The Glass Pearls – Emeric Pressburger

I’ve had a good run with Faber Editions this year with two excellent novellas, Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs Caliban and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha, and to these I will now add this fascinating novel by the filmmaker Emeric Pressburger called The Glass Pearls. Pressburger was most known for his collaboration with Michael Powell; their production company released fourteen films of which some of the classics were The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus (an adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name).

In his afterword to the book, Kevin Macdonald (Pressburger’s grandson) throws some light on the essential details of his grandfather’s life – Pressburger was a Jew, born in Hungary in a world that revered all things German. After studying engineering in a prestigious university in Prague, Pressburger moved to Berlin in the 1920s, the most happening city at the time, but where he fell on hard times. He would then gain a foothold into the film industry and the rest they say is history.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Pressburger was forced to flee but Macdonald argues about how in his material whether books or films, he tried to depict a sympathetic view of the Germans, who he insisted were not Nazis. Pressburger knew Berlin and its inhabitants intimately and strongly believed that there was a sea of difference between ‘Germans’ and ‘Nazis’.

Something of this quality is palpable in The Glass Pearls too, a brilliant unsettling tale of paranoia and moral complexity centred on a war criminal on the run.

We are introduced to our protagonist Karl Braun who in the book’s opening pages arrives at his new lodgings on Pimlico Road in London. When Karl inspects his new surroundings, his landlady Mrs Felton is not around, but he bumps into the building manager Mr Strohmayer, a charming but dubious man always looking to make easy money through impromptu side deals.

Karl works as a piano tuner at Mr Parson’s firm and his job requires him to visit client homes all over the city to fix or repair their pianos, his schedule chalked out by Lillian Hall, Mr Parson’s secretary, who secretly holds a torch for Braun.

It soon becomes clear within the first ten pages itself that Karl Braun is a Nazi war criminal on the run, and for twenty years has managed to remain in hiding, a period during which the War Crimes Tribunal was hunting down perpetrators of heinous crimes to prosecute them. With this twenty year statutory period almost coming to an end, Braun is looking to enjoy his first taste of freedom, but soon receives some disturbing news from a friend who he hadn’t seen for years. This man Hein informs him that the period of tracking war criminals is likely to get extended.

If Hein was wrong in assuming that his friend could be talked into abandoning a clandestine life for the safety and cosy companionship of the Brotherhood, he was right about the intention of the West German Parliament. Early in March the English papers reported that the majority of members in the Bundestag voted in favour of extending the deadline for the prosecution of alleged Nazi crimes.

The news hit Braun with cruel ferocity. Most people can bear anything as long as their ordeal is limited. As long as they can count the days, the years; as long as they know they are progressing towards an end of their tribulations. Only if the suffering imposed upon them appears to be limitless do they go to pieces.

But more importantly, he lets Braun know about the Brotherhood in Buenos Aires who is in need of funds and a good doctor to carry out their activities. Hein plans to join them, and tries to convince Braun to do the same although Braun refuses.

Braun’s murky past is unknown to his work colleagues and his immediate acquaintances and he has every intention of keeping a low profile till he can get to Zurich and access the wealth he and Hein had amassed and finally settle down.

Left alone, Braun sat on the green velvet settee, contemplating the months lying ahead. Life was not too bad. He did not mind tuning and repairing pianos. Visiting other people’s homes, watching their relationships, could be quite amusing. He made enough money for his needs he even had a little in the bank. He enjoyed a good book, a good play, a good concert, a good talk. What else does a man want from life?

But that’s easier said than done and meanwhile things begin to get tricky. Beset by loneliness, Braun is attracted to Helen Taylor, the woman employed by the estate agent office that secured him the place at Mrs Felton’s. The two soon begin to regularly see each other and attend musical concerts, theatres and dine at fancy restaurants. Braun has a fine taste for music and opera and some of his tastes begin to rub off on Helen too. Helen has a complicated personal life herself, she is divorced from her husband Dan and they share joint custody of their daughter Eve. Terrified of losing her daughter, Helen struggles to maintain a balance between holding onto her job and her rented place while at the same time letting loose and having a good time herself. Braun regales her with stories about his time in Paris and the exciting adventures he’s had and she remains fascinated trying to live vicariously through this memories. For instance, one of his stories centres on the glass pearls that lend the book its name; he reminisces on a party he had attended where glass pearls were inserted into oysters to watch for the ladies’ reaction, a story that will gather much significance in the final pages.

