The Sin Eater: Alice Thomas Ellis and the Gothic Tradition




AT FIRST GLANCE, Alice Thomas Ellis might not seem an exemplar of Gothic writing. Her work is witty, scintillating, at times even comic. Her dialogue fairly glitters. She has been compared to Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, and Muriel Spark. As a rule, her writing defies easy categorization. Her work is an alchemical blend of disparate elements — humor and darkness, exquisite prose and empty banter, the spiritual and the commonplace. She writes about the trials and tribulations of the English middle class. She writes about ordinary people thrown out of their usual rhythms and routines by visitors, by holidays, by illness, by love. She writes with poetry and biting insight.

But what interests me most are her monsters.

I first found Ellis in Unexplained Laughter, perhaps her best-known work. Published in 1985, this remarkable book follows Lydia, a London sophisticate, as she journeys to a village in Wales for a holiday. (The mixing of city folk and small-town locals is a fixation of Ellis’s.) Lydia is recovering from heartbreak. She imposes her narcissistic brand of friendship on her reluctant neighbors. She flirts with a priest. (Catholicism is also a running theme in Ellis’s work.) Lydia penetrates the secrets of the village, particularly those of a mentally disabled girl from a nearby cottage and the creepy doctor who tends her.

Lydia also encounters unexplained laughter. The titular phenomenon comes only at night. It ripples through the dark forest, uncanny and disembodied. Hearing the laughter while alone in her cabin,

[Lydia] was not exactly terrified, but she was sitting very, very still so that if there was the slightest noise she could be quite certain that it was not she who had caused it. Lydia wished any sounds that the night had to offer to be separate and extrinsic from herself. Otherwise she would grow confused as to the limits and confines of reality, the nature of objectivity and the state of her own balance.

Other characters in the book experience the laughter, which means that the phenomenon is not a facet of Lydia’s mental state — but little else is resolved. Is the laughter evil? Is it meaningful? What causes it? Is there a pattern to its appearance? Ellis chooses not to clarify its nature. The laughter simply is. Even after Lydia leaves the village — after all the narrative threads of her visit are tied in a neat bow — there remains one final question mark. Ellis understands that the most unsettling monsters are the ones that keep themselves unknowable and unknown.

When I first read Unexplained Laughter, what struck me most forcibly was Ellis’s unprecedented attitude toward the supernatural. The laughter is not essential to the plot. The tale of what happens to Lydia on her vacation would not be substantially altered if the laughter were not present at all. Ellis does not focus her story on the astonishing existence of the paranormal. Instead, she weaves this element into the fabric of her tale, making the laughter a fundamental part of life in this place, as common and unremarked as sunlight. I have rarely seen magic treated this way in fiction: as something that is both essential and incidental.

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Alice Thomas Ellis died in 2005, and though her books never found widespread acclaim in the United States, she is revered in Britain. She led a public literary life, worked in London’s publishing industry, contributed a long-standing column for The Spectator, and, a skilled cook, even wrote cookbooks. Multiple works by Ellis have been adapted for British television, and her 1982 novel The 27th Kingdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Ellis’s novels are generally classified as literary fiction. Yet they are at once darker and stranger than the normal fare. At their core, they are something closer to Gothic. In fact, Ellis’s closest authorial sister might well be Shirley Jackson. Fairy Tale, published in 1996 and arguably Ellis’s most eerie book, has powerful echoes to Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, a classic of the Gothic genre.

This time around, Ellis places the supernatural front and center. Fairy Tale begins not with Eloise, its protagonist, but with a chilling description:

The eyes of the watchers were cold and flat and incurious and the watchers were still. Whenever they moved — be it ever so slightly — there was a brief darkness, a shadow behind the leaves, a hint of something that humanity might call loss, equate with pain. But the watchers knew nothing of that, being indifferent to such matters.

