This week’s weird fiction — or, at least, it will be discussed as weird fiction.
Review: “Blood Disease”, Patrick McGrath, 1988.
I had not heard of McGrath before, but the collective mind of LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group voted this one for discussion. The dust jacket on the collection where it first appeared, Blood and Water and Other Tales, calls him a “postmodern-gothic storyteller”. In a sense, that’s true in terms of this story.
McGrath raises many expectations as to where his tale is going, introduces elements that go nowhere, emphasizes the exact timing of coincidences, and evokes clichés by bringing them up and not quite talking directly to the reader.
The outline is fairly simple.
Congo Bill, an anthropologist (he’s been with the pygmies so I suspect that McGrath was reading some Colin Turnbull), returns to England with a pet monkey and severely debilitated from malaria.
He is greeted by his wife Virginia Clack-Herman and son Frank whom he gives the monkey to. On the way, they stop for the night at the Blue Bat inn. Shortly after Congo Bill and company arrive, the rich man Ronald Dexter and his valet Clutch stop there too. Virginia and Dexter are old acquaintances and sexually attracted to each to other at dinner that night, so she ditches the infirm and sleeping Congo Bill to have sex with Dexter.
Dexter and Virginia are abducted and taken to the inn’s basement to have their throats slit by the inn owner – and their blood drunk by him and the villagers. Frank, before this, carries his dead monkey around and makes the acquaintance of Meg Pander, the daughter of the inn owner. She takes him to watch the bloodletting.
Naturally, he’s horrified, makes a noise, and gets his throat slit too. Clutch, who has figured something is wrong, brings the police back to deal with the murderous villagers, and they are apprehended. All this time, the infirm Congo Bill has been in bed dreaming of his time in Africa and visions of Virginia in a deserted village.
On the one hand, this can be seen as a simple horror or crime story about murderously waylaying travelers. (The story is set in 1934.) McGrath complicates the whole thing by having the villagers driven crazy with bloodlust by pernicious anemia – drinking the blood to better their health. But McGrath fills his story with the violation of expectations.
Is Congo Bill going to come back with some strange disease he only thinks is malaria? Nope. (Though the mosquito that starts the tale links up, in natural and metaphorical terms, with the bloodlusting villagers.) Is the monkey some demonic creature? Nope. (And, though seeming to be dead, he wakes up in the final scene with Frank – but he doesn’t save the day.)
Does Clutch, the unnaturally wise valet (whose head is described as completely bald, large, and resembling a Neanderthal’s or fetus’), save the day? Well, not for the two Panders or Dexter. We first see him rubbing a silver cross down the crease of Dexter’s pants as he irons them. That leads us to expect vampires (which we kind of get, but not literally). Five minutes in the inn’s bar and Clutch knows everyone is suffering from pernicious anemia and are probably dangerous. But he also knows no one is going to believe him – or attack him if they know their secret is out, so he heads to town to talk to the police and a doctor. But Clutch isn’t one of those wise servants who physically saves his employer with occult knowledge, physical courage, or wit.
Is Congo Bill, dreaming of his wife in an African village, going to wake up in time to realize something is wrong? Nope. Is Meg going to save Frank from his sacrifice? Nope. Are the vampiric locals going to contract some horrible disease from Congo Bill or the monkey? Nope.
For that matter, we get a trifle bit of incest in that Dexter and Virginia have sex despite “their consanguinity” though they are “very distantly related”. You see? McGrath doesn’t even do good old fashioned incest if he’s trying to be Gothic!
An interesting weird story that’s really only weird because it plays with our expectations, not in what it produces.
The title is truth in labeling though.