In the midst of all this, Braun is consistently tormented by the fear and paranoia of being caught and imprisoned and now with Helen in the picture, worries about the shame of being arrested in front of her. These instances of fear are immediately followed by moments of logic and rational thinking (the hallmark of his time as a doctor in a Nazi concentration camp), but he remains troubled by this wild oscillation between paranoia and calm as he navigates his present circumstances and their complications with the uncertainty of the future stretching before him.

His panic further escalates when he learns of some unknown, shadowy individuals who are trying to locate him – are they the police or the war crime tribunal who has finally learnt of his whereabouts and are out to get him?

But Braun’s scars run deep. We learn that his wife and only child were killed during sustained bombing raids on Hamburg; a fate he was destined to escape simply because he was called away to the concentration camp to continue his work. Is there evidence of guilt and trauma there? Through the momentous effort required to keep his past under wraps and escape prosecution, Braun begins to feel tired. He desperately longs for peace, to lead a normal life, and even contemplate love through his budding relationship with Helen. Is that now within his grasp or is this dream futile?

The Glass Pearls then is an excellent novel, a fascinating exploration of fear and moral dilemma, of an individual’s desperate effort to start afresh, how you can’t entirely leave the past behind and the randomness of fate (surrounded by news of the atrocities suffered by his people during Hitler’s reign, one of Braun’s neighbours at Mrs Felton, a Jew, manages to escape to Zurich simply because of a minor adjustment to his name that miraculously saves him – the very Jewish Kohn becomes Kolm). Where Pressburger’s storytelling skills shine is the way he manages to instill some amount of sympathy in the reader for Braun; given the magnitude of his crime, the reader wants Braun to get the punishment he deserves and yet there’s the other part that wishes him to escape the clutches of law.  

Both the introduction (by Anthony Quinn) and the afterword mention how Pressburger was torn by guilt – while he managed to flee to England he could not arrange to bring his mother and family safely there, they would go on to perish in concentration camps. Quinn and MacDonald discuss how Pressburger, a Jew, projected his guilt and shades of his identity onto his creation Braun, a Nazi criminal and it is this backstory too that heightens the strange and unique allure of The Glass Pearls.

The Tortoise and the Hare – Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth Jenkins is a new author to me. But a couple of years back I went through a phase of acquiring as many editions as I could of these stunning Virago designer hardbacks (which also includes Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April), and the Jenkins at the time caught my eye. Well, it turned out to be a terrific read, one that pulled me out of a reading slump for the time being atleast. 

There’s a certain point in the book where we are told of a particular dinner set in the Gresham household that encapsulates the differing points of view of both husband and wife. These silver coated Sheffield plate dishes sparkled with newness when originally purchased, but after years of use, the plates now appear old with bits of copper showing through. Evelyn, conventional and business-like, wants to get them re-silvered; Imogen, romantic and artistic, prefers them as they are. Evelyn agrees to her wishes, but is secretly not pleased. So much so that later in the book, Imogen is left wondering whether her desire to not re-silver those plates is a possible metaphor for the deteriorating state of their marriage.

The re-dipping of the dishes was a small matter, but the emotional texture of married life is made up of small matters. This one had become invested with a fatal quality.

The Tortoise and the Hare, then, is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing.

The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square. The sky was a burning blue yet the still air was chill. A gold chestnut fan sailed down from some unseen tree and tinkled on the pavement. In the small antique-dealer’s a strong shaft of sunlight, cloudy with whirling gold-dust, penetrated the collection of red lacquer and tortoiseshell, ormolu and morocco. Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a pattern of raised wheat ears, and of the kind known in the country districts as a ‘harvester.’ Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.

Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. The couple resides in the Berkshire countryside with their school-going son Gavin.

Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. With his good looks and physique he cuts quite an imposing figure and very often Imogen is unable to challenge his views, just agreeing to everything he says which to her seems so much easier. It’s not just Imogen though. Even in his dealings with other people Evelyn does not think twice about voicing his disagreements, and once set on something, he refuses to be swayed by opposing arguments.

Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. She is blessed with beauty and charm, qualities that first attracted Evelyn to her, but it is pretty apparent early on that she plays second fiddle in their marriage. She is not as assertive as Evelyn and for the most part acquiesces to his moods and wishes when it comes to his pleasures and matters of the household.

Blessed with wealth, comfort and security Imogen considers her married life to be a happy one although there are moments when she is gripped by feelings of dread and unease. That sinking feeling largely revolves around Evelyn; somewhere in the back of her mind Imogen vaguely believes that her efforts to please her husband are simply not enough. That sense of failure is not just limited to household affairs but is also reflected in the physical intimacy between them (“It’s an art, some people have it”, Evelyn had said).

