This gripping psychological horror novel by Caroline Blackwood, author of "The Stepdaughter" and widow of Robert Lowell, communicates such a despairing sense of evil and menace that one almost hesitates to recommend it. Readers of horror novels are continually "warned" by trite jacket copy to beware of the ensuing gruesome terrors, but here the appropriate warning would be quite different: Although "The Fate of Mary Rose" contains no overtly depicted violence and no conventional "scare" sequences, it is so artfully unpleasant that the reader may well long for a bit of old-fashioned Gothic mayhem.
The plot centers on the loveless marriage of Rowan and Cressida Anderson, a young English couple who dislike each other intensely but maintain a facade of amiable domesticity for the benefit of their 6-year-old daughter, Mary Rose. Rowan, the narrator, wants a divorce but is too passive to ask for one. He detests the occasions when he leaves his London flat and mistress to visit his family in Kent: "We were murch too polite to each other when I came to stay. Our unflagging courtesy was like a cord that bound us together and also choked us. . . . I loathed the way we had learned to skate so gracefully on the ice of our own politeness."
The ice breaks when a 10-year-old girl in the neighborhood is raped, mutilated and murdered by an unknown assailant, sending the village into a panic and the couple into what ultimately becomes a life and death struggle over their daughter. As Blackwood depicts it, the village of Beckham, with its "odious gentility" and hidden hysteria, is much like the Andersons' marriage. The bland suburban town becomes fearful, paranoid and finally vicious; when the police bring an 18-year-old suspect in for questioning, a crowd of screaming women assaults the van, attempting to haul the boy out and cut off his genitals. One of the most bloodthirsty avengers is Cressida, who brings her terrified daughter, after dragging her to the bloodstained scene of the murder, describing it in graphic detail, and locking her in her room to protect her "from all the poisons of an evil-infested universe."
The only flaw in this superbly simple and powerful story is the ending -- or rather, the lack of one. The reader, like the narrator, is overwhelmed by "an impending sense of catastrophe" and is frustrated and disappointed when the novel suddenly lurches to a halt before the terms of the catastrophe have been clarified. Blackwood obviously subscribes to the notion that horror is more horrifying when left, like life, unresolved. This is a perfectly sensible theory, and one embraced by every major horror writer from Le Fanu to Ramsey Campbell. But there is a difference between leaving a teasing ambiguity at the end and simply withdrawing before the end is reached.
Until that final note of disappointment, the incredible darkness in "The Fate of Mary Rose" is deftly orchestrated. The entire village takes on a "sinister and throbbing atmosphere," precisely the atmosphere of the novel. Yet, there is nothing murky or Gothic about the writing. On the contrary, Blackwood's prose is hard and clear. The novel's single and singularly unerotic sex scene -- in which the hero is unknowingly used "as a stud" so the heroine can produce a child -- is a particularly bleak and compelling example: "I kissed her cold white breasts and their whiteness reminded me of my laundry. . . . I suddenly wanted to stop trying to make love to this corpse-like blonde girl. Another brandy seemed more attractive than she did. I felt tired and dispirited and I would have willigly abandoned the whole doomed enterprise but Cressida's chilling silence made me too embarrassed to stop. I thought she would find it incredibly rude." Afterward, Cressida seems stunned, "incapable of speaking. She reminded me of someone who had just come round from an anesthetic at the dentist." In her pregnancy, her swollen belly seems to the narrator "like a malignant growth."
Clearly, the narrator is not exactly a warm or dashing hero. Indeed, his callousness and passivity are so extreme that they become as ominous as everything else, especially since he can't remember where he was the night of the murder. As for the heroine, her "snake-pit expression" fits her behavior exactly. The wonder is that Blackwood has been able to create so much terror and tension around such unrelievedly unlikable characters. Why should we care about such wretched people?
This is a difficult question to answer. Blackwood's sense of the macabre has an uncompromising coldness reminiscent of Shirley Jackson and L. P. Hartley, but she has none of their redeeming humor. What she does have is an unusual gift for making despair resonant and universal, even though her pathetic characters seem intrinsically incapable of rising to any such lofty occasion. In one enormously touching scene that appears to sum up the novel, an eccentric, lonely widow decides to give up her wonderful and immaculate garden, the one remaining passion in her life. The murder and its hideous aftermath make her lose faith in gardening "like people lose their faith in God. . . . Now I feel my whole dream of doing beautiful things was always rather hopeless. You can only carry it out on such a small and useless scale." It is this willingness to take inventive allegorical turns that gives "The Fate of Mary Rose," in spite of its bleakness, a strange dignity and pathos.