Monday, 5 December 2016

"Class" Novel 3: "The Stone House" by A.K. Benedict (2016)

contains SPOILERS

A.K. Benedict has recently broken into the Doctor Who universe with a few Torchwood audio dramas, in many instances alongside Guy Adams and James Goss, her Class co-novelists (their novels are reviewed here and here). It was thus with a sense of relief that I saw the three names lined up to write these three novels, as I knew that the fact that it was Torchwood scribes signalled a certain maturity of content (not needlessly mature, like some of Torchwood's first season, but just appropriately challenging YA themes). Still, the fact that Benedict is a renowned horror writer gave me pause for thought: was the Gothic vibe, the Susan Hill horror of The Woman in Black that her novel The Stone House looked like it was going to emulate, really apposite for Class' general style? Did the two gel - the Gothic and the hyper-modern Shoreditch? Happily, the answer is a resounding yes, as this is, I think, the most successful of the three tie-in novels and a beautiful, elegiac novel in its own right. The old stone house at the heart of this novel turns out to be a perfect new setting for Class to explore, a dark Gothic stronghold amid its urban locale (with this in mind, the "Urban Legend" folklore site is a helpful bridge between the two). A haunted house story is perfect for an exploration of the twisted relationship between inner and outer spaces, of the burgeoning relationship between Self and World which obsesses us all in our teenage years. There is an icy chill to Benedict's prose - something fundamentally haunted and death-soaked about it all - which clings to you long after you've finished reading it, yet which does not by any means stop an essence of warmth and humanity from shining through beneath - in fact, quite the opposite; it only enhances it. It's the equivalent of the sun on your face in a Nordic winter; both sensations are pitched as extreme and heightened.

I used the word 'death-soaked' a moment ago, and though much of Doctor Who is (Russell T Davies: "the key ingredient is death"), The Stone House is more so than most. We are constantly reminded of our characters' living, breathing mortality, the "quintessence of dust" to which they will return. "My skin shrinks back to the bone," says one character. "Why do people in this country call it the living room when they just sit in it, watch television and wait for death?", thinks another. "What will you do, then, prop us in a corner like mannequins? Have us sat in the conservatory making tea for infinity? Make yourself a house of bones?" a third asks the stone house itself: a frightening prospect, though also a clever one when paired with the 'living room' comment above, as though the quiet, twee English-middle-class existence ("making tea for infinity") already consists of us living in houses of bones. And then, most explicitly, the aliens of the story are the seemingly terrifying bone spiders - huge arachnids made of bleached white bone. This all helps to anchor the story's horror aesthetic, of course, and as you'd imagine A.K. Benedict does it reliably well.

A great deal behind The Stone House's success lies not so much in the horror trappings that you'd expect A.K. Benedict to be good at, mind, but in the degree to which she centres her novel on Tanya. As the youngest character in Class, someone who always feels left out from the others, Tanya has always been a little sidelined, and some of the series' best moments are when her intelligence and passion are allowed to come to the fore (Nightvisiting, the way she takes charge in Detained, and her teaming up with Quill in The Lost). Benedict absolutely nails who Tanya is, her thoughts and her interests and her voice. Her love of facts (learning about "filamentous achenes" at the very start, a sequence which pays off hauntingly well in the final chapter) even amid the superstitious framework of the story (counting the hours of the clock by using a dandelion), and paired as it is with an enjoyable irreverence (deciding to call the filamentous achene Brian), plus the fact that she reuses the word later (as precocious young teenagers who have just learned a new long word are wont to do). The word "bunghole" turning up again, and "these days the realms of possibility are gargantuan", another typical precocious teenager's long word. Her "longing for somebody who'd know her the girl who doesn't know what to do". The way she has "no idea how [April], or anyone else, achieves pristine anything. Too much effort", tells him "do you never sweat? you look like you've fallen off the model conveyor. Stop it", or thinks "April has very waftable hair" or, later on, mutters to herself in the free indirect discourse narration "everyone is being braver than Tanya". Great little insights into Tanya's thoughts like "his car is a brown Mini. There are M&Ms that are larger and more tasteful". The general teenage banter, too, works particularly well here; Tanya's dynamic with Ram is gold.

