Sticking with the theme of death, I moved on to How the Dead Live, by Will Self. This was the first book he wrote off heroin, but it’s just as weird as My Idea of Fun, which opens with the narrator’s contemplating ripping off the head of an interlocutor (who has just asked him, “What’s your idea of fun?”) and fucking the victim’s neck. Or so I seem to remember. It turns out that how the dead live is pretty much how the living do: boring jobs, bad habits, money troubles and (inevitable in books of a certain grim English type) greasy lino.
You’re familiar with the premises they favour, leased with the evidence of failed businesses still stacked about: Nobbo pegboards, Sasco year planners, redundant Roladexes, outmoded computing equipment. Yeah, this the kind of swinging scene the deatheaucracy favours. Indeed, it’s difficult . . . to see them in any other context, ratty little men in brown suits that they are. Just as it’s impossible to imagine them not twiddling with their computer-games consoles, or fiddling with their Gameboys. Why can it be that the people who run death have such a reliable appetite for gadgets, fads, crazes—anything, in fact, that will allow them the opportunity to fidget for hour after hour, whilst the traffic clots in the arteries outside, and we shades gather among the shadows in the waiting room.
Speaking of shades, on to a masterwork by Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black—one of the most frightening books I have ever read. The horror is not what Alison, the psychic protagonist, sees as she plies her trade in the grubby suburbs outside London, but what she lived through as a child born into a world of cruelty and deprivation that haunts her in the most literal sense. I really cannot explain what a genius Hilary Mantel is so I will not try. But here is Alison’s “spirit guide”:
Morris, at once, stopped singing and began agitating for his comfort stop. He showed an unhealthy interest in gents’ toilets: when he swarmed back into the car after a break at a service area, you could catch the whiff of piss and floral disinfectant from the crepe soles of his shoes. . . . He hoped, always, to see somebody he knew, Aitkenside or Bob Fox or even bloody MacArthur . . . He wanted a man’s life, men’s company, and he would creep around the lorry park waving, gesturing, looking for his mates, making that secret signal that men make to other men, to say they want a chin-wag and a smoke, to say they’re lonely, to say they want company but they’re not like that. . . . [A]nd around the tankers and the trucks he would slide on his crepe-soled feet, calling, “Aitkenside, MacArthur, are you there, lads?”
For in truth he intended to cripple them but after he had crippled them he meant to make his peace. For they were dead too and in the halls of the dead they were in different halls. And in the lorry parks of the dead they had not coincided yet.