Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Past Is A Foreign Country

Many writers understand that horror is not a genre, but a mood, a perspective, a state of mind. L. P. Hartley is one example, and his novel, The Go-Between, shows what this understanding can achieve.

What begins as an understated, everyday story of one man's attempt to recapture his memories becomes, almost imperceptibly, a sinister tale of people with concealed motives, of implications half-glimpsed and completely underestimated. As the plot develops, Hartley brings to this matter-of-fact account those elements that give his Travelling Grave stories their mood of unease: conversations that seem innocent or beside the point at first hearing, ordinary settings that begin to glow with dreamlike textures and shadows, a swelling intensity of awareness about some event looming just out of sight. The result is a story that twists and coils around itself until it reveals unexpected claws.

Like the Count in Walter de la Mare's "The Almond Tree," Leo Colston of The Go-Between immerses himself in childhood memories to the point where he perceives them as a child might, without understanding the adult context behind them, but unlike de la Mare, who uses that perspective to keep his readers in the dark, Hartley relies on the discrepancy between what Leo fails to understand, and what the readers understand all too well, for both dramatic irony and for sudden shocks of revelation. These build up to a climax that remains, for me, one of the more nightmarish I've read in a "down to earth" story, followed by an epilogue that combines bitter irony and moving sorrow in one beautifully dissonant final chord.

A mood, a perspective, a state of mind: Hartley knows the region, he knows where the swamps and pitfalls lie, he knows how to lead us quietly to the edge -- and how to push us over.

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