Wed
Mar 14 2012 3:00pm

Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man is Like Fawlty Towers Plus Sex and Ghosts

The Green Man by Kingsley AmisEasily best know for his comic literary novels like Lucky Jim and That Uncertain Feeling; Kingsley Amis nonetheless had strong connections to genre fiction. In 1964, under a the nom de plume “Richard Markham” he wrote Colonel Sun, the first James Bond novel not written by Ian Fleming, aspects of which were later used in the films The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. Amis also wrote a non-fiction text on SF called New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction as well as being the editor on an 1981 anthology titled The Golden Age of Science Fiction. Cleary the guy loved genre fiction, but how often did it show up in his own novels?

The lesser-known Kingsley Amis novel, The Green Man (1969) is almost a straight-up ghost story, featuring life after death, communications with the dead, and a lot of crazy sex.

Most Kingsley Amis books have all the same elements: a witty first person narrator who hits the sauce a little too hard and is a self-hating, yet lovable, skirt-chaser. This narrator will often clash with the soul-crushing machinations of everyday life and/or have issues of being in the wrong economic or social class. All of this will result in long speeches full of embarrassing hubris. Throughout Amis’s work, a reader can really see a self-parody of the writer insofar as he seems to abhor blowhards who think they are smart and witty enough to write tons of books. (Notably, these protagonists are often avid readers of science fiction.)

The Green Man is a strange work for Kingsley Amis as it is essentially a ghost story disguised as a sexual comedy. It centers on Maurice Allington, a proprietor of an old English inn called The Green Man. Through general incompetence, biting insults, and slapstick humor Maurice will remind any normal person of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty. However, poor Maurice is haunted by strange visions at night and in the early chapters of the book has a vision of a red-haired woman in broad daylight, which no one else seems to be able to see. When Maurice’s elderly father suddenly dies, the visions of ghosts increase and Maurice starts investigating the possibilities that a wielder of dark magic is haunting his establishment.

The book gets very Wuthering Heights as Maurice investigates old accounts of other people having seen the ghost of Dr. Thomas Underhill. (Who certainly comes across as a Vigo the Carpathian type ala Ghostbusters 2, if decidedly more low budget.) This aspect of the novel is interesting because the lines between seeing something and that thing being real are blurred. No one in Maurice’s circle believe there is a ghost, though most acknowledge he has seen a ghost. It’s all attributed to his drinking, the shock of his father dying, and so forth. When he finds an account from 1720 in which a housemaid details her encounter with the Underhill ghost, he becomes frustrated because it both confirms that he has seen a ghost, but will only increase the skepticism of others. Here, he talks about the account and reflects on the paradox of evidence of the supernatural acting as non-evidence.

Through no fault of hers, on the other hand, her service to me was limited. I could not tell Lucy or anyone else, including myself that I not read the affidavit before. It was possible-I disbelievingly supposed it to be just possible-that my earlier couple of readings had impressed the facts on some buried part of my mind, from which something had dredged them up to create an illusion. What that particular something might have been was in itself mysterious, because any thought of Underhill’s ghost I had about my mind at the time had also been pretty deeply buried, but that sort of problem is no problem in an unphilosophical age in which lack of total disproof is taken as the larger half of proof.

This philosophical musing is pretty much what elevates the book from being just a romp to something a little bit more. How can we prove what it’s like to be in our own heads, particularly when we are perceiving things which society rejects as being possible? Amis’s assertion of the “unphilosophical” age could almost be interchanged for “unimaginative,” a state of being the author clearly has contempt for. In this way, The Green Man can perhaps be seen as a distillation of Kingsley Amis’s overall literary thesis: life is dull and the only way to escape it is to be flippant and imaginative. This manifesto comes with a caveat however: if you live this way, life will be even more difficult than it already is.

Do the ghosts in The Green Man represent grief and the confusion of the narrator? Or are they manifest, actual things? The use of ghosts in everything from Hamlet to A Christmas Carol, to Her Fearful Symmetry to Swamplandia! often feels like a literary device to hammer home a mood, or point about emotional disconnection and isolation. But all good ghost stories have awesome biographies for their spooks, and here The Green Man doesn’t disappoint. It’s scary to have someone like Dr. Underhill lurking around in ghost form, but even scarier when Maurice is reading up on him.

The short novel also has some fun sexcapades, including Maurice’s ridiculous attempt to get his wife Joyce into a threesome with his friend’s wife, Diana. Kinsley Amis’s characters always seem to have plenty of attention from women, but unlike a James Bond, they always manage to screw everything up. Though the ghosts certainly aren’t helping Maurice in figuring out all of his sex-hang ups, the reader gets the sense he would make these mistakes on his own. Everyone from his daughter, to Diana, to Joyce accuse him of being arrogant, meaning the female characters of the novel have more insight into our narrator’s true nature than he does.

