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 5. The novel was first published in 2005. Spoilers ahead! Content warning for racism, and physical scars from child abuse.
“…how can I believe it, when it’s against the laws of nature?”
“Oh, those,” Al said. “Are you sure we have them anymore?”
Shortly after agreeing to work with Alison, Colette moves into her flat in “the nice part of Slough.” “Most people don’t think Slough has a nice part,” but her seventies apartment block is outside town, surrounded by “clipped and tame” shrubbery. The “young, dark, smiling” taxi driver who brings Colette from the train station flirts, getting nowhere; she’s “not prejudiced, but.” No, she is “a brave young woman on the threshold of a new life.”
Why, then, should she feel like “a figure of pathos?” It’s her two suitcases, she decides, and that she can carry all she owns.
Al’s flat is “low, squarish, beige. Everything light, safe.” She keeps her psychic props out of sight in a cupboard, except for her tarot cards wrapped in scarlet silk. When she spills the silk across the table, “it looked as if some bloody incident had occurred.”
Colette approves of her simple but well-appointed bedroom and her space in the bathroom. The two look over Alison’s ads in glossy but “surprisingly sleazy” magazines. Alison uses an ad for “Lesbian anal fun” to clarify their expectations as flatmates – their partnership is to be strictly business, no “fun.”
On the night Princess Diana dies, Alison has a premonition. She wakes Colette: They must get ready for the rigors of the coming week, when mediums will be in high demand. Preparations for now are limited to Colette tending Alison through fits of fever and chills, the cost of her clairvoyance. In time the radio confirms what Colette somehow never doubted: Di is gone. Colette feels a mix of “shock and unholy exhilaration, combined with a bubbling self-righteousness.” What else could one expect from a girl like Diana? Her life ends “so beautifully badly.”
The phone starts ringing at eight am. Clients are eager to know if Diana’s communicated with Alison. Alison’s friend Mandy (“Natasha”) Coughlan calls, and they agree the princess will still be too confused to be “talkative.” Morris returns from Saturday night debauchery to tell tasteless dead-Di jokes while Alison tries to bathe away the stench of death.
Over the next week Colette gets a crash-course in the mechanics of life-to-death transition. First off, people don’t always know they’ve gone over. They may think they’re “in a queue for attention but nobody attends,” perhaps “just the National Health [Service].” Famous people may be assailed by ancestors and deceased fans. Impostor spirits may ruin seances by “impersonating” the famous dead. You get fake Elvises, Jesuses, Cleopatras. Alison dislikes “doing Cleopatra.” She’s told Colette that she doesn’t “do ethnics” not out of racism but because “it just gets too convoluted,” what “these people” who think they have multiple lives.
Colette learns that the dead can be confused and lonely, that they’re not necessarily in a better place. Alison has softened the truth for her, as she does for her public. Her “soothing messages” come not from “the medium but from the saleswoman.” Colette admires Alison’s knack for pleasing people.
Having broken with her previous life, which appears not to miss her, Colette decides to treat Alison as a “project” and herself as Alison’s “project manager.” Good thing Colette’s had experience as a conference organizer, since Alison’s “something like a conference in herself.” She sits her “project” down to get the “full picture” of her life; Colette doesn’t want any more shocks like Morris. Alison must realize Colette isn’t “the trade” but a partner, a friend. Alison details the ways of the dead and how she interacts with them. Colette remains unsatisfied. As she rubs her forehead in frustration, Alison smiles sympathetically: One of her psychic friends would say Colette’s “opening [her] third eye.”
It’s not that she doesn’t believe Alison, Colette says angrily. She has to believe what she sees and hears, but still, isn’t it “against the laws of nature?” Al’s dubious about any such thing: “I think it’s a bit of a free-for-all these days.”
On the day of Diana’s funeral, the pair are scheduled to do an event at a major Midlands “fayre.” Mandy encourages Alison to go even though she still feels sickish. They begin to talk about Colette, but Alison doesn’t want to do it over the phone in case Colette overhears. Instead she chats telepathically with Mandy about the hazards of relationships, both with other psychics and “normals.” Psychics may bring along unsavory spirit guides, but normals can’t really understand what sensitives go through. They start thinking you’re taking advantage by reading their minds, or they want you to read the future so they can win at betting. Still, Mandy understands that Alison needs a friend with her, and she won’t judge. Alison admits she’s aspiring, with Colette as business partner, to learn “how the rich and clever die.”
