It’s a mark of the otherworldly nature of Hilary Mantel’s story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, that one of the most straightforward, grounded stories begins with the words, “On January 9th, shortly after eleven on a dark sleety morning, I saw my dead father on a train pulling out of Clapham Junction, bound for Waterloo.” As the narrator searches the station for her deceased father, who looks “younger, as though death had moved him back a stage,” she meditates on what separates the living from the dead, pausing to interject rueful commentary on the crowds jostling her in the station. “How many of these surging thousands are solid, and how many of these assumptions are tricks of the light?” she muses. The piece, which is a brief seven pages, is less a story than an inquiry into the nature of ghosts, how to recognize them in a crowd, where to look for them if there’s one in particular you seek.
Ghosts aren’t the only supernatural creatures roaming the pages of this book. There are vampires (lesbian ones, of course), a faceless monster whose “flesh seemed to run from the bone,” furniture that wanders the room at night, an angel that appears in the form of a migraine, and a phantasmagoric dog, “shining like a unicorn.” It may come as a surprise to readers who only know Mantel as the author of the Booker Prize-winning historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that this collection is a seasonally appropriate Halloween punch bowl bobbing with ghost, ghouls, and goblins. Some of the stories read almost like the scripts for episodes of The Twilight Zone, with spooky plot twists hinging on a final turn of phrase or double entendre. It’s no accident Mantel invokes Poe at one point; these are macabre little page-turners.
In the first story, “Sorry to Disturb,” the narrator, living in Saudi Arabia with her husband and essentially a prisoner of her apartment complex, begins to fear she is slowly losing her grip on reality. A stranger who comes to her door asking to use the phone insinuates himself into her life, and soon seems to think of her as his possession; she feels powerless to end the relationship, or assert herself in any way in her unsettling surroundings. In this story the narrator herself is the ghost, a woman “trapped in a flat on the corner of Al-Suror Street,” taking medication that makes her “frightened, deaf, and sick;” years after the experience, she worries it has left her “forever off-kilter in some way.” Mantel did live in Saudi Arabia with her husband for nearly a decade, and this piece was originally published as memoir. Here, it effectively teaches us how to read what follows: trust nothing I tell you, the story says; you’re dealing with narrators who can’t even be sure their furniture isn’t misbehaving when their backs are turned.
In the following stories, the physical world conspires with these psychologically fragile narrators to present deceptively warped realities. In “Comma,” a mesmerizing tale of two children spying on a house where a disfigured child lives, the atmosphere shimmers with a summer heat wave, making the whole episode feel like a hallucinatory mirage. In “Harley Street,” about a medical office assistant whose coworkers have an unhealthy appetite for blood, the narrator dreams of death in “sticky summer dawns;” she leaves work one day and sees “a bed of geraniums—so scarlet, as if the earth had bled through the pavements; I saw the Guardsmen wilting in sympathy, fainting at their posts.” In “How Will I Know You,” the narrator, a biographer, stays in a repellent, most likely haunted hotel that seems to be built entirely of bad smells, rude noises, and ill will. And in the title story, the final one in the book, a secret door gives passage to a possible alternate universe, one in which recent British history takes a very different course.
In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel writes of her own childhood encounters with the paranormal. Playing in her yard one day, she saw “a ripple, a disturbance of the air … My first thought is that I have seen the devil.” From that moment on, she questioned the world around her. She has said that in writing her novels, she invites her characters into the room and concentrates until they are real beings, sitting before her, telling her about their lives. The figures in her series on Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII are dead, but they were real people once, and her writing suggests their ghosts wander among us, still reliving court intrigues, fretting over political missteps. After all, what is history, but a very detailed ghost story? In The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, untied from the historical record, she gives her characters freer rein to rattle their chains, and the results, while sometimes a bit hokey, are satisfyingly chilling.