Books: Mrs. God by Peter Straub

There’s kind of a funny story behind how I ended up reading and reviewing this book, a story that illustrates pretty clearly the fact that I have read so many books over the course of my life that I’ve forgotten which books I’ve read and which ones I haven’t.

So a while back, I was in a lovely used book and record store called Maya in downtown Sanford, Florida, looking for some horror novels to review for the show. I came across this slim little hardback called Mrs. God by Peter Straub, an author I’ve always been a fan of (with his novels Ghost Story, Julia, and Koko being particular favorites). I said to myself, hey, I’ve never even heard of this one, and it was only a couple of bucks, so I picked it up.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to when I sat down to read it. I was only a few pages in when the premise was beginning to feel a bit…familiar. Had I, in fact, read this before at some point? I did a little online research and discovered that this hardcover of Mrs. God was actually a trade edition that came out back in the 90s, but prior to that, the story (which is technically a novella) was featured in Peter Straub’s 1990 short story collection, Houses Without Doors. A book which I owned a paperback of, and had, indeed, read.

Now, the hardcover version is apparently expanded somewhat from the story that appeared in Houses Without Doors, but to be honest, a quick skim through that story didn’t yield all that many differences that I noticed. The hardback is supposedly a bit longer, but still only clocks in at 181 pages. All that said, it had been so long since I had read Houses Without Doors that I had forgotten pretty much everything about Mrs. God, so it was almost like reading a new story anyway. The only thing that I remembered to any great degree was the amusement I felt at the culture shock the American main character experiences when traveling to England; I was going back and forth to England and Wales a lot back in the 1990s, so I could relate to the guy’s confusion somewhat.

So after all that gum-flapping, is the story any good? It’s pretty decent. It’s not up there with Straub’s classics, for sure, and it has some pacing issues, particularly toward the end, but the first part of the story is a cracking good read, wonderfully creepy and oozing with unsettling ambiguity.

Mrs. God follows an academic by the name of William Standish, who teaches at a small but prestigious college in the northeastern United States. I’m not all that familiar with how academia works, but the upshot of the story is, Standish is being threatened with being fired and/or losing his tenure if he doesn’t publish something significant pretty damn soon.

To this end, he decides he wants to do a massive research project about his grandmother Isobel Standish, who was a poet of some renown back in the day whose work has largely been forgotten. William is of the opinion that Isobel is something like a lost Emily Dickinson, and her genius needs to be rediscovered; since he is directly related to her, moreover, he feels that he’s the best person to do it.

Happily, he gets a big boost in his proposed project when he learns that he is the recipient of a rare and illustrious fellowship at a place called Esswood House, a massive manor house in England that’s owned by the Seneschal family, who have run it as a literary retreat for generations. Some of the most prominent writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have spent time there: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Henry James, and the like. And not only that, but all of the eminent writers who stayed there bequeathed loads of their important papers there as thanks, and rumor has it that some of the writers’ most celebrated works were actually inspired and/or written at Esswood House. The place seems to have some kind of magic about it, you see.

Isobel Standish also stayed there for a time, and the house thus holds the world’s largest (and perhaps only) collection of her papers and lost works. William can’t wait to get on a plane and get this literary party started.

Before he goes to England, though, there is some setup about petty jealousies within the faculty of the college where he works. Some of this conflict arises from William getting the fellowship when this other guy wanted it, and part of it stems from the fact that William’s wife Jean had an affair with said other guy a while back, got pregnant, and had an abortion. She’s heavily pregnant again now, and William is not entirely sure the kid is his. I have to say, that even though Jean’s behavior was undeniably shitty, the way William thinks about her is…uncharitable, to say the least. He basically looks at her with complete revulsion and deep loathing, so that’s another reason he’s keen to get the hell out of the country for a while. He promises that he’ll be back home before the baby is born, though.

He finally heads off to England for his blissful, three-week working vacation. This was actually my favorite part of the story, since as I mentioned I was delighted by all of the culture shock he experienced upon arriving in rural England for the first time. He rents a car and begins driving out to Esswood House, and along the way he encounters some enchanting—and some downright disquieting—situations.

As an example of the the former, he stops at a pub to eat, and is intrigued by the concept of a ploughman’s lunch. Though he doesn’t know what that is, it sounds hearty and delicious, and he’s really hungry and looking forward to a hot meal. While he’s waiting for it to arrive at his table, he imagines himself back home amid his academic friends and rivals, regaling them with his story of driving through the countryside and stopping at this charming little place and eating all this delectable food. William is really big on his image, and spends a lot of time thinking about how he’ll tell other people about his trip later, to kind of rub it in their faces. He’s not the most likeable dude, in other words.

So then his lunch arrives, and he’s all, what the fuck is this about? Because a ploughman’s lunch isn’t a hot meal; it’s a cold plate with a hunk of bread, a wedge of cheese, some pickled onions, and some butter and chutney. This little scene made me laugh quite a bit.

