The Green Man by Kingsley Amis
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m never going to be a great reader of ghost stories – mainly because a lot of my reading is done at night, and frankly I get very easily spooked by any kind of supernatural kind of book! 🙂 Approaching another Kingsley Amis book, in the form of “The Green Man”, and reading the first chapter in bed really brought it home to me that I couldn’t handle this type of thing in the dark; so I ended up reading the rest of the book in the full light of day!
As you know, I read my first Amis recently, “The Riverside Villas Murder” and like it very much. So I sent off for “The Green Man” as it did sound intriguing, and it seemed like a good follow-up to “The Cheltenham Square Murder”. The Green Man of the title is a mediaeval coaching inn in the fictional Fareham, Herts, run by landlord Maurice Allington. The concept of a Green Man turns up in British folk legend over the centuries and there are numerous pubs, inns, festivals et all named after it. However, it often refers to a kind of pagan monster made of branches, leaves and the like, and that’s what’s central to the plot here.
Allington has baggage; his first wife had left him and was then killed in a car accident; he runs the inn with his second wife, Joyce, and his teenage daughter Amy is also living with them. Amy is introverted and reclusive, obviously suffering from the loss of her mother. Also present is Maurice’s fragile and ageing father. Maurice is basically an alcoholic serial womanizer, and quite why Joyce puts up with him is anyone’s guess.
However, the inn has issues of its own. It was the previous residence of the notorious Dr. Underhill, a 17th century nasty who practiced black magic and seduced local young girls. Rumour has it he murdered his wife using supernatural forces, and his ghost was said to haunt The Green Man. As the book opens, Maurice is struggling with his health; he’s drinking far too much, has numerous aches and pains, and keeps having blackouts of sorts, losing hours at a time when he can’t recall what he did or said. He’s also been suffering weird hallucinations, so when he sees a mysterious red-haired woman on the stairs who then disappears, is he (or anyone else) going to take it seriously? (This was the point at which I got spooked).
Maurice’s best friend locally is also his doctor, Jack Maybury. Unfortunately, Maurice has a less-than-loyal interest in Jack’s wife, Diana, and whilst struggling to deal with the apparitions and the alcohol, he’s also attempting to seduce his best friend’s spouse! However, a particularly dramatic black-out seems to take place, during which Maurice apparently encounters the ghost of Underhill, and he’s intrigued and irritated enough to do some research. A visit to Cambridge and a calling in of some favours lead him to Underhill’s long-forgotten journal, which gives Maurice plenty to think about. Underhill had apparently created some kind of unearthly creature, and his ghost was seen watching the copse behind the inn from where it came to kill his wife. Maurice is determined to prove he’s not insane or suffering from the DTs, and so begins to dig further (literally, at one point!) to try to find out the truth about Underhill and the ghostly presence.
Alongside this, somewhat bizarrely, he also hatches a plot to try to create a threesome with himself, Joyce and Diana! How he’ll manage this in his frail state of health is anyone’s guess – and he really needs to stop neglecting his daughter so much, too. However, the death of his father in slightly strange circumstances convinces him something has to be done; and an encounter with an unidentified strange young man, who has very strong powers, gives him the strength to go ahead with his plan. But has he bitten off more than he can chew (with both of his plans, that is)?
I ended up liking “The Green Man” very much indeed, which I wasn’t quite expecting. Amis really was an excellent writer, and he created a brilliantly unreliable narrator in the form of Maurice. He’s flawed, human and not always likeable; nevertheless I couldn’t help hoping he would succeed in his battle against the very nasty past. For Underhill really *is* an evil piece of work: preying on the local young girls and conjuring up a really frightening monster, the fact that he’s trying to cheat death and affect the present day is chilling. He tempts Maurice, tapping into his subconscious and choosing things he think will appeal; however, fortunately for all, Maurice is sharp enough to see through Underhill’s ploy, recognising what he’s actually after.
I’m not going to say any more about the plot, because it’s brilliantly done, full of twists and turns, ancient documents, mysterious sensations in the copse, moonlit adventures, peril – and of course Maurice’s constant obsession with sex! I should really object to his womanizing, but I don’t because I think he’s one of those men who just can’t help having sex on the brain! Also, the book was published in 1969, a time when the liberation of the Swinging Sixties was very much to the fore – a liberation I personally feel offered a lot more to men than it did to women. Plus, he does kind of get his comeuppance at one point – I shall say no more!
However, Amis doesn’t shy away from tackling the larger subjects – life, death, the afterlife, whether there’s any point in religion, why we’re here and so on. Maurice’s encounter with the nameless young man is a serious one, giving plenty of food for thought, and in strong contrast with his funny and somewhat slapstick meetings with the local vicar (a very modern version of the Parish cleric). Light and dark are set against each other in a number of places, and it’s hard not to see some kind of parallel between Underhill and Maurice, with their sexual desires, although Maurice has enough decency and good sense to recognise Underhill for what he is. The book is genuinely creepy, and the menace very credible and frightening. I’m glad I *didn’t* try to read any more at night, because I would most definitely have ended up sleeping with the light on. As it is, I whizzed through the book in daylight, with bated breath, to a really satisfying ending. I’m very impressed with both of the Amis books I’ve read and I think I shall most definitely be exploring more of his work.