Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now by Patrick McGrath, Bloomsbury.

The greatest ghosts have never appeared in print; but only there, covertly felt.  A century ago, British writers such as Blackwood and Oliver Onions – being at least agnostic – had little choice than to manifest an accepted religious concept they didn’t believe in by other, less tested means.  European writers had been doing it for years, of course, but the old Victorian propriety proved hardest to challenge.  It took Freud to shift the goalposts.
  Now, as then, these ghosts stem from the psyches of the protagonists.  Consequently, they have become far more interesting; broad in character and motive because of those very individual psyches’ that produced them.
  Patrick McGrath knows this, and showcases’ three as guilt-ridden, familial anecdotes during times of great historical upheaval for America’s greatest city.
  ‘The Year of the Gibbet’ is 1777, telling of a man’s lifelong guilt at the cost of momentary honesty in childhood that consigned his mother to the rope during the War of Independence.
   A generation on, ‘Julius’ is a heartbreaking tale of another son’s first love, denied by a prejudicial father, and its terrible consequences upon him and his family.
  ‘Ground Zero’ brings this triptych of innocence betrayed up to 9/11 with the psychological fallout of a psychiatrist’s patient, her over-involvement in his welfare, beside the ground-shifting, parallel devastation of the World Trade Centre itself.
  The ghost here in each is the nightmare of guilt – the self-inflicted punishment from doing right.  Although the protagonist in the first tale believes he ‘sees’ his mother returned from the dead, finally giving comfort to his guilt by taking him back with her, the ghost may not be literal here either, but only the final loss of his sanity through another sleepless night.  A nice contemporary nod to the Georgian, Gothic climax.
   The ghost in ‘Julius’ is just as destructive, described as ‘prejudice acquired as a function of fear.’  An earlier, track-covering lie is confessed to all too late to make amends to either the liar or his victim.
  In ‘Ground Zero,’ the ghost’s existence is only third-hand.  A Tower fatality who, in life, had been the previous lover of the patient’s controlling girlfriend and who – perhaps – once mistook another man for him after death.  Described by the patient himself, it is difficult to know who’s account to trust.  Yet, this is the sublime brilliance of all three tales.  The ghosts matter even if they never existed; they are the very human void between fact and perception.  An interpretation of what cannot be understood.
  These three long tales are of quite exceptional quality, with not a word wasted, or a line superfluous.  The tone is consistently measured, yet, perhaps because of this, the emotional pulls when they arrive feel profound.  I’ve mentioned elsewhere how the greatest writers seem to reach their peak when they are best able to describe so much in so few words.  McGrath has surely reached his, but I suspect he has yet to plateau.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Supernatural Buchan: Stories of Ancient Spirits, Uncanny Places and Strange Creatures by John Buchan, Leonaur Ltd.

Ostensibly, a reprint of the 1991 Peter Haining / Robert Hale edition of the ‘Best Supernatural Stories’; despite the lurid re-titling, this remains a welcome re-issue.  The fifteen tales represent Buchan’s uncanny contributions to monthly literary magazines, such as Blackwoods Magazine in the UK and Atlantic Magazine in the US.

  What swiftly hits today’s reader as lasting less well is the passé Celt slang and the cultural references of the time that, naturally enough, permeate throughout.  The stag-hunting, cigar-chomping, colonial old boy network represented may well alienate – or, at least, tire – most interested women readers these days, and, likely, several male.  Yet, equally tempering is Buchan’s healthy scepticism of Christian doctrine and a receptive take on human nature.  An antidote to more smug contemporaries, Kipling and Chesterton.

  Buchan’s sickly, part-incapacitated boyhood affords him a sensitivity to the natural world that partially explains the authenticity of landscape he delineates in his subsequent Richard Hannay cycle of novels.  The allied machismo, therefore, is something well observed rather than a description of himself.

   Consequently, in his autobiography Memory Hold the Door, Buchan confesses to ‘summers of pagan idleness’ by the Tweed during his student days, where, according to Haining, ‘he mostly fished or read, but occasionally let his sense of adventure get him into trouble.’  This included skirting the borderland of Scots country law, joining poacher gangs and such; an element of compensating danger that also found voice in those later heroic thrillers.

  So, the best entries here reveal aspects of his personal mortality on the one hand, and feral learning on the other.  ‘Basilissa,’ ‘The Watcher by the Threshold,’ ‘Tendebant Manus’ and ‘The Death Notice’ find him exploring the former theme, with ’No-man’s-land’ and the deceptively succinct ‘The Keeper of Cademuir,’ the latter.  ‘A Journey of Little Profit’ is a neat enough ‘Devil’s bargain’ tale, but an early example too bogged down with showy, geographical detail.

  An exception to these themes is the fantastically child-like and still highly readable ‘The Magic Walking Stick’; its wide-eyed, wish-fulfilling concept gloriously evoking the ‘Listener’ / ‘Lost Valley’ era of Algernon Blackwood.  Just as such writers are clear influences, so are those he’d inspire.  The metaphysical chase climaxing ‘No-man’s-Land’ and the somnambulant, night time follower of ‘The Grove of Ashtaroth’ prefigure the later, more lurid scenarios from fans Lovecraft and Robert Howard.  You can see why these tales so fired such frustrated psyches.  Watch out for the rising self-loathing – surprising and brilliant – from both the protagonists.