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 continue Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black with Chapter 3. The novel was first published in 2005. Spoilers ahead!
“She was beginning to feel that everything of interest was hidden””
Colette, Biographical: An Uxbridge native from a family “whose inner workings she didn’t understand,” she’s known in school as Monster. The nickname’s ironic given her utter beige forgettability. Secretarial college gives her skills for marketing and fund-raising jobs. From there she moves on to event organization, which allowed her to travel to cities she was too busy to explore.
“Her mind was quick, shallow, and literal, her character assertive.” She wants more.
In a French hotel, she meets “itinerant software developer” Gavin. They share Uxbridge connections and no sense of humor about themselves. He further endears himself to Colette with the comment that she isn’t “a bad-looking girl.” They share a flat and eventually marry, as one did at the “tag end of the Thatcher/Major years,” if only to show off by staging an extravagant wedding. By their first anniversary, the marriage is essentially over. Nothing dramatic. Colette simply can’t see any future in it.
The future is something into which she wants insight. Without thinking of herself as superstitious, she begins to explore the “psychic arts.” She consults fortune tellers, palmists, astrologers, in person and on hotlines. One day, wanting to know Gavin’s birthplace in order to have his horoscope done, she calls his mother. Yes, they’ve had little relationship after the wedding, but why does Renee treat her like a telemarketer and hang up? That evening she mentions the call to Gavin, who casually remarks that she can’t have talked to Renee—Renee died this morning. Colette is stunned, then incredulous, then angry at Gavin’s callousness. She packs up and leaves.
She consults the psychic Natasha about whether she might not have a gift of her own, having had a phone call with the dead. Natasha throws cold water on Colette’s idea of switching careers to the occult arts, which would take years of practice and training. She does give Colette the consolation prize of a prediction: An older man with the initial M will come into her life.
Though determined not to go back to Gavin, Colette feels the loss of the first person in whom she ever confided. She continues to see psychics. At a two-day “Psychic Extravaganza” in Windsor, she attends a demonstration by Alison, who singles her out as a “lady in beige” with a “broken wedding ring.” Unlike other psychics, Alison gives Colette a feeling of hope, of possible redemption from her untethered life.
Next day Colette seeks Alison out among the many “seers” who’ve set up consultation tables.
Alison has a long queue, but when she notices “meagrely built” Colette, looking like “an orphan in a storm,” she calls her over. The Spirit World has a message for this young lady, and Alison daren’t keep the dead waiting.
Colette cuts short a preliminary palm-reading with the demand to hear about her spirit-message. It’s from her father, Alison says, who passed about six months back. Colette denies it. It was her uncle who died about then—her father died long ago. After inquiring whether Colette can take a shock, Alison dishes out a tough home-truth: The man she called her father was really her uncle, whereas her supposed uncle Mike was her biological father. Colette rises to leave; Alison reels her back by acknowledging Colette’s strength and pride.
She further “reads” that Colette is ready for a life change; abruptly, she offers a job as her personal assistant and suggests they meet for coffee to discuss the matter. Colette takes a walk to mull over Alison’s revelation, which does explain many puzzles in Colette’s past.
When they meet, Colette takes control of the conversation, half-accusing Alison of indiscretion in so suddenly revealing Colette’s real father. Alison doesn’t rise to the bait. Colette then grills her about her psychic talents, while Alison tries to redirect conversation to her job offer. It doesn’t matter if Colette’s skeptical about Alison’s abilities, or what Alison thinks about them, for that matter: What happens, happens all the same. She adds that she has done a tarot spread for Colette. What it showed Alison was—herself.
The first summer of their working relationship, the two act “as if they were in love,” surprising each other with treats and gifts. Colette gets Alison to buy a new car and takes over most of the driving. She curates Alison’s wardrobe. She studies the psychic trade and concludes that Alison isn’t a fraud—except, can anybody really do what Alison claims to do, or rather more convincingly, what Alison demonstrates she can do? She takes over neglected financial records.
And—she suggests Alison write a book, via tape recordings Colette can transcribe and edit. Despite Alison’s misgivings, the recordings come out well enough. There are playback anomalies, though, birds twittering, voices intruding. Colette forges on. “When you were a child,” she asks, “did you ever suffer a severe blow to the skull?”
“Several,” Alison replies. “Why, didn’t you?”
