FEELING UNENTITLED

There’s usually an “aha” moment when you find the right title for a story, or it finds you.

With “Repossession”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd (a bumper issue of the Welsh journal celebrating five years in existence ) this moment never came, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s still a story in search of a title.

“Repossession” is about a middle-aged couple who buy their dream house at a knockdown price because it’s been repossessed from the previous owners by the bank. Shel, the wife, begins to suffer odd mental distrubances once they move in, which she suspects are linked to her scruples about benefitting from others’ misfortune, but the reader may not be so sure the two are linked.

Over numerous redrafts, the story’s title morphed into “Onset”, “Slippage”, “Drunkard’s Island”, and then with a kind of weary resignation, I went back to its original title, which by then had taken on the feel of a compromise. 

This was odd because it was this linguistic twinning that combines a ghostly haunting and property speculation in the same word – repossession – that prompted me to write the story in the first place. (Thankfully there’s no copyright on titles because as I was writing it, I discovered Lionel Shriver has a story of the same name in her collection of short stories, Property. Superstitiously, I haven’t read it.)

For some time, I had wanted to try my hand at a ghost story.  At the time of writing, I was teaching the ghost story genre to an undergraduate writing class and we had read Rose Tremain’s marvelously ambiguous story, ” Is Anybody There?” – a title that itself has echoes of that spooky poem of our childhood, The Listeners by Walter de La Mare.  (‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveler/Knocking on the moonlit door;)

Knocking is the portal to the uncanny in Tremain’s story too, which is from Tales from a Master’s Notebook. Stories Henry James Never Wrote. (Vintage Classics), a wonderfully varied compendium of short fiction from ten writers (including Colm Toibín, Amit Chaudhuri, Tessa Hadley and Joseph O’Neill) who were asked to trawl through the notebooks Henry James left behind after his death and choose one of his unused ideas as a starting point for a new fiction.  

James spent 30 years filling his notebooks with thoughts and story ideas, anecdotes from dinner-parties and newspapers, things noticed on his travels. which formed the “germs” of stories for the future. As the collection’s editor Philip Horne remarks, some of James’s ideas read like “a good Hollywood pitch” : –

Couple Asleep – Woken in Night – Husband Nervous – So Wife Goes Down – He Hears Voices – She Won’t tell Him What Happened.

Man Has been Brave By a Fluke – Lives in Terror of Having to be Brave Again.

Young Man in Mid-Western Industrial Town Fills his Room with French Culture – Refuses the Chance to Go There.

Betrayed Wife Must Have Affair to Get Revenge – Can’t.

Wife Has Long Affair – Husband Dies – They Can Marry – What’s the Problem?

Tremain’s “Is Anybody There?” is about two elderly women living side by side in a small English village, one of whom has a dark secret from childhood. When we discussed it in class, we realized how ambiguous the reality of the story is.  We weren’t sure if anything we’re told happens in the story actually does. We didn’t know who the secret belonged to – the narrator or the neighbour?  Was the story a means for the narrator to tell her own story? Were there even two women at all?  Was one the figment of the other’s imagination?

Something about that slipperiness went into “Repossession”, I hope. As readers we’re encouraged to view Shel as flakey because of how the world perceives her.  There are hints of some old trouble – substance abuse, a mental breakdown? Even her over-scrupulous conscience is considered suspect by her husband. But the real kernel of the story for me is the experience she describes shortly after having moved into the new house.

“. . . I woke early in the morning and had the strangest sensation of not knowing who I was, as if I didn’t recognize the inside of myself. You’ve no idea what an odd sensation it was, like a kind of unmooring, a slippage.  I had to get up quietly and tiptoe around the house to find a mirror.  I found one leaning against the wall in the spare bedroom. Once I saw my face, I knew of course.  It wasn’t like being lost, I knew where I was, I just needed my reflection to tell me who I was.”

My godmother, a woman in her 80s, described exactly this sensation to me shortly before she died.  She was of perfectly sound mind and I remember being struck by the existentialist panic of this moment for her – waking up and not knowing who she was.  The only way she could “come back to herself”, she told me, was by looking in the mirror.   

I remember taking a note of it.  Like Henry James, I have dozens of notebooks where ideas can fester for a long time, and often die from lack of writerly oxygen. This one sat there for eight years waiting for its story to come along, but my godmother’s experience haunted me and was something I revisited in my thoughts.  What would it be like not to “know” yourself?  And to be aware that you didn’t.

Which brings me back to the title conundrum. Here are the ones I discarded and why.

Calling the story “Onset” I thought might unfairly emphasize what is a singular experience in the story.  It would skew the reader’s expectation towards a narrative of dementia.  Shel’s “episode” might foreshadow further “unmoorings”, but equally, it might not.  I’m imagining many of us have experienced similar instances of momentary self-estrangement.

