Reading the Weird

Mind-Reading Doesn’t Always Help: Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (Part 1)

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Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.

This week, we begin Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black with Chapters 1-2. The novel was first published in 2005. Spoilers ahead!

“Night and winter: but in the rotten nests and empty sets, she can feel the signs of growth, intimations of spring. This is the time of Le Pendu, the Hanged Man, swinging by his foot from the living tree.”

The introductory chapter places us in “the dank oily days after Christmas…the motorway, its wastes looping London…marginal land…a landscape of outcasts and escapees.” Some nights Alison doesn’t want to look down from the stage at “closed stupid faces” and sort through random messages from the dead, but the dead won’t be silenced, and the audience pays for results.

Her driver’s face, profiled against the fogged window, is set. In the backseat, something dead stirs. It’s winter, but she can feel “intimations of spring… a time to let go of expectation, yet not abandon hope.” They drive on through a land where color’s run out, leaving only form.

In the dressing room before a performance, assistant Colette describes Alison as “a woman who seemed to fill a room, even when she wasn’t in it,” of “an unfeasible size…soft as an Edwardian, opulent as a showgirl…her skin [breathing] out moist perfumes, like a giant tropical flower.” Her exact “unfeasible” size is 26, as Colette doesn’t forget, however Alison may pretend to.

Colette is thin, with the energy of an anxious ferret channeled into efficient management of Alison’s life as a practitioner of the Psychic Arts. She leaves no trace when she leaves a room; in fact, Alison often asks herself whether Colette is in the room or whether she’s just imagined her.

The two don’t travel alone, though Colette can’t see their companion – thank God! Morris is Alison’s spirit guide. She describes him to audiences as an endearing clown, always joking and tumbling, but capable of seriousness and tears. In reality, Morris was a stumpy-legged minor hoodlum; dead, he’s reduced to slouching after Alison, snarky and spiteful, hoping to trip the non-sensitives who trample right through him, playing with Alison’s makeup or (too often) with himself. As a guide, he’s “on a very low vibratory plane,” but Alison supposes she must deserve him. He may go off nights to pub-crawl with fellow ghosts, but he always comes back. Alison will never be rid of him unless he decides to leave. Colette was luckier – she was able to divorce her husband Gavin.

Alison is a medium: “dead people talked to her, and she talked back.” She’s also clairvoyant, able to “see right through the living, to their ambitions and secret sorrows, and tell you what they kept in their bedside drawers.” By nature she’s no fortune-teller, but prediction’s a lucrative part of her practice. Colette, like the paying public, believes what she wants to believe about Alison’s powers. She can accept the idea that Alison reads her subjects’ minds, but not that she communicates with spirits. It’s an ongoing argument.

This performance is at a familiar venue on London’s edge. Colette rushes between catering to Alison, bullying venue staff, scoping out the crowd, and hustling a microphone amongst audience members. Spirits come as a murmur or roar “towards the back of [Alison’s] skull, behind her ears, resonating privately in the bone,” and she must fight the panic of being “trapped with a crowd of dead strangers.” She isolates one voice at a time. Tonight Kathleen wants to contact her granddaughter about a lost pearl button. Marje warns her niece to get that chronic indigestion checked out. Alison assures a widow that her husband appreciates the carnations she planted, and a bereaved dog owner that animals indeed possess immortal spirits. A dead mum urges her daughter to lose weight; don’t take offense, Alison pleads – she can only repeat what the spirits say. Nor can she call specific spirits, only receive calls and pass on their contents.

Of course someone asks about the recently deceased Queen Mother; instead Princess Margaret comes through singing a comic song. An old man asks if his dad’s gotten back his amputated leg; yes, in spirit world all exist as their best selves, at the happiest times of their lives. The most dramatic (and Colette-relished) reading goes to an angry woman who doesn’t want to hear from her bastardly dad but from her boyfriend. The most poignant reading goes to a woman whose miscarried son wants her to know he calls himself by the name she chose, Alistair.

After the show, the two stay at a motel. As usual, Alison is exhausted. She cuts short their usual argument about mind-reading with “Think that, if you find it easier.” It makes Colette feel like a patronized child. Alison often plays dumb around her, but Colette gets the sense that she’s glossing things over, as she does with her audience. Take the way Alison talks about death as an eternal afternoon in a park, where everyone parties with a 1950s air of clean respectability. Take how she questions the idea of taping her consultations for a book, insisting that any tapes she makes would be incomprehensible with her attendant “entities” chiming in. But on the many nights when Alison gets up sick, Colette makes tea and sits beside her while Alison apologizes and says she couldn’t get along without her.

And at such times Colette does feel for Alison, because “she was not without feeling, though life had pushed her pretty far in that direction.” Besides, though Alison may be a “silly cow,” Colette doesn’t want to do this world on her own.