This Week’s Metrics
The Degenerate Dutch: Merlin, or perhaps Merlyn, has a Native American (not “red Indian, thank you Colette) spirit guide who has “guided three generations of psychics and healers.” White psychics and healers, obviously.
Libronomicon: Gavin saves his passion, and his reading time, for car catalogs.
Madness Takes Its Toll: At the end of the chapter, we get the snippet of transcript described above. It’s a strange question and a stranger response: what kind of experiences make severe head trauma seem like a normal thing to ask about—and a normal experience to have multiple times?
What’s the most terrifying color in the spectra, both mundane and universal? That’s a perennial question raised in this blog. The usual suspects, black of the void and red of spilled blood, have bid for the title. White has made a case for itself in the pallor of trans-Saturnian fungi and the frigid sweeps of Antarctic snowfields. In art and film, fuchsia has routinely stood in for nameless colors out of space. Then there are those less sunny and daffodil-cheerful shades of yellow preferred by unspeakable Kings and people with bad taste in wallpaper.
Hilary Mantel proposes a new and compelling candidate in—
Beige. Beige is the soul-crusher, the little death of noticeability that leads to annihilation. We’re talking the absolute chromatic representation of the bland, the neutral, the no-there-there.
We’re talking Colette, who was known in school as Monster. Retrospectively she supposes the nickname makes sense as “a satire on her lack of monster qualities,” but wouldn’t a virtually invisible girl qualify as monstrous? Colette, we’re told, and as I believe she tells herself, has “no looks at all, good or bad, yes or no, pro or con.” Her features are “indefinite…neither male nor female,” her shape is “flat and neutral,” her hair and eyes “pale,” her skin “a matte beige.” She leaves school with “two indifferent A-levels.”
Yet “her mind [is] quick, shallow and literal, her character assertive.” Curiously, that’s pretty much how Margaret Mitchell characterizes Scarlett O’Hara. Mitchell’s opening sentence contention that Scarlett wasn’t beautiful doesn’t hold—she quickly exhibits the charm, vitality, and curves that Colette lacks. Colette can do all the maths and tech, and speak a sturdy French, and organize the hell out of anything life and work throw her way. A creep-mouse, accepting nonentity status, hiding within it? Not Colette. If people fail to notice her, she takes assertiveness straight into aggression, as snarky and litigious as it needs to be. Or more. No one’s taking advantage of her. Not unless they pay her a compliment on her appearance, even one as lame as Gavin’s “You’re not a bad-looking girl.”
Beige isn’t a bad-looking color, exactly. A beige life isn’t the worst; after all, its tribulations are also beige, shading at the worst into greige, a career grown dull, an always passionless marriage grown duller, chives on your strawberry meringue instead of mint, a boring fling at adultery, a mother-in-law’s ghost who can’t be bothered to haunt you, an unspectacular divorce. Hold on. A beige life could possibly shade toward the worst. Colette’s condition might be part of what led Philip Pullman to blurb Beyond Black as the “most sorrow-and-pity-inducing book I’ve read for a very long time.” I’m hearing a ghostly song: Paul McCartney’s “Another Day.” And another, and another, and another, to the last syllable of the early morning news.
With her beige past (no big traumas or triumphs) and a beige present, only the future offers Colette some stronger color. Being assertive/aggressive, wanting to preorganize her coming life, she plunges into the psychic scene.
Fate, which Colette much favors over Chance, leads her to a Fayre that Alison’s working. For all Colette’s “general beigeness” and modest slouching in the third row, Alison immediately “fingers” her, flashing her lucky opals in Colette’s direction. Those opals! They’re the perfect emblem of “[Alison’s] big starry eyes, her smile, and something of her sheen, that inward luminescence that Colette envied.” Look at images of the stone, especially of the black ones. They’re the antithesis of beige, chromatic overloads, galaxies in miniature. Colors out of space, screaming danger, or…whispering hope? Unlike the other psychics Colette’s consulted, Alison speaks “as if [Colette] had her life before her.”
It’s not much wonder that Colette accepts Alison’s job offer; more wonder, perhaps, that Alison makes it. If she has read Colette closely enough to know she would be a good assistant, she should also have picked up on Colette’s “assertive” character, her need to control her environment, including the people who share it.
Particularly the people.
