Friday, January 15, 2016

FFB: The Survivor - Dennis Parry

It's paradoxical that The Survivor (1940) is considered a ghost story. True, there is a malevolent spirit at work here exploiting the body of a naive young woman in order to continue a relentless assault of emotional abuse, verbal cruelty and psychological torture. What seems on the surface to be a story of supernatural possession and an exchange of souls, however, is really not much more than a family saga.

From The Dybbuk (1912) to The Exorcist (1971) tales of possession rely heavily on mystery and suspense and a search for reasons and causes of the soul's takeover. The characters are often faced with questions of faith as they delve into a realm of unfathomable supernatural beings, forbidden texts, religious rites and a struggle to reconcile the paranormal with the mundane. In The Survivor, however, there is no worry about religion, no wrestling with faith, and any talk of demons is metaphoric. The evil comes not from another dimension nor from a mythological underworld, but from Earth. He is wholly human, a nasty piece of work, but human all the same.

In life James Marshall was a monstrous bully, in death even moreso. Parry discards all manner of devils and demons and gives us a mortal man whose power in life extends beyond death. Marshall is a man so determined to make his family miserable that on his deathbed he manages to influence his malleable and terribly naive young ward to serve as his conduit of cruelty. When Olive promises that she will not let her "Uncle" James die from the influenza that has been decimating the town's population he takes advantage of her childish wish and manages to make a deathbed psychic connection with her.  Olive has previously been alarmed at the odd talent she has in thinking exactly what James Marshall has been thinking.  This is the only trace of the occult or paranormal that enters the story.  Parry's tale is less one of the mystery of why or how James took over Olive's persona, and instead a battle for control of a family and its wealth.

Parry begins his story with an unconventional sardonic, sometimes farcical, humor. At first James Marshall seems at his wit's end and his sarcasm is his saving grace. He endures his uptight, prissy spinster sister Eva and his layabout indifferent brother Roger without a trace of civility. In his role as local physician we see him doing his best to battle the flu epidemic sweeping the countryside and trying to educate his patent's families against indulging in ignorant folk remedies in favor of intelligent modern medicine. It's a losing battle that he will succumb to himself. Only on his deathbed does the humor give way to a domestic horror tinged with guilt and shame.

The reading of Marshall's will initiates his plot to conduct a reign of terror and mind games from beyond the grave.  He punishes Eva and Roger with meager financial legacies and reveals a past love named Delia Pond who receives a sizable amount of money, more than his blood relatives combined.  When Delia turns up unexpectedly at the funeral a shocking surprise is in store for the family.

Olive's behavior grows increasingly erratic and volatile. She lashes out in insults, bursts into hysterical laughter at the funeral, and cries out a charge of sexual assault. Just as quickly she returns to her docile innocuous self claiming to have blacked out and not remembering anything. But the family knows James' language, James' thinking, and most of all James' voice.  There is no question that Olive is not Olive at all.  No one needs to consult arcane books of forbidden knowledge nor call upon the local exorcist. The family deals with the problem not as one of ghostbusting but of soul watching, a constant vigil, and a revelation of long held family secrets that should never have been hidden.

The Survivor has been reprinted by Valancourt Books in their usual handsome paperback edition. The book includes an introduction by noted supernatural fiction maven Mark Valentine who discusses Parry's all too short novelist career (he died in a car accident at the age of 42) and draws similar conclusions as I did by calling the book a "realist ghost story".  I didn't read the intro until after I read the book and had made all my notes for this post. That both Valentine and I found Parry's unique approach to telling a ghost story of a malevolent possession by grounding it in reality and not the supernatural was very satisfying to me. It's the primary reason that The Survivor will appeal to readers who generally avoid ghost stories for their elements of fantasy and gruesome horror. The story still terrifies, but does so with its feet firmly planted in a very human world. Sometimes the most chilling stories are those we tell about our own families.

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