In the very next sentence, we meet Eloise, “sewing, sitting under the house wall, tacking lace to linen,” surrounded by the watchers, yet unaware of them. The reader understands the situation at once. Like Eleanor of The Haunting of Hill House, Eloise is plunged from the start into unseen, incomprehensible dangers.

Eloise has taken up residence in the Red House, along with her hapless boyfriend, her mother, and a family friend. As the book flows into eerie territory, the reader learns about the Tylwyth Teg, also known as watchers, or fairies, or the men who visit Eloise in different guises whenever she is on her own. In her intricate prose, Ellis describes the terrible things that befall Eloise and her family: cannibalism, rude bartenders, water horses, incomprehensible Welsh accents, a rapist who has escaped from prison and is on the loose in the woods, and a magical pregnancy.

The parallels to The Haunting of Hill House are myriad. In Jackson’s masterpiece, Eleanor, too, encounters unspeakable horrors. Unseen entities knock on her door at night. Disembodied voices sing children’s songs. Cryptic messages are written in blood. At one point, Eleanor finds herself in her bedroom holding hands with another member of the group, in terror, in the darkness — only to discover that her friend is in fact sound asleep in bed on the other side of the room. “God! Whose hand was I holding?” Eleanor cries, and the reader shudders along with her.

Yet the most frightening aspect of The Haunting of Hill House is something else entirely. The longer Eleanor spends at Hill House, the more infatuated she becomes with the place: “The very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.” Eleanor does not merely accept what is happening to her; she revels in it. The horror of the book’s ending comes not from poltergeists or eerie voices in the dark, but from the ravages of what Hill House has done to Eleanor’s reason.

In Fairy Tale, Eloise undergoes a similar entrancement. As she drifts through the woods around the Red House, she slips inside the malevolent magic of the watchers. When she is cornered by strangers in her home, she “did not bother to ask how it was that the men had appeared so noiselessly and, as it were, from nowhere. […] Even the fact that they cast no shadow did not, at the moment, seem worth worrying about.” Eloise begins to behave erratically. She vanishes into the forest for hours, gabbles about blood and milk and babies, and once appears out of a rainstorm with “her face and her hair and her long dress […] completely, and terrifyingly, bone dry.” The other characters in Fairy Tale are disturbed by what’s happening to them, but Eloise is not. Her mother tries to get her to vacate the Red House, insisting:

“We’re going.”
“I’m not,” said Eloise. “I can’t.”
“What do you mean — you can’t?” said her mother.
“The rain,” said Eloise. “The river.”

The fairies cause a transmutation of the spirit, changing Eloise from a vegetarian to a carnivore, from a sweet scatterbrain to a wild creature. She finds herself connected to the watchers, linked to them and lost in them. The scariest thing in Fairy Tale is not the presence of evil, but the susceptibility of humans to its influence.

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Of course, menace does not always arise from the supernatural. Ghosts and haunted mansions are not required for Gothic fiction. Shirley Jackson knew this better than anyone. “The Lottery,” perhaps her most famous story, is infused with foreboding from the start, though nothing more alarming happens than a gathering of villagers. As the townsfolk prepare for the lottery, the scene is filled with unlocalized, increasing fear. Panic blooms between the sentences, filling the white spaces of the page. All is not well. All is not as it seems. Through nuance, through quiet, deft clues, Jackson lets the reader know that something awful is coming.

Ellis shares this gift. Not all her books contain a supernatural element. The Sin Eater, her first and perhaps darkest novel, published in 1977, remains staunchly in the world of possibilities. The story orbits around the Captain, a failing patriarch, and the family who have gathered at his bedside. There are no ghosts or disembodied voices here. Instead, lovely Rose organizes meals and cricket matches. Angela, visiting from out of town, vies with Rose for control of the proceedings. Awkward Ermyn searches for her place in the group. Servants lurk on the sidelines. The story is ripe with shadows and terror. An unclassifiable menace seeps through the book like a fog.