Of course Tanya isn't just quips and brainy factoids, as the episode Nightvisiting revealed, and The Stone House gets a lot of mileage out of the tragic back-story of her deceased father ("dreams about her dad used to start sweet and crisp and turn as bad as the spilled apples in the conservatory"), the way she wants to patch a broken family together because of the impossibility of her own, and how this makes her similar to the story's main guest character... and this is where A.K. Benedict's masterstroke comes in. The Stone House isn't really a Gothic horror story at all - it's masquerading as one, but it's actually a heartfelt depiction of a lost Syrian refugee, cut off from family and friends, and trapped here in London. The segments that portray Amira's past life - needing to flee the war-zone, crossing the Mediterranean, her mother slipping away into the water, cowering in corridors as men stalk the young girls who have been brought over - are heart-breaking stuff, and wholly new territory for both the Doctor Who universe but also Class itself in terms of the vivid realism with which they are rendered ("twenty of us packed into a refrigerator unit, like dates in a packet"). It is precisely the direct emotional truth of this material which means the baroque grotesqueness of the stone house can flourish elsewhere. What is most impressive is how Benedict weaves the two together: and so the Woman in Black-style cliche of a girl screaming at a window becomes a very real, a very concrete horror, when we learn that she is a refugee desperate to get out and be reunited with her family. "They don't want to look at my face," Amira observes of the people who walk past this eternally impassive stone house, "they don't want to know...I fought to reach this city but it doesn't even know I'm here...London carried on as if nothing was happening." A damning indictment of us all.

The clarity of expression which Benedict gives to Amira's tale - it can't have been easy - is laudable, both for its ennobling depiction of the hope her belief gives her (her fondness of hearing the call to prayer, her use of the word Insha'allah) and a stinging look at the way both conservative Islam and our more ostensibly liberal milieu can view women and girls ("I understand why people turn away from windows with girls in them. They look at our bodies and not our eyes" - when it's just a screaming face, nobody wants to know). Particularly smart is the way Amira is paralleled with "Faceless Alice", the house's former occupant who is now a ghostly, voiceless apparition with no face, no voice, no speech, strangled by the constrictions of cobwebs. The nod to Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House - it may stem from 1879, but it's still one of the greatest feminist works of literature, with its howl at the unjust world - is also very good ("we're like dolls in a doll's house. The house wants you to stay"). The metaphor does not take long to suss out: this is a story about society's flotsam and jetsam, those whom we leave behind and forget to give a voice to.

There's an extra clever layer to the way A.K. Benedict segues from a horror story into the tale of a lost refugee trying to find her family -- and that is the way in which she retains the horror story trappings while continually folding them back in on themselves. I am reminded of the way in which the media persistently demonize people just like Amira, for instance ("count the teeth", the papers would say of this girl when she reached Calais). "If you don't have facts," Tanya thinks early on, "then fiction slips in" - the source of all manners of rumour and legend, such as those which swirl about the house itself, and in which dreams and nightmares become intermingled with the everyday reality of fact. The urban legend website makes its own reality about the "ghost of Faceless Alice" and the bone spiders that live within: "writing her like that made her like that. Legends have their own life and get passed on, they're contagious. They evolve, shifting with each host". And, later, Miss Quill retorts, "you fight a legend by getting to its source". From lines like "maybe it's a person behind all of it and they're just running behind the walls and down concealed passageways, setting off projections or holograms", to Ram posing like a great director on a film set, to the idea of footage being played to keep people out, to the famous Scooby-Doo line about "pesky kids" and other genre-savvy tropes, we see this again and again throughout The Stone House - the way extra narratives have been laid on top of people like Amira, or lost alien refugees like the bone spider, portraying them as horrors when they are anything but. This marks the book out as something extra special, and gives it the edge that tips it over into being the best thing to come out of the Class franchise. The scenes between the lost bone spider looking for her baby, and Alice Parsons mourning the loss of her daughter, are achingly beautiful, and resonated with me more than anything in the main show. Let A.K. Benedict write an episode of Series 2 please, because you'd need a heart of stone not to be moved by this book.

That's the thing about stone, of course. It's cold, hard, dried out, and unfeeling: the epitome of Britain's reaction to the refugee crisis. Stone has no time for tears or compassion. A stone house does not help out its neighbouring monolith when it is toppling - and note, too, that even Amira does not help others as they sink to a watery grave on the dinghy crossing the Mediterranean. But living, weeping flesh and heartless stone will both turn to the same dust, in the end.

