Eerie, Exalted Fantasy

By Rob LathamNovember 28, 2017

Eerie, Exalted Fantasy

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

ON NOVEMBER 28, New Directions Press will release a new edition of Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, a remarkable little novel that has been in and out of print since it first appeared from Faber & Faber in 1982. The reclusive Ingalls, an American author resident in London since 1965, may finally be poised for the literary success that has always eluded her: Hampton Fancher, fresh off the buzz surrounding Blade Runner 2049 (2017), has reportedly penned a screenplay of the novel, which is now being shopped around, and New Directions may release other Ingalls titles in the future.

The author’s backlist is not extensive: aside from Mrs. Caliban, she has written only one other novel, Binstead’s Safari (1983), and 26 long stories or novellas, assembled in the United States in I See a Long Journey (1985), Something to Write Home About (1988), The Pearlkillers (1986), The End of Tragedy (1987), Be My Guest (1991), and Times Like These (2005). (The British editions have varying titles and contents.) Three Masquerades (2017), released in February by Pharos Editions, re-sorts stories previously published.

Ingalls’s failure to reach a wide audience has been attributed to her fondness for the novella form, of which she is an acknowledged master. Because of their unwieldy lengths, her tales have seldom been anthologized, and few of them have appeared in journals or magazines. Ingalls’s characteristic hesitation between mimetic and fantastic modes likely also explains some of the difficult reception of her work. When trying to describe the queer effects of her fiction, critics have repeatedly grasped at odd comparisons — “Edith Wharton meets Shirley Jackson” or “the lovechild of John Collier and Joyce Carol Oates.” For all its hybrid echoes, however (and I would add Isak Dinesen and Robert Aickman to the list of comparisons), Ingalls’s work is sui generis and deserves to be encountered on its own terms.

From the start of her career, Ingalls has deployed non-realist modes of storytelling to convey her stark vision of the modern world. Her first novella, Theft (published as a freestanding title in 1970 before being gathered into Something to Write Home About), is a somber allegory, drawing equally on Kafka and the New Testament, of the degradation of spirit characteristic of a purely secular society — a society that, in her minimalist depiction, could be located either in ancient or in future times. Her other early titles, while essentially mimetic, flirt with Gothic elements; always, a shimmer of the numinous seems to hover on the margins of the action. In “St. George and the Nightclub” (in Something to Write Home About), the narrator, fooled by a trick of vision that makes it appear as if a ship under full sail has traversed a city street, muses:

Just to see such a phenomenon, to have had the ability to see it, convinced me for a moment that I had participated in the workings of the supernatural. It made me feel transported, as though I had seen into another dimension, or been granted a special freedom or a miraculous talent not normally available to mankind.

In Ingalls’s fiction, leaps of visions, lapses of memory, sudden eruptions of desire, threaten to explode and fragment the otherwise meticulously recorded normalcy of everyday life.

Ingalls’s depiction of the marvelous and uncanny is usually ambiguous, though it can sometimes be stunningly overt. The Egyptian curse that hounds the protagonist of “Third Time Lucky” (in The Pearlkillers), the plague of frogs that assails the central couple of “Friends in the Country” (in The End of Tragedy), the soul-swapping plot that seems to ensnare a young boy in “Be My Guest,” the good luck charm whose loss almost kills the heroine’s lover in “Correspondent” (in Times Like These) — all may have perfectly natural explanations, yet the mere suggestion of occult agency, once taken root in the characters’ minds, exerts a force as compelling as anything overtly supernatural.

Other stories depict fantastic elements explicitly, though these tend to be satirical in tone, such as “In the Act” (in The End of Tragedy), in which a scientist constructs a lifelike sex doll to the exasperated fury of his wife, or “Somewhere Else” (in Times Like These), wherein a pair of travel agents find themselves trapped in an endless, posthumous foreign tour. In the small masterpiece “Blessed Art Thou” (in I See a Long Journey), a diffident priest is inexplicably transformed, following intercourse with an angel, into a feisty young woman whose sex change and pregnancy baffle and incense his monastic superiors.

Almost all of Ingalls’s stories evoke an atmosphere of breathless expectancy: something wonderful or horrid seems always about to happen. This tone of suspense often has a menacing quality, paying off at the last minute in appalling reversals of fortune and explosions of spectacular violence. In “On Ice” (in I See a Long Journey), the protagonist believes herself to be hobnobbing with rich old friends in an Alpine resort, until she discovers they all “died” long ago and now have plans for her to join them. In “People to People” (in The Pearlkillers), a drunken college prank that ended in tragedy haunts a group of middle-aged men, leading to a sudden, shocking bloodbath. In “Veterans” (in Times Like These), a happily married man takes in a rootless army buddy, not reckoning how their shared wartime damage might resurface in nasty and perilous ways.