Compounding her feelings of worthlessness is her difficult relationship with her son Gavin. Gavin is in awe of his father but does not think highly of his mother, and he is always in a combative mode with Imogen convinced that she fails to understand him. Imogen loves her son but her endeavors to make Gavin toe the line are often highly fraught affairs.

We meet a host of secondary characters who in many ways play a crucial role in the how the story pans out. First up is Paul Nugent, a close friend of the Greshams, a doctor established in London. Paul resides on Welbeck Street with two rooms of the house leased out to the Greshams when they are in town. Paul is married to Primrose but it’s clear that the couple has nothing in common. It’s almost as if Primrose is leading an independent life within the marriage, and Paul has resigned himself to that fact. A bit gloomy and prone to melancholy, he does hold a torch for Imogen and finds great joy in her company, although he refrains from openly admitting his feelings and is content with the state of things as they are.

There are the Leepers, a bohemian, crude couple whose son Tim becomes fast friends with Gavin. Tim often visits the Gresham household to spend time with Gavin and it’s obvious that given a choice he would much prefer hanging around in the Gresham house rather than going back home. Although now that Gavin is expected to attend preparatory school, Tim is aware of his time with Gavin being curtailed. Corinne Leeper’s husband is dead set on redesigning and redeveloping various structures in the village, plans that are met with increased resistance from the villagers. The Leepers are not deterred however. Corinne Leeper does not care much for keeping an orderly home and is not too bothered with the bringing up of her children either. Left to their own devices, her two daughters pretty much run wild, while for Tim, his time spent with the Greshams is the one bright spot in his life.

We are also introduced to Hunter Crankshaw, a good friend of Evelyn’s, briefly married and then divorced from Corinne’s incredibly stunning sister Zenobia…and to Cecil Stonor, Imogen’s good friend whose company Evelyn also enjoys because of her overall intelligence and sharp grasp of the stock markets.

Last but not the least is Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village. Blanche is about the same age as Evelyn and in the eyes of Imogen, an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude.

Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn enjoying Blanche’s company. With a car that she can drive (Imogen can’t), Blanche is more than willing to offer Evelyn a lift to town, and to  drop him back and this arrangement becomes alarming frequent. Not only that, as far as hobbies and pursuits go, Evelyn and Blanche share a lot in common, things that don’t interest or excite Imogen at all. Slowly but surely as Evelyn begins to spend more time with Blanche, Imogen, in a state of dismay and disbelief is staring at a potential catastrophe.

“Imogen,” he said with forced patience, “you have plenty of occupations of your own, and you don’t care to do the things that give a great deal of pleasure to me – when I have time to do them. You don’t want to fish or shoot and you can’t drive my car, which would be a help to me sometimes. Am I to understand that you object to my having the companionship of another woman who can do these things?”

At its very core, The Tortoise and the Hare is the story of a marriage, of the compatibility between couples, of a woman in a deep crisis. Confident in her unwavering but faulty belief that men only value beauty in women, Imogen knows she is amply rewarded in that sphere and coupled with Evelyn’s allegedly high moral values, Imogen in the twelve years of their married life has never felt threatened. But Blanche with her practical approach to life upends all that. We are told early on that Imogen’s grace and beauty played a prominent role in Evelyn choosing to marry her, but with the passage of time comes a perceptible shift in Evelyn’s priorities and now domestic comforts matter much more to him than romance. As a couple their tastes and outlook widely differ, and for the most part it appears that Imogen is always pandering to his needs; his meticulous expectations are often a source of distress to Imogen but she takes it in her stride.

It’s also apparent that Evelyn does not really respect Imogen, and part of this can be attributed to the fact that she never stands up to him. Imogen recalls a particular incident in his professional life where he expressed a wish to employ an assistant who is not afraid of him, which she realizes is an indirect criticism of her. But given his magnetic personality and intractable nature, does Imogen ever stand a chance even if she were to muster up the courage to oppose him?

There’s also a sense of how in the novel, the couples portrayed are generally mismatched, and how the perceptions of the children also greatly wary. For instance, it’s possible that Paul and Imogen would have been happier if they were married to each other given how well they get along and enjoy each other’s company; but, alas, that is not to be! Both are trapped in marriages where they are not respected, although Imogen at first does not think she is stuck in a rut. The attitude of the children is also interesting. Gavin holds his mother in contempt fearing she will embarrass him, but Tim would have loved having Imogen as his mother given that he is pretty much neglected back home.

