The Victorian ghost story matures in “The Grownup”

IMG_4233

With its allusions to Wilkie Collins, Henry James, and Daphne du Maurier, Gillian Flynn’s short story “The Grownup” weaves a rich intertextuality of 19th-century Gothic tales. In its sharp focus on the trappings of economics, though, Flynn’s incarnation of the ghost story closely aligns with a different style of terror, that of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915). Combining the Victorian internalization of horror with a Kafkaesque existentialism, Flynn thus updates the haunted house trope by substituting the sinister English manor for a bleak suburban nightmare of home ownership, faltering marriages, broken families, and matrophobia.

As in all of Flynn’s novels, the psychology of “The Grownup” is driven by complicated mother-child relationships. The unnamed narrator opens the story by detailing her unstable upbringing, from her father’s abandonment to her contempt for her mother, whom she deems “the laziest bitch she ever met.” Instead of stable employment, the narrator’s mother survives by panhandling, exploiting her daughter as a tool to bring in more money. With age, the narrator’s grifting experience naturally progresses from street begging to sex work and fortune telling at the seedy Spiritual Palms. When one of her palmistry clients, Susan Burke, describes eerie occurrences at her house, the narrator, sensing an easy mark, offers her “psychic” services to cleanse the space of its negative auras. After she visits Carterhook Manor and encounters Susan’s disturbed teenage stepson, Miles, however, the narrator questions whether the madness and malignant forces portrayed in her beloved supernatural novels truly exist.

Originally published in George R. R. Martin’s Rogues anthology as “What Do You Do?,” the standalone story’s revised title more precisely indicates Flynn’s concerns about the claustrophobic anxiety that accompanies adulthood. In particular, Flynn highlights the socioeconomic factors that affect women of various classes. Acknowledging the demeaning perception of sex work, the narrator constantly colors the reality of her profession, referring to her occupation as “customer service,” “vision specialist,” or “therapeutic practices.” She finds herself deficient in comparison to higher-class, university-educated women like Susan, but the reality is that such women bear their own burdens of mortgages, aloof husbands, and antagonistic children.

Both women are, in effect, hindered by a Kafkaesque immobility, unable to reposition themselves socially or financially. That the narrator describes Miles scuttling around “as if he bore an insect’s shell, shiny and hard” is a direct reference to Kafka’s traveling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself inexplicably transformed into a creature resembling a cockroach. Gregor Samsa’s alteration has been interpreted as a physical manifestation of the stress induced by supporting his family through a tiring and dismal job. Flynn’s childless narrator suffers through a similar drudgery, but her transformation is an emotional one, inspired by her growing understanding of the Burke family dynamic.

In such commentary on alienation and loneliness, “The Grownup” echoes themes of the Victorian works referenced throughout the story, but the strongest influence drawn from these novels is the unreliability of the narrator. True to the nature of the con artist, the narrator leads the reader to believe “The Grownup” is a classic supernatural tale when it is actually a psychological thriller about feminine fears about the loss of one’s independence upon starting a family. Indeed, Flynn never reveals her narrator’s name because she doesn’t have one single identity. Rather, she is the embodiment of every woman’s worry that she will eventually metamorphose into her mother.

“The Grownup”; 64 pages; Crown Publishing, 2015.

The devil of Pig Island is in the details

IMG_4185.JPG

Do not be fooled by Pig Island’s unappealing title. The very banality of the name is an act of deceit, an inverse glamour that conceals a novel fixated on illusion, both in physical ugliness and false pretenses. Yet, with its allusions to both Pygmalion and The Island of Dr. Moreau, the title is also a conceit, an elaborate metaphor in which Mo Hayder marks Pig Island as an extension of these transformation narratives.

**The remaining review contains potential spoilers.**

A tourist video showing a blurry image of a grotesque half-human/half-beast on the shores of Pig Island arouses suspicions of devil worship performed by the Psychogenic Healing Ministries, the religious group that inhabits the secluded Scottish atoll. Seeking to dispel these accusations of Satanism, the PHM invites journalist Joe Oakes to investigate the “devil of Pig Island.” Oakes eagerly accepts the offer, as his reputation for debunking paranormal hoaxes originated eighteen years prior when he discredited the fraudulent faith healing ministries of the PHM’s founder, Pastor Malachi Dove. Because Dove’s increasingly erratic behavior has exiled him from the community, the PHM persuades Oakesy to disgrace the pastor a second time by writing an exposé that will have Dove declared legally insane and ousted from the island. As Oakes’s investigation reignites hostilities between the two men, he becomes a target for Dove’s delusions of godlike grandeur.

