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Walking up the driveway to the house, she spots her mother’s face disappear behind the curtain.

‘Spying on me now?’ she says slamming the door.

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room.’

‘How was your day?’

‘You mean, did I do anything weird?’

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room. I’ve got stacks of work.’

My dad used to embarrass my mam by talking about how her mother had psychic abilities. He never phrased it like that of course. He would say she had a gift. I was always curious about that as my family is devoutly Catholic. How was the paranormal accomodated?

Then again I have been to where my family is from in Co. Roscommon. It is a quite isolated part of the countryside, not much to do. Whatever would serve to alleviate the boredom of dark evenings with nothing to do I imagine.

Evie does not have the luxury of my blithe scepticism unfortunately. She is a psychic and feels it is a curse. Growing up in Sydney’s inner suburbs she would occasionally see strange things, or hear people’s thoughts, only realizing when she was older how uncomfortable she made people when she spoke of her extrasensory perception. Her own mother treats her with fear and suspicion. Evie is made to feel even more freakish when an incident at school reveals to the other students just how different she is. Bullied and mocked as a witch, Evie retreats into herself, refusing to go out at the weekends, desperately clinging to the few sympathetic friends she has.

What is worse, with Year 12 exams coming up, Evie needs to produce an art project in time for assessment. Instead she finds her drawings becoming warped and transformed, with a face of a girl she does not know emerging on the canvas. She cannot trust her own body to obey her and begins to notice unusual changes. Her left eye becomes infected, even her hair starts to feel different. It is as if a stranger’s body is replacing her own. Then there are the dreams that leave Evie haunted, her unconscious mind invaded by warnings and premonitions she cannot understand.

Estranged from her own family, her friends and feeling isolated at school, Evie despairs of ever being normal. Until she receives a phonecall from a family friend she never met, who has a secret to tell her that changes everything.

J.C. Burke captures a teenager’s feelings of alienation perfectly in the first half of this book. The  testosterone fueled punch-ups between schoolboys, post-weekend gossip about friends’ lovelives and obsessing about what clothes look good nail the adolescent experience as well. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Glebe Markets that are introduced, with Evie and her two friends Poppy and Alex play-acting around in the vintage clothes stores on a Saturday afternoon. First time I came to Australia I stayed at a friend’s house in Glebe and really came to love the area. Local details like that make this book come alive, with Evie a recognizable and true-to-life teenage protagonist.

Where I began to have problems was with the direction the supernatural plot takes the story. At first I assumed, what with the school bullying of Evie, that this was a Young Adult rehash of Stephen King‘s Carrie. When her dreams hint at a spectral force directly haunting her, even threatening to take over her body, I began to suspect a climax similar to Koji Suzuki‘s brand of disturbing body-horror.

Instead Burke presents a teenage take on the successful television series Medium. I’m sorry to say, and I am sure this seems like an irrational personal bias, but I strongly resented introduction of a police investigation into the plot. This may sound hypocritical, after all I have raved about supernatural detective novels on this blog such as those featuring Felix Castor and Joe Pitt, but the essential difference is that they were entirely fantastical books. Police have been known to use psychics in investigations (although that perception of mine could be due to false press) and to my mind the ‘professional psychic’, is no different than John Edward cold reading a gullible audience. In The Red Cardigan scepticism itself is claimed to be capable of sucking away a psychic’s powers.

However, that being said, the first half of this book makes for an excellent assessment of teenage life. I am sad to say I was left conflicted afterwards, but would recommend this chiller for an adolescent readership.

A note about the text. You have read my writing, Robert. This account may seem unlike it. The reason – I am limited by my transcriber. My thoughts must travel through her mind. I cannot surmount that. All the grains will not pass through the filter.

Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend has been a favourite of mine for years. Tautly written, but with a fantastical premise (the last man alive is besieged by an army of vampires) I read it in a single sitting. So I was looking forward to reading something else by Matheson.

The story begins with Robert Nielsen, the brother of the protagonist Chris, receiving a mysterious package from a distraught woman who shows up at his door one night. He discovers that it is a manuscript supposedly dictated to the anonymous woman, a psychic as it turns out, from beyond the grave by his dead brother. The account initially is flawed by misspellings and mistakes due to the woman’s poor vocabulary, patiently corrected by Chris.

It describes the moment of his death, his subsequent disorientation and eventual acceptance that he has died. He witnesses his own funeral, watches as his family struggle to cope with their loss. His son Ian has a growing interest in ESP and invites a psychic to attempt to contact his father. He is successful, even reading Chris’ lips for the benefit of his disbelieving and traumatized wife. However, Ann refuses to believe in the existence of an afterlife and Chris is forced to move on to a non-denominational Heaven.

“Heaven. Homeland. Harvest. Summerland,” he said. “Take your choice.”

