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.