Like the purported devil of Pig Island, Hayder’s novel conveys a sense of dread and uncertainty through its amalgamated form and disquieting imagery. Dividing the action between three locations allows Hayder to mutate each strain of her story into different genres based on geography. Hayder creates a distinct atmosphere in each environment that correlates to the transformation of Dove’s daughter Angeline, whom Oakes discovers hidden on the island.

With its Lovecraftian blend of the supernatural and the scientific, the Pig Island setting evokes the tone of weird fiction. Because of a birth defect that spawned a vestigial limb, Angeline has been quarantined in the remote wilderness of the island. This is a space of trauma and madness, where Malachi has imposed both a paternal and pastoral authority over Angeline. Because he believes her deformity is unclean, a curse from the devil, Malachi subjects Angeline to repeated exorcisms in a misguided attempt to purify and purge the demons within her.

Following a tragic crime on the island, the novel shifts into a tale of domestic suspense as Joe, his wife Lexie, and Angeline relocate to a police safe house on the Scottish mainland. That this space is nicknamed the “rape suite” due to the violation of some female residents by the authorities forebodes both a physical and psychological probing into the women’s psyches. As Hayder confronts a less insidious form of masculine dominance in Joe’s attempts to protect both women from murderous threats made by Malachi, she also articulates the Oakes’ marital struggles by dividing the narrative between Oakesy and Lexie and revealing each partner’s self-motivated interest in allowing Angeline to remain the stranger in the house.

In the bleak urban wasteland of London, the novel concludes as pure noir. Haunted by fears of retribution from Malachi, Joe spirals into depression and a self-destructive madness that mirrors his antagonist’s own insanity. Meanwhile, Angeline becomes more socialized, seeking the normality denied first by her father’s obsessive control and then by Joe’s desire to shield her from a society that could potentially be repulsed by her disfigurement. As Angeline struggles to assert her own identity, the conflict between Joe’s regression and her maturation culminates in disastrous consequences.

Continuing the tradition of transformation narratives, Hayder illustrates how metamorphosis leads to revelation. In this instance, though, Hayder overthrows the patriarchal authority implicit in the god-creator figures of Shaw and Wells. Through its porcine connotations of chauvinism, which often enforces the possession of female figures through isolation, Pig Island exposes a sexism that is much more sinister in its delusions than any demon, devil, or demigod.

Pig Island; 352 pages; Grove Press, 2015 reissue.

The Ironic Neo-Noir of Niceville’s Resident Evil

IMG_4146

Niceville is to Carsten Stroud what rural Maine is to Stephen King. Both places are fertile imaginative landscapes against which their authors explore the sociology and superstitions of insular communities. Much like King’s Needful Things or It, in which the supernatural acts as an agent of the environment, Niceville is a chilling depiction of the trauma, iniquity, and injurious memories suppressed under the pretense of small-town values.

After ten-year-old Rainey Teague is reported missing, Detective Nick Kavanaugh’s investigation determines that the disappearance is no mere kidnapping. Rather, security cameras of the child’s last known location show him to simply vanish. When Teague inexplicably reappears days later, inside a locked tomb in the town’s graveyard, Kavanaugh delves into the mystery of the 179 random stranger abductions that have occurred in Niceville since 1928. Assisted by his wife, his partner, and a police CI, Kavanaugh finally determines that something inhuman, something from the outside, is targeting the bloodlines of the Founding Four families.

Because Stroud draws from several disparate genres, Niceville’s many plotlines and populous cast may initially feel incongruous. As evidenced by the town’s ironic name, however, the novel is as much a satiric deconstruction of literary traditions as it is a demystification of the Old South. Therefore, to appreciate the novel requires an understanding of the influences that inform Stroud’s work and how they tie together to build the bizarre world of Niceville.

