Reading the Weird

Enhancing the Diversity of the Community: Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (Part 6)


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 7. The novel was first published in 2005. Spoilers ahead!

“The world beyond the glass is the world of masculine action. Everything she sees is what a man has built. But at each turnoff, each junction, women are waiting to know their fate.”

Alison and Colette shop for a new residence. At a development in Surrey, currently half-excavated “ragged grassland”, Colette interrogates sales rep Suzi. Alison waits in the car. For her, “violence hung in the air, like the smell of explosive. Birds had flown. Foxes had abandoned their lairs. The bones of mice and voles were mulched into mud… through the soles of her shoes she felt gashed worms turning.”

Suzi learns assumes Alison and Colette a couple. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—Galleon reps have undergone diversity training! Colette asks whether Suzi would get a bonus if they were lesbians, which by the way they’re not.

Alison doesn’t object to the place’s “nowhere” feeling. They select a model and endure the Suzi’s sly homophobic slurs. Colette gets revenge by battering Suzi into concessions on price and features. Driving home, Morris and his mates complain about their choice, which suits Alison just fine.

They move that summer. Their part of the development now boasts houses with lots of exterior “gob-ons,” including decorative (non-opening) porthole windows. The “violent emerald of new turf” abounds, while the racket of ongoing construction greets every morning. Morris is deeply unhappy, and mateless. In addition to her usual duties, Colette deals with mishung doors, a misplaced fireplace, and a kitchen ceiling that collapses on their faux-granite countertops.

Her main complaint is the lack of eligible men. Their male neighbors are married tech guys who drive minivans and construct plastic jungle gyms, “waddling under their burden of mortgage debt.” Colette cries in her 15×14 bedroom with ensuite shower, but Alison is “selectively deaf,” listening only to spirits and paying customers, not her faithful personal assistant. Colette tracks Alison down to the living room, and demands a tarot reading. The session devolves into argument about lawn mowing and how Alison’s “niceness and professionalism” are totally insincere—she can’t fool Colette, Colette knows she’s “rotten…a horrible person…not even normal.” They agree to hire a lawn service, but the man doesn’t even know how to start the mower. Colette ends up doing the job.

Alison doesn’t want the neighbors to know her work. Colette’s insulted when people think they’re sisters, and insulted again when neighbors accept that lesbians have invaded their enclave. Colette tells the next-doorers she’s in telecommunication, while Alison is a “forecaster.” Soon the neighbors are making meteorological jokes.

The pair travel to Psychic Fayres, as before. Morris and his mates ride in the back seat, but only Morris haunts Admiral Drive. Morris hates the place, which offers no local recreations for a ghoul. He falls into “a prolonged sulk,” slacking off on his “doorman” duties of keeping other spirits in line, lurking in new voile curtains to escape the glare of their southern exposure.

To Alison, Morris complains there’s no place at Admiral Drive to shelter “consignments” from his mates. What if Nick were to ask for such a favor? Say no to Nick and you’ll end up “bloody crippled.” Morris seems genuinely frightened. Later Alison hesitates outside Colette’s door, wishing she could admit she’s lonely. An “unfilled space of loss” troubles Alison, “as if a door in her solar plexus were opening into an empty room, or a stage waiting for a play to begin.”

Morris informs Alison that he’s been called away to take “a course.” She can hardly wait to share the good news with her colleagues. Mandy believes Morris is finally being “pulled towards the light… moving upwards.” Since spirits “don’t generally go backwards,” Alison tells Colette she doubts he’ll return. And since it’s Morris who attracts the other ghouls, they should stay away too.

Colette asks what Alison will do without a guide. Oh, another will come along, or Alison can use Colette’s! Colette’s shocked to hear she’s acquired a spirit hanger-on. Alison explains it’s just Maureen Harrison, that girlhood friend who the poor old lady spirit was always begging Alison to find. Maureen’s just a harmless “granny,” currently abiding in a kitchen cabinet among the teacups.

As Alison brings Colette shock-soothing coffee and biscuits, she notices the sitting room is unusually calm, no Morris lurking in the curtains. It’s just the two of them, she tells Colette, beaming.

The letterbox flap rattles, signaling Morris’s exit.

This Week’s Metrics

What’s Cyclopean: Everything is violent and bloody this week, from mulched vole bones to congealing scab-like opals to “the stench of searing meat” on grills. Construction vehicles pick and peck, “their stiff necks strangely articulated, like the necks of prototype dinosaurs.”

When Al and Colette travel, the metaphors get more promising: highway lamps “burst into flower, their capsules splitting; they snap open like seedpods, and from their metal cups the rays of light burst out against the sky.”

