Haunted Halflives: A New Gothic
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. Here I review The Finite and Trying to be So Quiet. First published September 16, 2019.
His apathy was still there, a screen between himself and the world. Everything he observed, or did, or said, seemed to happen on the other side of a pane of glass. But the ghost seemed to flit around on his side, a nagging thought he couldn’t rid himself of.
The third-person limited voice of James Everington’s Trying To Be So Quiet is full of the protagonists’ uncertainties, as if every event, place and person is unfocussed, out-of-kilter. So we meet with a man returned to his old home as he muses how ‘it was comforting, somehow, to be here, where nothing seemed to have changed.’ The mood is defined by those somehows and seems, by the soporific quality of the amnesiac, an irreal anhedonia as internal ‘pain surged but had nowhere to go; her outer self remained numb.’
The second story is particularly illuminating in this respect, in part because ‘The Second Wish’ is a titular allusion to the also directly referenced W. W. Jacobs’s story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, and that serves almost as a key to the whole book.
In part, the story could be read as an exegesis of that old gothic fable, a condensing of Jacobs’s idea — that is, ‘it wasn’t the believing that mattered, it was the wanting.’ That wanting being discussed is for the necessarily perverse satisfaction of overcoming the limit of death. Recalling Mark Fisher’s extended discussion of presence in The Weird and the Eerie, what’s awry about ghosts for Everington has much to do with the ways grief anticipates the familiar and longed-for deceased, but is predicated on their absence. We are haunted by what we lost, not what remains. And insofar as they remain there, the dead, it is in the brute fact of their not being there, as a gap or wound in meaning, purpose and time — not just in the before and after of death, but in how the bereaved relied on the lover or parent to temporally orientate to the world.
There is an acute—in the context of these stories painful—sense of how places and memories interact together to texture life. In its ghostly places, the book leans heavily on the conceit of the supernatural, but there is scant interest in the technical workings of the metaphysics of poltergeists, which is in any case operating in a realm that is obscured from both reader and characters. Indeed, it is firmly acknowledged how any ‘supernatural world was as trite as the natural one.’ Belief and magic are not what’s at stake , as we learn in the first story: ‘There is no need to start believing in souls now, when he no longer believes in anything else.’ Rather than belief, desire confronted with absolute loss is the subject of Trying To Be So Quiet.
The impactful ending of the third and final story, ‘Damage’, which shares with its predecessor a strong yuletide reference, makes this focus on desire clear, ‘On the second day of Christmas, Alex’s true love died. A year later, she tried to follower her.’ Here the bereaving protagonist is precise in her own formulation of grief not as ‘something that came and went; it was damage permanently done.’ The rupture in reality constitutes the reality of the book, the supernatural merely makes that fact more visible, it is a conceit more than a focus.
The Kübler-Ross model of grief, which has been both somewhat vindicated and somewhat repudiated by later research, sees the psychology of this near universal experience in clinical stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Everington sticks closer to the messier phenomenology of grief; these different possible reactions are all apparent in the collection, but they are never neatly linear, nor is there a compulsion to evade ambiguity and ellipses, which are central to that dynamic of presence and absence that coalesces in the archetype of the ghost.
What we get from that messier rendering of grief is an exploration of a profound loss, a loss of anchorage in the world and therefore, ultimately, a loss of selfhood.
The blurb of Kit Power’s The Finite charts the genesis of the book, foreshadowing the story itself:
The Finite started as a dream; an image, really, on the edge of waking. My daughter and I, joining a stream of people walking past our house. We were marching together, and I saw that many of those behind us were sick, and struggling, and then I looked to the horizon and saw the mushroom cloud. I remember a wave of perfect horror and despair washing over me; the sure and certain knowledge that our march was doomed, as were we.
The image didn’t make it into the story, but the feeling did. King instructs us to write about what scares us. In The Finite, I wrote about the worst thing I can imagine; my own childhood nightmare, resurrected and visited on my kid.
Apocalypse in general (going at least as far as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man), and nuclear apocalypse in particular (think Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) is about judgement. Apocalypse is from the Greek ‘revelation’ and denotes a prophetic unveiling. Some truth-seeking is at the core of the genre, and for Shelley and Shute that truth is rendered as a social indictment. The nature of power is engaged in any judgement on society, and this type of truth about us—the uses and abuses of power and violence—is fierce and relevant in Kit’s writing. The Finite assumes the perspective of Robert Andrews, living in Milton Keynes. And through him, we are immediately presented with the cataclysm, with the ultimate violence and failure of human reasoning: ‘I saw a white light on the horizon, so bright it hurt my eyes.’
What emerges, as Rob cares for his now dying daughter Charley — his husband Luke having been in London itself— is a slow slog of desperate if resigned survival. Lethargy, decay and an unbearable notion that the events cannot be real, as if reality cannot contain them, is at the core of The Finite: ‘The day was slow to die, and the blood-red of the sunset had me wondering if I was hallucinating.’ Were that all, however, the book would not sustain itself and its horror; what keeps it going is a sense of witnessing, of perceiving what’s worth preserving against the onslaught.
More than Shelley and Shute, Cormac McCarthy’s Southern Gothic post-apocalypse The Road comes strongest to mind. In part that is because of the parent-child relationship in both books, but it’s also because these different authors are engaged in a similar project with a shared goal. By stripping the world to its bleakest point, each illuminates what’s significant—what should be significant—to us as human beings. The love of a father for his child remains.
However, it would be wrong to overlook what’s also specific to The Finite. Rob’s character, his convictions, his background as a gay man, former CND member, with a trade unionist family who has anxiety, is clearly and carefully considered. These facets are never foregrounded, which avoids making the character a vehicle: Rob and Charley have to be real for the narrative to achieve anything — and they are.
But inherent to Rob is a life and convictions that rebuke the structural forces that result in his tragedy — and therein, a glimmer of an alternative that has been tragically denied. There are moments that are difficult to read, but likewise even the rawest, most painful scenes add to an affirming subtext. At one point, Rob muses that he keeps ‘thinking about the questions she asked. The question she didn’t ask.’ The unsaid reverberates; that Power never summaries The Finite’s outrage or articulates some pithy assessment on what it could all mean — not even through his narrator — implicitly invites his readers to do so.
In his introduction to the gothic, Nick Groom characterises it as ‘a cultural aesthetic that associated decay, nostalgia, melancholy, mortality, and death with the ancient Northern past.’ The gothic in Everington and Kit takes those concerns and associates them with a contemporary moment rooted in a loss of the past more profound than that which motivated the romantic antecedents of the earlier literary gothic, and an equally profound and wholly new loss of the future.
How this plays out in the The Finite is clear, where the hauntology of Fisher’s lost futures finds a direct manifestation in the return of a retro-apocoplyse. In Everington—who consciously invokes the gothic tradition in his stories—it’s there, too, in the fragmented, isolated lives, in the fact that the three bereaved characters of Trying To Be So Quiet are bereft of even a set of rituals and people to couch their horrors, a suggestive atomism that has only been made so apparent by their more contingent tragedies.
We need these new gothic stories; we must think deeply about such themes, invent new fables to reorientate ourselves to grief, personal and collective.
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