While packing for the Midlands event, Colette sees the scars on the back of Alison’s thighs for the first time and asks if, like Di, she cut herself. Alison hasn’t thought much about the scars for a long time. Could she have forgotten about inflicting them herself? She fingers “her damaged flesh,” the skin that feels “dead and distant,” and she remembers what Morris said about how “they” showed Alison what a blade could do. Oh, she thinks, “that was what they taught [her]; that was the lesson [she] had.”
This Week’s Metrics
What’s Cyclopean: Alison has “very sharp earsight.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Colette isn’t comfortable with her dark-skinned cab driver. She’s not prejudiced, but. Al’s also not prejudiced, she says, but doesn’t do readings for “ethnics” (Colette’s term). Language barriers are tough, and reincarnation causes logistical/spiritual headaches.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Alison struggles with the competing disadvantages of having a relationship with someone like Colette. “You say something perfectly obvious and they look at you as if you’re mad. You tell them again, but by then it sounds mad to you.” Not sharing a reality with your partner is a daunting prospect.
Things to know about Slough. It’s situated only twenty miles west of central London and seven miles southeast of Heathrow Airport, not so isolated as Colette fears when her cab passes fields empty of crops, the occasional pony and “squat quaint cottages.” Slough’s famous (or infamous, depending on your sensibilities) for industry and commerce. One of the most ethnically diverse towns in England, its population is about 45% white, 40% Asian (largely Indian and Pakistani), 9% Black, and a scattering of “others.” If you run a search on Slough, you may be put off by the questions people frequently ask: Is Slough really as vile as its name sounds; does Slough have a high crime rate; why is Slough so polluted? Slough ranks in the top ten worst English cities.
Perhaps it suffices to note that the British version of The Office is set in Slough. Office manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) takes exception to the famous (or infamous) poem “Slough,” written in 1937 by Sir John Betjeman. The first stanza sums up Betjeman’s opinion of the fast-industrializing town:
“Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!”
Brent remarks that Sir John “probably never been here in his life” and that “I don’t think you solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place.” After WWII saw Slough a target of Nazi air raids, Betjeman regretted his premonitory call for conflagration.
Two other questions asked about Slough of the all-knowing Internet: Is Slough a white area; is Slough full of Indians? That the answers are not really and yeah kinda no doubt partly accounts for Alison’s “most people don’t think Slough has a nice part.” But it does, it does, namely her apartment block built far enough from the city center to stand “well back from the road” and to look “clipped and tame…reassuringly suburban.” Colette needs reassurance after being driven out to her new home by a dark-skinned cabbie. Not that she’s prejudiced, as she thinks twice in this section.
Alison also protests she’s not racist, even though she doesn’t “do ethnics” and therefore avoids places like downtown Slough. Her nonracist reasons: the language barrier, the confusing multiple families of people who believe in reincarnation, the thought of “some bangled wrinkly from the Ganges popping up: and she [Alison], flailing in time and space, not able to skewer her to the right millennium.”
Alison knows better than to say “bangled wrinkly” out loud and thus undermine her argument. Alison very often doesn’t say aloud what she thinks – especially what she says about the afterlife. As she has made herself soft and well-insulated, she wants to soften harsh truths for her clients; she wants to insulate them from “the perfidy of the dead…their selfish, trivial outlook. Their general cluelessness.” She wants to please. Nothing will make people hate you more than telling them what they don’t want to hear, namely the truth.
Besides, pleasing people is good for business. Essential to business, as Colette knows, even though pleasing comes so hard to her. Take the schadenfreude she feels over Diana’s death. That it was a poetically just ending for the lost-rebel princess is not something she’d dare blurt out in ear-range of Di’s adoring public, the ones who want desperately to believe in the fairy tale, rather than the ones (perhaps as numerous) who preferred the tabloids’ portrayal.
Diana’s death provides a dramatic opportunity for Colette to really get to know Alison. We already witnessed the British trade’s obsessive interest in deceased royals. No royal passing except the Queen’s herself could have created such a tsunami of business for psychics. Like Colette, I never doubted Alison’s word about her connection to the ongoing tragedy. However, proceeding on the principle of “Trust but verify,” I checked the timeline of Diana’s accident. There’s an hour difference between London and Paris, London being one hour earlier. Diana’s car collided with an underpass pillar at 00:23 (Aug 31) Paris time, which would have been 23:23 (Aug 30) London time. Diana was transferred to an ambulance at 01:18, arrived at hospital at 02:06, and died after unsuccessful resuscitation efforts at 03:00. The death was announced at a 06:00 news conference, or 05:00 London time. Mantel doesn’t tell us exactly what time Alison sensed that Diana was doomed, but she woke Colette at night, hours before dawn, around which time I’m assuming Colette’s radio confirmed the death.
