Novelists find working with animals easier than actors might. They can determine just how much scenery their menageries get to chew, or, in the case of Spill Simmer Falter Wither, Sara Baume’s skilful debut, project their protagonist’s psychic scars and preoccupations onto a dog. Middle-aged weirdo and autodidact Ray adopts a one-eyed terrier from a shelter near his home in rural Ireland. Ray is reading Silas Marner and for a while it seems as though the dog, whom he has named One Eye, will act like the abandoned child, Eppie, in Eliot’s book, redeeming our hero’s loneliness by forcing him to care for another lost soul.
Unlike Eppie, One Eye has been bred to bait badgers. This natural savagery soon reasserts itself (there’s a nasty incident involving a shih-tzu), forcing both master and dog to go on the run. Parallels begin to emerge between their inbred propensities to violence, but Ray also shares One Eye’s ‘capacity for wonder’, a lifetime of isolation having forced him to discover the world for himself. The book teems with his ingenious descriptions: a bead curtain makes a noise ‘like a landslide of Tic Tacs’; One Eye’s drool hangs like ‘gossamer ribbons’. The cumulative effect is lyrical and impressive, if at times a little wearying.
Emily, the chimpanzee acquired by English schoolmaster Alfred Fatigay during his posting to the Congo in John Collier’s His Monkey Wife, or, Married to a Chimp, has more of a personality of her own, and a capacity for language far superior to any of the sorry human specimens she encounters. Stimulated by Fatigay’s conversation, she develops a love of literature and a passionate devotion to the unsuspecting man himself.
Originally published in 1930, His Monkey Wife was Collier’s first novel, hence its place in this review. It is deliciously arch. Alfred brings Emily home with him to London: cue some very funny, if predictable, satire on modernity and modernism, particularly in the form of Fatigay’s diabolically progressive fiancée, Amy. At one of Amy’s soirees, ‘all the characters – and at least half of the people present were characters – had opened exhalingly, as evening primroses, and were being thoroughly characteristic.’ We’ve all been to parties like that.
Emily, her sense of human society mediated through imaginative literature, is like a Henry James heroine, attempting to negotiate the realities of an Old World that has failed to live up to her romantic preconceptions. And this literary pastiche is enlivened with brilliant comic set pieces. Emily can’t speak, of course, so her final reconciliation with Fatigay, is interrupted at the least opportune moments as the discombobulated schoolmaster finishes a page of Emily’s typewritten part in their dialogue and has to wait for the chimp to bash out another.
Rawblood by Catriona Ward, an extended stalk through the history of the English ghost story, played lustily but pretty much straight, is also high on pastiche. The book opens in 1910: the curse of the Villarca family condemns eleven-year-old Iris and her father to die violent deaths and confines them to Rawblood, their family seat on Dartmoor. Iris’s struggles are interwoven with the narratives of past members of the Villarca family, each of which pays homage to a particular development in the form of the ghost story and helps to flesh out her morbid patrimony.
The profusion of these narratives distracts from Iris’s, but the generic pleasures of the ghost story are presented in such abundance, and carried off in such fine style, that you’re having too much fun to care. Ancestral curse? Check. Gypsy curse? Check. Sinister European aristos? Check. Scientists playing God? Check. Unspeakable horrors acting as a metaphor for unspeakable human urges, especially though not exclusively female sexuality? Double check. Rawblood is a book best read by the fireside on a cold winter’s night. Washed down with a glass of something strong, while you savour the allusive gusto of passages like this, from the diary of Iris’s uncle, after he’s just strangled some rabbits: ‘We have all suffered enough. I think I wept as I did it. I have closed my ears to the song of mortality, and refuted my vocation as a keeper of reason, and fact. My hand and mind protest even as I write the words.’
Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is another enjoyable slice of the macabre. Our unnamed narrator relates the eerie circumstances surrounding a Catholic pilgrimage undertaken by his family during the 1970s, in the hope of curing his mute brother, Hanny. The site of their pilgrimage is the Loney, in Lancashire, ‘a wild and useless length of English coastline’.
If the 1970s horror films a friend made me watch when we were teenagers are anything to go by, then you couldn’t swing a black cat in the Great British countryside of the time for fear of hitting a Satanist; sure enough, the narrator and Hanny soon get caught up with some very creepy locals who may or may not be forcing a fourteen-year-old girl to bear the Devil’s children. It’s terrific. The characters are sketched with energy and humour, their foibles balancing the narrator’s occasional Gothic excess (like the albino cat with eyes which ‘look as though they had been marinated in blood’).
A strict religious upbringing needn’t always cause a child to become involved in unsavoury pagan rites. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce evokes some of the subtler damage it can wreak. Marie has worked as a waitress in Dallas since becoming pregnant as a teenager. The book is an account of her drug-fuelled sexual misadventures, centred around the restaurants in which she works, told with the determined flippancy only real sadness can muster.
Very late on, we learn that Marie’s evangelical childhood might have had some part to play in her decision to eschew a place at Yale when she became pregnant and her subsequent slide into this self-destructive rut. That diffident intelligence, though, provides some solace – to the reader, at least. An attractive woman in the restaurant is described as giving off the vibe of an ‘all-balls safari guide’, which is what Marie becomes for us: a swaggering and companionable guide through the unfamiliar terrain of her frankly terrifying emotional life.