The Devil’s in the Detail

February 12, 2010 at 4:06 am (Uncategorized)

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.



  1. piereth said,

    You’ve inspired me to pick up HM’s work – not someone I’ve come across before, but if you like her, I will too probably! And in return, I recommend The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. Beautiful.

    Wish it was hot here, I’m sinking into a morass of cold *mew*

    • doctordi said,

      Oooh, goodie, thanks Piereth, I think Litlove’s recommended this Kostova too… or someone I know has…so I’ll definitely add it to The List. The rather long, increasingly out of control list.

  2. litlove said,

    I have nightmares that Mister Litlove will turn against me and commit me. So far, the need to have his meals cooked has outweighed my signs of incipient madness. 😉

    • doctordi said,

      Laughing. I’ll have to make sure I keep Llew distracted with a series of culinary delights, otherwise he’s bound to notice the way I mutter to the cast of thousands cramming into my head…

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    Good to hear you’re getting back to the ms, Di. Whether its’ #1 or #2, as long as you’re writing.

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, Lilian. I agree. I made some headway with the thinking around #1 over the weekend, but still feel I’m best off working on #2 until the Darkling writing retreat, because right now I just want to get that first draft down, and that means banishing the blank page as often as possible. Also I like leaving the questions regarding #1 in the back of my mind, percolating but out of sight.

  4. Norwichrocks said,

    She saw the Devil down the end of her garden?

    What was he doing down there? Digging up spuds??

    Now I imagine the Devil looking a bit like a grubby old man in stained old brown trousers held up by braces over an off-white shirt and an ancient tweed jacket held together round the middle with baling twine.

  5. doctordi said,

    Funny you should say that, Woo. That’s almost exactly the image that popped into my own mind – although I think that’s partly having read her novel Beyond Black last year, because I think the horrible spirit guide, a real creep from the other side, is very much that figure. She describes the Devil sighting as having this sense of having caught him out, like he was just getting his bearings almost, getting ready to face the day, priming himself for a stretch of getting up to no good, and here’s this child catching him red-handed. As it were. But it’s not comical at all, it’s really creepy. And she’s clearly terrified. But yes, all very strange. Especially as she doesn’t seem to really believe in God, so why would there even be a Devil in that case? Strange that he gets a run at full-blown existence but the supreme Good Guy does not.

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