Hilary Mantel’s dark, unsettling and gleefully tasteless new novel about spiritualism, Hell and the condition of contemporary England is part ghost story, part mystery, and as alarmingly funny as it is disturbing. Shakespeare makes an appearance – he passes in the spirit world as ‘Wagstaffe’, something of a louche lad about town – and is caught on tape having a squabble with another spirit:
Wagstaffe: This sceptred isle . . .
Morris: My sceptred –
Wagstaffe: This other Eden –
Morris: My sceptred arse.
The Britain of Beyond Black is a squalid nest of crumbling viaducts and graffiti-covered bridges, traffic-crazed towns, choked slip roads, sewage works and incinerators, twee housing developments built on hills of compacted waste. A sense of menace hangs over the landscape: ‘There are citadels underground, there are potholes and sunken shafts, there are secret chambers in the hearts of men, sometimes of women too. There are unlicensed workings and laboratories underground, mutants breeding in the tunnels; there are cannibal moo-cows and toxic bunnikins, and behind the drawn curtains of hospital wards there are bugs that eat the flesh.’
There is an unnerving supernatural dimension to this sinister setting. Alison Harte, an overweight, middle-aged medium, works the dormitory towns of the M25, accompanied by her prim assistant, Colette, and her spirit guide, Morris, whom Alison describes to her audience as a former circus clown, ‘a darling little bloke, always laughing, tumbling, doing his tricks’. The séances make cloying reading, deliberately so: this is the public, sanitised version of life ‘beyond black’. Alison’s performances, in village halls and frowsy civic buildings, are enervatingly banal: ‘Oh you’re so lovely . . . Such a lovely, warm and understanding audience, I can always count on a good time whenever I come in your direction. Now I want you to sit back, I want you to relax, I want you to smile, and I want you to send some lovely positive thoughts up here to me.’ The spirit world is characterised during these sessions as an eventless realm, ‘neither cold nor hot, hilly nor flat’, where the dead coexist peacefully. In between gigs, however, Alison recalls her childhood in a squat in Aldershot, and these sequences have a hellish edge.
More keenly than perhaps any other British novelist writing today, Mantel understands how drably and ineluctably evil is embedded in the world. In The Giant, O’Brien (1998), the idiot Pybus watches two of his friends committing rape:
He saw that on the ground was Bride Caskey, and Claffey was on top of her. He saw that Claffey’s buttocks were white, and meagre in form though energetic in action, and that the woman’s eyes were closed and that she was bleeding from her mouth. Her kerchief was pulled off her head and laid beside her, lifting in the wind; the merest inch was trapped beneath the boot of the man Slig, and Pybus watched it flapping, fighting to be free. Slig was unbuttoned, and he held his member in his hand, rubbing the tip and watching and listening as the woman’s skull tapped the cobbles, tip, tap, tip, tap, with every lunge of Claffey . . . Pybus opened his breeches. He looked back over his shoulder. Surely by now they were forcing a dead woman? There was a sort of blot on the cobbles by Caskey’s head, but he did not want to think about its nature.
The scrupulous matter-of-factness of the domestic detail, the disconcerting verbal appositions (those pale buttocks ‘meagre in form though energetic in action’) and the sense of something awful only imperfectly glimpsed or understood: all contribute to an authentic sense of terror, and all carry Mantel’s hallmark.
Alison Harte’s experiences in Beyond Black are more diabolical even than this. The squat in which she grows up is semi-derelict, a rallying point for a gang of skivers and petty criminals known collectively as ‘the men’. The men, who ostensibly have connections with a travelling circus of some sort, conduct their mysterious business in vans in the dead of night. They share the services of Al’s mother, a clapped-out prostitute who routinely locks her daughter in the attic before going out on the town with an elusive companion called Gloria, whom Al is unable to see and who may or may not be real. Indeed, one of the book’s destabilising effects is to call into question what is real and what isn’t. Al’s world is populated by beings who are immaterial, yet exist: such as the little old lady dressed in pink who appears in the attic, searching for her lost son and daughter, and vanishes again soon afterwards in terror, muttering distractedly about ‘an evil thing’ that has happened in the house. From the age of eight or nine Al has seen ‘disassembled people lying around, a leg here, an arm there’; later she glimpses a woman’s head in the bath, ‘with her eyelashes half pulled off’. Could this be Gloria? Is she dead or alive?
Al’s spirit guide, Morris, was one of the men before ‘passing over’. He is not a darling little bloke at all, but a thug with a sideline in child rape who once had his legs broken in a gang feud, and now scuttles about the spirit world like a ‘violent crab’. More disconcerting even than his unwelcome appearances are his sporadic references to some unspecified violence that Al herself apparently suffered at the hands of the men when a child: ‘They taught you what a blade could do.’ Al has repressed her memory of this event, but the backs of her legs are deeply scarred, and she has flashbacks which suggest that the violence was meted out as punishment for something she had done. Why is she drawn to sharp implements, to knives and pins? She is followed to school by a ghostly eye rolling along the street. One of the men, MacArthur, only has one eye: is there a connection? Al’s mother won’t tell Al who her father is. Could it be MacArthur? The novel is filled with hints of the unsayable, and the inchoate fears and secrets of childhood are given an added fillip of terror.