This Week’s Metrics

What’s Cyclopean: It’s hard to pick a favorite description, but the streetlights “blotted to a fondant cerise” near where “pylons lift their skirts in a ferrous gavotte” are delightfully vivid.

The Degenerate Dutch: Alison prefers to explain her psychic abilities with fictional ancestors from Russia or Ireland, rather than Romany. Not because that would be a racist thing to do, but because it gives her clients anxiety “about fly-tipping, head lice, illegal tarmac gangs, or motorhomes invading the Green Belt.”

Libronomicon: Colette is ostensibly working with Alison to write a book about her psychic experiences. It doesn’t sound like it’s very far along.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

I’ve gone into most of our new-to-me longreads with expectations. I’d heard plenty of discussion about The Haunting of Hill House, and had clues about The City We Became from reading “The City Born Great”. Others came with descriptive elevator pitches; I went into The Fractured Atlas knowing there would be bad-idea books and monsters, with the surprises in the details.

This is my belated introduction to Mantel’s writing, and Beyond Black doesn’t lend itself well to elevator pitches. Anne suggested it when I asked for something with a rich prose style and crunchy themes. I’ve looked at a number of online blurbs, and they’ve slipped out of my head save for a vague impression of a roadshow medium, a cast of eccentric characters, and confidence that any book so difficult to describe must safely belong under our broad definition of The Weird.

My first impressions are mixed. The prose is indeed gorgeous, the setup intriguing. What is it actually like to move in a world where you see things that others can’t – things that arouse great curiosity, but where the truth might raise uncomfortable existential questions about the nature of existence? Weird fiction often gives us the breakthrough moment of first exposure to such perceptions, and the recoil afterwards. Alison has no option for recoil, and like many people with enhanced senses would find them a distraction from any unrelated work. So she blurs truth with showmanship and white lies. It’s easy to see, from backstage, how a real psychic ends up with the same schticks, wrong guesses, and imaginary ancestors that you’d expect from a complete charlatan. That’s unexpected and extremely cool.

The characters, however, I so far want to shake or simply avoid being in a room with. There’s a certain style of writing that richly illustrates personal flaws with minimal balancing illustration of strengths, as if the former were more worthy of literary exploration. Many people enjoy this – Storygraph, my favored reading-tracker app, asks for each book whether character flaws (but not any other specific aspects of characterization) are central to the story, presumably because readers seek that out. I find a mix of good and ill, or better yet good that transforms to ill in just the wrong circumstance, both more realistic and more interesting. Alison’s empathy and insight into others, for example, might easily show their complexity with a contrast between their virtues and shadow sides – but at least in the first chapter, we mostly see how they keep her separated from others with an (understandable, given her background) fear of intimacy. Maybe next chapter?

I am less sympathetic to Colette, given the almost throwaway line about her keeping Alison isolated from previous friends, particularly fellow mediums. (Media? That doesn’t seem right. Anyway.) She’s come out of an abusive relationship, and seems determined to create one that at least skirts abuse. At minimum it’s codependent, an overused descriptor that sure does seem to fit here. Alison and Colette don’t particularly respect each other, yet share a mortgage and find each other safe. Alison can’t imagine doing without Colette; Colette can’t imagine how she’d describe this job on her resume in order to get another one. (“Theatrical assistant” is the term you’re looking for, hon. It’s not actually that wild, even if the work itself is unusual.)

My reactions are probably biased by the book’s constant harping on Alison’s fatness, Colette’s dislike of Alison’s fatness, Morris’s lazy insults focused on Alison’s fatness, and Alison’s own internalized fatphobia. It’s all in-character, but it’s also pervasive. I don’t think it’s possible to usefully talk about this book without mentioning that I developed an exciting new trauma trigger around weight loss during my mother’s final illness, and I wasn’t fond of diet talk beforehand.

This being the case, I’m going to acknowledge that this kind of depiction is painful for a lot of people, including myself, and then try very hard to lean into a reparative reading: what is Mantel trying to do here other than lean on a hoary stereotype for illustrating women’s psychological woes? One thing that becomes obvious, when I look more closely, is that Colette envies Alison’s ability to take up space even as she disparages it. At the same time, she works hard to not take up space. She chooses nondescript clothing, smokes to keep her own body at a culturally-approved weight. Alison lies about her clothing size and encourages audience members to diet, but also leans into being visibly fabulous. So perhaps there will be a move, over the course of the book, toward the embodied living becoming more comfortable with their own and each other’s bodies. A girl can hope.

And in the meantime, there’s the fascination of the dead. Or of most of them. Morris, I’m afraid, can wander off any time he likes; I won’t miss him any more than Alison or Colette.