For fans of hardboiled crime fiction, Stroud’s canvass of the town exposes its gritty underside. Intertwining subplots include a bank robbery that leaves four cops dead, a slighted citizen intent on exposing the sexual deviances of others, and the blackmail of a security firm founder as part of a corporate takeover. As in that most famous of hardboiled novels, The Maltese Falcon, though, these story lines merely serve as MacGuffins for the true terror lurking beneath the town’s surface.

Indeed, such cultural decay of crime and violence moves Stroud’s novel into the Southern Gothic, addressing the grievances and blood feuds masked by the South’s quaint, idyllic image. As the abductions relate to a century-old slight between two families, regarding a rakish cad’s indiscretion that leaves a young girl in trouble, the many now face expiation for the sins of a few. With an entity that travels through mirrors and glass to exact its vengeance, these reflective surfaces become a metaphor for the masquerade of small town idealism, exposing the wickedness otherwise concealed by Niceville’s citizens. In this sense, the land itself is the novel’s most important character, exhibiting a consciousness that absorbs and feeds upon the malicious energies of its inhabitants.

Although it deploys conventions of crime fiction, magical realism, and the horrific, fantastic, and Gothic, Niceville is, above all, a neo-noir fiction dictated by the characters’ own fatalistic propensity for self-destruction. With two successive installments in the trilogy, the novel’s cliff-hanging end proves to be the real beginning of the Niceville saga. As Stroud leaves the reader with nothing but unsettling questions, one feels that the only conclusive answer is that the residents of Niceville are simultaneously plagued by a past on which they had no bearing and prevented from a future in which they will have any agency.

Niceville; 464 pages; Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013 reprint.

Speakers of the Dead resurrects Walt Whitman’s humanist spirit

IMG_4066

Set against a backdrop of murder, grave robbing, and civic corruption in 1843 New York, J. Aaron Sanders’s debut novel, Speakers of the Dead, creates an alternate history in which death is the catalyst that transforms Walt Whitman from a struggling journalist and mediocre writer into the preeminent poet of American life.

When Lena Stowe, the co-founder of the Women’s Medical College of Manhattan, is found holding the eviscerated body of her husband, Abraham, authorities believe she murdered him as vindication for his alleged affair with and killing of a cigar girl. In a futile attempt to avert her sentenced execution, Walt Whitman uses his position as a reporter for the Aurora to investigate and publicize events that led to the Stowes’ misfortunes. To honor his friends’ deaths and uphold their legacy of promoting medical progress, Walt embarks on a quest to exonerate both parties — clearing Abraham of the botched abortion that killed the cigar girl Mary Rogers and absolving Lena of Abraham’s murder. Intending to find those responsible while aiding the Stowes’ students to keep the Women’s Medical College open, Walt delves into the New York underworld of the Resurrection Men, grave robbers who traffic in the procurement and trade of dead bodies, only to discover the length of their political reach.

In reconstructing the conditions that created this racket, Sanders cites both the legal and theological discourses regarding human dissection. Whitman suspects that Abraham’s murder resulted in part from his participation in drafting the controversial Bone Bill legislation, which pushed for legalizing the dissection of the dead. Although experimentation on cadavers would advance anatomical knowledge, the Bone Bill would not protect the legal acquisition of cadavers for the medical profession until 1854. This delay was largely due to the religious opposition to dissection, which Sanders portrays in the riotous attacks on the Women’s Medical College from mobs in protest of dissection practices, who claim the desecration of the body prevents the soul’s resurrection, thereby denying one life after death. Whether informed by legality or doctrine, Sanders stresses the repressive influence of conviction in such rigid laws or unwavering faith.

A historical mystery concerning the phenomenon of body snatching could have been equally effective without Walt Whitman as a protagonist, yet Whitman’s philosophy, most famously proclaimed in “Song of Myself,” is the perfect response to the arguments posed about the sanctity of the human form. Instead of privileging the body in death, Whitman views it as a natural, cyclical regeneration of the earth, in which “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses / And to die is different than what anyone supposed, and luckier.” Indeed, the crusade to clear the Stowes’ names epitomizes the democratic nature of Whitman’s poetic oeuvre. In striving for truth and justice, Sanders’s Whitman becomes a mouthpiece for the marginalized, from wrongfully convicted criminals to prostitutes of ill repute to the women transgressing into a male profession. Sanders also gives representation to homosexuality, an element that is commonly either absent or aberrant in crime fiction. By featuring a relationship between the fictional Whitman and his Aurora editor, Henry Saunders, as crucial to both character and plot development, Sanders voices the same inclusionary, egalitarian principles as Whitman himself.