The Tortoise and the Hare then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing; infused with psychological depth that makes the book so utterly compelling. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head –  an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead (“Are you sure you know what men fall in love with?“ at one time Paul asks Imogen).

With characters that are brilliantly etched and displaying a sharp acumen plus a keen understanding of the mind, Jenkins is also to be commended for her descriptive powers. The depiction of the calm and tranquility of the natural surroundings in sharp contrast to the innermost turmoil of her characters, the calm before the storm, the disconcerting play of light against dark is very well done.  

The weather was warm, bright and still, and London was steeped in that gracious quietness that descends for a brief time in late summer; it cannot show itself over the city as a whole, which is covered with a mesh of screaming traffic at every season of the year, but it is felt in strange midday pauses and early morning quietness, in a blessedly empty space of pavement here and there, an unexpected calmness at a street crossing. Every moment of such relief, every charm of sounds and sight, added to their happiness. In Imogen’s case the happiness was that of an enclosure, outside whose walls pain is kept back for the time being.

As a woman continuously undermined and diminished by both husband and son, Imogen must make the most important decision of her life (“The sense of helplessness in the face of frightful calamity, the longing to project herself through the dark air, filled her heart to bursting”). Her dilemma is this – Should she for once in her life take a firm stand, fight for her marriage and drive Blanche away? Or should she leave Evelyn, leave a marriage where she was not treated as an equal, and preserve her self-respect and dignity? There are no easy answers.

Gentleman Overboard – Herbert Clyde Lewis

I had read only one book from Boiler House Press until now – Animalia Paradoxa by Henrietta Rose-Innes, a wonderful collection of short stories that I liked very much but for some reason did not review. Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis is the first title in the Recovered Books series, a new initiative by the same publisher that brings unfairly forgotten books to a wider audience.

The only food on which a drowning man could subsist was hope of being rescued; otherwise all sanity must be lost.

About halfway through the novel, Henry Preston Standish, the protagonist, has a vague sense of having been in the water for more than 10 hours, an interminable stretch. Having fallen overboard the ship Arabella during sunrise at around 5 am (his watch stops when he hits the water), Standish has lost all sense of time, but gauging from the sun’s position, he assumes it’s 3 pm. The sun is blazing hot, the Arabella is nowhere in sight, and the enormous ocean is eerily calm and immensely frightening and remote.

The sun soared high, stayed for a while at the top of the sky, glaring diabolically upon its desolate world, and then, as if making up its mind to take a closer look, began a leisurely descent. The man in the ocean lay in a trance, lost in the contemplation of his fate.

It’s one of those key moments in the novella, where a whole range of thoughts flit through his mind – the strangeness of time (“Fortunes had been won and lost in less time, and here Standish was in the water ten hours and nothing decisive had happened”), and the stark loneliness of his position both literally and figuratively (“Standish considered the lack of an audience the meanest trick of all“). By this point, Standish has reached that half-way stage between hope and despair. He still harbours hopes of being rescued by Arabella and regaling his audience with his imagined astonishing story of survival. No sooner does he think this, he is gripped by utter desolation and terror at his bleak chances of making it ashore with death a looming possibility (“The colour of the sea was blue, and the blueness seeped into his soul”).

That desperate cry for an audience and to be alive is symbolic of Standish’s mental state not only because of his current gut-wrenching predicament but also because of his life upto that point, the emptiness of which compels him to undertake this sea voyage in the first place.

Gentleman Overboard, then, is a fabulous, taut, psychological novella of loneliness, emptiness, the randomness of fate, what it means to take one’s life for granted and how a radical change can bring about a shift in perception.

Henry Preston Standish is the “gentleman” of the novel and the opening lines tell us that when Standish “fell headlong into the Pacific Ocean, the sun was just rising on the eastern horizon.” In the immediate hours since his fall, Standish is ridiculously struck with shame instead of fear…secure in his belief that he will be rescued by Arabella when his absence aboard the ship is noticed. Standish takes pride in not descending into panic; he is after all a calm man with a thinking, analytical mind, in keeping with his education and profession as a successful financial stockbroker.

Standish is the archetypal gentleman (“Standish was one of the world’s most boring men”); he holds a respectable well paid job that enables him to stay in an upscale apartment in Central Park West, New York. He is married to the beautiful and loyal Olivia, blessed with two children he dotes on, Junior and Helen. Standish is well regarded in the field of high finance, a partner in a stockbroking firm along with Pym & Bingley, and the trajectory of his life follows a set pattern associated with men of his class and wealth – visits to clubs, entertaining and weekend family parties. Things coast along smoothly, until one day Standish is overwhelmed by a feeling of emptiness which hits him out of the blue. A walk around the city fails to alleviate his uneasiness and sense of futility and when he expresses his wish of going away alone to clear his head, Olivia understands perfectly.

