Writing from the discomfort zone
A fresh review of Kate Horsley’s Frankenstein sequel The Monster’s Wife. Many thanks to Jonathan Squirrell, an MA student on the creative writing strand at the University of Hull.
An excess of grease stalls Ronald Frobisher’s career. The fictional writer in David Lodge’s Small World is visiting a plate glass university when an oily academic applies cutting edge early-eighties technology to reveal that the most recurrent word in the author’s lexicon is ‘grease’: “the grease stained cuff, the greasy jam butty, his greasy smile.” Frobisher, on receiving this news, finds that “every time I wanted an adjective, greasy would spring into my mind”. Not so much writer’s block as impenetrable clogging ensues.
Hopefully Kate Horsley proves less sensitive than her imaginary counterpart when I suggest The Monster’s Wife drips not with grease, but with bodily fluids.
Blood, sweat and tears are not the half of it (although there are plenty of all three) this is a novel saturated with spit, piss, vomit and bile. If that sounds disgusting, it’s probably meant to be. This is after all, at its off-kilter beating heart, a horror story.
The splatter of human by-product is noticeable from the start, building to a crescendo during a laudanum-soaked nightmare where ‘sweat’, ‘retching’, ’spittle’ and ‘vomited’ pool together in a sticky single paragraph. If the tide ebbs thereafter, the theme never fully evaporates. ‘Tears’, ‘spitting’ and ‘sweat’ still permeate the final pages.
The Orkney Island setting is introduced in just such style, surrounded by a sea that “Spewed freezing water”, “Retching to rid itself” of “disgusting things”, soaking the natives “pished through” – natives pished on grog, using pish as an expletive and even pishing on each other. An advert from Welcome to Scotland this is not.
And yet, Scottishness is worn on the novel’s sleeve. There are crofts, Kirk and burn, for farms, church and stream; and on the mainland a parting is prefaced with the lament “I’m greeting like a bairn. I cannae stand to leave you”. Irvine Welsh may be resting easy, but just as the overflow of bile highlights the visceral nature of Horsley’s work, so too the language roots us with the characters in their home. And it is this which provides the contrast to the true source of the horror – the outsider.
It is no spoiler to name him –the book does so on its very first page – Frankenstein. For The Monster’s Wife is one of those books that seeks to read between the lines of classic fiction and show us the story from another vantage. Clearly re-workings and retellings are in vogue at the cinema (exhibit A: 2015’s Victor Frankenstein) and in literature: Horsley herself notes in her interview with the Barbican Press that she is part of “the zeitgeist”, and references the Doctor Moreau inspired The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd as an example. Perhaps the fashion will spread further and engulf the arts. I for one would like to see a painting which explains what Munch’s screamer is so upset about.
Or would I? Part of the attraction of art may be that it stimulates our imagination, perhaps no art more so than literature. Understandable then that writers (who are of course readers themselves) should be inspired to fire out of somebody else’s canon. But reading can be an intimate process, and a personal one. Such works have as much chance or jarring as of succeeding.
Frankensteinophiles have had to become used to, perhaps even immune to, vast quantities of re-imaginings. On top of a dozen or so books there have been comics, radio adaptations, a myriad of television appearances, and perhaps fifty cinematic monsters – without counting the parodies. Horsley herself was inspired by the recent stage version from Danny Boyle:
“It was a mesmerizing production and the first time I’d seen the monster portrayed as vulnerable and damaged rather than ploddingly violent, as he is in some of the (albeit wonderful) early twentieth-century creature-feature interpretations.”
Horsley’s vision gives us the tale as seen through the eyes of Oona, an orphaned and isolated island girl, led into the macabre world of madman and monster when she is brought to Frankenstein as his maid. She comes to the role through May, her sole confidant on the island. The two have an inseparable history, with Oona resentful of any sign of their growing apart through adolescence. Loneliness has left her with a propensity for intense connections, and her links with May are binding beyond metaphor, but soon her feelings are being aroused by others too, and her passionate loyalty tugged in new directions.
Vulnerable, spiky, courageous Oona may be a loner in her world, but she’ll defy you not to be sucked in, to become a part of her. She might not be our narrator, but the prose follows in her dogged steps. We live with her, breathe with her, share the faltering of her heart condition, and hope she will not fall under the monster’s spell.
Who is the monster? That would be telling. The duality of Frankenstein, which in popular culture has come to mean the creature almost more so than the creator, is fully explored; but there are others too: abusive men, and that very twenty-first century boogie man, the paedophile.
More than anything however, this is a book where words carry a sting. Just as Oona feels an image can prickle her flesh “like one of Granny’s brushwood hidings” so the language rubs us raw. Yes, there are deft touches – describing a character in a Frankenstein spin-off as a “man of parts” brings a wry smile, the description of “a bolt of pain shot through her neck” does too, albeit accompanied by a wince.
Horsley might secretly enjoy the wince. Perhaps that is what all the retching, vomit and bile are meant to induce. Even so, fingers (and any other spare body parts) crossed she never succumbs to Frobisher’s fate – it would be a loss if this writer were ever blocked.