The men are fiends, but they are also Fiends, a posse straight from Hell, human and demonic at the same time. Although Mantel plays with a degree of ambiguity at the beginning of the book, that we are meant to read them as literal devils is never really in doubt. And what of Satan himself? Beyond Black offers us a typically understated portrait of the Fiends’ ringleader, a man called Nick. Returning home to the squat one day, Al meets an individual she has never seen before. He is leaning against the sink, holding a box of matches in his hand:
Christ, he was evil-looking! I mean, they all were, but there was something about him, his expression . . . he was in a league of his own . . . He rattled the matchbox and it was empty. He threw it down. He went, can’t even get a light around here, I’m going to sack the flaming lot of them, they’re not worth a bench in Hell.
Morris warns Al never to disappoint Nick, ‘or he’ll upend you, he’ll slap you on the soles of your feet till your teeth drop out’; he’ll ‘hang you up by your feet until you answer yes’. On another occasion Morris explains that ‘the worst thing that can befall a spirit is to be eaten by old Nick. You can be eaten and digested by him and then you’ve had your chips.’ In spite of his modern guise, Mantel’s Nick has impeccable scholastic credentials: he is the soul-eating Devil of traditional Western Christian iconography, of Hieronymus Bosch, Giotto and the medieval psalter, just as the punishment of the damned by hanging is anticipated in countless images of Hell, from Giovanni Modena’s famous fresco in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, to the apocryphal Apocalypse of St Peter, which describes the dead as ‘hanging by their feet’, ‘their heads hidden in the mire’. The slaps administered to the footsoles of the lost for their insubordination have a biblical precedent, too. In the parable of the faithful servant, Luke makes it clear that there are degrees of punishment in Hell: ‘And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many blows. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few.’ Indeed, the way the damned mix freely with the living in Beyond Black recalls the Thomist idea that Hell is a state of being rather than a place.
Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from its operating simultaneously on a literal plane and on a symbolic one, and Mantel’s prose is studded with irreverent double entendres. The clichés of contemporary life are ruthlessly subverted. For disadvantaged Al, salvation would be ‘a way out of Aldershot, out of my childhood, away from my mother, some way to upscale, to move into the affluent world of the Berkshire or Surrey commuter, the world of the businessman, the entrepreneur’, and she accordingly tries to shake off the Fiends by moving into a suburban housing development. If she cannot quite escape, it is because Hell itself has bought into this culture of aspiration, offering its Fiends ‘vouchers to spend on modifications’ and ‘family leisure breaks’, and sending them on courses in human resources.
It may seem odd that none of the world religions is ever directly mentioned in a book so concerned with damnation and redemption, but that is rather the point. Al inhabits our chaotic, post-Christian society, and its gods are the new age superstitions: astrology, palmistry, the reading of auras and energies, and the twin goals of self-development and self-enhancement. Mantel wryly deflates the pretensions and the language of spiritualism: one of Al’s bitterest regrets is that Morris is so vulgar and cruel, while ‘other mediums have spirit guides with a bit more about them – dignified impassive medicine men, or ancient Persian sages’, with names like Sett or Oz or Running Deer. In a hilarious scene, Diana, late Princess of Wales, frequenter of mediums and new age icon, manifests before Al; but the ghost’s long-awaited appearance and her message are grotesquely bathetic:
She was wearing her wedding dress, and it hung on her now; she was gaunt, and it looked crumpled and worn . . . She had pinned some of her press cuttings to her skirts; they lifted, in some other-worldly breeze, and flapped. She consulted them, lifting her skirts and peering; but, in Alison’s opinion, her eyes seemed to cross.
‘Give my love to my boys,’ Diana said. ‘My boys, I’m sure you know who I mean.’
Al wouldn’t prompt her: you must never, in that fashion, give way to the dead. They will tease you and urge you, they will suggest and flatter; you mustn’t take their bait. If they want to speak, let them speak for themselves.
Diana stamped her foot. ‘You do know their names,’ she accused. ‘You oiky little greasepot, you’re just being hideous. Oh, fuckerama! Whatever are they called?’
The encounter ends with Diana’s injunction to Al to ‘bog off now and let me get some privacy.’ As Al sagely observes elsewhere, ‘the dead are like that: give them a cliché, and they’ll run to it.’
