I recently read Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, which is a fine book. I found myself wondering around half-way through though, in a genuinely puzzled fashion, why I was still bothering to read it. Not in a ‘I’m not bothered about reading it, so why don’t I just stop?’ sort of way, but in a ‘I am bothered about reading it and I want to know why’ sort of way. I was thoroughly caught up in the book, but recognised that what I’d been caught by was something different from what usually catches me when I’m reading and wanted to figure out what it was. What was pulling me through Beyond Black was not plot, or narrative momentum, or a sense of moving through a story, as is often the case with the science fiction books I read. What was pulling me through, in this case, was a liking for and an interest in a character, a desire to know and understand her better.
Beyond Black is about a professional medium, Alison Hart, and her colleague Collette. Alison is a clairvoyant who earns her money through stage shows and tarot readings, and who is accompanied in her daily life by her spirit guide, Morris. Morris is a dirty little man, a “low” spirit, one of the “fiends” that haunt Alison from her horrendous childhood. The book covers a seven year period in Alison’s adult life during which Collette works with/for her, as her manager and personal assistant. But Beyond Black isn’t about those seven years, and it isn’t even really about Alison and Collette. It’s just about Alison; her life, who she is. And although it is about her past, present and future, it’s not about telling the story of the path from her beginning through her middle to her end, it’s about understanding who she is now in the light of who she was then and who we hope she will eventually become. Alison is the key to Beyond Black; if you don’t much like her and aren’t interested in her then there is no real point in continuing to read the book. Where science fiction often uses narrative to draw a reader through a novel, Beyond Black uses characterisation, so I would imagine that if you approached it as if it were science fiction (not that I consciously was, but I suppose that sf is what I habitually read, so part of me may have been subconsciously looking for the things I’m accustomed to looking for in fiction when I was reading it) then it would seem somewhat pointless.
Approaching Beyond Black as fantasy probably wouldn’t work either, precisely because the book presents the fantastic as being thoroughly and truly mundane. The spirits Alison encounters, and the “airside” realm they belong to, are both mundane in the sense of ordinary, but also mundane in the sense of worldly. Airside is not the heaven (or the hell) of all our stories, in fact, it’s not that much different from earthside. Yes, some spirits from airside are dangerous and to be feared because, let’s face it, some people are dangerous and to be feared, and that’s what spirits are, just people, in some cases just spiteful, cruel, stupid, thoughtless people. Who happen to be dead. For Alison, the spirit world is ordinary, everyday, the spirits in it are the vandals of her neighbourhood, the dossers, the idiots on the bus. They talk about pickled eggs and get drunk and bicker. Fantasy tends to expect a reader to recognise a difference between the mundane and the fantastic, which Beyond Black does not. Or at least, if fantasy doesn’t expect a reader to recognise a difference, it usually does expect them to view the mundane through the lens of the fantastic, whereas in Beyond Black the reverse happens, the reader is encouraged to see fantastic as mundane.
An interesting way to approach Beyond Black is, perhaps, to approach it as horror. And the horror here isn’t in the fantastic elements of the book, it’s in the grotesquerie of the some of the all too human specimens it depicts. Morris is a truly nasty little piece of work, and his compatriots can be even grosser and more despicable than he is. It’s not their status as spirits that does this, it’s the fact that they were thoroughly obnoxious, immoral, selfish, and vicious human beings. Morris and the rest of “the fiends” are horrific in the sense that they embody some of the worst qualities people can possess. They are abusers, rapists, criminals, murderers, sleazy, and mean, and violent. For the most part we don’t see those qualities in action, but we know what the fiends are like, and the horror comes simply from their persistent, inescapable presence, the fact that they’re just there, being who they are. The horror comes from the glimpse this book gives us of what it must be like to have truly horrible people lurking in your life, in your house, in your body, in your head, and to not even know how to go about thinking about how to exorcise them. There is an astonishingly effective scene in the novel in which Morris grubs his way around a motorway service station, and he’s seems so ugly doing it, and his poking around is so unpleasant that it makes your skin crawl just imagining him being there, invisibly salivating over truckers’ breakfasts. I think one of the undercurrents in Beyond Black is the thought that there are horrible people in the world and sometimes you can’t escape them. It’s not a nice thought at all.
I don’t think Beyond Black needs to be thought of as belonging to any particular genre; it has many excellent qualities that certainly don’t need to be appreciated through any specific genre-related literary lens. But I do think that approaching it as horror may enhance a reading of the book, whereas approaching it as science fiction or fantasy would almost certainly be detrimental to it.
6 thoughts on “Beyond Black: Three Approaches”
Your description of the novel puts me very strongly in mind of Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle (Fireworks in the UK), Geneva. Have you read it? It’s also primarily concerned with delineating and exploring its main character’s personality, and uses its supernatural elements as a way of highlighting the horrific in everyday life.
Yes, I have read Perfect Circle, and I can indeed see the similarity now that you’ve pointed it out. I think Beyond Black felt rather more effective for me because its setting was so familiar (suburban England) so I had a more heightened awareness of the everyday, ordinary qualities it was depicting, because they are/were my ordinary, everyday qualities.
Comparing the two, I think Alison is the more isolated of the two main characters (I seem to remember that Perfect Circle explored the family connections of its main character, yes?) so, in terms of characterisation at least, Beyond Black feels more focused. Whereas in terms of writing and plotting Perfect Circle felt tighter – I was drawn through it by a rather more traditional narrative drive than there is in Beyond Black, where the characterisation is simply done through observing Alison’s life.
I haven’t read Beyond Black so obviously I can’t comment on comparisons between the two books, but one of the things I liked best about Perfect Circle was the way that it kept starting down what seemed like very traditional plotlines – our hero is hired to get rid of a ghost, our hero starts using his skill to make money, an angry ghost haunts the hero – and then veering off into another meditation on the main character’s personal problems. On the macro level, the novel is clearly more narrative-driven than Beyond Black, but I truly enjoyed the way Stewart played with the reader’s expectations.
Thanks for posting this — your observation that the novel encourages the reader to see the fantastic as mundane hits the nail on the head, for me.
This was one of the novels that made me start thinking about whether there was a qualitative difference between sf and ‘mainstream’ / ‘literary’ fiction, not just in terms of subject but in terms of plot, and plot-weight, and focus. I’ve read quite a few novels lately where, by sfnal standards, Nothing Happens. Perhaps it’s more difficult to produce the subtle psychological shading in a world that isn’t wholly familiar? (Thinking as I type).
For me, the plot in Beyond Black mostly happened before the start of the novel: or, maybe, was Alison coming to terms with all those things, even though they didn’t happen on-stage.
Good review. What kept me interested was partly the character, but I think more the ambiguity of the eerie, and the ambiguity about what was real, and what reality is in any case.