My second title option, “Slippage”, also radiated from this moment in the story. But as a title it has broader connotations. It suggests the general sense of displacement Shel experiences when she moves house – not only in terms of location, but in her grasp of time – for example at one point, history, or the fruits of her historical subconscious, opens up in front of her. But it seemed to me that this title depicted the story’s atmosphere rather than its content.

“Drunkard’s Island” is the name of a real place in west Limerick which I salted away in a notebook 30 years ago and have always wanted to use. The trouble is, as a title, it fails to signpost anything for the reader beyond, perhaps, exciting curiosity. (Not a bad quality in a title.) But it tells you nothing about the narrative, so I jettisoned it.

Unsatisfactory as it is, “Repossession” is probably the title that steers the reader least, and in a ghost story I think that’s important.  It’s a genre that thrives on uncertainty. This title does what it says on the tin; it’s a story about a house that’s been repossessed.

But still I wonder.  Is the perfect title for the story still out there somewhere?

You can read ‘Repossession’ in Five Years: Issue Twelve of The Lonely Crowd.

The ghost of the good priest

the-innocents-1961
A scene from The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw

Must all clergy automatically be distrusted because of the Catholic church’s abominable record of sexual and physical abuse?  What about the good priest? Don’t honorable nuns exist? That’s the question Conor O’Callaghan implicitly asks in his recently paperbacked novel, Nothing on Earth.  (It’s a very pertinent question given the heated controversy of recent days about the new national maternity hospital and who should own it.)

The first person narrator in Nothing on Earth is a priest – or was one. At first we don’t know who this “I” is. (And perhaps that’s a telling ambiguity.) It is only as we read on that we realise the significance of his position. When we learn that, it forces us to re-evaluate the entire narrative in the light of our new knowledge.

The unnamed narrator is visited by a young distressed girl whose family, residents of the local ghost estate, have all mysteriously disappeared over a long, and untypically hot Irish summer. The night she arrives, the weather suddenly breaks so the pair – middle-aged cleric and runaway child are trapped inside the priest’s house while the rain drums violently outside. He is charged as a responsible adult with looking after her overnight while the authorities try to place her.

The girl is presented as both helpless and strangely powerful, needy and self-contained, childish and sexually precocious, victim and agent. We see the priest struggling with his own sexually ambiguous feelings as he realises the optics of his situation – a middle-aged cleric left alone with a vulnerable charge. He goes through a dark night of the soul during which he is haunted by ghosts.

Is he in the grip of an existential crisis, trying to maintain his position as pastoral carer without compromising his vocation? Or is he working out an internal sexual drama where he draws close to, then withdraws from his own sexual urges? Does the girl really exist or is she a succubus, a phantom of his suppressed sexual desires? Are the events that unfold a symptom of his inner turmoil or the cause of his breakdown? Or is his narrative, told in retrospect, an attempt to reshape the crisis that precipitated his disintegration?

There are obvious comparisons here to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a chilling novella written late in James’s career and also a ghost story. The narrator is a young woman, a parson’s daughter (an important detail), who is engaged as a governess in a remote English country house.  Isolated and alone, and in a precarious emotional state, she comes to believe that the two children she is caring for are in communication with evil spirits. These come in the shape of two former employees of the house, Quint, a valet, and Miss Jessell, a governess, who have been sacked because their illicit sexual relationship has been discovered by their employers.

We see the events through the governess’s eyes. So as readers, we end up wondering is the governess mad? Are the “ghosts” of Quint and Jessell real presences? If they are, then her struggle is one of good against evil as she attempts to “save” her charges from dark, sexual, and possibly Satanic forces.  If they’re illusions, then we are seeing a disturbing manifestation of her interior state, suggesting a suppressed sexual hysteria. So we, as readers, have to make a judgement call.

As critic Brad Leithauser has put it: “The reader in effect becomes a jury of one. He or she must determine the governess’s guilt or innocence,”

Likewise with the priest at the centre of Nothing on Earth, Conor O’Callaghan is asking us – should we believe him?  This priest manifests all our anxieties and suspicions about the Catholic clergy in the light of the sexual abuse scandals. Is he a “good” priest?  Or is he a sexual predator? Is he well-intentioned but misunderstood?  – “I will not be the man they want me to be. I will not wear their scapegoat’s crown of thorns.” – Or is he in such deep denial that he has manufactured an elaborate fictional edifice to hide an unspecified guilt?  “So I wrote what I did see, what I know I heard.”

Should we trust him, O’Callaghan seems to be asking. Should we trust any priest?

Like all great fiction, Nothing on Earth begs the question, but doesn’t answer it. That’s up to the reader.