Sunday, 19 March 2017

'Alistair'

Here we are, halfway through Mark Samuels' Written in Darkness and we have our first 'traditional' tale of the supernatural. Well, sort of. It begins with a fine description of Gryme House in Highgate, the ancestral home of Amelia Grymes. Her husband, James, moves into the old house with his wife and small son, Alistair, when Amelia's grandparents die.

James Thorpe is a failed novelist who has moved into biography, and his choices of subjects are interesting: Thomas de Quincey, Anna Kavan, and Count Stenbock. All are in some ways marginal figures who produced interesting work on the margins of major literary movements. Perhaps this is where Samuels sees himself?

Strange things happen at Gryme House, events linked to the overgrown West End of nearby Highgate Cemetery. Alistair goes sleepwalking in his Scooby Doo pyjamas, and has night terrors that only Amelia can quell. James, like many fathers, feels inadequate and somewhat remote from his son. But he is also disturbed by the way Amelia seems to talk to Alistair in an unknown tongue - one that sounds like no human language.

The story consists of three sections, each progressively stranger. There is a touch of Lovecraft in the bizarre ending, which presages a very bad breakup for poor old James. Just as the previous stories reveal politics and business as rotten with cosmic corruption, so family life is here shown to be a grim facade. While a relatively slight tale, 'Alistair' stays in the mind perhaps because it is so economical and unsentimental.

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