A Pleasing Terror: Kingsley Amis’s "The Green Man"

Editor’s Note:  This essay appears as the Introduction to the new NYRB Classics edition of Kingsley Amis’s novel The Green Man, and appears here by kind permission of the NYRB Classics and the author. It avoids plot spoilers and may be safely read by those new to the novel.

Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo. I assume, of course, that the writer will have got his central idea before he undertakes the story at all. Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable. –M. R. James

Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man was first published in 1969, just as the great 1970s boom in horror fiction was about to begin. Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby had already appeared in 1967, and was followed by William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1971), Stephen King’s Carrie (1974), and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979). The enormous popularity of these novels, and others, made clear what shouldn’t have been forgotten — that the supernatural tale can be a moral tale, almost by its very nature compelled to address our unacknowledged desires and our most universal fears.

Amis himself particularly admired M. R. James (1862–1936), whose various “ghost stories of an antiquary” stand as classics of an English tradition of relatively restrained supernatural fiction. In James’s work the dead past reaches out into the present — with a vengeance. In anthology classics such as “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” and “Casting the Runes” overly inquisitive dons discover a curious artifact or violate some ancient prohibition and thus bring down upon themselves the unwelcome attention of revenants and demons. For example, Professor Parkins, on holiday, strolls along a beach and almost literally stumbles upon the ruins of a Templar preceptory. There among its crumbling tombstones he — unfortunately for him — makes a small discovery:

It was of bronze, he now saw, and was shaped very much after the manner of the modern dog-whistle; in fact, it was — yes, certainly it was — actually no more nor less than a whistle. He put it to his lips. . . .He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round.

Amis included “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” in The Amis Story Anthology as one of his favorite short stories. Everything builds to this moment when Parkins blows the whistle and then gradually realizes that he is no longer alone in his hotel room. In general, James’s eerie tales are highly atmospheric, leading up to a single short, sharp shock.

The supernatural novel, by contrast, readily tends to become a journey into the self. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw dwells on its protagonist’s psychological state; Walter de la Mare’s The Return examines the nature of human identity; Algernon Blackwood’s The Centaur takes up the possibility of spiritual transcendence. There is, of course, a more visceral tradition too. For example, Dennis Wheatley’s occult thrillers, such as The Devil Rides Out and To the DevilA Daughter, are pulp adventure stories built around Satanism, possession, and sexual threat.

Amis’s The Green Man draws on all these traditions.

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. –M. R. James

While confirmed bachelor “Monty” James may have had no patience with sex in a ghost story, Amis makes it central to The Green Man. Seduction, of several sorts, suffuses the narrative, imbues it, at times, with an almost pornographic fascination.

Maurice Allington owns the Green Man, a well-regarded country inn, not too far from Cambridge, in the town of Fareham. (The latter’s name, we eventually learn, derives from the Anglo-Saxon words “feor” and “holme,” meaning the home or place of fear.) Maurice himself is fifty-three years old, drinks a bottle of whiskey a day, and if not completely self-absorbed that’s only because he is constantly on the prowl. Though he remarried shortly after the accidental death of his first wife some eighteen months previous, he has recently grown obsessed with the tall, blond, full-breasted Diana, who is married to his doctor and friend Jack Maybury. In fact, Maurice doesn’t just want to seduce Diana, he wants to convince her and his new young wife, Joyce, to participate in an orgiastic threesome.

Maurice is a stellar example of what’s been called a typical Amis “shit.” He views any conversation with women as boring and calls maneuvering them into sexual surrender “this grim chore.” But, like many cads, he is also funny and charming and clearly attractive. His narrative voice — easygoing, acerbic, and completely unapologetic about his likes and dislikes — is quite irresistible. His utter egotism notwithstanding, Maurice does care deeply for his thirteen-year-old daughter, Amy, even if he leaves her alone in her room to watch television all day. He also loves his seventy-nine-year-old father, though he doesn’t understand him, either. His twenty-four-year-old son, Nick, teaches French at a Midlands university and is married to a somewhat plain but intellectual woman named Lucy.