He was the completely jaded man at that hour, trapped in a void of nothingness; and that was why it was so terrible, that was why he had to get away.

That journey of a few days stretches to a month as Standish keeps postponing his imminent return to New York, which greatly perplexes Olivia but she does not protest.

Standish’s travels aboard a variety of ships finally culminate in the Arabella, set to sail from Honolulu to the Panama. It is a three-week journey, and it is on the thirteenth day that the freak accident occurs – a grease spot causes Standish to lose balance and fall into the Pacific.

The irony of his upbringing and its crucial bearing on his fate is not lost on Standish and the reader. Any other man would have been rightly fearful and screamed loudly for help; cries that would alert those on the ship that a mishap has occurred. But Standish is not any man. He is a gentleman. And his correct, polite manner of speech and expression means that Standish’s shouts for help when he does attempt them are subdued and feeble. Nobody hears a thing.

He had known instinctively that a modified voice with a dignified tone was the Standish forte, one of the many subdued traits that enabled the Standishes to flourish in the cosmopolitan world.

Standish loses the battle in those immediate critical moments, but he is not a man to give up easily, still confident that the Arabella will turn around. As long as the Arabella is in his line of sight, Standish’s hopes of rescue remain high. But the ship moves further and further away, becoming a speck on the horizon until it completely disappears leaving behind a plume of smoke. That is when the possibility of death chillingly dawns on him.

Meanwhile, we are given a glimpse of the passengers on the ship and how a string of unfortunate coincidences keeps the quick discovery of Standish’s disappearance at bay. There’s Captain Bell, a short-tempered man engrossed in building his model schooner, and his first mate Mr Prisk whom he bosses around. There’s the ship’s cook who by now is well versed with Standish’s daily routine and how he likes poached eggs for breakfast. There’s the bosomy Mrs Benson and her brood of children with whom Standish often plays. There is that irascible missionary couple Mr and Mrs Brown, and last but not the least Nat Adams, a New England farmer, who having been struck by wanderlust, abandons his farm to see more of the world. Unsurprisingly, he latches on to Standish and the two become friends. To the ship’s crew and passengers, Standish is a perfect gentleman – well-mannered, kind and considerate.

What is remarkable about Gentleman Overboard is the depiction of Standish’s fragile state of mind; the subtle changes in perception as he veers from sheer embarrassment at his stupidity right at the beginning to the terrifying prospect of dying alone as the novel progresses.  It’s a book laced with philosophical musings as Standish wonders about the cruelty of time and the tricks it plays on the mind, as well as a sense of being inconsequential in a massive, pitiless ocean whose depth and vastness is simply unfathomable.

There’s another moment in the book when Standish ponders on how your whole life flashes before you when death is knocking at the door. When this fails to occur, Standish is a tad elated – maybe, it’s a sign of imminent rescue, and that he won’t die? Or does it simply mean that his life was too banal for such an experience?

Brad Bigelow of Neglected Books has provided a fascinating afterward – the rebirth of this wonderful book in Argentina, Netherlands and Israel and finally a reissue in the UK along with Lewis’ background as an aspiring writer, his stint in Hollywood, his tumultuous personal life and how he eventually died alone in a New York hotel, penniless and broke.

Gentleman Overboard, then, is a multifaceted, richly layered book pulsating with though-provoking themes such as loneliness, finding meaning, the quest for newer experiences and how dramatically altered circumstances can completely change the way we view the world.

He had never felt so strongly on the subject before; he had just lived with scarcely any thinking about it, imagining vaguely that some day, naturally, he would die. But now he saw clearly that life was precious; that everything else, love, money, fame, was a sham when compared with the simple goodness of not dying.

It’s short, gripping and powerful with an air of fatality running through it; superb on atmosphere and psychological insight, rendered in prose that is lush and melancholic. It’s also a sober meditation on death; how it is a leveler and a rather lonely affair irrespective of an individual’s circumstances.

Had he known, maybe Standish could have drawn comfort from the fact that he need not have died unforgotten – he had made his presence felt aboard the ship despite his seemingly boring personality, and for the reader he is definitely an unforgettable creation. Highly recommended!

