This exuberantly spooky novel, in which horror, repressed eroticism, and sulfurous social comedy intertwine like the vines in an overgrown English garden, is now a major motion picture, starring Alan Bates, Sting, and Theresa Russell. From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Grotesque is a short novel and it reads quickly, but doesn't leave behind much of an impression. The plot is very thin, and doesn't generate enough interest to support the length. The writing is fine, but it hardly sparkles. The atmosphere is too familiar to provide much interest, either (a decaying manor in the marsh, a sinister butler, lots of firelight and rain). All that's left to set the novel apart from a buttoned-down, boring, novel-length treatment of a Poe short story is its gleeful sense of humor.
The humor mostly comes in two forms. Hugo Coal, the narrator, tends to react to things with a spluttering outrage that McGrath effectively mines for laughs. Right at the beginning, Hugo describes his daughter's effete boyfriend. Coal says, "He smoked a little pipe with a slender reddish rosewood stem and a petite bowl that took no more than a pinch or two of delicately scented herb tobacco-- I am not making this up, he smoked herb tobacco!"
The second vein of humor that runs throughout is Coal's transparent unreliability as narrator. McGrath uses Coal's unreliability to set up a kind of dramatic irony that is consistently amusing. The downside of this technique, though, is that it undermines the suspense/mystery structure of the novel. The structure suggests that readers should be surprised by the ending, but this isn't possible, because we see through Sir Hugo Coal in the first few pages of the book.
In the end, it's a book I neither regret nor recommend. It has a few amusing moments, spread over far longer a length than the material warrants.
In The Grotesque, I found all the elements that I truly love in a novel. There are but a few characters, but all are deeply interesting. The setting is a bit spooky. Best of all, though, is that this book is a pyschological thriller with a story that kept me guessing what was to come and spurring me on to turn its pages faster and faster. Even by the story's end, I had much about which to think.
Sir Hugo Coal is a paleontologist who is trying to prove that the dinosaur bones, which he brought back from Africa and has currently set up in his barn, prove that the his specimen is bird-related. However, at this time in his life, he sits in a wheelchair unable to communicate because of an "accident" that lead to his "vegetative" state. Nevertheless, he tells us his story because he wants us to know how evil his butler is. In fact, he is sure that his butler, named Fledge (there's also a neurosurgeon named Walter Dendrite in this book!), had something to do with the disappearance of his daughter Cleo's fiance. Just listen to what he tells us...
Enjoy this book, folks, it's a good one!
"I was much relieved when, after a few days of rabid excitement, they [reporters] lost interest in us, having fresh rubbish with which to titillate their readers. And mass literacy, they tell me, is a boon." p. 64
OMG, what would he say in the face of the media now? Reality TV? The internet? Oy. Poor Hugo.
As much as I love McGrath and savor his books, I can't rate this one very highly in comparison with his others. I kept waiting for the magical moments of madness. None came. Sir Hugo's irascibility and humorous asides were terrific, but sane. And I also kept waiting for the illusion to come down, for Fledge or someone else to come fully into the light and make us realize our assumptions were wrong. Usually in McGrath's books the narrator's unreliability is finally shown in piteously harsh light, but not so in this one. George's death and Fledge's flaunting are interesting and stir up our emotions, but Sir Hugo is helpless and there isn't so much likable about either man to stir pity. Still, it's a rich character study and a voyeuristic look inside a dysfunctional household.
A new butler & housekeeper (sans references), a young couple (one murdered), the Narrator husband due to an "accident" is now a "Grotesque" an "Ontological Vegetable" trapped in his body, and the wife who is in thrall with the new butler.......
For myself, this proved a difficult read, for these are old "mannered" people of country gentry and the narration bespeaks that manner....
It was thrilling and chilling at the same time...the dark foreboding manner made me shiver and I skipped some of the longer seemingly pompous narratives....