A scorcher in Sydney today, one of those steaming summer days that makes a beachside office positively inspired. Actually I’m in the sunroom, Granddad’s old fan trained straight at my face. Clouds are beginning to gather, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a stonking great storm later on tonight.
I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s memoir the other day, hot on the heels of Wolf Hall, and now I’m about a third of the way through her Vacant Possession, one of my secondhand pick-ups from last weekend. The memoir, Giving up the Ghost, is quite unconventional to say the least. For a start, Mantel sees what she thinks is the Devil lurking down the back of the garden when she’s a little girl. One of her childhood homes also appears to be haunted. Not in the way you’d expect – say, ‘When I was little, I thought our house had ghosts’ – but very much as an actual situation, much more along the lines of ‘There was paranormal activity and everybody knew it.’ Oh, okay then, ‘Ilary. If you say so.
There are no two ways about it: Mantel does say so, and she is not kidding (though of course she is a screamingly funny writer). The Devil in particular lurks in the memoir as a kind of malignancy of memory, making his presence felt like that really unpleasant abattoir stench that vaguely penetrates one’s nostrils from across a country field. It’s discomfiting, to say the least, and all the many questions the average reader has about this hoof and horn stuff must of course go unanswered. Mantel doesn’t have nor does she attempt an explanation; these things are simply acknowledged, presented almost apologetically, a bit like a collapsed soufflé: I tried to make sense of it, and I followed the recipe, but look here, it’s ugly as sin, and I wish I could chuck it and start over.
It’s all most unusual.
Personally I think the Devil sighting was a blessing in disguise… it’s like it’s given Mantel the ability to imagine a world writhing with poltergeists, things undead and untold, and I for one am awfully glad for the strange tilt in her vision. It makes for genuinely creepy, shivery, altogether blistering writing. Her humour is jet black; both Beyond Black and Vacant Possession are as sinister and awful as they are funny. And it’s true that sometimes her writing is so startling and macabre that it does seem… well, almost out of this world, opening a jagged crack on another.
I’m going to have to wean myself off Mantel for a while once I’ve polished off Vacant Possession (I can barely bring myself to read on and yet I can’t put it down) – it’s like her voice has hypnotised me. I’m developing a Mantel habit, and I think I might have to review my meds – ironic given her own ghastly experience with a cocktail of medicines as a young, radically misdiagnosed woman. Shudder. There’s one cocksucker in particular whose head I’d like on a block – what a patronising, chauvinistic pig! And he got it all wrong, got her all wrong, stuffed everything up and made her crazy instead of making her well – arrogant fool! I must say it was extraordinary reading of someone having an experience I have always deeply feared (for no good reason, I might add. But no one ever said fear was rational). It’s one of my worst nightmares, being wrongly institutionalised.
“But I’m perfectly well!”
“Of course you are, dear. Have another pill, there’s a good girl.”
“But I’m not crazy! Let me out of here! I’m not crazy, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not!”
“Nurse, call the doctor. Get the jacket. And make sure that door’s locked on your way out.”
Honestly, trying to prove you were sane when other people were disposed to believe you were unhinged? Now that really would drive you nuts.
As for my own writing, well, I’m going to work on the structural problem in MS #1 at the next Darkling writing retreat. In the meantime I am going to press on with MS #2. I’ve two short stories entered in two different open competitions at the moment; I won’t hear anything about either of those for months. But even if the first story proves not to be a contender by the judge’s standards, it will still be my best short effort to date, and that’s enough.
It’s four months today since the literary agent asked for the full MS of #1. I’m not counting the days or anything – I’ve long assumed this extraordinary lull in communication is a Very Bad Sign – but I happened to check the other day because I was wondering if I should email and say, ‘Um, if you still haven’t read the full draft, then please don’t, because I am going to redraft it.’ Llew thinks I should just leave off, and I guess finally I’m inclined to agree, because I think once I lay my motivations bare I can see I’m mainly trying to force a response. SAY SOMETHING, CAN’T YOU? But what’s to be gained, really? It’s all such a total mystery to me that I think I’m probably better off just leaving them to it. I should draw the curtain right across that unfortunate mess and get on with the things I do understand, like how much work I’ve got to do. That’s coming through loud and clear. Crystal.