So I’m going with Alison being actually in the throes of precognitive/telepathic distress rather than shamming. But tricky Mantel: By leaving exact times indefinite, she makes readers have to figure it out for themselves.
Last chapter we left Alison wondering what Morris meant about her tuition under the knife. When Colette’s first sight of her thigh-scars brings them to the fore of Alison’s mind (she’s apparently been keeping the memory of their origin well buried in the back), the answer comes to her. The scars – they’re what’s left of the Aldershot ghouls’ lesson.
How much more does she remember?
I’m not sure I want to know, while simultaneously needing to know. This is just the clash of repulsion and fascination that good weird fiction should provoke.
Honest first reaction: who is Diana? Did I miss a character? Have I forgotten Al’s horrible mother’s name? Oh, that Diana.
Professional psychics get lots of mileage out of celebrity deaths, and Mantel plays with this – as she does with Al’s legit reasons for taking on many trappings of table-rapping charlatans. Famous people know they’re famous, after all. They crowd lines and push to the front in death as in life – perhaps moreso, because they’re confused about why they’re waiting and no one comes. A horrible thought for anyone, and worse for those with little experience of it. Al’s afterlife is not one to provide comfort. Nor do her painful insights do much good to those who might actually benefit from them. She’s not, after all, going to phone the queen.
Further, we learn that it’s not always the psychic who’s a charlatan. Death is full of spirits who want to pass as celebrities, or who’ve lost track of their true identities and latch on to Napoleon or Cleopatra. Death, like birth or eldritch epiphany, is an experience of being thrust into an entirely new set of perceptions and laws. It must be tempting: to be someone remembered, called up, spoken to for more than the scant few years that most people remain in living memory.
Colette, too, uses the opportunity of Al’s presence to reinvent herself. As she starts her new life as live-in assistant, she decides to be “pure,” which of course means cutting meat and sweets from her diet, avoiding cellulite. After all, doesn’t purity involve having a body that meets other people’s expectations? Just look at those plastic surgery ads: BEFORE and AFTER. After-Colette imagines how she might explain her new life to those she’s left behind, but doesn’t actually seek them out. And they, of course, aren’t inclined to track down their beige former colleague.
It’s telling that she feels like she gets to know Alison when Princess Di’s posthumous throes make the psychic ill and vulnerable. Telling, too, how she skips over her horoscope on the theory that there’s no need to “keep a dog and bark yourself?” It’s a hair’s breadth from the horrible old saying about free milk and cows. Colette and Al may agree quickly that they aren’t interested in lesbian anal fun, but there’s something sordidly heterosexual in their unbalanced relationship. Colette wants Alison to need her, and also wants to milk her of something – destiny, perhaps – that Colette needs for her own satisfaction.
Color, too, she gets from Al. And Al gets it from her abilities: her own rooms have something of Colette’s beigeness, but her tarot cards are wrapped in scarlet silk, a “bloody incident” when they’re unwrapped to seek insight. And during her illness after Di’s death, old cuts from a real “bloody incident” become visible: the cuts on the back of her thighs from that terrible childhood “lesson,” and the unwelcome memories that go along with them.
For all Alison’s brightness, the clarity she offers is a deliberate illusion. Colette’s disturbed to learn that the dead can be confused and lonely, selfish and trivial and clueless. Al keeps these awkward, undramatic truths from her audience, but not from her assistant. The dead aren’t pleasant company, and Morris is only their worst local representative. Guides do “creepy-creepy” things while you’re asleep. It’s “a kind of violation” even if Morris is no longer capable of the worst of it. The central thing about Alison’s “power” seems to be a limited ability to set her own boundaries. She can’t keep Morris out, can’t keep Princess Di from pulling her into fever dreams, can’t ignore the voices of the perfidious dead.
Not the insight Colette was looking for, and I suspect that’s one of the things she takes out on her boss.
Next week, dead things rise from the water, down under, in Angela Slatter’s “The Names of the Drowned Are These.”
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.