In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë has her intermittently cruel, hopelessly romantic, infinitely malleable anti-hero Heathcliff howl for the ghost of his deceased love, Catherine, in a wonderfully revealing way. “Be with me always,” Heathcliff implores, “take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Madness, in Heathcliff’s (and perhaps Brontë’s) estimation, amounts to a kind of haunting: the possessing of one body by the animating spirit of another. Identities dissolve into one another in a paranormal play.
Elsewhere in Brontë’s novel, too, characters describe ghosts and spirits in similar terms: “I was sure she was with me,” Heathcliff says of Catherine’s soul; “I shall love mine yet; and take him with me: he’s in my soul,” pines Isabella Linton. Love itself is a co-constitutive concept: the lovers’ souls entwined, two spirits living within one another. More importantly, to the external observer, such a state of fervid romance is indistinguishable from insanity. Take me with you. Live inside me. Do not leave me. Drive me mad.
Of late, this configuration of madness has reappeared in some Canadian page-turners: Michael Redhill’s Giller-nominated Bellevue Square, about a bookshop owner dogged by a woman who looks like her—just like her; Barbara Gowdy’s considerably more entertaining Little Sister, in which a woman inhabits the body and mind of a stranger during thunderstorms; and Kathleen Winter’s Lost In September, in which a homeless Montrealer rattled by PTSD believes himself the reincarnation of General James Wolfe. Identities in these stories are not so much fractured into spiky, schizoid splinters as they are nested inside each other. People gaze through the perspectives of relative strangers, literalizing Proust’s promise of art’s ability “to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others.”
Redhill and Gowdy conjoin seemingly supernatural or paranormal goings-on—Bellevue Square has more doppelgängers and winking meta-gestures than a Paul Auster novel, or the latest season of Twin Peaks—with realist narrative trappings. (This sense of workaday-naturalism-otherwise-disturbed distinguishes these titles from the more magical realist flourishes of Alison Pick’s Strangers With the Same Dream, with its ghost narrators, or André Alexis’s 2015 Giller Prize-winner Fifteen Dogs, in which Greek gods bless Toronto canines with human cognition.) Here mental illness is a form of contemporary haunting, and the books offer visions of “modern ghosts,” to use a phrase from Bellevue Square. Indeed, this is Redhill’s title for his planned triptych of novels, of which Bellevue is the first. It suggests a narrative preoccupation with the twinning of the irrational and the metaphysical, a tradition that stretches back at least as far as the unwelcoming hearth of Brontë’s Heights, if not further, to the hoary Gothic manors of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.
The Franco-Bulgarian literary critic Tzvetan Todorov has a term for those earlier stories: the fantastic. In these recent Canadian novels, some of which are themselves suspended between pulp and serious literary fiction, the states of fractured duress feeding off each other produce a fresh, new literary subgenre, the neuro-fantastic.
Mental illness and the supernatural, the mad and the eerie, have long mirrored one another in fiction. For English Romantics cast into a repressive regime of Victorianism, madness, manifesting in the erratic, inscrutable behaviour of characters like Heathcliff, must have seemed a strangely appealing state. Haunted pasts and ancestral curses hang over Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, too, and her later novel Villette, thick as fog rolling over the rural English moors—the weird and eerie within the realist trappings of Gothic literature.
As delineated by Todorov, the fantastic is a literary subgenre in which a character in a narrative, and the reader in turn, is suspended between two possibilities: that supernatural events are actually occurring or that they are the product of delusion and hallucination, that they are all in your head. “The fantastic,” Todorov writes, “lasts only as long as a certain hesitation: a hesitation common to reader and character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from ‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion.”
The American expat Henry James gave fullest expression to the tension between the supernatural (a strange reality as it exists) and madness in The Turn of the Screw, a sort of inscrutable ghost story about an English governess living in a rambling country estate who is either legitimately visited by the spirits of deceased caretakers or otherwise losing her grip on reality. James’s story then offers up a third option: Perhaps the governess is both losing her mind and being taunted by the spirits acting through suspiciously precocious children. Insanity and supernatural incident similarly seem to produce one another in The Shining, in which an alcoholic, creatively stopped-up novelist is tormented in turn by demons both metaphorical and actual. There is no stable terra firma from which the reader might objectively appraise these proceedings, a reality that produces something closer to true horror—the mind slipping away from itself, into the inky, cobwebby abyss. To this, the writers add actual ghosts and goblins and blood-suckers.
Of the new books, Bellevue Square deals most explicitly with the subject of mental illness. Its hero, Jean Mason, is beset by “doppelgänger problems.” Mason’s lookalike hangs around Bellevue Square, the public park in Toronto’s Kensington Market, a well-known local hive of eccentrics, layabouts, pot dealers, and the obviously mentally ill. (That the park shares its name with the New York City hospital infamous for its psychiatric ward, is either a happy coincidence or an example of the kind of textual density Redhill so clearly savours—or both.)
“In downtown Toronto,” Jean observes, “you have to be prepared at all times to intersect with people living in other realities.” Superficially, she’s talking about material differences: the lines between rich and poor, the fickle turns of fate that separate the well-to-do from the down-and-out. But Redhill’s deeper implication is clear. He means that “other realities” bit quite literally, referring to actual other selves, manifested in the doubles and doppelgängers that populate Bellevue Square.
