Tariq Goddard’s monolithic new novel Nature and Necessity (Repeater Books, 2017) is an unremittingly dark horror story. It offers us a particular kind of baroque and mannerist dread that recounts the inescapable dark sewers of the soul inhabited by an English upper middle-class family at the end of the twentieth century. It is a book divided into four parts where the generational flow and exchange of family is imagined as the different rivers of Thanatos flowing inexorably into the underworld – Acheron, the river of pain; Cocytus, the river of wailing; Styx, the river of hatred; and Phlegethon, the river of fire. The inexorable decline and disintegration of familial and social delusion is tightly constrained by the inevitability and necessity of the waters descending into the land of the dead.
The story is largely confined to a remote Yorkshire farmhouse (and its adjoining cottages) belonging to Noah Montague known as ‘The Heights’. Noah has separated from his wife and retreated abroad, leaving the property in the hands of his wife Petula and his daughter Regan, and two other children from Petula’s first marriage, Jasper and Evita. This is a palace of swords reversed at the ends of the earth, where values, morals, and ideas have become inverted by Petula into the opposite of life. As becomes abundantly clear, the real nature of ‘The Heights’ is revealed as ‘The Depths’ of the underworld. It is a house of the dead surrounded by the asphodel meadows where its inhabitants constantly delude themselves into believing that they are destined for the elysium fields. But this is a story where the horror resides in that ongoing delusion. Petula lives in the thrall of an almost hallucinogenic belief in her own unique brilliance and social superiority, and presides over her life and that of her brood like a solipsistic magus. Her social aspiration, small-minded self- belief and egoism is matched only by her entropic mediocrity. Petula is a monstrously grotesque matriarch, wrong about almost everything, and whose fate is the necessary consequence of selfish atomisation and groundless superiority. As I read I began to see that the real horror of this family story lies in the social history of an England of the last thirty years, where Post-Thatcherist individuality has become buoyed by fantasies of excess yet damned to oblivion. This England flows on around the events of this novel like Oceanus yet weirdly never really touches them. This atomised and self-regarding family exist on the other side of life, sustained by the lies of England’s faded glory and supported by another’s money. But they are going nowhere. There is a suffocating hermeticism with this family as the consequences of Petula’s monstrous indifference towards her two older children, Jasper and Evita, and her malevolent sculpting of her youngest daughter Regan in her own image, unfolds across thirty years.
This is a novel of reversal where much of what passes for the flourishing of family life is really its ghosted mirror image. Ambitious social climbing, desperate striving for social superiority, vulgar snobbery, conceited mediocrity, parasitic arrogance and species isolation. Down here in the underworld where all the rivers end, it is deeply unpleasant and malevolent. Love is distinctly absent. Petula obsessively draws the other living dead around her in the form of local dignitaries, minor political figures, c-list celebrities, singers and actors – all in all an horrific and grotesque coterie of the underworld. In one extraordinary chapter they are all brought together for one catastrophic evening which ends in a Dionysian frenzy and a death. Substantive social collectivity is absent in their lives, and real friendships are rare. As the years pass Petula and the increasingly embittered Jasper carry out an isolated living death worthy of Miss Havisham and Estella ossified in their dark and decaying mansion. Regan, who is a creature trapped within the sculpted confines designed by her mother, appears to establish an independent life and escape from ‘The Heights’, but she is repeatedly drawn back into Petula’s necrotic web. The only one of the children to really move beyond ‘The Heights’ is Evita, but this is the result of madness and her addictions. Petula, this novel’s ‘witch of the place’, displays a pathological inability to see that everything has become touched by Thanatos – that the exuberant vitality of eros, of which she believes herself to be an exemplary avatar, has disintegrated and degenerated into the toxic drains of death and decay. In the horror of the underworld the dead go on yet are insubstantial and without purpose. They exist in a static and empty form of self-deception lacking the ability to be able to perceive what is really going on around them. There is just the transmission of death and dead ideas through children, where the eroticism of procreation has bred monstrous solipsists who will, at the end of this hugely ambitious novel, risk the punishment of the furies in order to try, and fail, to kill their mother and escape the inevitability of their own deathly fate.