Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath

by Sue Zlosnik


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Patrick McGrath by Sue Zlosnik

One of the most successful and critically acclaimed authors in Britain, Patrick McGrath has also been a key figure in the recent resurgence of interest in the Gothic. This book, the first full-length study of McGrath and his work, looks at McGrath’s writing through the lens of the Gothic, showing how he has pushed the boundaries of the genre, using the conventional trappings of the Gothic in creative, even parodic new ways. Drawn in part from interviews with McGrath, some previously unpublished, the book not only sets McGrath’s work in the context of the Gothic tradition and his own times, but also helps the reader understand McGrath’s own sense of his identity as a writer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708323748
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 07/15/2011
Series: University of Wales Press - Gothic Authors: Critical Revisions Series
Pages: 154
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Sue Zlosnik is head of the English department at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Read an Excerpt

Patrick McGrath

By Sue Zlosnik

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2011 Sue Zlosnik
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2376-2


Playing with Gothic

* * *

The Short Stories

The motifs, themes and modes of writing to be found in McGrath's later fiction have their genesis in the early short stories. The precarious and sometimes gleeful balancing of comedy and horror in many of them implies a consciousness of the hybridity of Gothic, used to advantage in a distinctive way. In an interview with Gilles Menegaldo in 1997, McGrath acknowledged his parodic relationship with Gothic conventions in the early work:

the Gothic genre is a mature genre; it's a mannered genre, and to work in it with any real freshness or originality is difficult. My first impulse was to play with its very well established conventions; that inevitably became a form of pastiche as I exaggerated motifs, images that had already been well exaggerated by two centuries of development.

McGrath's earliest fiction takes the form of the short story. Most of the early work appears in the collection Blood and Water and Other Tales, published in 1988. Two later stories were published in 1991, one in an anthology entitled I Shudder at Your Touch, edited by Michelle Slung, and the other in Morrow and McGrath's anthology, The New Gothic. The latter story, 'The Smell', is distinctive for the absence of specific setting, taking place entirely within an unidentified house and involving nameless characters. In contrast, most of the short fiction is clearly sited in time and place. McGrath's own transatlantic identity is represented in his choices of setting and the different inflection of the English and American contexts. His later fiction draws on the same dual identity: the first four novels are set in mid twentieth-century England; the 2000 novel, Martha Peake, makes the representation of the relationship between England and the United States thematic, and the subsequent fiction is largely set in America. In the short stories and the novels, the two countries both appear as freighted with a textual history. McGrath's use of parody in the early fiction, his exaggeration of 'motifs, images that had already been well exaggerated by two centuries of development', signals, it may be argued, an engagement with the wider implications of Gothic in its different contexts. Individual tales of transgression and decay may point to larger stories of cultural abjection and crisis. Thus, the Gothic themes of these short stories – vampirism; unstable bodies; fears of degeneration; violation of taboo – resonate beyond the boundaries of the fiction. Often they are inflected through McGrath's own distinctive preoccupations: the problematic nature of medical practice (specifically psychiatry), madness and what it means to be an artist.

The influence of Edgar Allan Poe, whom McGrath sees as a key figure in the development of Gothic fiction, is clearly at work in many of the short stories. Asked to guest-edit an issue on the new Gothic in 1990 for the recently founded literary magazine Conjunctions, McGrath wrote in his afterword:

It is with Poe that we first see the Gothic shifting away from an emphasis on props and sets – dark forests and lugubrious caverns, skeletons and thunderstorms – and towards a particular sensibility characterized by transgressive tendencies and extreme distortions of perception and affect. Poe's genius lies in his recognition of the sorts of structural analogies possible between the trappings and the sensibility, than in the deftness with which he splices them together.

The introduction to The New Gothic pays tribute to Poe for turning the Gothic inward 'to explore extreme states of psychological disturbance' (p. xi). McGrath's contribution to this 1991 collection, 'The Smell', lacks the comic dimension of many of his early stories and is now described by him in retrospect as 'a very nasty, very dirty piece of work, almost fecal'. 'The abject', as defined by Kristeva, is often to be found in his fiction as a mode of representing madness. This Poe-esque tale is told by one of McGrath's characteristic first-person narrators. In it, a petty domestic tyrant with a passion for order and a penchant for abuse becomes increasingly paranoid as he detects a smell that is evident only to him. The other members of his household are oblivious to this smell, but not unconnected with it. Running 'a stern regime' and predisposed to punish any infraction (in a manner he does not specify), he begins to sense it after crossing a threshold in oppressive behaviour. He wakes his sleeping children to punish them in some dreadful way that is left to the reader's imagination, 'watching the horror from somewhere outside one's own body' (246). He is then compelled to pursue the smell ('I was drawn to the smell like a moth to a flame, it was pulling me in' (246)) to the chimney, where he has already detected 'a sweet and viscous liquid dripping into the fireplace' (244). Trying to reach it by climbing up the chimney, he becomes irretrievably wedged, in a version of the live burial that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her study of Gothic conventions has identified as one of the preoccupations of Gothic narratives – a trope used by Poe, for example, in 'The Cask of Amontillado'.