 

Anne’s Commentary

You’re sitting down with the first much-needed coffee of the morning, maybe planning the day ahead, maybe just zoning out, but as always NPR is playing in the background, and your attention is grabbed by the announcer’s solemn intonation of a celebrated name. You know that intonation. It heralds the news that this celebrated person has died. This particular morning the name intoned is that of Dame Hilary Mantel, and the day turns black. You’ve lost so much, the books unwritten and unread.

Hiding behind the second person pronoun is I, the first person a step removed from remembered grief. Back in March 2022, I suggested to Ruthanna that we read Mantel’s Beyond Black, assuming at the time (as one does) that the author was immortal, no hurry. In September 2022, Mantel died, or as Alison would say, she passed into the spirit world. I doubt Mantel would have been content for long with Alison’s stock description of that world as an everlasting picnic.

Mantel wasn’t afraid of the dark. She had the owl-eyes to peer into it and the cat-curiosity to prowl through its equally profound horrors and beauties. Her novels range from contemporary literary to historical to, in Beyond Black, the unabashedly weird. I rank Beyond Black among the masterpieces of modern supernatural fiction, which is why it’s on my Favorites of SFF bookshelf, next to The Haunting of Hill House in fact.

Are Hilary Mantel and Shirley Jackson sitting on the same park bench in the afterlife, swatting away the supposedly stingless bees and doubtfully eying the unmelting ice cubes in their drinks and the scabless, non-squabbling children?

Yes, please.

My introduction to Mantel was Wolf Hall (2009); it opens an incomparable historical trilogy followed by Bring Up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (2020). Sure, those naughty Tudors are overdone in fiction and film, but by centering her take in Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister over an impressive number of wife-years prior to losing his own head, Mantel owns the subgenre. What struck me about Wolf Hall was its point of view mastery. The story is always Cromwell’s, told in a third person of such intense penetration into his psyche that it achieves the intimacy of first person narration. If one view of second person is first person a step removed, then the third person in Wolf Hall is first person two steps removed. It’s perfectly fitted to Cromwell’s character, courtier-enforcer-religious reformer and – private person acutely aware of the dangers of his interlocking positions.

Beyond Black also showcases Mantel’s POV chops, tailored to different narrative demands. The novel has two focal characters; conventionally, it could be structured in first or third person sections alternating between narrators. A generally useful rule is to limit each section to one focal character, allowing in nothing that character doesn’t perceive or feel or think. Corollary to this rule: The narrative sections should be clearly divided, whether as separate chapters or line-space-defined subchapters. The character or characters not currently “in charge” shouldn’t intrude with their unspoken perceptions and thoughts, their unexpressed emotions! That will confuse the reader!

A complication: Beyond Black’s Alison can pick up the thoughts and emotions of other characters, so add these to the perceptions she’s “allowed” to communicate.

Another approach could use an omniscient narrator functioning as an o’er-hovering character (like Thackerey’s “Puppet-Master” in Vanity Fair), one given to discursions and to trenchant opinions about the “on-page” cast. Omniscient narrators range, however, from the conspicuous to the nearly invisible.

Beyond Black features a virtuosic mashup of POV techniques and tricks. Mantel opens with a prose-poetic description of the London outback where Alison usually performs. Within the same paragraph, Alison appears in a second person functioning as first person a step removed, bemoaning the nights when she doesn’t want to channel the dead for a bunch of “closed, stupid faces.” The next paragraph returns to the prose-poetry description suggestive of an omniscient narrator.

Paragraph break into Alison, third person, but with an emotional distance that gradually shades into omniscient-ish prose-poetry.

Paragraph break, and back to Alison, third person, more intimate this time as she muses that the winter is “Hanged Man” time, a suspension between desolation and renewal. The paragraph ends in Alison, in the less intimate first person plural: “This is our life and we have to lead it. Think of the alternative.”

Back to description, a single breath’s worth. Paragraph break into Alison, first person statement of her psychic situation, and…

Paragraph break back to what may be an omniscience outside Alison. Or does the prose-poetry come from an Alison who Colette considers “deep, deep and sly”? One that actually visualizes pylons as “[lifting] their skirts in a ferrous gavotte.”

There’s some complicated narration here when you pick at it. But Mantel’s true genius lies in making her prose flow so you don’t have to pick at it; having accustomed your readerly “ear” to her storytelling quirks, you can catch the current and just float with it.

Although if it happens you’re floating next to Morris, you’d better keep your psychic eyes (or nose) open.

 

Next week, we find out how much you can learn from strangers’ bookshelves – and strangers’ eyes – in Adam Troy-Castro’s “Glimpses in Amber”.

Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden is out! She is also the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon and on Mastodon as [email protected], and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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