Such are the novel’s human dramatis personae. But as unsettling things start to happen, Maurice encounters various supernatural beings, each announced by the book’s five chapter titles: “The Red- Haired Woman,” “Dr Thomas Underhill,” “The Small Bird,” “The Young Man,” and “A Movement in the Grass.” Don’t be mistaken by the innocuousness of these descriptive phrases. In some ways, that pleasant young man, who might have stepped out of an advertisement for an expensive aftershave, may well be the most terrifying being you will ever meet, worse even than a seventeenth-century necromancer with a taste for pubescent girls — “green” girls, so to speak — and a monster that “rustles and crackles” as it moves and makes a strange whistling sound before it tears its victims to pieces.

When Maurice is asked, “Why do you look as if something’s after you all the time?,” one answer might be “Because I’ve seen a ghost.” But another might well be “Because the hound of Heaven is on my heels” or “Because at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot drawing near.” The desire for sex and the fear of death are inextricably linked: Dying, after all, traditionally describes sexual ecstasy as well as personal extinction. Behind Maurice’s laddish bluster lies a quiet desperation, a longing for peace of mind and for release from his unrelenting self-consciousness.

On the whole . . . I think that a setting so modern that the ordinary reader can judge of its naturalness for himself is preferable to anything antique. For some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories; not a very insistent actuality, but one strong enough to allow the reader to identify himself with the patient; while it is almost inevitable that the reader of an antique story should fall into the position of the mere spectator. –M. R. James

A ghost story initially needs to convince the reader not in the existence of ghosts but in the existence of the normal, the familiar, the ordinary routine into which the ghost obtrudes. In The Green Man Amis lovingly regales the reader with factual detail. The novel opens with an entry from the Good Food Guide, outlining the merits of Maurice’s inn and listing some of its patrons, all of them real people (including such Amis friends as the science-fiction writers Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison). We not only learn that the Green Man employs a staff of nine but are introduced to at least six of them. Maurice describes his daily rounds to wine merchants and provisioners. He tells us exactly what people order for dinner and what drinks he serves. He describes his nighttime “jactitations,” or twitchings, and mentions his feelings of guilt over his first wife’s death. When he glimpses a red-haired woman on the second (and private) floor, wearing a dress rather warm for a hot August night, he assumes that she’s a guest who has gotten a bit turned around.

Maurice himself circulates in the dining room in the evenings, and naturally some of the visitors want to hear the story about the inn’s supposed ghost or ghosts. He relates the tale with practiced finesse. Back in the seventeenth century Dr. Thomas Underhill was supposed to dabble in the dark arts and after his death his figure was occasionally glimpsed at a particular window, peering out toward a copse on a nearby hill, sometimes with a look of pure terror on his face. According to legend, Underhill could destroy his enemies from a distance. By what means, though, was never established. When, for instance, the mangled body of his wife was discovered, the degree of violence used was far in excess of that needed by a professional assassin. Moreover, there’s a collateral story about some thing that occasionally circles the house, trying the doors and windows, and making strange crackling sounds.

All of which said, nothing remotely uncanny has happened at the Green Man since Maurice took over the inn seven or so years ago.

Since the things which the ghost can effectively do are very limited in number, ranging from death and madness and the discovery of secrets, the setting seems to me all-important, since in it there is the greatest opportunity for variety. It is upon this and upon the first glimmer of the appearance of the supernatural that pains must be lavished. –M. R. James

One evening, at the very moment that Maurice is saying good-night to his daughter, there is a scream from an adjoining room. An elderly gentleman has apparently glimpsed something in a doorway and keeled over dead from the shock. But what did he see? The next day, after some illicit lovemaking in a secluded hollow, Maurice wanders away into the nearby woods and, without any apparent reason, experiences a terrifying panic attack. Being an alcoholic and prey to temporary hallucinations and blackouts, he is used to causeless fear. But this is different. The source of his terror is outside himself:

I heard, or thought I heard, a whispering sound like the wind through grasses, saw, had no doubt that I saw, the growth of ivy on a near-by oak ripple and turn its leaves to and fro, as if in the wind, but there was no wind. Just beyond this, I saw a shadow move in a thicket, but I knew there was nobody else in the wood, and there was no sun. This was the place that Underhill’s ghost had been seen watching, and what had terrified him was here. With a sharp snap, one of the fronds of a large fern growing beside the path detached itself from its root, turning over and over like a leaf in a squall as it moved fitfully towards the thicket where the shadow had appeared. I did not wait to see if it was still there. . . .