The Degenerate Dutch: Beyond the usual dose of fatphobia, Colette spends time judging the men she encounters. The other men in the development are “dutiful emasculates” because apparently being a good husband makes you unmanly? Possibly the problem is that they aren’t available. Al suggests that she might “meet a man” through the garden service, but the gentleman in question doesn’t know how to start a mower—and worse, asks Colette to help. Can’t have men who think women might know something about lawn care.


Anne’s Commentary

The horrors of house hunting, especially if you and yours aren’t instantly identifiable as a heteronormative couple of probable means, children and mammalonormative pets optional. Mantel gets the prejudices of (yes, even) the 1990s just right, as I and my wife experienced them. If I’d gotten a dollar for every real estate functionary who asked if we were sisters, I could have paid the first month’s mortgage. “Are you sisters?” was also a favorite first question of new neighbors. One precocious litter of kids demanded to know what “daddy” was the real owner of our house, since women couldn’t buy houses on their own. To the sister question, I was tempted to answer “Yes, yes we are,” but that had been our apartment hunting ploy in the 1980s, and damn it, the millennium was about to turn.

So, yeah, I sympathized with Colette and Alison in their dealings with Suzi, et cetera. At least they weren’t traumatized when “pet” Morris pined in unfamiliar surroundings and ran away. Alison may shudder along with the violated “underscape” of future Admiral Drive, but after all, it’s what she’s looking for, “an indifferent place; no better or worse than others,” harboring only the ghosts of horses and a miscarried fetus. A place for someone like her, who’d “like to live nowhere.”

In the words of the great Buckaroo Banzai, however, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Nowhere is where only no ones can go. For an afterlife-nonbeliever, no one would mean dead. Alison knows better, or worse: Death doesn’t end existence. It doesn’t even necessarily gift one with oblivion, freedom from the burdens of personality, desires, errors. If Admiral Drive is too nowhere for Morris, that’s the most Alison can hope. She must bring herself there, and Colette.

The sum of Alison plus Colette is yet to be determined. Alison wants “human company.” In her estimation, Colette is human, but only “just about.” Colette seems to sense Alison’s unflattering opinion. She calls Alison the “most insincere person” she knows. Under her “niceness” and “professionalism,” Alison is “rotten,” “a horrible person,” “not even normal.” And fat, which is something Colette can’t get over. She resents having Alison thought her sister, Alison thought her lover (as if Colette couldn’t get someone less “bulky!”). Accompanying Alison clothes-shopping is “serving time” in the penitentiaries of plus-size stores, where she’ll be lucky to keep Alison looking “tidy,” forget glamorous.

This odd couple makes it through house purchase, moving, falling ceilings, lawn wrangling and irksome neighbors to a sort of equilibrium. They continue to travel to Fayres like sailors through oily waters. Gorgeously, chillingly, Mantel describes how “weather affects the motorway as it affects the sea. The traffic has its rising tides. The road surface glistens with a pearly sheen, or heaves its black, wet deeps.” The service areas offer catches-of-the-day like “leaky seafood sandwiches” and “tepid jellified cheesecake” like compacted sea-wasps. Alison fixes on moments of nonhuman nature with what may be relief, or trepidation, or a mix of the two. A kestrel swoops over the M40 to “pluck small squealing creatures from the rough grass of the margins.” Magpies “toddle amid the roadkill.” Seagulls patrol floodplains reeking of sewage. Summer brings a “countryside perfumed by the noxious vapours of pesticides and herbicides, and by the sweet cloud that lay over the golden fields of oil-seed rape.” In autumn the full moon is snared in the netting of a football field, “caught there bulging, its face bruised.”

On the supernatural side, Morris remains an irritant. Away from Admiral Drive, he still packs the backseat with his refound ghoul-buddies. He shirks his duties as Alison’s spirit-world “doorman” by admitting the “petty dead.” His buddies never follow to the new house, but it’s a relief he mitigates via whining and threats. “Nothing suited him” in the homogenized sterility of the Galleon development; that name aside, it’s no place for a pirate. Then –

Morris announces he’s been “called away,” and for once we see Alison absolutely happy. She can’t wait to spread the news. She keeps breaking into smiles. She feels “as if she were fizzing inside.” Mandy reassures her it’s no “trick.” Morris is finally moving beyond the spiritual jail of his past and heading “upwards.”

Alison accepts Mandy’s prognosis and repeats to Colette. She—they—will finally “have some peace.” Colette doesn’t share her ebullience. Her first question is whether, without a spirit guide, Alison can continue in the psychic business. Alison’s answer, meant to soothe Colette, shocks her instead: Alison can borrow Colette’s spirit guide! Oh, didn’t Alison tell Colette about her new “friend”? Don’t worry, it’s just the poor old lady’s missing friend. Just harmless granny Maureen, quaintly tinkling teacups in the cabinets. No wonder Alison failed to mention her.