Beige Colette envies Alison’s color. Envy is the dark side of admiration. Instead of emulation, it prompts aggression, passive or otherwise. By the time we enter their story, Colette has already pushed Alison into buying a new car and has taken over Alison’s taxes. She’s “rummaged through Al’s wardrobe and thrown out the worst bits of Lurex.” She’s chivvied Alison into wearing plain black, though she hasn’t been able to jettison her stage outfits of “emerald, burnt orange, scarlet.” She’s tried to throw out Alison’s beloved apricot “silk,” the length of polyester fabric she drapes over her performance poster. Here Alison has put her foot down, and the silk has stayed.
Because, sufficiently provoked, Alison can put her foot down, on more than Morris’s jeering face. She protests Colette’s book proposal, but the book is Colette’s “good” idea, the one it’s easier to go along with than to fight. If we believe the female spirit who overspeaks one interview tape, Alison is “in for it now…no use asking for your money back, sunshine. The trade doesn’t work that way.”
Sure enough, the bit of transcription that closes the chapter hints at why Alison reminiscing may be a very bad idea. Colette asks if Alison suffered any severe head injury as a child. Alison’s reply is chillingly matter-of-fact: “Several…Why, didn’t you?”
Beyond Black does such a good job of blurring the line between mundane and supernatural. This chapter, diving into Colette’s backstory, love and family (or lack of same) are confusing, tenuous, not bound by law or pattern. For Colette, psychics—even charlatans—offer the promise or at least the hope of meaning.
So much of her life seems to be carried out by default. She picks her husband, and gives him her extremely limited “everything,” because he’s there and thinks she’s “not bad looking.” It’s a low bar, and he fails to clear it almost immediately. Divorce, when it comes, is a miserable sense that the time has come, with no dragging denial. Her career, similarly, jumps from one unrelated organization to another. Her vague hope of “doing some good in the world” doesn’t translate into any sort of protracted effort or pattern.
It’s all that anyone has ever expected of her. Her skills, her appearance, are “beige.” Her handwriting has lost its character. I picked up last time on how she resents Alison’s visibility; the contrast is only more striking now. Even to herself, she’s invisible. Or maybe hidden, or forgettable. The three possibilities mix and blur: people fail to notice her, she habitually fades into the background, she fears losing sections of her own life to cognitive mist. She hates it, but she’s used to it.
And then Alison sees her. Not a charlatan even though she plays at it, she reads Colette’s mind and past and future. She resolves a central mystery of her family, making disjointed memories fall into a comprehensible pattern. She offers her a job, or whatever you call giving someone a job that your psychic powers have already shown her having.
Alison is the only person who’s ever seen Colette—and in Alison’s employment, as her closest confidante, being seen is the only option. A mortifying ordeal, indeed. No wonder their relationship is so f’d up. Colette is drawn to what she’s always lacked—but also hates and fears it. And she can’t entirely respect someone who welcomes it.
The inescapable judgment of women’s bodies continues here, as inescapable things tend to. Gavin offers tepid praise, objects to Colette controlling her own reproductive system, notes her head as weirdly small. She judges herself, then judges Alison for her size, her fashion choices, her claim to her own space. Alison jokes, self-deprecatingly, about skipping meals. It’s exhausting, in fiction as in real life.
The other thing that hits me is Colette’s school nickname: Monster. She is, we are told, not at all monstrous: she has “no looks at all, good or bad.” Her look-lessness verges on lifelessness, her hair compared to a cowl. Her emotions are muted, her virginity lost in the passive voice to an even less defined partner. But isn’t this lack of definition itself monstrous? O’brien tells us that invisibility is the most terrifying thing. Spirits surround us, invisible (except, of course, to Alison). Unseen monsters can rend and tear without ever submitting themselves to visual input.
Occult, Colette notes, means “hidden.” But for her, it’s a route out of hiding. It makes her life less “arbitrary.” It turns a wrong number into the hint of a special power, even while Gavin is dismissing both her life and his mother’s; it suggests that those lives have meaning beyond what drops he—and people like him—deign to acknowledge. It humanizes the dead, if she can’t manage to humanize the living. That includes herself—unless we’re going to find out that she’s been dead all along, a possibility I hold open. Alison does, after all, see Colette as “impersonating a spirit form.”
Invisible, hidden, forgettable. And perhaps occult. Next time, perhaps, we’ll get a better sense of what Alison thinks of her monstrous partner.
Next week, a lost child encounters something that may or may not be a ghost in Olympe Bhêly-Quénum’s “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts.” You can find it in The Weird.
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.