In the lead-up to the release of his film Get Out, Jordan Peele curated a series of films at BAM titled “The Art of the Social Thriller.” In recent years, the unsettling fiction of Robert Aickman has received a heightened prominence, including work that depends on a heightened sense of wrongness in terms of social interactions between characters. (It’s telling that his recently-reissued novel The Late Breakfasters feels like something written by a bizarro-world Evelyn Waugh.) The idea of a story in which the wrong interaction can suddenly turn horrifying is bolstered by the recent release of Rachel Ingalls’s Three Masquerades, a trio of novellas selected by Ingalls booster Daniel Handler–someone who also knows a thing or two about blending cordial manners and menace in fiction.
“Two of these works are frightening and one less so, although I sometimes change my mind about which one that is,” Hander writes in his introduction. Each abounds with abrupt twists in the plot, unsettling moments which reveal unpleasant fates for characters and unsettling turns of events. Of the three featured in here, the middle one, “Friends in the Country,” struck me as the most unsettling. (The presence of sinister toads never hurts.) Its first sentence serves as a harbinger of what’s to come: “It took them an hour to leave the house.” This is the first introduction to Jim and Lisa, the couple at the center of the novella, who are embarking on a trip to visit friends. At least, that’s what it seems–though when they reach their destination, the people they do encounter seem characterized at most by some wrongness, a lack of connection with either Jim or Lisa.
Which isn’t to say that they aren’t amicable. They’re greeted by a woman named Isabelle, who seems to be expecting them; she introduces them to other guests at the house, including Neill, an actor. “I’m in a megasoap called Beyond Love. The cast calls it Beyond Hope, or sometimes Beyond Belief. It really is,” he tells them–and it’s telling that all three titles could just as easily describe the story being read. Later, he reveals details of one episode: “I think this is the one where I lose an arm.” (Beyond Hope appears to be this novella’s version of Invitation to Love, if you follow my drift.)
What begins as a comedy of manners slowly becomes more surreal, and more ominous–the cordiality of their hosts gives way to a sense of menace in the house, and Lisa in particular encounters some horrifyingly disorienting figures as she makes her way through its hallways and rooms. It’s the sort of story in which ambiguity and jocularity are perennially on the verge of giving way to something monstrous; the masks of amiability are suddenly removed and a terrifying sight is revealed. Ingalls’s command of mood and menace is pitch-perfect, and the conclusion is hauntingly surreal.
But it’s also in keeping with the characters at the heart of the story. Early on in their trip, Lisa ponders her relationship: “They’d been living together for only a few months. She was still a little worried that one day he might get into the car and drive off without her.” And those mysteries, and those ambiguities, are present from the beginning. (Ingalls offers a host of possibilities as to who the couple is actually en route to visit.) For all of the bizarre details of the place where they find themselves confined, this is a story fundamentally about intimacy and knowledge–and the difficulties that can come from discovering things about one’s partner that leave you unsettled. That dizzying sensation, and the fear that can come in alongside it, is magnified and turned into something strange and ominous here. It’s a magnetic sort of horror, and a familiar one to boot.
by Rachel Ingalls; introduction by Daniel Handler
Pharos Editions; 213 p.