Images of secrets buried or holed up in some way recur in the early stories, and the chimney was to be used later by McGrath in Spider, when his narrator hides his notebooks in the chimney in his attic bedroom. The physical details of putrefaction in 'The Smell' recall the oleaginous quality of what Kelly Hurley, after William Hope Hodgson, calls the 'abhuman' in late Victorian Gothic fiction, the entropic body. What is new here is the self-destructive nature of the experience and the way in which an obsessive desire for order leads to the ultimate entropy of death. The family romance is translated into the death wish in horrifying fashion, with the abuse inflicted on the disempowered of the household turned back on the abuser. The 'milky feeling' he describes in relation to punishing the children becomes transmuted into the final simile of the story in this narrative from beyond the grave (or, in his case, chimney), as he suffocates, 'stuffed up my chimney like a dirty cork in a bottle of rancid milk' (247). The image of milk points to childhood and suggests some shameful secret which is never divulged.

Jerrold E. Hogle offers a reading of this story informed by his argument that the Gothic reflects the fragmentation of signs and artefacts theorized by Baudrillard as characteristic of postmodernity:

Here is strong evidence joining with Baudrillard's that a culture of pure simulation, especially when it is imported into the heart of the home as a system of management, is indeed a culture of death in its very efforts to transcend the death of the body and of the self.

In Hogle's psychoanalytic reading, the pull towards the chimney in 'The Smell' is representative of 'an unconscious longing for the body and the mother (even in a death wish)', and the story challenges the reader 'to consider which is more Gothically monstrous: the reinsistence of the body with its primordial and final liquidity or the distancing and denial of that Real in systematic simulations that once made the Gothic possible as a form of fiction and drama?' What Hogle's highly theorized reading does not consider is another aspect of the uncanny at work in the story: it may be read as one of retributive justice, in which the disciplining and punishing rituals are themselves transgressive and in their turn are punished through supernatural intervention.

The uncanny is ever-present in varying forms in McGrath's fictions. His English settings present a recognizable England, usually in the middle decades of the twentieth century, but one that is always sinister and imbued with the uncanny. In the short stories, the narrative voices play competing discourses against each other. The homeliness of this England is disturbed by the strange or exotic in various forms; in Freudian terms, the unheimlich irrupts into the heimlich. Scientific discourse, and often specifically medical discourse, is juxtaposed with the bizarre or superstitious, often to darkly comic effect. These stories lay the groundwork for the territory of McGrath's first four novels, all of which are set in this period, a time in many ways remote from the world of today but within living memory. These settings are not, however, those of the realist novel; they are more akin to a past that is accessed through its fiction. The stories invoke a chronotope, to use Bakhtin's term, that is already highly textualized, but do so with critical difference; there is, in other words, a postmodern parodic quality to them, 'repetition with critical difference', in Linda Hutcheon's formulation.

In Blood and Water, the golden age of British crime fiction is recognized in 'The Arnold Crombeck Story', which tells a tale of transgression through criminal ingenuity. Although set in 1954, a decade or two later than the heyday of the genre, it is reminiscent of the work of writers like Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, and provides both a twist at the end and a conservative recuperation of legality, when Crombeck does not succeed in his final fiendish attempt at murder and meets his due punishment. Its villain, however, is also an example of the mentally disturbed murderer who will appear again in Spider and Asylum. Known as the 'death gardener', he describes his ideal garden in lyric terms. Gardening assumes an important role in the novels Spider and Asylum; within the asylum, in both of them, gardens are associated with equilibrium. But they are an ambiguous symbol in McGrath's fiction. They can also be associated with derangement and death. Crombeck may describe with bright eyes his 'God-given' garden, an English country garden, and yet have murder in his heart and in his hands (77).

'God' often signifies delusion in McGrath's fiction. In 'Ambrose Syme' he draws upon his own unhappy experience of Stoneyhurst, the austere Catholic school where he had spent some time as a boy. He is also acknowledging a number of literary precursors. Colin Green has noted the influence of Mervyn Peake on this story, in which the school is called 'Ravengloom' and the Catholic Church is an ever-threatening and sinister presence. The raven in the name reminds us that Poe, too, is never far away in this early fiction. The setting maps on to Stoneyhurst's location in the north-west of England, but the description of the topography also evokes the Dickensian world of Hard Times, with the Preston-inspired Coketown renamed 'Gryme'. The Gothic edifice of Ravengloom reminds us of the historical origins of Gothic fiction, what Victor Sage has called 'Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition'. Its transgressive priest, Syme, is – as his Christian name suggests – a latter-day Ambrosio, his crimes as shocking as those of Lewis's monk. Yet he is treated more sympathetically than his eighteenth-century precursor, by a narrator who recognizes the foundations of repression that have made him a paedophile and murderer; he is shown to be himself a victim. Twenty years and more since the publication of this story, so many accounts of abuse in its institutions have emerged that the Catholic Church finds itself in crisis. The history in this instance seems to be as Gothic as the fiction. This story's powerful representation of the link between repression and transgression reveals a cultural haunting at work; other stories explore further dimensions of the cultural haunting of England.

