva creepy read.

Review copy

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The Inn at the Edge of the World by Alice Thomas Ellis

“Life is only, by definition, a use of time.”

The Inn at the Edge of the World by Alice Thomas Ellis is a ghost story, so if you don’t like ghost stories stop right here.

I discovered Alice Thomas Ellis a few years ago thanks to the now sadly defunct mail-order book catalogue, A Common Reader. You could always count on this small catalogue to be packed full of eclectic choices, and I found a number of good authors I’d never heard of before.  Alice Thomas Ellis was one of those authors. I haven’t read everything by Ellis, but I’ve liked everything I’ve read. I’ve read The Inn at the Edge of the World three or four times, and since the novel is set in the Xmas season, this seemed like a good time for a reread.

The book begins with disgruntled Hebrides island inn-keeper, Eric deciding to place an advert in a handful of British newspapers and magazines. The advert is targeted towards the lonely few who can’t stand the idea of a traditional Xmas while the thought of a trip to an island in the Hebrides to avoid or escape the festivities sounds like a viable alternative. Eric plans the ad while simultaneously wondering what it would be like to murder his difficult wife, Mabel. Eric bought the inn primarily to remove his wife from the wild influence of her many friends, but the idea has backfired badly. Mabel resents the island, resents the inn and resents Eric for bringing her there. In addition, the inn is not much of a viable business; there’s a rival pub on the island that has more drinking traffic, and Eric has to acknowledge that he’s bought a dying business for a wife who can’t wait to escape to the mainland.  

Contrary to Mabel’s skepticism that anyone would actually pay to spend Christmas at the inn, five people arrive. They are a diverse bunch–all lonely people who are attempting to escape the emptiness of their lives:

Jessica is a young actress with a series of disappointing relationships in her past. She’s so busy playing the part of other lives that she finds she’s not really sure who she is and admits:

I feel most myself when I’m being someone else

Harry is a lonely retired army man whose article on General Gordon threatens to turn into a book. Harry realises that all the guests are in “the throes of disappointment,” and that they’d believed their lives would have more meaning or be more exciting.

Jon is a handsome, but empty, bit-part actor who makes the trip to the island to get closer to Jessica.

Ronald is a self-centered, psychiatrist whose wife has fled (that brings the novel’s count to two runaway wives). Ronald is struggling with the complexities of the toaster amongst other things, and a holiday (with meals provided) solves some problems for him.

Anita is a middle-aged woman who works in a menial position in a large shop. Going to the island for Xmas promises a sense of the exotic.

Some of the things that occur are rather predictable. Anita, for example, decides that Ronald only needs a good woman to set him straight, and she begins mother-henning him at mealtimes. Ronald who’s so used to being catered to doesn’t spend time wondering just what Anita’s intentions are; he simply expects a maid/personal assistant/cook/cleaner/general dogsbody. Why break a lifelong habit?

Another predictable element is Jon’s focus on Jessica, but it’s here that things begin to lose their predictability, and while author Alice Thomas Ellis introduces humour she also introduces the supernatural. Yes, strange things are afoot on this mysterious island, and yet only some people seem to notice. But perhaps that’s how it always happens.

While the novel’s main plot follows the growing relationships between the inn guests, another thread explores Eric’s frustrations with his tepid business, his ungrateful guests, his unmanageable wife, and his annoying customers. Eric is particularly annoyed by two “incomers”: the Professor (of dentistry) and Mrs. H, the local wanton wife whose husband is safely stowed stirring a pot over a hot oven while Mrs. H picks up men in her ample free time. Here’s Eric at work behind the bar when the professor arrives–a man whose two chief faults (according to Eric), are his out-of-control libido and his underlying cheap nature:

‘Oh, hallo Professor,’ he said without enthusiasm. It was only one of those incomers who had bought a house on the island for the purposes of holidaying there: a mean man in Eric’s view, who drank alcohol-free lager with lime and not much of that. There was a girl with him wearing the guarded, faintly sulky air of a girl who is not too stupid to know that she is the latest in a series of similar girls. Eric had noticed, over the months, that several incomers had bought houses on the island apparently for the sole purpose of conducting clandestine affairs. The professor kept an old duffel coat which he made all his women wear, probably so he would recognize them if his memory slipped.

Then here’s Eric & Mrs H:

The female of the species. While her husband was away on business she brought men with her to her white house on the hill. ‘How’s Graham?’ he inquired nastily, for he happened to remember that her husband was called John.

‘He’s fine,’ she said without turning a hair.

No shame, thought Eric. None of them had any shame. They treated the island like a brothel. He looked back to the time when he had pictured his bar full of local characters gathered for the edification and amusement of the gently bred guests who had just unpacked their pigskin suitcases in the charming ambience of their bedrooms before coming down, talking animatedly among themselves, to drink a lot of expensive liquor before dining, while his wife chirruped and shone like a budgerigar in crisp cottons, scent and fresh lipstick. His ideas of marriage and the typical hostelry were hopelessly out of date. Mrs H. ordered a mineral water with ice and a slice of lemon.

Most of the characters in The Inn at the Edge of the World have fantasies about how life should be. Eric, for example, bought the inn on an unspecified island in the Hebrides. While the setting may seem romantic at first, only an idealist, an escapee or a seeker would buy a business in this location. As it turns out all of the characters are seeking something–a solution to the problems in their lives, and they have a difficult time aligning their expectations with reality, and yet what is reality? Alice Thomas Ellis plays with  this question bringing in strong elements of the supernatural–some of the inn’s guests are open to the unexplainable, while the dull, the boring are passed by.

This is not a terribly complicated tale, and yet it has a definite charm. To a great extent the novel is about coming to terms with life–disappointments, losses, and shattered illusions. Supernatural elements are an integral part of the story, and somehow the combination of the unexplainable juxtaposed with the everyday humdrum problems of life created a perfect combination. The setting adds to the story’s mystery and reminds me of the John Sayles film: The Secret of Roan Inish.

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