Much of this has to do with Ermyn, whose mind is a treacherous place. She is always out of step, misaligned with the world around her. She is awkward and morbid. Overhearing a bit of seductive banter between a courting couple about “a good screw,” Ermyn muses, “Screws held down coffin lids.” Later, approached by Rose, “Ermyn started. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I didn’t hear you. […] I was looking for [the lamb] […] to see if she was eating the dahlias. We’ll eat her one day,’ she went on merrily. ‘Roast her shoulders and legs and stew her ribs.’”

Rose responds to this as any normal person might: “Rose looked at her sideways. Ermyn’s spasmodic jocularities were always unnerving.”

As I read The Sin Eater, I was reminded over and over of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Merricat, the mad, wonderful narrator of that 1962 novel, reveals her unique and dangerous mind in the first paragraph of the book: “I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

Merricat is singularly untroubled by this last statement. Dead is a good condition for most of humanity, in her opinion. “Poor strangers, they have so much to be afraid of,” she says. And later: “I’m going to put death in all their food and watch them die.” Merricat is passionate and wholly unreliable. If characters could travel from the pages of one book to another, it seems likely that Jackson’s would get along well with Ellis’s. Merricat would surely feel a connection to Ermyn, a sister in kind.

Ellis’s protagonists are almost always female. In The Sin Eater, the masculine characters are few and far between. The novel’s omniscient point of view shifts from person to person, but rarely ever dips into the male mind. This is typical of Ellis’s books. She writes about the bonds between women, the intricate, infinite combinations of mothers and daughters, sisters and wives. Men can be allies, but they are more often obstacles or enemies. Ellis writes dark, Gothic novels, and part of their horror comes from the very real plight of women. Men may walk in the sunlight, but women are rarely free of shadows. Ellis shines a light into their inner lives, illuminating with slyness and subtlety the simple fact that a day in the life of any woman in this world could be the fodder for a Gothic scene.

Ellis’s women tend to be unusual, too. She and Jackson both prefer to write about oddballs, outsiders, even potential murderers. Ermyn, the heart and soul of The Sin Eater, is perhaps the strangest of the bunch. As the story flows along, Ellis ratchets up the tension. There is a drunken party, an aggrieved group of cricketers, an oily houseboy, a cheating wife, a malevolent cook — and at the center of it all, Ermyn, bewildered. “She wanted to scream. She could sense people creeping up behind her, and waiting for her, united in a grinning shadowy conspiracy.” Is Ermyn in danger? Is she seeing things that aren’t there? Surrounded by bullies, sycophants, and liars, she is a kind of nexus of violence. Maybe the victim, maybe a sort of monster. In her own way, Ermyn seems to understand this: “There was something very wrong with the world — something very wrong with that part of it contained within her own skin.” Ellis is saying something profound here, albeit tacitly. In The Sin Eater, there are no ghosts, no fairies, no haunted mansions. Instead, there is danger in the rowdy mob dancing in the darkness. There is danger in the clashing and interwoven relationships of the Captain’s family. There is danger in the increasing gulf between Ermyn’s mind and reality.

Alice Thomas Ellis deserves more notice outside of Britain, if not for being a stylist or a master storyteller, then at least for what she’s contributed to the same literary tradition we champion in the works of Shirley Jackson. Gothic novels have their own special relationship to evil, and Ellis honors that relationship in all her books. She writes Gothic novels disguised as literary fiction — “high Gothic,” perhaps. While literary fiction may grapple with the question of whether evil truly exists — whether it comes from within or without — Gothic novels proceed from a different assumption. Ellis never wonders, Are there monsters in the world? To her, that query has already been asked and answered. There are ghouls and demons. There is unexplained laughter. There’s the darkness that lingers long after the story is done.

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Abby Geni is the author of The Lightkeepers, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Spring 2016 selection, and The Last Animal (2013), a finalist for the Orion Book Award and a winner of the Friends of American Writers Literary Award.


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