In the figure of Father Mungo, elderly rector of Ravengloom, McGrath's preoccupation with the colonial aspect of British history is apparent. The name of this benevolent figure ('who was still remembered with awe and affection by the natives of the Zambesi Basin' (68)) is derived from that of the great explorer Mungo Park. McGrath has suggested that the African motif in his early fiction was 'probably an outgrowth of [his] interest in pastiching nineteenth-century fictions', and that in his writing 'Africa became a symbol of the unconscious, the unpredictable, the chaotic'. The influence of Conrad is clear and, indeed, McGrath has identified Heart of Darkness as one of the books that has given him greatest pleasure. The figure of the explorer appears again in 'The Lost Explorer'. The cultural history of colonial exploration here finds expression in the heart of the bourgeois family, where it represents an exotic 'otherness' in the imagination of a girl on the threshold of puberty. Like many Gothic tales, this story works within a liminal space. Evelyn Piker-Smith's encounter with the exotic operates in the territory where realism gives way to fantasy, and the boundary between the two is unstable. This is signalled in the opening sentence, as 'one fresh and gusty day in the damp autumn of her twelfth year Evelyn found a lost explorer in the garden of her parents' London home' (17). In another inflection of the garden trope, the explorer's tent is pitched in the wild area at the bottom of the garden, an area that is described in terms of a Gothic desolation reminiscent of the sexually charged dream of Manderley in the opening of Daphne du Maurier's Gothic novel Rebecca: 'The rest of the garden beyond the pond was a tangled and overgrown mass of rhododendron bushes, into whose labyrinthine depths, since the death of the old gardener, only Evelyn now ventured' (20). The trivialities of life carry on in their humdrum way in the Piker-Smiths' bourgeois home, providing a contrast with the suffering of the explorer in his tropical delirium.

The two realities exist side by side for Evelyn, however, and both are narrated as such; only in the liminal area is there an acknowledgement of Evelyn's imagination, as she thinks of the three white sheets billowing in the wind on the washing-line as sails on 'a great ship shouldering on to the tropics' (21). The narrative juxtaposes this with the next sentence, as she picks up 'a jar containing a pickled thumb that Daddy had given her' (21). Given the sexual connotations of hands in these early stories (in 'Hand of a Wanker', for example), it is difficult to read this other than in terms of a rather crude phallic symbol. It is, of course, not surprising in this house (Evelyn's father is one of McGrath's many medical men), where the topics of conversation at the dinner table include 'a rather interesting colostomy [her father had] performed', after which 'Uncle Frank made some quips which might, in a non medical household, have been taken in rather bad taste' (24).The body in this context is a masculinized domain.

In spite of his supernatural status, the explorer has for Evelyn a fully realized materiality in the text; there is nothing overtly spectral about him. From his 'creased map of the upper reaches of the Congo' to his torn mosquito net, he is accompanied by the trappings of his calling (17). In the liminal zone between childhood and adulthood, Evelyn shares with the explorer an alternative reality, aligning herself with neither female sexuality (as personified by Aunt Vera), domesticity (in the shape of her 'plump, tweedy' mother) nor the male doctors, who represent a banal rationality. Through her fantasy, the reader is offered an alternative perspective on an aspect of British history. Listening to Uncle Frank's rambling account of Stanley's adventures in the Congo, Evelyn glimpses over his shoulder the explorer, his 'unshaven face deeply etched with gullies of suffering' and his clothes looking 'extraordinarily ragged and filthy against the beige flowered wallpaper of the hallway' (25). When the explorer dies shortly afterwards, Evelyn stashes his body in the corner of a closet and tries to get rid of 'the stink of a man too long in the jungle'. In one of the many comic turns in these early stories, her mother attributes the 'funny smell' the next morning to Evelyn's 'hockey things', thus creating a bathetic closure to the explorer's sojourn in the Piker-Smiths' residence (28). After burying him with his possessions in the garden, Evelyn sees him occasionally as a spectral presence under a full moon, but by the time she has decided to become a doctor (at the age of fourteen and a half), 'he disappeared from her life completely' (31).


Excerpted from Patrick McGrath by Sue Zlosnik. Copyright © 2011 Sue Zlosnik. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents


1. Playing with Gothic
2. The Transgressive Self
3. Worlds New and Old
4. Afterword: Exorcizing the ghosts of the Gothic

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