Read an extract from Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel’s comically sinister tale of wicked spirits and suburban mediums is a masterpiece of dark humour and dark secrets. Read the opening pages from our April Book of the Month here
Longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005, Hilary Mantel’s ninth novel is a comically sinister tale of wicked spirits and suburban mediums. Whether you’re new to the book or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide
Alison Hart, a medium by trade, tours the dormitory towns of London’s orbital ring road with her flint-hearted sidekick, Colette, passing on messages from beloved dead ancestors. But behind her plump, smiling persona hides a desperate woman: she knows the terrors the next life holds but must conceal them from her wide-eyed clients. At the same time she is plagued by spirits from her own past, who infiltrate her body and home, becoming stronger and nastier the more she resists…
Hilary Mantel’s comically sinister tale of wicked spirits and suburban mediums is a masterpiece of dark humour - and even darker secrets.
Hilary Mantel was nominated for the Booker Prize four times, winning it twice. Her first win was for Wolf Hall in 2009 and her second win was for Bring Up the Bodies in 2012.
Mantel was a highly-regarded novelist long before winning the Booker but becoming only the third novelist – after J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey – to scoop the award twice raised her profile to stratospheric heights. As a result of becoming a public figure, her comments on the Royal family and Margaret Thatcher sparked much media interest. In a varied writing career, Mantel, who was made a dame in 2014, detailed her serious health issues with endometriosis, ghosts (she once lived in a former mental asylum in Surrey), and the French Revolution, as well as Thomas Cromwell. She died in September 2022.
Alison is Beyond Black’s protagonist. Detailed as charismatic, overweight and middle-aged, she is a medium, and since childhood has seen the dead around her. As she tours the suburbs of London, moving through psychic fairs at run-down hotels - always accompanied by her spirit guide, Morris - she uses her ‘powers’ to pass on messages from the dead to the living. The daughter of a sex worker, she endured a painful childhood characterised by trauma and abuse, which is slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks.
Morris, dressed in ‘a bookmaker’s check jacket, and suede shoes with bald toe caps’, is a snivelling, vulgar man, riddled with perversions, and a relic of the abuse of Alison’s childhood. He was a customer of her mother. Now dead, he consequently haunts Alison in her adult life and she longs to rid herself of him.
‘Sharp, rude, and effective’, Colette is Alison’s assistant and her polar opposite. A slender woman who has recently undergone a divorce, Alison and Colette meet at a psychic fair where Alison invites the sceptical Colette to join her in touring the psychic fairs on the M25 circuit. Part side-kick, part PA, Colette is also searching for meaning in her life, though is far more cynical than Alison.
Fay Weldon, The Guardian:
‘Hilary Mantel has done something extraordinary. She has taken that ethereal halfway house between heaven and hell, between the living and the dead, and nailed it on the page. She has taken those moments between sleep and waking, when we hardly know who we are, or why, and turned them into a novel that makes the unbelievable believable.’
Claire Dederer, New York Magazine:
‘One senses that Mantel writes so exhaustively about human evil because she hates it so profoundly. That makes her sound hopelessly do-gooderish, like a literary Bono, but Mantel’s brand of morality has a kind of vicious glee to it. She gives us a story of evil overcome and wounds healed, but she also scares the pants off us. She would have us believe that the most appropriate response to evil is not tears but terror.’
Elizabeth Lowry, London Review of Books:
‘Beyond Black is, magnificently, a book of stresses and counter-stresses, establishing riveting oppositions between spirit and body, fear and love, despair and hope, male and female, self-denial and self-indulgence. And, of course, evil and good, damnation and redemption. For there is a redemption of sorts at the end, the suggestion that Alison Harte, although irrevocably damaged, might just escape her long persecution by the Fiends. As Al makes her last break for freedom from Morris, accompanied by the spirits of two elderly ladies who are in the throes of planning a tea party, one of the old biddies pipes up: “This cake we’re having: could we have it iced?” Forget achieving a state of wholeness in this compromised world; the simple absence of daily dread – now that, Mantel seems to imply, would be the icing on the cake.’
Terrence Rafferty, New York Times:
‘Beyond Black feels like a great, gleeful binge, a wallow in the not-good-for-you riches of this writer’s extraordinarily vivid, violent imagination. This is a dark, dark book, but it’s fun to read because at heart it’s a celebration of the joys of saying exactly what’s on your evil little mind.’
Sarah Ditum, The Times:
‘Beyond Black is [Mantel’s] ninth novel and, published in 2005, it was the last she wrote before her Wolf Hall trilogy. It’s also her funniest novel, and — all historical atrocities she has written about taken into account — possibly her cruellest, as well as being a sharp-eyed account of her craft, if you choose to read it that way.’
‘My childhood gave me a very powerful sense of being spooked. I didn’t know whether what I was seeing were sensory images of other people’s unhappiness. Perhaps that was just the way the world manifested itself to me. But, yes, I clearly rooted my own experience into Alison. I think that by the time you’ve written a few novels, it’s quite futile to pretend that you’re not your characters. They penetrate your life, you penetrate theirs.’ She smiles. ‘I spend a lot of my time talking to the dead, but since I get paid for it, no one thinks I’m mad.’
