Peter Straub’s new novel, Mrs. God, isn’t entirely new. It first appeared as part of a longer work, Houses Without Doors. Then its title was prosaic and uninviting. Now it’s so ludicrous it beckons you in. Professor William Standish has received the rare honor of a fellowship to study at Esswood House in England, home and estate of the Seneschal family. For a period of three weeks he will have access to Esswood’s famous library and the private papers of Isobel Standish, a former guest, forgotten poet, and distant relative. He believes it’s time her reputation was rehabilitated, that she should now take her place among greats such as Eliot and Pound. He flies to England and checks into the house, but not before learning “there is supposed to be a secret.” His curiosity is piqued and the reader waits for the drama to unfold.
And waits. Along the way, Straub seeks to authenticate Esswood as an illustrious literary bolt-hole by having real writers as past guests. Apparently D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and Henry James went on to produce their masterpieces after their stay. Straub even hints that the “remote house” in The Turn of the Screw was inspired by Esswood. We are told more about his fictional writer. Isobel Standish is “an important precursor of Modernism,” “a poet of the first rank,” and “in some ways the Emily Dickinson of the twentieth century.” Straub should have left the eulogy at that, but instead he opts to include one of her poems. Unfortunately, it’s hopeless doggerel. A. S. Byatt performed the same trick by incorporating the Victorian verse of a fictitious poet into the pages of Possession. It was a risk, but she pulled it off. The trick backfires on Straub because he isn’t in Byatt’s league. Namedropping real writers who write better than Straub was a mistake; attempting to realise a 20th-century Emily Dickinson was disastrous.
We would expect Straub to be on safer ground when describing Esswood. Poe called his House of Usher a “mansion of gloom” and Esswood is of the same mold. However, it lacks any originality. Standish doesn’t reside there, he is “immured.” He loses himself in “a rat’s run” of secret corridors with locked doors and cobwebbed rooms. We eventually hear of the obligatory family curse, at which point Standish thinks he hears ghostly laughter. By the time we get to the token graveyard scene we have ticked all the boxes. This is horror-mystery by numbers, but plodding along so slowly that the supposed shocks are stale and predictable. There are vestiges of hope in the form of a creepy basement room containing “broken babies and their toys,” and the occasional foray into fresh inventiveness (Standish is served the same meals every day; of his morning kippers: “The smoked corpse of a fish regarded him with dead eyes”), but they’re quickly obliterated by a renewed assault of cliché: a fountain erupts in a “glittering shower of diamonds,” a wall of fire pushes Standish back “like a giant hand,” and decapitated heads are “surprisingly heavy, like bowling balls.”
As if aware of his bland prose, Straub tries to spice it up in a bizarre scene in a bathroom. One minute Standish is cleaning his teeth, the next, apropos of nothing, he’s masturbating into the sink. “Gouts of semen shot out of him like the water from the fountain.” He notes “a final cloud of white semen” oozing across the pattern of flowers (thank God Straub makes clear it was “white”). There’s an equally baffling mention of semen early on in the book: “Like sweat or semen, anxiety was a physical substance that poured from a self-replenishing well.” We should perhaps be grateful that Straub confined this image to the main narrative and not attributed it to his Dickinson-esque poet.
Mrs. God is a tedious, hackneyed novel by a writer who’s capable of impressing within his chosen genre. It’s horrific, but not in the way Straub intended. His hero’s descent into axe-wielding madness is both too abrupt and too derivative; Stephen King did it first and better in The Shining. What could have been a subtle, spooky tale in the tradition of M. R. James ends up a chaotic and, crucially, unbelievable, mess. (We wish also Straub had heeded James’s warning that blending sex into the ghost story is a “fatal mistake.”) Straub writes that Standish’s emotions “swung wildly free within him, vacillating between frustration, rage, disappointment, amusement, and fear without settling on any one of them.” Take “fear” away and you have a similar range that afflicts the reader. We close The Turn of the Screw and are left wondering whether Quint and Miss Jessel are figments of the governess’s mad mind. We couldn’t care less about the ghosts in Mrs. God, and close the book only with relief.
This novel can be summarised by Straub’s language during a scene in a pub. Standish orders a ploughman’s lunch and has high hopes of something hearty. Instead he’s brought a heel of bread and “a large wedge of cheese.” He isn’t happy. The cheese is referred to twice more, its description unvaried; never is it a piece or a chunk or a slab, always a “wedge.” Mrs. God strives to be creative, unsettling, disorienting, but despite its ghosts and secrets it can’t transform itself into anything more exalted than Standish’s simple, unappetising, and deeply anticlimactic lunch: “a large wedge of cheese.”
Peter Straub’s Mrs. God was released on February 15 by Pegasus to purchase it, click here.