While most of the novel takes place in or near the Green Man inn, a key scene occurs during a visit to a Cambridge library’s archives. In the classic Jamesian tale an old book or a lost manuscript will guide the incautious protagonist to venture where he shouldn’t.

In like fashion, Maurice reads about Underhill’s life in Joseph Thornton’s Superstitions and Ghostly Tales of the British Folk and there learns that upon the doctor’s death, something “was buried with his person” and that he left “a fragment of a journal” to his college. The next day Maurice is at St. Matthew’s. At first, it seems, there is no record of any Underhill journal, though some uncategorized documents — described only as “sundry matters” — might include what Maurice is looking for:

“Could I have a look at those sundry matters?” I asked.     
“All these items are kept in the Hobson Room,” said Ware forcefully, but without indicating whether I was expected to give a cry of pure animal terror at this disclosure, or burst out laughing to find my quest so comically and decisively thwarted, or what.

This tongue-in-cheek, slightly histrionic facetiousness is characteristic of Maurice. Nonetheless, all humor is temporarily dispelled when the innkeeper finally reads the journal and discovers, among other things, what the necromancer does to the Widow Tyler’s daughter. Though appalled, Maurice isn’t deterred from discovering more about Underhill, while also continuing his own campaign to bring about a three-way orgy with Joyce and Diana.

Only later, when it’s too late, does he grasp just why Underhill has appeared to him and no other. To the sensible folk around him Maurice is quite obviously suffering from the onset of delirium tremens or cracking up from stress. Ghosts and monsters really! As the hip (and gay) clergyman Reverend Tom Rodney Sonnenschein —  about whom Amis is scathingly funny — tells Maurice, these sightings are really more “a matter for your medical adviser rather than someone in my position.” So how can a serious drinker and admitted hypochondriac ever convince people that what he glimpses andfears isn’t just a figment of his imagination?

Many common objects may be made the vehicles of retribution, and where retribution is not called for, of malice. Be careful how you handle the packet you pick up in the carriage-drive . . .Do not, in any case, bring it into the house. It may not be alone. –M. R. James

If there’s one thing that haunts Maurice even more than the desire for extravagant sex, it’s the mystery and horror of death. Few novelists have written more unblinkingly about old age and mortality than Amis: Think of The Anti-Death League, Ending Up, and The Old Devils. Maurice “honestly can’t see why everybody who isn’t a child, everybody who’s theoretically old enough to have understood what death means, doesn’t spend all his time thinking about it.” It elicits from him not just fear but “anger and hatred, and indignation perhaps, and loathing and revulsion, and grief, I suppose, and despair.” He often sounds quite like Amis’s gloomy friend the poet Philip Larkin: “It’s a pretty arresting thought, not being anything, not being anywhere, and yet the world still being here. Simply having everything stopping for ever, not just for a million years.”

In a particularly harrowing litany Maurice describes the soulkilling process of modern death:

Of course, it’s not really true to say that that’s all that’s going to be in front of you. There are all sorts of other things thrown in, like waiting to see the doctor, and fixing up to have a test, and waiting for the test, and waiting for the result of the test, and fixing up another test, and waiting for that, and waiting for that result, and going in for a period of observation, and being kept in, and waiting for the operation, and waiting for the anaesthetist, and waiting to hear what they found, and waiting for the second operation, and waiting to hear how that went, and being told they can unfortunately do nothing radically curative but naturally all measures will be taken to prolong life and alleviate suffering, and that’s where you start.

Is it little wonder, then, that Maurice should find himself drawn to Underhill, whose ghost proves not only the reality of an afterlife but may also offer a way of avoiding total extinction? But how? Perhaps the answer lies in whatever object was buried with the doctor three hundred years ago.