Somehow I don’t buy that Alison forgot to introduce Maureen to Colette. I wonder whether she had no other motive in summoning Maureen than to “do a good action.” Most strongly, I question Mandy’s cheerful reassurances.

Who would have the authority to call Morris away for a “course”? That would be Nick, wouldn’t it, the one associate Morris fears? And is it likely that Nick would summon anyone “upwards”? His corporate headquarters should lie in the opposite direction. As for the “courses” given there, are they likely to be the “diversity training” Suzi attended?

I don’t think so. Nor do I think Nick would bother upping Morris’s qualifications for a job he’d never return to. That wouldn’t make good business sense, and if Nick’s anything, it’s a sharp business-ghoul.


Ruthanna’s Commentary

The most fun I’ve had in this book so far is watching Colette—and by extension Mantel—snark about housing developments. You buy, they build, and the informational blueprints may or may not include accurate information. In the American Midwest these spring up on recently repossessed cornfields; they’re home to McMansions-for-two where, indeed, you probably don’t want to shake the ceiling too hard. Their lack of welcome for unfriendly ghosts is presumably a major selling point, even if they have a similar effect on many of the living.

Also, while I wouldn’t generally want to spend real-life time with Colette, I might be persuaded to bring her on my next car- or house-buying expedition if I can’t find a token tall white guy. This strategy has resulted in one hundred percent fewer attempts to neg me into buying lemons, but admittedly doesn’t help with the “are you sisters” business—like Anne, I dealt with this in the late 90s and again in the early aughts, when a real estate agent took a look at two “ladies” and decided we must want a “quiet neighborhood,” selling us a house without mentioning its location in Wheaton Bible College country. I sympathized with Al and Colette over Suzi’s depredations, right up until the point that Colette was offended by the idea that she might look anything like Al, or that if she were queer she would want a fat partner, and maybe I won’t bring her car-shopping with me after all.

(“We are enthused to play our part to enhance the diversity of the community,” OMG. And Colette asking if there’s a lesbian bonus in the commission.)

So what’s a house-haggling scene doing in a weird fiction book? There’s the contrast: if old houses are terrifying, new houses should actively protect against supernatural threats. And yet, Al senses the construction site full of psychic violence. This is her baseline, the least that the world can hammer against her selfhood: little deaths, pain and fear beneath the earth. Somewhere in the background, rabbits flee for Watership Down. The bones of mice and voles are mulched into mud (catch that meter like marching feet), ghost horses haunt lawns, a miscarried fetus lies in an unmarked grave. Al never gets to rest on the world’s comforting surface. How could she retire?

But it seems to work. Morris complains that the place is anathema to his friends, seemingly oblivious to that being the point. Eventually, he leaves—or so it appears at the end of the chapter. Of course, we’re only halfway through the book—but the reprieve seems worth a couple rounds of ceiling repair.

Morris isn’t the only one oblivious to his role in screwing up his own relationships. Colette continues awful. She thinks about Al as a life partner, about how she never got as far as house-buying with Gavin. And yet she despises her, or resents her, or is envious, or all three. She can’t stop thinking about Al’s fatness, her own beige thinness, what each of them eats at home and on the road. She judges other women as she breathes, and can’t pull back on that even—especially—close to home. She plans, she organizes… she controls. Al’s own internalized fatphobia is even more painful: the “pride” involved in hiding your plus-sized clothes in bags from minus-sized stores is sure a thing.

Al’s treatment of Colette is more complex. She’s kinder, mostly, and yet when she desires human company, she thinks: “Was Colette human? Just about.”

Al sees too deeply, and Colette still—through all the seasons that pass over the course of this chapter—can’t resolve her desire to be noticed with the necessarily mortifying ordeal of being known. So she resents Al for not responding to her sobs, then denies she’s been crying and refuses the offer of help. She’s sure that Al has shared all her own pain and ugliness, even while Al continues to hide her everyday horrors. And Colette continues to live, uncomforted, on the world’s comforting surface. Her illusions aren’t doing her any good. She won’t dive deeper, while Al can’t come up for air.

“A curve in the road, a pause at traffic lights, brings you close to another life”—but then you keep moving, and the opportunity passes.


Next week, we welcome National Poetry Month with a selection of Ann K. Schwader’s poetry: Lavinia in Autumn” from Autumn Cthulhu, and “The Language of Forgotten Gods,” “Final Library,” “A Wizard’s Daughter,” and “Haunted Innsmouth” from her recent Unquiet Stars collection.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of A Half-Built Garden and the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on, 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 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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