Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A Magician's Sleight of Hand - Julie Myerson's The Quickening

I read this Hammer horror novella on holiday and found it a compelling page-turner. Picking it up again to review it, I read the entire book again and realised how very clever it is.

In this haunted honeymoon story, Myerson uses a magician’s masterly sleight of hand in order to distract us from what’s really going on. Newly pregnant, Rachel has been bulldozed into a quick wedding and a honeymoon in Antigua. On the way from the airport, the driver bizarrely says that her husband is on the island. ‘Not now. Always. He cannot leave.’

This echo from The Shining (You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know. I’ve always been here) sets the tone, and when they arrive at the resort, even the words, ‘Rachel held the towel to her wrists, her throat,’ made me see her stemming blood, rather than enjoying scented towels.

Myerson’s staccato style, without inverted commas, makes the writing feel tense and fast-moving. Rachel’s point of view is edgy from the start – the empty suitcases look ‘depressing’; she sees a figure on the beach and shivers. Every tiny observation is used to ramp up the tension.

The real horror of the piece, however, is Rachel and Dan’s marriage. We’ve all known a Dan – he’s the partner of a friend of yours and none of your women friends can stand him. He’s a foul-mouthed, irritable loser, a liar and a bully. When Rachel is first upset by a horrible ghostly encounter, he is drunk and bad-tempered. ‘What now?’ he says, and then drags her into his lap. His lack of sensitivity and sudden, selfish advances make us see him as a sexual predator rather than an amorous newly-wed. When she wants him to feel the baby moving, he can’t drag his eyes off the cricket. Most food nauseates Rachel and Myserson brilliantly uses descriptions of Dan gobbling with gusto to make us feel revolted on her account.

The depiction of the haunting and the way it overwhelms Rachel is skilfully observed, but what is truly masterful is the way Myerson uses our suspicion of the odious Dan to distract us from other possibilities in the story. Reading the book a second time, I realised that I had taken in details that screamed of someone else’s guilt, but brushed past them when Myerson, with expert timing, threw in another despicable facet of Dan’s character. And I’m not giving away the ending here, because Dan is also a guilty man.

I write psychological suspense stories myself, and I can only admire Myserson’s clever ruse. Rachel is pregnant and has been rushed into marriage. She is partially in denial about the nature of her relationship and later reveals that she suffers from anxiety. This all makes her vulnerable and unstable in our eyes. The ghostly events and real murders on the island destabilise her further so that we accept gaps and inconsistencies in her point of view, which only serve to make us more fearful for her and her unborn child.

The only downside to this is revealed in other reviews – many readers are irritated by Rachel as a  hapless victim, always spoiling the holiday fun with her fainting fits. It is true that this could detract from our identification with her, but it is part of the book’s masterplan, which certainly worked on me.

Read it twice – once to be taken in and a second time to admire how brilliantly Myerson achieved this.

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