When I was at college there was a girl loved by all the boys. We’ll call her Cecilia. Fortunately for said boys, she came from a strict religious household. Teenage rebellion and catholic guilt are the two greatest marshalling forces for sexual experimentation ever devised. You can tell they’re patriarchal constructs for this reason. God bless the Church, and thank the Lord for buttoned up, psalm quoting parents. When it comes to masturbatory opportunities for teenage boys, you’re truly God’s right hand.
Fortunately, Ben Shillito’s a lot less flippant about the subject than this reviewer. He’s thought about it quite a bit more. Christopher Hitchens, writing about Nabokov’s Lolita, wryly noted the great man had given the matter of Humbert’s desire very serious consideration; he’d inhabited his condition. The same can be said for Shillito, who’s repurposed Poe’s Masque of the Red Death as a perverse bildungsroman, the psychosexual exploration of a pubescent girl, and the catastrophic fallout from that sexual awakening. Not everyone survives libido’s inveigling into consciousness. In The Red Death, the tween Alice eyes her parent’s farmhand, signalling nothing less than the end of the world.
But whose world? Ours? The poor, shamed, dysmorphic Alice’s? You’re invited to draw your own conclusions, though the novel offers its clues.
She had thought she was fat and disgusting, and been locked away with force-feeders and head-shrinkers, and when they had all died she had thought she had killed them, and locked herself inside her own delusion and waited for the end.
The demarcation of that delusion is the Red Death’s tease. If you so choose, you can follow the white rabbit into a wonderland of sexual sadism and narratological omniscience; the inverse of Alice’s Christian childhood. There, depending on your bent, you’ll enjoy or be repulsed by the breakdown of social order and sexual morality. In Shillito’s post-apocalyptic refuge from a virus that not for nothing acts as a Freudian stand-in for Alice’s bulimia, Poe’s colour coded rooms host degeneracy – both the assembled “Community” and reader are resoundingly defiled.
What would Poe and Lewis Carroll make of it? I imagine Shillito’s answer to be, “nothing, they’re dead.” No one can accuse him of being a sentimental booby – he’s brutal – pessimistic, but his reimagining appends a psychological and feminist dimension to the source material. As Michel Faber did for Dickens, so does Shillito for Poe.
His prose, stuffed and mannered, in places self-consciously literary, recalls the 19th century originals, but also undercuts. It’s a deadpan conceit. That conflation of high-minded and base, intellectual and carnal, makes The Red Death vivid. Shillito paints pictures fit for acetone rather than hanging, but he composes them with an artist’s poise.
Your taste for excess and receptivity to hopelessness will shape your reaction to this debauched fantasy. It’s uncompromising and cruel, but those in tune with its preoccupations are very well-served. Poe betide the pearl clutchers, however – they’ll be tutting to the grave.
The Red Death is available in Print and Ebook from Amazon