“What beck’ning ghost, along the moonlight shade/Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?”–Alexander Pope

There is a corollary to the proposition that there’s more rejoicing over the return of a prodigal son than there is over the continuing excellence of a constant one; that corollary is that it’s worse when a potentially good man goes bad than it is when a bad man continues what he’s doing.  In Kingsley Amis’s book The Green Man, we get a double reflection of this second notion, when we not only meet up with a modern day man of relaxed moral fiber, but also with the ghost of a minister turned evil revenant who confronts him.

In an English tradition descended from the ancient fear of nature and natural forces–for our worship of nature is an entirely different tradition, though equally ancient, which even so recognizes the power of the earth–the “green man” is a sort of roving spirit, sometimes neither good nor ill, sometimes outright malevolent, and sometimes given to testing mankind, as in the medieval tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which many of you will already have read and I hope enjoyed in a literature class.  In Amis’s book, the man of easy morals is an innkeeper named Maurice Allington, who is situated with his wife, father, and daughter in an old inn in Hertsfordshire, England.  Though the elemental force is so strong that there’s almost no bargaining with it, Maurice learns from the evil spectre of the minister’s ghost and a mysterious young man, and makes some sacrifices on his way to learning what evil and good may actually be about.

The book relies on a combination of fear and hilarity, the deep-seated source of a certain intensified response from the reader in both directions.  The book is not unlike other chilling literary/stage/movie experiences I can think of:  for example, the 70’s stage show “Dracula,” with its equally hysteria-inducing combination of the two otherwise opposed tendencies.  We alternately thrill with horror and gasp, then laugh out loud.  A movie experience utilizing this same formula was “An American Werewolf in London,” which used the by now reliable combination of slapstick, horror, satire, and cultural and occult lore that Amis’s book uses.  But Amis’s book preceded these dramatic offerings in time; it was first published in 1969, though also published in the U.S. by an American publisher in 1986.

So, just what are Maurice Allington’s problems?  Firstly, he is dissatisfied with his marriage to his wife, Joyce, and wants to bed the lovely Diana, wife of his best friend, the doctor Jack Maybury.  His father, who is not in the best of health, lives with his family and Maurice is unsettled by him, too.  He also has a massive drinking problem, as his concerned family members and friends constantly remind him.  And he has to decide if it’s his drinking which is causing the most unusual of his problems:  that is, he sees spirits.  He sees spirits and experiences psychic phenomena far beyond the limit of the simple antique ghost tale which is retailed by him to his customers at the inn to pique their interest.  Of course the book deliberately, artfully, and effectively leaves it unclear for the most part as to whether these are genuine manifestations, a result of the door between worlds suddenly being opened, or whether Maurice is actually becoming mentally unhinged and debilitated by the liquor and his own lack of balance alone.  The only being who seems to confirm the sightings he himself experiences is the cat, Victor, who in the time-honored tradition of cats with psychic abilities arches his back, hisses and spits, or runs out of the room and hides when the ghosts come to visit.

Maurice sees not only the sinful and spirit-summoning minister from the past, but also what turns out to have been the minister’s (Underhill’s) wife; an incarnation of a young man who acts something like a modern version of Christ but something more like a modern version of Satan; an apparent manifestation of a twittering bird which makes him wonder if he has delirium tremens; and a large clump of walking devastation of foliage which reads like one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s ents on steroids:  this last is the so-called “green man.”

The dapper young man without a name helps orient Maurice to the experiences he’s undergoing, though the orientation isn’t one conducive to dwelling safely and well in this world.  Others try to help him recoup his losses, such as his doctor friend Jack Maybury, whose wife Maurice is trying to bed on the sly.  His own wife, Joyce, and his son Nick and Nick’s girlfriend are all equally concerned, and are trying in their various ways to help Maurice come to terms with what they mostly regard as a fiction of his overwrought imagination.  His young daughter Amy is in danger of becoming a pawn in the game he is playing with his otherworldly experiences and foes.  Finally, he has trouble keeping track of the time, time having no meaning when he’s conversing with the elegant young man, because his watch and clocks no longer aid him in determining how time is passing when they are speaking to one another.  Worst of all, perhaps, is his difficulty in coordinating daily reality with the supernatural things which are happening to him (in his head?).