These last two stories illustrate Ingalls’s obsession with the deforming power of the past, with the ancient yet still potent energies that drive her characters to tragedy and death. A few of her tales seem to declare these energies to be biological imperatives: in “The End of Tragedy,” a possibly murderous biochemist operates on the conviction that “whatever the future holds, there are millions of years behind us, and they’re part of us,” while in “Inheritance” (in The Pearlkillers), an apostle of eugenics proclaims that “the future […] can be controlled from the past” through “the systematization of heredity.” The protagonist of “Fertility” (in Times Like These) puts the matter most bluntly:

Everything that’s essential happens on a huge scale and over vast periods of time. It takes centuries before you can see that a general direction has been established or that something new is being worked out. But that’s what really drives us: biology. Everything else is superficial.

Despite these pseudo-scientific rationales, the power of the past in Ingalls’s work is always charged with a mystical aura, making many of her tales borderline ghost stories. In “Captain Hendrik’s Story” (in The Pearlkillers), the eponymous 19th-century adventurer returns home from a decade-long sojourn with a tale of heroic deeds, only to find himself haunted by a “twisted, gnomelike old man” — a companion he had thought long dead — who knows the sordid truth about his exploits. More subtle, less palpable ghosts — the ghosts of youthful betrayals and old regrets — conspire to shatter a friendship in “An Artist’s Life” (in The End of Tragedy), whose gloomy protagonist muses: “right from the beginning we develop a taste for what’s going to destroy us.”

This bitter conviction animates “Sis and Bud” (in Be My Guest), the only clear-cut ghost story Ingalls has written. Yet the ghost — a turn-of-the-20th-century bride killed in a household accident who haunts a small-town library in the form of a “repetitive snapping and creaking” and a “wavelike bundle of smudges” — is not the focus of the tale. She merely serves to highlight the distortions of perception and affect that beset the title characters, a pair of adoptive siblings searching for their true parents. As is typical in Ingalls’s work, the male partner is the more driven one, pathologically obsessed with revenging himself on the mother who abandoned him, and he manages to embroil his sister in a morass of duplicity and violence. While the gory finale seems forced and a trifle pat, it still bears a sting: waking the angry ghosts of past deception and pain can only lead to heartbreak in the present.

“Sis and Bud” also highlights one of the author’s abiding themes: the way the strife between the sexes can mutate into fantastic and ghastly forms. There is a subtle feminist consciousness in Ingalls’s fiction, exposing the pressures patriarchal society exerts on women while showing their own complicity with these forces. The female characters she depicts as dangerous or violent, like the heroine of “The End of Tragedy,” have largely been driven to their emotional extremity by the callous, brutal, or simply inscrutably alien men in their lives. Ingalls is highly skillful at inventing new forms, natural and supernatural, through which to work out her view of the endemic contention dividing men and women. Anything, from a weekend in the country to a mummy’s curse, can become the occasion for an explosion of the anger and violence that simmer always beneath the surface of heterosexual relationships. (Ingalls seldom treats other forms of sexuality, though “Early Morning Sightseer” — in I See a Long Journey — is a beautifully controlled and minatory tale, whose dark homoerotic undercurrents evoke the best work of Patricia Highsmith.)

Ingalls’s portrayal of the battle between the sexes is at its best in her two novels, since their greater length allows her to add shadow and nuance to her depiction. Significantly, both Mrs. Caliban and Binstead’s Safari feature supernatural elements, well-thought-out occult conceits that highlight the flaws and frictions of sexual love. Binstead’s Safari — which is, at roughly 225 pages, Ingalls’s longest work of fiction — relates the African sojourn of a middle-aged anthropologist, Stan Binstead, and his bored and alienated wife, Millie. As Stan draws closer to discovering the truth about a mysterious tribe that claims to worship a shape-shifting trickster — half-man, half-lion — Millie finds herself awakening spiritually and sexually in the arms of a handsome adventurer who, it is strongly suggested, is that very trickster of tribal lore. This central situation is cleverly filtered through several subplots, including political chicanery between rival factions in the unidentified country, and is embroidered with moments of stark terror and eerie, exalted fantasy. Stan’s growing “apprehension of horror somewhere, although nothing was to be seen and there was no object or event that could have given rise to it,” is balanced by Millie’s hypnotic fascination with the huge, splendid lion that haunts their camp, an awesome beast seemingly possessed of human intelligence.