It is worth reading Beyond Black in conjunction with Mantel’s unsentimental, uncosy memoir, Giving Up the Ghost.Like Al’s, Mantel’s childhood seems to have been one stripped of comforting solidities, to have been, more than most, a state of strange events and formless things only half perceived. As a child Hilary is often inexplicably ill. Then her parents’ marriage undergoes a bizarre qualification when her father moves into the spare room and her mother invites a lodger-cum-lover, Jack, to live in the house. After a certain point Hilary never sees her father again, and while Jack and her mother do not marry, they maintain the fiction that Jack Mantel is Hilary’s father. All the while, she is being raised as a Catholic. At seven, she tells us, she sees the Devil in the garden of her home. She has recently been preparing for her first holy communion, and holds herself constantly in readiness for the gift of grace. While playing in the yard one day, to the sound of ‘a lazy buzzing swirl, like flies; but it is not flies’, she glimpses and is invaded by a ‘creature’ of appalling malignity rippling among the coarse weeds. It is ‘as high as a child of two . . . The air stirs about it, invisibly.’ ‘Within the space of a thought’ the creature enters her, ‘a body inside my body’, and ‘grace . . . runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.’ Mantel explains that the episode marks the advent of her awareness of fear and shame. It is a shattering piece of writing, all the more so for being presented as a true encounter. What happened to Mantel? What was this ‘insolent’ thing that possessed her?
Like Giving Up the Ghost, Beyond Black is propelled by a visceral apprehension of the essential wrongness of things, which cannot be reasoned away. The narrative owes not only much of its terror but its dramatic energy, too, to the figure of the Devil: Nick is crucial to our unravelling of the mystery of who Alison’s father is. What is that scorched receipt for seven shillings and sixpence doing under the floorboards of Al’s mother’s house? As the clues stack up, the truth of what happened to Gloria, and the grisly events of the night when MacArthur lost his eye, are revealed in all their dreadful detail.
And yet, in spite of the horror, it’s very funny. The horror and the humour are one. Mantel’s prose has an imaginative vigour that is luxuriantly Elizabethan in flavour. Morris’s more baroque speeches, in particular, owe a debt to a much older spirit, Puck, whose unmistakable locutions permeate Morris’s threats to Al:
You don’t frighten me, gel, if you go and work in the chemist I shall make myself into a pill. If you get a job in a cake shop I shall roll myself into a Swiss roll and spill out jam at inopportune moments. If you try scrubbing floors I will rise up splosh! out of your bucket in a burst of black water causing you to get the sack.
The Shakespearean allusions are a running gag. As an adult, Al is obscurely driven by a need to make reparation, to perform ‘a good deed in a naughty world’; the homes in her plush new suburb are prettified with ‘Juliet balconies’, and Morris is engaged in an ongoing tussle with ‘Wagstaffe’ over an unpaid debt:
Bloody Bill Wagstaffe, he owes me, I’ll give him Swan of bloody Avon, I put him on a florin at Doncaster only to oblige, goo-on, he says, goo-on, I’ll give you ’alf, Morris, he says if she romps home . . . Then he’s explainin’, ooh, Morris, the trouble is I’m dead, the trouble is there’s a steward’s enquiry, the trouble is my pocket got frayed, the trouble is it must of fallen out me pocket of me pantaloons and bloody Kyd snapped it up, I say, then you get after Kyd and break his legs or I will, he says, the trouble is he’s dead he ain’t got no legs, I says, William old son, don’t come that wiv me, break him where ’is legs would be.
The metaphor of the circus – where the Fiends ply their trade, luring the innocent to their deaths – is where all the metaphors converge. Through it Mantel confirms her fearful vision of a world that is at once marvellous and hideous, astonishing and appalling, in which no one blinks at the marriage of Heaven and Hell: a cosmic circus, indeed. There is a vacuum of meaning at the centre of this world. Like Blake’s poem ‘To Nobodaddy’, the novel only ever assumes an absent creator: God is perhaps the most obvious lacuna, the most telling ghost of all. Instead of trying to fill the gap, this disconcerting novel is saturated with the ghostly, in the wider sense of whatever has been corrupted, botched or lost – dismally attenuated lives, failed aspirations, psychological and physical maimings and mutilations, murders and abortions. Mantel appears to be saying that modern Britain is Hell.
Beyond Black is, magnificently, a book of stresses and counter-stresses, establishing riveting oppositions between spirit and body, fear and love, despair and hope, male and female, self-denial and self-indulgence. And, of course, evil and good, damnation and redemption. For there is a redemption of sorts at the end, the suggestion that Alison Harte, although irrevocably damaged, might just escape her long persecution by the Fiends. As Al makes her last break for freedom from Morris, accompanied by the spirits of two elderly ladies who are in the throes of planning a tea party, one of the old biddies pipes up: ‘This cake we’re having: could we have it iced?’ Forget achieving a state of wholeness in this compromised world; the simple absence of daily dread – now that, Mantel seems to imply, would be the icing on the cake.