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Beyond Black

Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt and Co. 384p. $26.
ISBN: 0805073566
(May 2005, US; Fourth Estate Ltd UK, May 2004)

There's a place between skepticism and belief, between the known and the unknown. You sit there comfortably while you glance over your morning paper and read your horoscope or an article on a "haunted house". It echoes with phrases like "harmless fun," "I don't take it seriously, but..." "of course there's nothing to it," and "my great-grandmother used to say..." It's where hotels build their thirteenth floors and where the coins you toss into wishing wells land.

But it is also a disturbing location. The pinch of spilled salt you throw over your left shoulder "just in case" lands there. Paths crossed by black cats and walking routes under ladders might lead you there. It's usually a place of minor trepidations and disregarded terrors, but the gods we fear dwell there, too, and damnations we dread lurk within it.

book cover Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black plops you right down into the middle of that place between what you know and what you don't know and has you laughing at irrational absurdities while being chilled by absurd irrationalities. The author makes you laugh and shiver simultaneously. The title could describe her humor -- "beyond black". It is, in fact, so dark that it enlightens.

Mantel's characters, even in minor roles, are astonishingly vivid. Vile, charming, cruel, kind, mundane, weird, dead or alive -- they will remain with you longer and more distinctly than some of your blood relations.

Alison is a psychic -- "a professional psychic, not some sort of magic act" -- who plies her trade both privately and publicly in the counties surrounding London. It's a lucrative profession, but she experiences almost constant physical and mental anguish due to her life-long dealings with "airside." The dead are a bothersome, nattering lot and her "spirit guide" is a lecherous, vulgar lowlife named Morris. Her childhood was abysmal and lacking in even the slightest of comforts; as an adult she offers an odd, but genuine, comfort to others. Alison is a "woman of unfeasible size...soft as an Edwardian, opulent as a showgirl." When she leaves a room you feel her as "a presence, a trace." And she is in need of both personal and business organization.

Colette is thin and so colorless she barely notices herself. "When I'm gone I leave no trace," she thinks. Alison says that when Colette has been gone an hour or two, "I wonder if I have imagined you." She's also efficient: "sharp, rude, and effective."

Other than lewd specters, Alison has no real relationships with the opposite gender. Colette is divorced from a man nearly as insipid as she. Since the bland couple had no friends, they invited everyone they knew to their picture-perfect, utterly empty wedding and the marriage was over before the ceremony was paid off. The final push out of matrimony came when Colette phoned and spoke to her mother-in-law -- who she consequently discovered had been dead for a number of hours at the time of the conversation. There's always the chance, she admits, it might have been a wrong number, but her life is so meaningless even the thought she might have communed with the dead gives it meaning and she starts seeking out psychics.

It turns out that Colette hasn't a whit of psychic power -- even reading Tarot cards is beyond her -- but she does become Alison's personal assistant/business partner. She gets Alison's affairs in order and her career on the right track. Colette doesn't quite believe in the paranormal, but like most of us she can "entertain simultaneously any number of conflicting opinions." When "[f]aced with the impossible", Colette's mind "simply scuttle[s] off in another direction."

Colette learns much of the psychic biz -- Mantel skewers the "Sensitives" with sparkling satire -- is fakery and flimflam. Alison uses such techniques herself, but not to defraud. She smoothes uncomfortable truths and conveys soothing messages to her audiences and clients rather than passing on the lies and confabulations of the perfidious, selfish, trivial, generally clueless dead.

Although she doesn't particularly believe, Collette cannot deny Alison's abilities. Colette believes enough to be frightened of the afterlife as Alison paints it:

...the bewildered dead clustered among the dumpsters outside of burger bars, clutching door keys in their hands or queuing with their lunchboxes where the gates of a small factory once stood... There are thousands of them out there, so pathetic and lame-brained they can't cross the road to get where they are going, dithering on the kerbs of new arterial roads and byways... they follow [Alison home], and stat petering the first chance they get. They elbow her in the ribs with questions always questions; but never the right ones. Always, where's my pension book, has the Number 64 gone, are we having a fry-up this morning? Never, am I dead?...

Collette also probes and prods Alison with questions in pursuit of material for a book she intends to produce. Dead voices and strange noises play havoc with the recordings of the interviews, but the dialogues also force Alison to begin confronting her past, much of which is unclear to her until Colette forces her to talk about it. Even before we know the entire story it's a past nasty enough to establish a possibility (never voiced by characters or author) that Alison's supernatural abilities might stem from psychosis rather than psychic connection. Spirit guide Morris, in fact, was one of a murderous band of thugs who dominated Alison's unspeakably brutal childhood. As Alison recalls more of her childhood, Morris's dead but still villainous mates seem to be reassembling to further torture her.

The women escape the "fiends", as Alison calls them, by moving to a spanking new house in a new upmarket development full of families and minivans. (Realty, new construction, suburbia and its inhabitants are all impaled on the spike of Mantel's sardonic wit.) Despite everyone thinking that Alison is some type of weather forecaster and that the women are a lesbian couple, the move brings Alison temporary respite from the fiends. But Colette, ever more controlling even as she occasionally feels unappreciated, increasingly sees her life as a dead end. No new man has entered her life in the seven years she's spent with Alison. Paying but pointless punters and kooks, Al's fellow Sensitives -- who disdain her as much as she disdains them -- surround her. Her ex, Gavin, tells her he is dating a model.

Meanwhile Alison remembers more and more of her dreadful early days and the dead fiends, their fiendishness now even more enhanced, are drawing nigh and bringing death with them.

There's more here, too, than a mere narrative. Mantel piles opposites on top of dualities, offers scathingly true observations on modern life, and shapes an overall metaphor for England circa 1997-2004.

Surprising, unsettling, deeply subversive -- one cannot but wonder if Mantel's literary cohort will completely appreciate what a dark marvel this novel is. Readers of Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Joyce, and Elizabeth Hand, will, however, recognize Hilary Mantel as beyond brilliant.