The real balancing act Ingalls manages in the novel is between natural and supernatural explanations for events. While the drift of the story seems to support the natives’ account of a shape-shifting demigod, Ingalls plants seeds of doubt through her pointed allusions to famous genre texts — Val Lewton’s film The Leopard Man (1943), Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) — wherein apparently unearthly beasts are shown to have quite mundane origins. The resulting tone of ambiguity is more unsettling than if the author had baldly come down on one side or the other. In the gap between knowledge and desire, certainty and fantasy — in the jungle mindscape Binstead’s Safari powerfully evokes — the sense of possibility and horror commingle, and love and fear become one. Millie’s anger at Stan’s casual infidelities leads her into the arms of a lover who both transforms and destroys her: her admiration for his heroism and prowess conceals a yearning for the strike of a deadly predator. This recognition of the complicity of Millie’s desire with the reality of male dominance makes Binstead’s Safari one of the author’s most sophisticated treatments of the subjection of women, reminiscent of the darkly feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter.

Mrs. Caliban offers an alternative — literal rather than metaphoric — take on this basic situation of a woman who falls in love with a monster. Despite the fact that protagonist Dorothy, unsettled by the deaths of her two children and her husband’s adulterous indifference, is clearly experiencing hallucinatory episodes (mysterious voices on the radio reassuring her that things will be all right), there seems to be no doubt that the supernatural visitation that enters her life is altogether real and substantial. In fact, it has a name: Larry (a.k.a. Aquarius), a six-foot-seven humanoid frog that takes refuge in Dorothy’s home from the sadistic scientists who have been abusively experimenting on him.

At first, Dorothy is motivated by compassion, but this emotion swiftly mutates into romantic ardor as Larry proves himself all the man her husband is not (he even enjoys housework). As their relationship blossoms, the two star-crossed lovers wander by night through the California suburbs, learning forms of human(oid) connection each had imagined impossible. But, of course, their idyllic affair is doomed, since Larry is a hunted creature demonized by the local press, a misunderstood monster who wants only to return to his lost aquatic home but who keeps bumping up against the petty tyrannies of human society — the repressive shackles that have ensnared Dorothy for most of her life. The sad ending is both shockingly abrupt and, at the same time, utterly inevitable.

Mrs. Caliban might seem to be portraying a more black-and-white situation than does Binstead’s Safari, with Ingalls’s literalization of fantasy tending, as it does so often in her work, toward the starkest of satire. A casual reading might even suggest the parodic recapitulation of a standard romance plot, with Larry representing a form of heroic masculinity for which the beleaguered heroine despairingly longs. Yet Ingalls drops artful hints throughout the story that something altogether darker and more complex is going on. The first clue is the title itself, with its allusion to Shakespeare’s eloquent brute who, infuriated by human prejudice and perfidy, heaps scorn upon the race. Much as we might sympathize with Caliban’s righteous anger, there is a streak of delirious violence in him that gives us pause. So with Larry, whose attacks on humans, though always occurring offstage and apparently in self-defense, are savage and bloody. Dorothy’s bland acceptance of this carnage is unnerving, as if she has lost all connection with her species; her attitude recalls the dangerously otherworldly desires of the wives preyed upon by demon lovers in 17th-century ballads, texts to which Ingalls subtly alludes. Dorothy’s best friend in the novel — who turns against her in the end, following a series of terrible tragedies — declares that she simply doesn’t understand the nature of desire, but the truth may be that she understands it so deeply as to be consumed by its fires.

It is a tribute to the subtlety of the novel, therefore, that it can lend itself to multiple readings. On the one hand, the affair between Dorothy and Larry stands in for any “forbidden” relationship, and Larry’s rage merely bespeaks an understandable resentment at social exclusion and discrimination. On the other hand, their tortured affair points up the deformities of spirit to which loss, frustration, and baffled desire can lead. In any case, the tale’s outcome is terrible — destruction and desolation; few are left standing, and those who are are bowed with grief. Perhaps Ingalls’s finest accomplishment in the novel is the unflappable gentleness of her tone, which records supernatural surprise and flaming horror simply, almost tranquilly. The result is paradoxically quotidian and dreamlike, like a fable or folktale.

To close this review on a personal note, I would like to observe that Mrs. Caliban was the first book I ever reviewed, in a 1986 issue of the journal Fantasy Review. In the years since, I have covered hundreds of titles, many of which have left only the slightest scraps in my memory. But Ingalls’s novel has endured, as I predicted it would: “a minor masterpiece of contemporary fantasy — a deft, ironic fable of love and loss, innocence and evil […] it has a delicacy and a compassion that linger in the mind. It deserves the widest possible audience.” One can only hope that this new edition, and the possible film adaptation, will bring to this austere, elegant work — and to Ingalls’s fiction more generally — the sustained attention it so richly deserves.


Rob Latham is a senior editor at LARB. His most recent book is Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

LARB Contributor

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 2002), co-editor of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017).


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