Gentleman Overboard: Image from the inside flap…

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

I absolutely loved Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a book that found a place on My Best Books of 2020 list. The Haunting of Hill House is also wonderful, and my lovely hardback edition with its striking cover and coloured black edges made for an excellent reading experience.

The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliant, spooky tale; a fascinating blend of the traditional ghost story with psychological horror.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Once again, Jackson enthralls the reader with this superb opening paragraph, and this coupled with the brilliant opening lines of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, prove that she is truly the queen of openings.

UNIQUE CHARACTERS AND BUILD-UP OF HORROR

Coming to the principal characters, we are first introduced to Dr John Montague, professor and researcher of psychic phenomena, who fuelled by intellectual curiosity, decides to rent Hill House for a period of time. Having ascertained that he needs a ‘haunted’ house to prove his theories, Dr Montague settles upon Hill House – its formidable reputation as a dwelling of malevolence and evil fits the bill perfectly. Having taken the permission of the current owners, the Sandersons, Dr Montague sets upon selecting and hiring a couple of assistants for his project.

Using this setup in the first few pages, Jackson provides brief snapshots of the main characters featuring in this novel. First, there’s Eleanor Vance, 32, a lonely young woman who is at the crossroads in her life post the death of her bitter, ailing mother. Burdened with the duty of caring for her, Eleanor’s life so far has been narrow and colourless. She has a married elder sister Carrie, but the two don’t get along at all, and Carrie is particularly patronizing taking pleasure in bossing over Eleanor. We then have Theodora, bright-eyed, belonging to “a world of delight and soft colours”, a sharp contrast to Eleanor’s anxious, reserved personality. The third and last member of Dr Montague’s team is Luke Sanderson, the future heir of Hill House. The Sandersons allow Dr Montague to rent Hill House on the condition that Luke becomes part of his team. Clearly, Luke is a troubled man and his family hopes that some time away will bring his thieving and gambling activities to a halt, if only for a temporary period.

These succinct biographies have hallmarks of Jackson’s typical style – strange, unique and a little fantastic, but because they are presented to us under the guise of Dr Montague’s scientific, methodical process of selection, the reader can’t help but accept it at face value.

But the novel’s pivotal character is none other than Hill House itself. Hill House is huge, ugly, menacing and sinister, a portent of evil, a sentient being. The house’s structure is distorted, it is not built on traditional architectural dimensions, and the effect it produces is capable of disorienting its inhabitants and throwing them off balance.

Once the party is ‘settled’ in the house, their task seems simple – record untoward events or disturbances and make notes, which Dr Montague will later analyse to determine whether there is really any psychic phenomena present, or it’s only an effect of subterranean waters. Jackson is brilliant at creating mood and atmosphere – the fear of the unknown, the mounting tension, the slow build-up of dread, and the uneasiness that creeps up on you. Heavy pounding on the doors, laughing noises, blasts of icy cold air at the entrance to the nursery, messages on the wall written in blood are some of the elements that throw the team off gear and also spook the reader. Dr Montague is compelled to give a warning…

Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.

But what makes Hill House haunted in the first place? Dr Montague regales his team with its history… as fascinating and eerie as their present circumstances – a tale that involves the eccentric designer of Hill House (Hugo Crain), a bitter and fractious relationship between two sisters (his daughters), death and suicide.

Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes lettings its guests get away. The last person who tried to leave Hill House in darkness—it was eighteen years ago, I grant you—was killed at the turn in the driveway, where his horse bolted and crushed him against the big tree.

But what of the characters themselves? We know that Eleanor’s life until now has been dreary and lonely. The expedition to Hill House offers the chance of adventure and an escape from her grim circumstances. Earlier on, we are privy to Eleanor’s vivid flights of imagination, especially on her long, arduous drive to Hill House – a state of mind that could possibly offer some clue to subsequent events that unravel in the house. Indeed, for Eleanor, a world of dreams is a far better alternative, a chance to lose herself in another world because the reality of her actual existence is stark and claustrophobic.

What about Theodora? It’s interesting that Theodora’s biography at the beginning does not really tell much about her, no concrete detail is provided other than the fact that she shares an apartment with a friend with whom she has had a quarrel. At one point I did wonder whether Theodora is a figment of Eleanor’s imagination, or her alter-ego, I could not really be sure.

THEMES

The Haunting of Hill House is laced with broken, destructive families, with particular emphasis on volatile relations between women, notably sisters. Just like in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the idea of sisterhood is central to this novel. Eleanor has a strained relationship with her elder sister, the animosity between the two Crain sisters forms one of the slippery foundations of what makes Hill House such a malevolent, monstrous place. But the crux really is the shaky relationship between Eleanor and Theodora which veers wildly from easy camaraderie and friendship to sudden quarrels, further exacerbated by Eleanor’s jealousy and rage and Theodora’s cruelty and suspicious nature.

