There’s another sense, aside from the ghostly goings-on, in which Beyond Black may be Mantel’s most personal book. After all, the role of the medium and the writer are not so dissimilar, pulling people real and imagined out of the air, reanimating the historical dead as Mantel did so brilliantly in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. ‘What is to be done with the lost, the dead,’ she wrote in Giving Up the Ghost, ‘but write them into being?’
Like Alison in Beyond Black, the novelist has drudgery behind the perceived glamour of the role: the putting one word in front of another, the four hundred decisions per page. If the psychic, as Mantel put it to CBC, offers people answers to the questions, ‘Who am I? Where do I fit?’, then so too does the novelist. ‘Someone could hand over a tenner at the door,’ thinks Colette, ‘and get so much hope in return.’ Mantel was not interested, she said, in whether the performances of mediums were true, but in whether they helped people. And to the New Yorker, she spoke of her writing talent in the tones of a psychic gift: ‘It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.’
‘Don’t imagine,’ Alison tells herself in Beyond Black, ‘because it is imagining that gives them the door to get in.’ We never know whether Alison’s ghosts are ‘real’ or the manifestation of her terrible childhood that will not go away. In Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel writes that ‘when you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led.’ For her, the ghost life could have been a life of good health: in the seven years she lived in one house, she took 10,000 painkillers (‘a conservative estimate’); in an interview published two weeks before her death, she said, ‘When I was small, an unkind doctor called me ‘Little Miss Neverwell’. Now I’m Great Dame Neverwell.’
It could have been a life with children, which Mantel’s ill-health prevented her from having. ‘I wasn’t certain, and I’m still not certain, that I wanted children,’ she told the New Yorker. ‘What I wanted was the choice.’ In Giving Up the Ghost she writes of ‘my own unborn children, stretching out their ghost fingers to grab the pen.’ She calls her unborn child Catriona (‘I have a mental picture of her’), and she and her husband bought a large house, ‘the cupboards packed with linen and towels’, ready for people to stay, for visitors who never came, for children who were never born.
In later life, she tells us in Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel and her husband moved to an apartment, in a converted 19th century lunatic asylum, complete with gargoyles that guard the roofs. By then, something had changed. Aren’t you afraid of ghosts? visitors would ask. She smiles and shakes her head. ‘Not I,’ she writes. ‘Not I: not here: not now.’