For Henry James readers who have encountered some of the criticism written about James’s story “The Turn of the Screw,” this double-barrelled treatment of suspicious happenings, when a character is proclaimed by different critics to be 1) suffering under a real visitation from the other world or 2) suffering from an overactive imagination, a drinking problem, a psychological disorder, et cetera, will be familiar.  James is in fact mentioned in The Green Man.  And though I’m not going to reveal the ending of the book (with its unexpected romantic alliance), I can safely tell you without ruining the reading experience that even up to the very end the suspenseful questions of exactly what happened remain.  After all, part of the time we may be in the mind of a crazy drunk (or is he in legitimate danger of losing his soul?  Or has he squeaked “out from under” losing his soul?).  This is a book well worth the occasional difficulty with theological terminology and concepts; in fact, it is a book that I think Henry James himself would’ve been proud, in our time, to have written.

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7 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

7 responses to ““What beck’ning ghost, along the moonlight shade/Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?”–Alexander Pope

  1. Although I’m a huge Henry James fan I didn’t get along with the Turn of the Screw. I’m still not entirely sure why. The movie “Others” is similar but I loved it. So it’s not the story as such. That’s why I think I would like to read this. It sounds well executed.
    I hadn’t heard of this title. I have still not read anything by him but got Lucky Jim here which is said to be hilarious.

    • A lot of people don’t like “The Turn of the Screw” who like James. He himself indicated that it was a “potboiler” and I believe invited speculation that some of his motivation was commercial. Anyway, I try not to think of it as part of my picture of James as a whole, generally, but simply as a talented short story or novella. And I too don’t like it as well as more standard James. Yes, “Lucky Jim” was a wonderful academic satire. If you liked it, you might also like David Lodge’s “Changing Places” and its sequel “Small World,” also absolutely hysterical academic satires. Thanks for supporting my blog by turning in such interesting comments for dialoguing, by the way. It really helps keep my wits sharper.

      • You are welcome. Btw. Thank you for guiding me to the Sparrow review. I own the book. It’s sounds powerful, I just hope it will not be too disturbed.
        I haven’t read Lucky Jim yet. A few weeks ago I posted on “FUnny Novels” as I had bought ten books from the book people for 10£ and Lucky Jim was among them. the collection is great but what really stunned me was how many incredible suggestions I received. I would have thought people would suggest a totally different type of novels but there was Faulkner and Russo and… Really good. If you ever need a funny read and can’t think of one…

      • I’ve responded to the post I received from you at 10:48 a.m. my time (about 10 min. ago). For some reason (maybe in the way I log in to answer you?) I get two copies of your response. I hope this answer reaches you.

  2. Are you discussing William Faulkner? I didn’t realize he’d written anything funny. I must have the wrong Faulkner. And which Russo? I’m unfamiliar with that one, too. (Again, your reply button came in a separate time from your response to my blog. Can you do something about this, or do I need to? I don’t really know enough about computers to know what the problem is, but I think it has something to do with the way we’re signing in or out to comment.) Keep reading! Although I’m having a hard time keeping up with all the ground you cover in a week!

  3. Sorry if there is a commenting confusion. I see your answers just fine. I’ve never heard anyone else who had the problem, so I’m not sure what happens. It’s better to answer from the Dashbord than from the front page. Not sure how you do it.
    They mentioned Richard Russo’s Straight Man, also a Campus Satire and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

    • Thanks for confirming that no problems exist–I’m actually answering from the alert I get on e-mail, as I don’t provide my actual e-mail address to anyone on my blog. Thanks also for reminding me of the only funny Faulkner I know of–I loved “As I Lay Dying”! One of the funniest characterization moments I think is when they ask the carpenter Cash how far he fell, and he says something like “28 feet, 3 and 1/2 inches, about.” After all that carpenterish precision, he answers “about”! I’ll have to look up Russo; I’ve heard of him, now that you mention his first name, but I’ve never read anything of his. I envy the speed you seem to have with reading stuff! You’ve always got something new on hand!

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