The second theme is fear – how fear makes an individual vulnerable and malleable, easily influenced by fantastic events which would otherwise have been dismissed by the rational, thinking mind.

“Fear,” the doctor said, “is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”

Isolation, loneliness is the other core theme explored in this novel particularly through Eleanor’s persona. A friendless, isolated woman, Eleanor finds some modicum of acceptance and happiness at Hill House, even if the house is not receptive to its inhabitants. She opens up in a way she would not have thought possible. Somewhere she is also ridden with guilt, palpable in the way allusions to her mother keep popping up. She is a complex woman, afraid of being alone and yet her flights of fancy indicate that she prefers a life of seclusion and solitude.

THE STRANGENESS OF JACKSON’S REALM

Jackson does a marvellous job of subverting the readers’ expectations. Is this a straightforward horror story or is there a psychological angle to it?

It is so cold, Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?

We are never quite sure of the dynamics between Dr Montague, Luke, Theo and Eleanor, their interactions sometimes appear as unbalanced as the house they occupy; the reader feels the same sense of disorientation as the characters. Many a time, Eleanor feels like she belongs, that she is an integral part of the team, but there are other times when she perceives herself an outsider, and thinks the others are talking behind her back. Guillermo del Toro states in his introduction aptly states that the haunting in Hill House feels real and everyone within it is alone, trapped in their own minds and blind to the plight of others.

Despite a narrative charged with tension and menace, moments of comedy shine through. For instance, the deadpan refrains delivered by the dour, inflexible Mrs Dudley sends the team into fits of laughter at one point, even drawing out a chuckle from this reader. The late entry of Mrs Montague (Dr Montague’s wife) considerably livens things up. Her domineering attitude coupled with her so-called empathy for the lost souls roaming Hill House make for some hilarious conversations with her husband.

Jackson truly excels at creating rich, striking imagery. There is one extraordinary scene where after a quarrel, Eleanor and Theo head out of the house for a walk in the dark against their better instincts. The scene around them is all black and white – a dark road winding through a pitch black sky with luminous white trees dotting the landscape. It’s a scene drained of all colour, both girls walk side-by-side, completely immersed in their own thoughts until they suddenly come upon a vibrant picnic scene bursting with a slew of colours. And then Theo spots something utterly frightening, screams, and the two girls run for dear life back to the house.

They perceived at the same moment the change in the path and each knew then the other’s knowledge of it; Theodora took Eleanor’s arm and, afraid to stop, they moved on slowly, close together, and ahead of them the path widened and blackened and curved. On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else.

CONCLUSION

The Haunting of Hill House, then, is a wonderfully written, fluid, layered story of isolation, loneliness, horror and fear, ambiguous enough to throw up a lot of questions and unsettle the reader.

To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.

Having now read both Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I do think the latter is the better of the two, but that does not make the former any less brilliant.

The Victorian Chaise-longue – Marghanita Laski

Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue is a chilling, unsettling tale of time travel, a kind of psychological drama cum horror story where a woman wakes up to find that she has been transported back to an earlier century. It’s a fascinating novella because Laski plays with the reader’s mind without providing the comfort of a neat resolution, but the mood and tone captured makes it a compelling, frightening read.

Note on the postcard: Fife Terrace, Islington, the setting for The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953). Especially commissioned painting by David Gentleman for Persephone Books.

When the book opens, we are in the 1960s and our protagonist is Melanie, who was recently afflicted by tuberculosis and is limping back to recovery. Atleast we are given to believe so, as evinced from Melanie’s opening lines (“Will you give me your word of honour that I am not going to die?”), a question to which Dr Gregory gives his assurance that she is on the mend.

Melanie is happily married to Guy, a successful lawyer and the couple resides in London in a house by the canal. They have just become parents for the first time. But Melanie’s illness has kept her away from her baby and from experiencing the joys of motherhood and she longs to be united with her child.

Meanwhile, both Guy and Dr Gregory agree that a trip to a brighter clime filled with fresh air and sunshine, notably Switzerland, will do Melanie a world of good. Note that the men make the decisions for Melanie, her views on the matter are not sought. But before embarking on that journey, the doctor recommends that she find a sunny, cheery spot in her home first as a refreshing change of scene, particularly since Melanie has been cloistered in her bedroom for far too long.