This realm of existence is purely psychical, with Chris able to travel instantaneously, manifest objects at will and visit any perfect idyll he can imagine. Even his dead dog Katie is there waiting for him. His guide in the afterlife, Albert, explains that soon Ann will join him in ‘heaven’, as they are soul mates and destined to be together forever. First he must grow accustomed to the new rules of his existence and focus on improving his spiritual self. Despite the incredible sights of Heaven, Chris is unable to forget about Ann and continues to have visions of her experiencing pain back on Earth. Then Albert comes to him with the news that she has committed suicide and, because she refuses to believe in life after death, has been condemned to a private hell of her own making. Chris determinedly sets out to rescue his wife from this nightmarish torture, travelling through a series of hells that threaten to enmesh his own soul, trapping him forever.

Was this the place that Dante had confronted in his awful visions?

What Dreams May Come is in effect a reversal of Dante’s classic text, with Chris travelling in the opposite direction in search of his deceased ‘Beatrice’. However, Matheson’s book is frustratingly vague, with references to faddish theories of the paranormal, such as ‘etheric doubles’, auras and pan-psychism. God is spoken of, but all religions are described as imperfect attempts at describing life after death. In effect Chris’ Heaven resembles Plato’s description of a realm of ideal forms.

I also strongly disliked the stylistic choice of the story’s opening, with Chris harassing a psychic to write down his message to his brother for months on end apparently. It is made clear she is less educated than him, incapable of transcribing (at least initially until Matheson decides to abandon that stylistic quirk) her haunt’s thoughts into words. This idea of a Heaven composed of egotistical souls looking to use Earthbound humans as vassals for their thoughts and discoveries (apparently inspiration is the result of a divine ‘trickle down effect’, from the empyrean realm) is incredibly insulting. Chris, Albert and the other members of the host strike me as smug and condescending. Atheism is of course a passport to innumerable hells of suffering and pain, which is interesting. This version of the afterlife is non-denominational and egalitarian, except in the instance of non-believers. They are punished for their venality.

The book eventually is revealed to be an instruction manual of sorts, as to how we should comport ourselves to death. It’s an interesting theme, but one that I feel is rendered absurd by the descriptions of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’.

I found this book to be at once frustrating and dull. A real shame.

You see, most people, once they’ve passed, they’re not really interested in talking to this side. The effort’s too much for them. Even if they wanted to do it, they haven’t got the concentration span. You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy.

When Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker Prize it raised quite a few eye-brows. Not least because apparently there was a suspicious flurry of betting on the title before the announcement was made. As I had never read anything by Mantel before, I thought I would check out what all the fuss was about. Following this novel about death, palmistry and the tricks of memory, I am fairly confident Wolf Hall is not another bodice-ripper. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Alison Hart is a palm reader and fortune teller who appears to have a genuine ability to speak to the dead. Overweight and matronly in appearance, with bangles and jewellery for effect, pretending to an Irish ancestry for performance purposes, she expertly juggles the sympathy of her audience, with her gift for insight into their lives. Initially suspicious, Colette becomes convinced of Ali’s gift for speaking with individuals who have passed over ‘spiritside’.

When we first meet Colette she has become an assistant and recorder of Ali’s experiences as a medium. Having escaped a cold marriage to the shallow Gavin, and a career dependent on upskilling her knowledge of office software packages, she embarks on unravelling the mysterious past of her ‘partner’. She discovers that Ali is accompanied by not only an initially mischievous spirit guide named Morris, but the souls of several other increasingly threatening men. All of them figured prominently in her childhood, trapped in a house sitting on a barren English wasteland, where her mother entertained groups of men at a time. Ali never came to know her father and her mother’s grip on sanity began to wither while she was still quite young. When she began to see and hear the dead, she suspected she too was losing her mind.

As Colette spends more time with the bewildering older woman, she begins to wonder if perhaps she has. We follow the developing relationship between the two women during major events such as the death of Princess Diana and the September 11 tragedy. Ali and her community of fellow psychics respond in a very peculiar way to these occurrences, with Di in particular mocked mercilessly by the aging coven of women. Just as Ali’s mother sold her body to an endless number of servicemen, she finds herself selling her body and sanity for the use of irascible spirits haunting their descendents.

At times this book reminded me of Will Self’s How The Dead Live (itself a parody of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake). It lacks the scatological humour of these two books, instead mining a quiet form of personal tragedy. Colette is at a remove from her guru into the ways of the dead courtesy of more than her psychic abilities. She understands divination and palmistry only as a money-making opportunity (which earns the respect of her feckless husband Gavin). To her Ali’s distressing past is only content for a future book on the subject of a genuine psychic, who happens to also be quite the entertainer. Occasionally we are privy to the discussions between Morris and fellow souls spiritside, who linger on the border of this world, waiting for the likes of Ali to give them access to the physical world. They cannot acknowledge that time has marched on and their memories of their lives bear no relationship to the spectacle of psychics on cable television and phone sex lines.

Mantel plays with how we divorce ourselves from being with others by relating only to voices, either the table-tapping of the paranormal set, or a breathy voice echoing out of a phone handset. This is a quiet and unsettling novel about modern lives stranded by a fear of the future and a refusal to acknowledge the past.

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