Other things:
  • Reading The Stone House from the vantage point of having seen the whole first series of Class, it works even better than simply sitting alongside the first few episodes (my guess - without any foundation in fact - is that A.K. Benedict and her fellow novelists had been given the scripts for Episodes 1-3 when they wrote these books, but not beyond that; this one in particular feels inspired by Nightvisiting, and it's clearly set after it). Like Nightvisiting, and like much of the series as it goes on but particularly the series finale, The Lost, this novel takes loss and grief as two of its central themes, and weaves a supernatural element around them. But there are plenty of elements that Benedict seems to - whether intentionally or not - foreshadow, such as the unexpected pairing of Tanya and Quill, which works marvellously both here and in The Lost (and brings about this amazing exchange: "Two things make this planet passable. Coffee is one of them."/"What's the other one?"/"If you don't know then I feel more sorry for you than I do normally. Besides, some things should be kept secret.").
  • The only flaws I can think of are mostly editing matters rather than big structural problems. For one, its oppressive summery atmosphere ("the kind of hot where sweat patches join forces into one giant sweat patchwork"), though well conveyed, simply doesn't fit the series timeline of being mostly set in October-December 2016 (i.e. as it airs) - with Charlie arriving at Coal Hill Academy in September. If The Stone House takes place after Nightvisiting, as it must do, then it should be the depths of darkest, chilliest November. I suppose it could be a particularly hot autumn for a week or so, but it still seems a bit off, especially as there's no real reason for Benedict to have set the book in summer when winter might have been a better fit. Similarly she refers to the "tears in space and time" as "the Rift" (as in the Torchwood audio stories she's also currently writing) - I'm not sure if she's intending to draw a parallel, but I don't think the TV series itself has ever used that word, so that was a bit awkward too. And as someone else has pointed out, there's an instant where Tanya seems to be in two places at once (one of the lines credited to her should have been credited to Ram, I think): nothing massive, just something an editor should have picked up on.
  • Once again, the novel flits between various perspectives and is told in the present tense. I don't know if Goss, Adams and Benedict agreed on this together, but it seems to be the "house style". It's actually rather a Patrick Ness thing too (his novels are usually present-tense narratives so as to be as urgent-sounding as possible), so I wonder if he had a hand in this.
  • Benedict's prose is frequently gorgeous, there's a magic to it but it's also very rooted in the everyday: "...weeds reaching through the gates like gnarled hands...rumours cling to this house like ivy"; "the grey of the stone house sits strangely against the blue sky and all the other houses seem as if they're edging away from it"; "in a day that could fry eggs on a belly button, it feels like they've never been warm"; "a conservatory leans against the house like a drunk friend at a party"; "an ancient red velvet chaise longue lies at one end like a dried-out tongue; a table, wicker chairs around out as if waiting for three creepy bears, is laid out for afternoon tea. There are plates of desiccated scones and cake. A dead wasp lies in a jam tomb"; "the streaks of grey clouds against purple make it look as if the sky is peeling back to stone"; "silence. thick, embarrassed silence. A soupy kind of silence, a minestrone with bits floating in it that you can't, and don't want to, identify"; "a truck bleeps its reversing song..."
  • "It wants the lonely, the lost, the vulnerable. It wants you." All of us, and especially every teenager. As the Class episode Detained emphasised, every teenager's MO is to feel like the "one left out".
  • "The only reason to go by the canal is if you want a spare shopping trolley, tetanus or to play Count the Condoms."
  • "There's an expression here for what it feels like to fall for someone: 'go weak at the knees'. Why would you want to be weak anywhere?" This line is even better and more complex in light of the revelation that Andra'ath/Quill did have a lover, but he was killed by Charlie's people.
  • "If I've learned anything on this planet, it's that "I'm fine" means anything but."
  • "You really are a kid, aren't you?" Ram tells Tanya dismissively, again setting up how she feels in Detained. "Thanks for explaining how human growth works, Ram," she shoots back later, "it's a subject so few know anything about."
  • On the relationship between Tanya and her mother: "They're like competing ivy. The strands of ivy writhe. It always happens." 
  • "Sarcasm is beneath you, Tanya. It's why they call it a chasm."
  • One of the pleasures of Benedict's characterisation of Quill is the little hints of colour she gives to her background - not just the hints of her former lover, but references to the Quill rebel heroes Parsela and Whitshade, or the Quill tradition of crossing cutlery when you finish a meal, her knife of "rare Kalthagon stone", riding a fire stallion through the flame lake of Kabal, or the prames of the Renyalin series somehow involving an aardvark... it makes her society feel like a real, near-tangible, melancholic lost entity. And then there's the casual reveal that she has contact with an alien trader in Camden Market: I'd love them to revisit this.
  • Strong supporting cast including Alan Fergus Turnpike (and his obsession with Quill) and the odious property developer Constantine Oliver (I laughed out loud at "call me Con").
  • "I do not want to see another tent. Why would people live in them if they didn't have to? When they have houses and loved ones who aren't dead inside them? I hear people laughing and wonder who will get hurt."

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