At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, “the stony grin of unearthly malice,” pursuing forms in darkness, and ” long-drawn, distant screams‚” are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded. –M. R. James

In The Darkening Garden John Clute proposes a four-part morphology of the horror story. First, there is Sighting, that initial glimpse of the inexplicable anomaly, followed by Thickening in which the familiar world is gradually overgrown with wrongness. In The Green Man people are assailed, and perhaps possessed, by supernatural creatures. Maurice experiences a horrific glimpse of the past, and for an hour time stands still. All this occurs, moreover, during just four days. It is characteristic of Amis’s artistic control and attention to detail that Maurice glimpses the red-haired woman three times, first in the hallway, then as she descends the stairs, and finally when she runs out the door where . . .well, it’s best not to say.

Thickening can go on for quite a while, even as foreboding mounts and one safeguard after another falls away. But eventually the action explodes in Revel, during which the hitherto hidden reality finally and fully reveals itself. Often that last peeling away of illusion takes the form of some hideous masque or orgy, of the transvaluation of all values, of the familiar world turned upside down. Characters succumb, or nearly succumb, to “the horror, the horror!” — the recognition of the occulted truth about oneself and the world. What then remains? Only Aftermath, a sense that the story is done, though that doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending. And yet sometimes from out of the vastation comes renewal, cleansing, or regeneration.

As it happens, the most chilling episode in The Green Man just might be a conversation in which Maurice discusses matters of life and death with “a young man with silky fair hair and a pale face.” As Maurice recalls later, he appeared

about twenty-eight years old, with a squarish, clean-shaven, humorous, not very trustworthy face, unabundant eyebrows and eyelashes, and good teeth. He wore a dark suit of conventional cut, silver-grey shirt, black knitted silk tie, dark-grey socks and black shoes, well polished. His speech was very fully modulated, like that of a man interested in discourse, and his accent educated, without affectations. Altogether he seemed prosperous, assured and in good physical shape, apart from his pallor.

The young man, it turns out, is worried “about this chap Underhill.” As he explains, “Things have been getting a bit out of hand there. I want you to be very careful with him, Maurice. Very careful indeed.” From this encounter Maurice will gain a weapon, but he will also come to realize that there are worse things than death.

A pleasing terror. –M. R. James

 Amis told an interviewer that of all his heroes, including Jim Dixon of Lucky Jim, he was most like Maurice Allington. One of his biographers, Richard Bradford, even sees The Green Man as covertly autobiographical, Joyce and Diana being two sides of Amis’s then wife Elizabeth Jane Howard. Certainly Amis shares with Maurice the serious drinking, hypochondria, and nocturnal twitchings, as well as the marital tensions and a daughter of roughly the same age as Amy. In a 1972 short story, “Who or What Was It?,” Amis cements this identification by recalling how he and Howard once visited a country inn, analogous to that in the novel, and he ended up reenacting Maurice’s final confrontation with . . . But, again, I shouldn’t say more.

As is well known, Amis loved genre literature. In books such as The Riverside Villa Murders, The Anti-Death League, and The Alteration he would present his own take on the classic crime novel, the modern espionage thriller, and the “alternate history” of science fiction. All of his entertainments combine suspense, fantasy, and humor, while remaining focused on what their author once called, in a letter to a French critic, “problèmes humains” — human problems. That said, The Green Man may be Amis’s most elegantly crafted novel, neatly balancing sex comedy, chilling horror story, and a depiction of spiritual, almost Pascalian angst. These all come together in the startling (if not wholly convincing) resolution of the Diana and Joyce intrigue and Maurice’s final temptation by the ghost of Thomas Underhill. Still, the question remains: How much of what happens, or seems to happen, should be taken at face value, how much regarded as the wild imaginings of a guilt-ridden man afraid of aging and death? In interviews Amis unequivocably declared that The Green Man should be taken “very seriously indeed” — and that its ghosts were real.

Let me conclude with one fanciful speculation. Before Elizabeth Jane Howard married Kingsley Amis, she had an affair with Robert Aickman, the finest writer of “strange stories” in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1968 Aickman brought out his greatest single collection, Sub Rosa, and was then editing the annual Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. By the late 1960s Amis and Howard’s relationship was already on the rocks (he once said they should have separated around 1970). Here then is my own little fantasy: During some drunken quarrel, Howard lashes out at her husband, “You’ll never be half the writer Robert Aickman is.” The next day Amis sat down and began to write The Green Man.

Of course, I’m just imagining this. But, as ghost-story writers like to say, who knows?


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