Beyond Whitman’s characterization, Speakers of the Dead is rife with allusions to the literary milieu of the time and thus will certainly appeal to American literature enthusiasts. Sanders includes references to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendental, transparent eyeball, a belief that influenced much of Whitman’s work, and even a cameo from Edgar Allan Poe, whose short story “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” attempted to solve the real-life murder of Mary Rogers. Sanders does an admirable job of glossing these personages within the text and partially addresses this intertextuality in a concluding Author’s Note. Yet the novel could benefit from a critical introduction that places Whitman within this historical context in order to attract a more general readership that may be unacquainted with Whitman’s work or otherwise deterred by esoteric poetry and philosophy.

With its convergence of realism, romanticism, and transcendentalism, Speakers of the Dead mimics the aesthetics and movements that Whitman’s poetics so seamlessly intersect. J. Aaron Sanders crafts a compelling mystery that thus contains multitudes, as it cleverly frames a disreputable moment in American history through the appeal of the nation’s most beloved poet.

Speakers of the Dead; 320 pages; Plume Books, 2016.

Gold of Our Fathers illuminates illegal mining in Ghana

GoldofourFathers

My knowledge of the precious minerals trade extends only as far as the American commonplace Cash 4 Gold merchants. While these buyers mislead unwitting consumers by devaluing gold prices in a fluctuating market, Kwei Quartey’s Gold of Our Fathers (Soho Crime, 2016) addresses a much more insidious aspect of the gold trade by illustrating the devastation caused by the influx of illegal Chinese mining operations to Ghana, Africa’s largest gold exporter.

Quartey’s fourth Darko Dawson novel finds the protagonist promoted to detective chief inspector, but as a pawn of departmental politics Dawson receives a subsequent transfer from Ghana’s capital to the rural Ashanti region. On his second day in Obuasi, Dawson is assigned to investigate the murder of Bao Liu, a Chinese mine owner buried alive in his gold pits. Dawson initially suspects one of the disgruntled galamsey boys, the small-scale miners employed by Liu, until he learns of grievances against Liu from both a local farming family and a larger American-run mining operation. While pursuing these leads, Dawson progresses from solving a simple murder case to exposing government corruption that profits from illegal mining practices.

Because the scope of the novel contracts and expands as Dawson shifts between the single murder and a complex conspiracy, Gold of Our Fathers struggles, at times, with an imbalanced narrative and erratic pacing. With both the identity of Bao’s killer and the bureaucratic malfeasance evident from the start, reader interest hinges on Quartey’s vivid depiction of Ghanaian life rather than intrigue. Further inhibiting the construction of the novel is the attempt to include the Dawson family’s relocation and adjustment to Obuasi, as their undeveloped story line intrudes on the more engaging discourse of Ghanaian politics. The minimal inclusion of these peripheral characters is reflective of serialized literature, though, since dedicated readers will expect an appearance, and therefore excuse a certain level of neglect, of figures that have been introduced through the three previous installments.

What Gold of Our Fathers lacks in suspense, however, it makes up for in setting. Quartey, a physician by trade, takes a diagnostic approach to the poor economic conditions that have produced the Ashanti region’s dependence on gold mining. In comparison to Accra, Dawson’s new appointment is in an office made inefficient by lack of financial resources and careless personnel. In conjunction, these two factors permeate the political structures of Obuasi to create varying degrees of government complicity in illegal mining activities. Whether in the form of police officers who receive kickbacks for alerting miners to imminent raids or in tribal chiefs who negotiate land holdings with the miners, often by seizing land from cocoa farmers, Quartey details the sanctions, both implicit and explicit, that allow these practices to continue. To offset the severity of these issues, Quartey appraises them through Dawson’s ironic reflections, which add levity to an otherwise dark subject.

While Gold of Our Fathers is best read in succession with the first three Darko Dawson books instead of as a standalone novel, its particular merit lies in the compelling representation of the relationship, at turns symbiotic and antagonistic, between two non-Western countries. By exposing U.S. readers to hitherto marginalized geopolitics, Gold of Our Fathers highlights the complexities of the commodities market and educates the reader through an insightful perspective on both African and Chinese foreign affairs.