Reading Beyond Black, you can tell Hilary Mantel fears the supernatural. The novel’s protagonist, psychic Alison Cheetham, may whitewash the predictions and otherworldly reports she gives her clients, but Alison herself is relentlessly taunted by demons.
Her spirit guide, Morris, is the worst of the lot. He terrorizes her day and night with his lewd jokes, groping, and compulsive masturbating. It becomes clear as the story progresses that Alison knew Morris before his death, when she was a child. The violence of her girlhood, and the role he played in it, are evoked so clearly you can almost feel the knife blade piercing your own skin.
Beyond Black is my first Mantel book, but I’m dying to try more — her memoir especially. Elizabeth Lowry recommends reading the two works in tandem.
Like Al’s, Mantel’s childhood seems to have been one stripped of comforting solidities, to have been, more than most, a state of strange events and formless things only half perceived. As a child Hilary is often inexplicably ill. Then her parents’ marriage undergoes a bizarre qualification when her father moves into the spare room and her mother invites a lodger-cum-lover, Jack, to live in the house. After a certain point Hilary never sees her father again, and while Jack and her mother do not marry, they maintain the fiction that Jack Mantel is Hilary’s father. All the while, she is being raised as a Catholic. At seven, she tells us, she sees the Devil in the garden of her home. She has recently been preparing for her first holy communion, and holds herself constantly in readiness for the gift of grace. While playing in the yard one day, to the sound of ‘a lazy buzzing swirl, like flies; but it is not flies’, she glimpses and is invaded by a ‘creature’ of appalling malignity rippling among the coarse weeds. It is ‘as high as a child of two . . . The air stirs about it, invisibly.’ ‘Within the space of a thought’ the creature enters her, ‘a body inside my body’, and ‘grace . . . runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.’ Mantel explains that the episode marks the advent of her awareness of fear and shame.