This play of identity, and its connection to mental health, reappears in Little Sister, Barbara Gowdy’s first novel in a decade. Gowdy’s protagonist, Rose, runs a Toronto repertory cinema and is, like Redhill’s bookseller, directly involved in facilitating experiences of empathy-via-art. Rose likewise has a habit of getting lost in a slipstream of shifting identity when she finds herself repeatedly transported into the person of a literary editor named Harriet, who is involved in a torrid affair with a married man. Rose feels a “pulled-thread sensation beneath her skin” as she is zapped into the body of another, like a ghost inhabiting a still-living body. That Rose’s mother is lost in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease colours these body-jumping flights of fancy, with degenerative mental illness playing the role of an old ancestral curse in a Gothic novel. Like her ailing—albeit still spry, charming, and vivacious—parent, Rose’s mind is not quite her own. (To say nothing of Harriet.)
Where Gowdy lets the threat of dementia and mental deterioration loom over the proceedings, Redhill brings such perils to the fore—less the ghostly spectre than the clanking suit of animate armour. As Bellevue’s Jean pursues her own dark double, a mystery writer named Ingrid, her loved ones become convinced that her sanity is compromised, that she’s lapsing back into a state of mental distress. In one scene she wakes up and sees “a distortion simmering in the air beside the bed,” and feels the weight of someone on top of her. She tries to scream, but feels “strangled for air.” (The sequence recalls the phenomenon of sleep paralysis—a disorder that itself straddles the supernatural and physiological.) “Don’t let her in!” Jean tells herself. She’s the inverse of countless characters of Gothic literature, shielding herself from the spirits and shadow-forms besieging her body. As Jean’s sense of herself unravels, Redhill forces his reader to reckon again with that most central question: Is any of this really happening?
There is, perhaps, a level of national allegory at play in these stories, best expressed in Kathleen Winter’s novel. Her protagonist, Jimmy Blanchard, is either a down-and-out reincarnation of James Wolfe, the British general who claimed victory over the French at the Plains of Abraham in 1759, or a victim of PTSD who believes himself to be Wolfe. Here, mental and historical trauma are entwined, as if the ghost of Wolfe is being resurrected to reckon with the modern consequences of a long-ago conquest. Likewise, the proliferation of avenging ghosts, doubles, and schizoid mental states coincides conspicuously with our nation’s efforts in this anniversary year to grapple with its past and its own social and historical traumas—more often subjugated to the rigours of Protestant-Catholic repression, and papered over with a veneer of pleasantness. The dissonance between our historically-constituted sense of self and its reality is enough to drive any sentient Canadian a little mad.
The neuro-fantastic differs from Todorov’s fantastic in one major way. The fantastic, by virtue of its historical context, privileged the reality of hauntings, demonic possessions and the like. The historical slog from medievalism through Enlightenment (an always deceptive epochal term, given the period was marked as much by witch-finders and demonologists as by amateur astronomers peering through primitive telescopes), Romanticism, and Victorianism was dogged by its own ghosts of a crude, rough-hewn past—which seemed more real to its denizens than the alternative of mental illness, or lunacy, or hysteria, or insanity. To the Victorians, the supernatural may have felt nearer (historically and cognitively) than the hard science of neurology and mental health.
In the neuro-fantastic, this wonky symmetry between “reality” and “insanity” is effectively reversed. Our modern understanding about matters of mental health, as well the whole field of neuroscience, grounds these novelistic discussions of insanity. The current regime of rationality, secularism and scientism—which finds expression, ironically, in a frothing, quasi-religious zeal—vests credence almost exclusively in the option of insanity and mental illness. But as the paranormal investigator Dr. John Markway puts it early in the film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s American-Gothic The Haunting of Hill House, which itself features a mentally shaky lead character confronted by the likelihood of ghosts, “Look: I know the supernatural is something that isn’t supposed to happen. But it does happen.”
At the risk of getting insufferably “meta” about the whole thing—although it’s something Redhill’s novel does rather extensively, verging on distraction—all novels, all fiction, can in a way be seen as allegories of a kind of schizoid break. (That the protagonists of Redhill and Gowdy’s novels are both involved in the propagation of fictional stories, as a bookseller and cinema owner respectively, further underscores this connection.)
The fundamental tension is sustained indefinitely, the hesitation of Todorov’s fantastic extending itself beyond the book’s pages, the ambiguity of resolution persisting long after the narrative has resolved itself. The reader is always haunted, carrying both her own perspective, and that of the character moving through the story—itself a phantasmic realm conjured by the interplay of words on the reader’s imagination. As the literary critic Thomas Jones wrote in a 2009 essay in the London Review of Books, “There is a sense in which all novels are ghost stories: fictional characters are translucent phantoms, which readers believe in (or don’t); readers lurk in the presence of characters, spying on their most intimate moments, eavesdropping on their innermost thoughts.”
The neuro-fantastic transposes supernaturalism onto this topography. The mind, after all, is the original ghost in the machine.