But there’s some eerie shit going on in this pub too. For one thing, there’s nobody in there except the publican and his very pregnant wife or daughter (it’s not clear which). The publican is super rude, seemingly for no reason, and informs William that someone was murdered at Esswood House. Then, the publican abruptly kicks William out of the pub, saying it’s closed, even though William only just got his food and hasn’t even started to eat yet. He basically grabs the wedge of cheese off the plate as he’s being given the bum’s rush, and is left standing alone outside the pub, wondering what the fuck just happened.

Eventually he arrives at Esswood House, and shit just gets weirder from there. The door is answered by this beautiful woman who William immediately takes a shine to, and it seems this woman is flirting right back. She tells him things about the house and shows him around somewhat, but weirdly, William doesn’t see another living soul. He figures there must be servants, because his bags are taken to his room, clothes are laid out for him, meals are cooked and served, the place is cleaned, but he never sees them and it begins to freak him out. There’s also the fact that the beautiful woman who first led William into the house is also never seen again.

One person he does meet, though, is a man named Robert Wall who he thinks of as the overseer of the literary foundation. This man is very helpful and friendly, though notably will not answer particular questions that William poses, always slickly changing the subject. Robert tells William that only two members of the Seneschal family remain, a brother and sister who are quite elderly. William presumes they still live in the house, since he sometimes sees lights or shadows moving in a wing of the house where he isn’t permitted to go, but again, he never sees them.

Other things about the place are strange as well. For example, he is always given the exact same dinner: a meat dish with mushrooms, which was the same dish that his grandmother ate when she stayed there. Likewise, he is always given the same breakfast of kippers, even though he finds them gross and would prefer something else. Again, the food is always laid out perfectly for him, but he never sees anybody cooking or serving it. He even goes into the kitchen one time, and the stove is hot, but there isn’t a single person there. He finds it intensely unsettling, but Robert Wall seems nice, and the two of them spend their evenings chatting and drinking some nice Scotch, so he doesn’t get too put out about it.

But then, only a day or two into his stay, Robert says he has some business to attend to elsewhere, and William never sees him again either. So now William is left in this imposing old house, maybe alone or maybe not. He’s told that he can have the library to work in, and is set up with Isobel’s papers. He’s told that if he needs anything, like pens or a cup of tea or what have you, to write what he wants on a piece of paper and leave it on the floor outside the library door. When he does this, whatever he wants appears there, almost as if by magic.

From then on, Mrs. God goes further into ghost story territory. You’re led to believe that maybe the Seneschals are dead and haunting the place, or maybe that Isobel Standish herself is haunting the house too, since William often hears a woman giggling, hears footsteps, and thinks he can feel a presence in his room.

Then again, there’s also the possibility that William is simply losing his marbles, and is essentially an unreliable narrator. The story is so ambiguous and gets so bizarre and surreal, in fact, that it’s quite possible that he never even went to England at all, that the entire trip was a figment of his crumbling imagination. This is a story that definitely needs a few read-throughs to really get to the bottom of, because a lot of the things that happen in it are sort of implied rather than stated outright. The reader is left to sort out the fragments for themselves.

Said fragments include: what’s with the surly vicar William meets at a nearby cemetery who tells him that no one has lived in Esswood House for ages? What’s with the room he finds that contains dollhouses that are perfect replicas of Esswood House and are big enough for a kid to sit inside? What’s with the other room that’s entirely full of bones? Who exactly are the Seneschals who reportedly live in the other wing of the house, and are they alive or dead (or immortal undead)? Was Esswood House the direct inspiration for Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and does this house have some kind of weird energy vortex around it that feeds on creativity and/or makes people live forever?

As the tale unwinds, William’s descent into madness becomes somewhat reminiscent of Jack Torrance’s in The Shining; William even uses an axe at one point to try to destroy the house (and yes, I’m aware that in the book it was a roque mallet). This is where the issues of pacing I mentioned earlier come into play; I actually felt that this descent happened far too abruptly, and that this story would have flowed better as a longer work. I mean, all the buildup was so great and so eerie, and you’re reading it going, holy crap, what the hell kinda bananapants action is going on here, but then BAM, it all goes apeshit suddenly, with William running around the house naked and covered in blood and brandishing an axe, and then it ends. It was a tad jarring.

Overall, I found this a fairly solid read, though I will admit it took me a bit of time to get into it at first, as all the stuff about the politics of academia and all these ambiguous relationships and situations surrounding the characters at the beginning was a bit befuddling. Once William gets to England, though, it was awesomely spooky, and I was all in with the slowly ratcheting uncanniness about the house and what the fuck was going on in there. As I said, the ending was somewhat, “Oh, we’re doing this now? All right…” and I wish it had been fleshed out more and gone on for longer, but in aggregate, I enjoyed this one and will definitely give it another read one of these days to see if I pick up any more clues about the deal with Esswood House.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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