It’s around that time that the three spot the Victorian chaise-longue.

It was ugly and clumsy and extraordinary, nearly seven foot long and proportionately wide. The head and foot ends of the seat curled round a little as though to meet each other, raising, above the elaborately carved legs and frame, a superstructure of wine-red crimson felt.

Its Regency ancestor had probably been delicate and enchanting; this descendent was gross, and would certainly have been inadmissible in such a home as Guy’s and Melanie’s were it not for the singular startling quality of the berlin-wool cross-stitch embroidery that sprawled in bright gigantic roses over the shabby felt…

A piece of ungainly furniture that Melanie had purchased at an antique shop at Marylebone, this item is now arranged facing the windows in the drawing-room for Melanie to lounge and relax. And she does so, the languor of the afternoon slowly lulling her into sleep.

Through the open windows the spring poured in. From her couch, bathed in soft sweet air, Melanie could not see the canal that lay beside her home, but it flowed through imagination, dark and still and beautiful…from one of the brambles, a branch curved high and free to lie across the blue sky in the window, dark leaves and paper-pink flowers suffused with sunlight faintly swaying across the pale blue sky. Drowsy, Melanie looked at the flowers and the sky…

Time died away, the solitary burden of human life was transformed in glory, and Melanie withdrawn in ecstasy, fell asleep.

And it is then that her nightmare begins. When Melanie wakes up, she is in for a rude shock. There is something not quite right about her surroundings, the room is dull and dark. She spots a woman called Adelaide and a maid called Lizzie loitering in there. And to her immense horror, Melanie gradually realizes that she has woken up in the year 1864 in the persona of Milly Baines.

For an instant, forever, Melanie was bound in timeless fear. Her eyes were forced open, rigid and unblinking, her mouth hung open, the rigid lips stretched in a terrible grin, all her being was rigid with unimaginable terror. For she knew that this was true.

That’s the basic premise of the plot and I will not reveal more. But as the book progresses, Melanie’s sense of terror and confusion increases as she struggles to find a way out of her predicament. She’s aware, though, that the one object common to the two time periods is the Victorian-chaise longue.

Some of the key themes explored in this novella are entrapment, isolation, confusion of identity, and the bending of time.

Melanie finds herself trapped by circumstances beyond her control and her attempts to explain and make herself understood are not taken seriously. Indeed, in many ways, when lying on it, the chaise-longue unflatteringly symbolizes a helpless woman at the mercy of those around her. For some reason, I was reminded of Betty Draper in Season One of Mad Men, lying on the psychotherapist’s couch, vulnerable while confessing to a man of dubious morals. No control at all over her circumstances.  

Melanie is also increasingly isolated not just in the present, but also in the past. Her illness in the present confines her to a bedroom with no option of human interaction. And in the past, consumption has rendered her so weak that she’s nearly an invalid chained to the chaise-longue. There’s no prospect of human contact in that period either other than Adelaide, who is Milly’s sister and quite a cold woman.

But most importantly, Melanie experiences a loss of identity, her sense of self is blurred. Is she Melanie trapped in Milly’s body? Melanie knows the mind is hers, but who does the body belong to? Or is she really Milly Baines where her future (Melanie’s present) is only a vision? It’s possible that Milly is Melanie’s alter ego, after all there are some similarities in their circumstances and personalities – they are restricted by illness, bound and chained, the expression of their thoughts curtailed.

Has Melanie really lost all sense of time? Is it all a horrible dream, a nightmare and it’s only a matter of time before sanity is restored and she finally finds herself where she belongs? Or is she slowly descending into madness?

Somewhere along the way, a passionate affair is hinted at, there’s a sense that Milly was engaged in inappropriate behaviour but the details remain hazy. But it definitely makes Melanie ponder on the concept of sin and how it changes as time moves on.

We seem to be together now, she (Melanie) explained, you and I both hopeless. I think we did the same things, she told her, we loved a man and we flirted and we took little drinks, but when I did those things there was nothing wrong, and for you it was a terrible punishable sin. It was no sin for Melanie, she explained carefully, because the customs were different; sin changes, you know, like fashion.

In a nutshell, cranking the fear factor up a notch and evoking a creeping sense of dread, The Victorian Chaise-longue, then, is an excellent novella where Laski has effectively employed the time travel angle to showcase a well-crafted tale of psychological horror. It’s one of those stories that throws up more questions than answers, which is always a good thing.

As an aside, this is the second time travel story I’ve read this year, the first being Daphne du Maurier’s excellent The House on the Strand.