As we’re still within the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas I’m going to continue the theme of Christmas ghost stories by recommending “The Inn at the Edge of the World” by British author, Alice Thomas Ellis. This novel was first published in 1990. Second-hand paperback copies are easy to find and it has recently become available as an ebook. Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) was renowned as a literary editor and novelist so she may not seem an obvious choice for Fantasy Reads. However, she often drew inspiration from British folklore and many of her novels feature elements which can be interpreted as supernatural.
“The Inn at the Edge of the World” is set on an (unnamed) island off the west coast of Scotland. Eric has left the “horrid comfort” of a boring life in England to fulfill his romantic dream of running a small hotel “at the edge of the world”. It isn’t going well. The inn is unprofitable, Eric doesn’t get on with most of the locals and his bored wife, Mabel, longs to return to city life. In a last effort to drum up custom, Eric places an advert suggesting that people who are dreading the Festive Season should come to stay in his remote hotel in a place that doesn’t celebrate Christmas – the islanders get drunk on New Year’s Eve instead.
Mabel thinks that the advert is silly but it attracts five guests from England. She flounces off to Glasgow just as these visitors arrive on the island. They are Jessica, a charming actress best known for doing voice-overs for commercials, Jon, a handsome young actor who claims to be much better acquainted with Jessica than he actually is, Ronald, a psychoanalyst whose wife has just left him, Anita, who runs the stationary section in a London department store, and Harry, a retired soldier who once lived on the island. Eric manages to look after his guests with the help of local handyman, Finlay, and his silent, web-fingered sister-in-law.
The five guests socialize with the regular customers in Eric’s bar, who are mainly well-off people from the mainland with holiday homes on the island. The true islanders prove harder to fathom. Several of the guests join in a ghost-hunt and Jessica learns about tragic events in Harry’s past. As everyone tries to ignore the season of goodwill, there are disquieting incidents – a fence is repeatedly torn down, a mysterious boy keeps appearing near the inn and the local seals behave strangely. It gradually becomes apparent that one of Eric’s guests is in danger and another is probably insane. Who will survive Christmas at the edge of the world?
Alice Thomas Ellis was the pen-name of Anna Haycraft. Like Alison Uttley (see my last post), Haycraft was a woman of fascinating contradictions. Though she came from a family of atheist intellectuals, she grew up to be both a devout Roman Catholic and a fierce critic of the Catholic Church. She nearly became a nun but eventually married a publisher and had seven children. She spent most of her time in cities but seems to have felt most of home deep in the Welsh countryside. Her lifestyle was famously Bohemian but her writing was highly disciplined. Her novels are black comedies which deal with serious moral and spiritual issues. Haycraft claimed to reject Feminism but the heroines of her novels are often strong, free-thinking and free-loving women.
None of Haycraft’s elusive novels fit neatly into established genres. I might classify “The Island at the Edge of the World” as Literary Fantasy but it could also be called a social comedy, a ghost story, a moral tale, or even a “woman in peril” thriller. Let’s take the comedy first. Haycraft’s accounts of her chaotic domestic life, collected as “Home Life” volumes I-IV, are among the funniest books I know and a great consolation to hopeless homemakers everywhere. Her novels are comic in a much darker way, so don’t expect sweetness, sentimentality or conventional happy endings. Haycraft enjoyed taking urban sophisticates out of their comfort zone and subjecting them to boredom and bafflement in the countryside until their certainties are stripped away. In this novel she shows little mercy towards comic characters like pompous Ronald and pretentious Anita. Ronald is depicted as a man stuffed with academic knowledge about the human psyche who hasn’t a clue about how to relate to actual human beings. I do feel that Haycraft is a bit hard on poor Anita, who pretends to be a fashion-buyer because clothes are more glamorous than stationary and longs to be thought of as a “real woman”.
Critics have often found the mix of comedy and tragedy in Haycraft’s novels unsettling but part of the point of “The Inn at the Edge of the World” is that most of its characters don’t know what kind of story they are in. For some, their stay on the island will be a comedy of errors; for others a shocking tragedy or a longed-for release. Jessica mocks the melodramatic plight of the heroine of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (the only novel she has with her) not realizing that she herself has been cast as the central figure in somebody’s grand obsession. Only Harry, a man who has lost two loved ones in the prime of their lives, expects the island’s ghosts and journeys clear-eyed towards his destiny. Haycraft herself had to endure the deaths of two of her children. She writes about life-long grief in a precise and understated way that I find intensely moving.
The supernatural elements in “The Inn at the Edge of the World” enhance both the tragic and comic aspects of the story. The novel’s viewpoint characters – Eric and his five guests – are all outsiders in the context of the island. Cynical Eric is scathing about the bogus crafts and customs which the islanders sell to tourists but is unaware of the deeper level at which ancient ways and beliefs continue. Most of Eric’s customers think of themselves as superior to the superstitious locals but it is the visitors who aren’t seeing things clearly. Much of the humour in the novel comes from the visitors’ failure to recognize ghostly encounters while they are having them or to notice the extraordinary, even when it is serving them breakfast. Like Margo Lanagan in her brilliantly written novel, “The Brides of Rollrock Island” (see my Fantasy Reads post of November 2013), Haycraft has updated the legend of seal-woman (Selkies) who marry humans, with emphasis on the domestic drudgery they are subjected to.
One of the things I like about Haycraft’s work is the way that she transforms unsympathetic characters by giving them what I would call luminous moments. Eric’s barely suppressed hatred for his customers is played for laughs but he has moments when he is still overwhelmed by the wild beauty of the island. Something he glimpses in the final part of the story alters his perception of the boundary between life and death. Actress Jessica is sometimes vain and shallow but she is redeemed by kind impulses and flashes of self-awareness. Jessica experiences both physical and spiritual danger on the island and realizes that turning her back on Christmas is a symptom of turning her back on life. There is no tinsel or jollity in this Christmas story but “The Inn at the Edge of the World” still makes you believe in the importance of celebrating human contacts and the renewal of hope at the darkest time of the year. Until next year….