At the same time, an unreliable narrator is something Kingsley Amis excels at and it’s made all the more fun when he’s surrounded by ghosts in a quirky old inn. If you like books where a blue-hued cat is named Victor Hugo, and ghosts are causing thrills and spills in a low-stakes but sexually charged environment, then find yourself a copy of The Green Man. If you’ve never read Kingsley Amis before, it’s an exceptionally funny and satisfying introduction.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He sometimes feels like he is Jim Dixon.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
12 comments
Chuk Goodin
1. Chuk
Ha, I've read Colonel Sun and I didn't know it was actually by Amis. (I was young then though.)
Chris Lough
2. TorChris
You know, someone is really missing an opportunity to publish a science fiction ghost story titled, "I Never Thought It Would Happen to Me, But..."
Rob Hansen
3. RobHansen
Amis had more SF connections than you suggest. In 1981 he edited the SF anthology 'The Golden Age of Science Fiction' and he was Guest of Honour at the 1961 Eastercon, the UK annual convention.
Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
@3
Oh yeah cool about Eastercon. But I did mention The Golden Age of Science Fiction right there in the intro. :-)
MatthewDavis
5. MatthewDavis
Kingsley Amis was the public face of science fiction advocacy in many ways in the early 60s in the UK. He was the science fiction reviewer for “The Observer" for about a good half a decade then (as his son Martin would be sf reviewer for the paper for about 5 years in the mid-70s). He also edited the five "Spectrum" science fiction anthologies from 1963 to 1966. He was also responsible for Gollancz starting its sf line: when the editors at Gollancz saw how many good sf books recommended by Amis in “New Maps” were unavailable in the UK they started the sf line. Amis was a major advocate of the early Ballard. So a significant presence in obvious and also influential ways. Unfortunately, Amis hated the New Wave and the rest of his life was spent decrying sf as having taken a wrong turning.
MatthewDavis
6. Gerry__Quinn
"that sort of problem is no problem in an unphilosophical age in which lack of total disproof is taken as the larger half of proof."

I don't think "unimaginative" is a good reading for "unphilosophical" here. "Uncritical" would be better. He seems to be saying that the unlikelihood of the idea would not be a barrier to people believing it, so long as it is not totally impossible.
MatthewDavis
7. Matt Keeley
Very glad to see Amis posted about on Tor; he's a great writer, but terribly underrated in this country. Though as you say he's best-known for social comedies, he also wrote two straight sf novels, The Alteration and Russian Hide-and-Seek. I haven't read Hide-and-Seek, but The Alteration is a great alternate history about a theocratic England where talented boy singers are "altered" to preserve their voices. Unlike so many "mainstream" writers who compose science fiction novels, Amis a) acknowledged that he was writing science fiction and b) knew what other sf writers had written. The Alteration, for example, has some fun with the books Philip K. Dick and Keith Roberts would have written in the book's world.

Amis' early novel The Anti-Death League also has some science fiction elements, though they're incidental enough that I wouldn't classify it as a genre work.

If you're interested in mysteries, I highly recommend The Riverside Villas Murder, which somehow manages to successfully combine the Golden Age mystery with a realistic novel about sexual awakening and 1930s' boyhood.
Ron Hogan
8. RonHogan
There was a British TV adaptation of The Green Man starring Albert Finney that I saw at least 20 years ago on A&E, back when they still took the "Arts" part of their name fairly seriously. I remember liking it, and I imagine it's probably worth tracking down, if it's on DVD...
MatthewDavis
9. Benjamin Blattberg
After more than ten years, I still remember the Clute Encyclopedia of Fantasy remarking on The Green Man's protagonist as "very Amisian ("hero as shit")".
MatthewDavis
10. Mark Pontin
Oh, I think you do a disservice to Amis's THE GREEN MAN by claiming either that it's like FAWLTY TOWERS only with supernatural entities or else that it's not quite a full-out ghost story. It's a lot more than that.

Firstly: the narrator, Maurice, is quite a nasty, cold character -- and knows it -- and the book as a whole, as well as most of the other characters, is the same. And it's much the better for it.

Secondly: THE GREEN MAN is a full-bore ghost story and then some. Something you withhold from readers here -- presumably in the interest of not putting off any fundamentalist Christians -- is that God Himself makes an appearance in the novel. And He's arguably nastier -- and certainly far scarier -- than Maurice or Doctor Underhill.

Good novel. If folks like this, they might also try Amis's THE ANTI-DEATH LEAGUE, which he wrote at about the same time.
alastair chadwin
11. a-j
Amis was also a great admirer and defender of Ian Fleming, though he disliked the James Bond films. His critical study The James Bond Dossier is excellent if you're interested.
His dislike of the New Wave SF was driven partly by the belief that they were making SF literary and deliberately obscure. Amis disapproved as one of the things he loved about SF was its accessibility. As he puts it in his introduction to The James Bond Dossier:
'As a recently retired university teacher, I can't help being slightly drawn to any form of wrting which (like science fiction) reaches no part of its audience through compulsion.'
His collection of newspaper columns about alcohol, Everyday Drinking, is fun as well.
Ryan Britt
12. ryancbritt
@8 Ron
I'm tracking down that DVD for sure.

@10 Mark
I think the Fawlty Towers thing was my first reaction upon reading it. Also, I think Fawlty Towers is also fairly dark, in a certain way. But I agree it's a lot more serious than simply being a farce, but I mention that too. I think I withhold some of the details so people won't get spoiled!

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