Read more of Hilary Mantel’s interview with the Guardian
‘We lived in what I considered to be a haunted house. There was a day when I was about seven years old and I was playing at the back of the house, and I looked down the long garden and, at a certain spot, I saw something which seemed to be movement and yet it wasn’t. I could sense the existence of something, yet I couldn’t precisely see it or hear it or smell it. It was as if an extra sense was operating. I could tell you its height and depth; it was about the size of a child of two, it was about 18 inches across, and it seemed to move. The nearest analogy I could make was “like flies above a corpse”, and I knew this thing was utterly evil. I felt sick. At first I felt I was to blame because I had been at the wrong time at the wrong place, that I was seeing something indecent, and if I hadn’t looked up at that moment I wouldn’t have put myself in that situation. And I really thought for a few minutes that I was going to die, simply from having seen it.’
Listen to Hilary Mantel’s CBC podcast interview
‘The more available you make yourself to your characters, the more you risk destabilising your own core. Sometimes I’ll walk around the house thinking “Why am I so cold?”. And then I’ll realise that I’ve just killed one of my characters, and they’re cold, so of course I’m cold.’
‘There is a part of you that has to be available day and night to this group of people [her characters] who keep talking to you, who nobody else can see, but you’re in their service.
‘Writing has to steal up on you. And that’s what people always say about ghosts, that you see them out of the corner of your eye.’
Read Hilary Mantel’s interview with Debbie Taylor
‘Alison is an extreme version of myself; she’s what I would have become if I hadn’t had an education. I would have been entirely at the prey of the irrational.
‘I developed a Colette side to survive.’
From Hilary Mantel’s interview with Debbie Taylor
Upon first appearance, Beyond Black presents as a ghost story. However, if you scratch beneath the surface there are other key and prominent themes that Mantel has worked throughout the plot, such as trauma and mental health. To what extent do you think it is a ghost story? Discuss whether you think it supersedes the genre.
‘There are citadels underground, there are potholes and sunken shafts, there are secret chambers in the hearts of men, sometimes of women too. There are unlicensed workings and laboratories underground, mutants breeding in the tunnels; there are cannibal moo-cows and toxic bunnikins, and behind the drawn curtains of hospital wards there are bugs that eat the flesh.’ The version of England that Mantel depicts in Beyond Black is particularly unsavoury - it is festering and laced with decay, a wasteland. Why has the author chosen to write about the country in such a way? What is she trying to portray?
The novel’s protagonist, Alison, is said to be a clairvoyant, tormented by spirits - ‘fiends’ - from another world. Did you find her powers, or worldview, convincing? If not, what do you think they symbolise?
Mantel slowly reveals fragments and details of Alison’s traumatic childhood. Morris, her guide from the other realm, straddles her past and present. What is Morris’s role? Why does he continue to haunt Alison?
Writing in the Times, Sarah Ditum saw Alison as a proxy for Mantel herself. ‘Communing with the dead is, of course, Mantel’s profession as a historical novelist.’ In Alison’s performances, as well as the act of talking to the dead, she felt that the novel felt ‘at least partly like a satire of Mantel’s job’. To what extent do you see echoes of Mantel in the character of Alison?
Alison and Collette’s relationship is odd and at times, fractured. They are opposites, both in appearance and beyond the physical. Despite this, they remain entwined - what do you think drives them to remain together? To what extent might they be seen of two sides of Mantel’s own personality?
In a 2005 podcast interview, Mantel said that ‘If [Alison] could really remember the past, if she could really nail it, maybe it would lose its power over her, and that is her quest in the book. At a very basic level she’s trying to get power over her memories.’ To what extent is this a book about the haunting power of memory, especially the repressed and fragmented memories of a troubled childhood, rather than a ghost story?
Beyond Black is at times deeply disturbing, yet the author tempers this with a dark humour and moments of levity. Why does Mantel use such a contrast in her writing? What effect did this have on you as a reader?
Mantel’s depiction of life beyond death, in ‘airside’ is tedious and at best, no more exciting than that of the living. How does this align with the conventional ideology of a supernatural world? Discuss Mantel’s intention here and why she chooses to root it in the mundane.
Much of Beyond Black concerns itself with the divide between good and evil. Discuss whether the novel convinces you that ‘evil’ does truly exist - as embodied by the ‘fiends’, or conversely, shows only that the most ordinary of people are capable of evil things.
Mantel is synonymous with historical fiction and her exploration of Tudor England through Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize in 2009. Do you see Beyond Black as a departure from this? What does it say about the author and the bounds of her writing? Or do you see thematic or stylistic similarities between Beyond Black and her historical fiction?
The Arts Desk - ‘The first thing I do when I wake up is write.’ Hilary Mantel, 1952-2022
The New Yorker - HIlary Mantel’s Life With Ghosts
New Statesman - Hilary Mantel: ‘I had to be in middle age to imagine what the weight of life does to you’
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