Up until a few months ago I'd never heard of Celia Dale, a British writer who began her novelist's career in 1945 then turned to crime novels of a very special kind in the mid 1960s. Dale was writing her books just as her sister in crime Ruth Rendell was emerging on the scene. Later Rendell would adopt her alter ago of "Barbara Vine" and using that pseudonym she created crime novels of menace that surpass the "domestic suspense" subgenre while clearly still influenced by them. To my delight I discovered that Celia Dale was writing better, creepier and more nightmarish books before Rendell ever conjured hers into existence.
The Helping Hand (1966) takes the idea of the badass biddy to extremes in that it is not just one sinister senior citizen but a married couple who are the scheming villains. The story is a slow burning, unsettling tale of Mr. and Mrs Evans who prey on ailing elderly women. On the surface it seemed like The Forbidden Garden, Ursula Curtiss' flipped out story of a middle-aged woman serial killer. Dale forgoes the slaughter of Curtiss' bloody novel preferring the more chilling, passive aggressive form of murder. In fact, Dale's novel is practically a rewrite and modern update of a book I read a while ago that is set in the 19th century.
Soon Mrs Fingal has moved in with the Evans setting up the major plot highlighted by casual cruelty, saccharine smiles and "There, Theres". The married couple smother the older woman with attention and keep her housebound and under their control. When Christmas comes Maisie begins a campaign of lies and deceit. Through subtle manipulation Maisie manages to turn Mrs. Fingal and her niece against each other. The nastiest blow is the ease with which the Evans manage to negate Mrs. Fingal's very existence. They soon turn 180 degrees and deny her every wish, never allowing her to leave the house. She cannot attend church nor even open her Christmas presents in the morning the way she always did with her husband and daughter. Dale sums up Mrs. Fingal's state of mind with terse heartwrenching sentences: "She would hardly look, hardly listen, withdrawn into the cavern of her misery."
|Celia Dale (1912 - 2011)|
The climax of the book includes a disturbing mix of sexual predation and accidental violence. This is domestic noir with no real happy endings for anyone. Not even the villains. For in the finale Dale delivers an ironic blow to all the scheming and plotting that most readers will never see coming.
Dale revisits the theme of a sinister married couple in A Dark Corner (1971). Here we have Nelly and Arthur Didcot who meet young Errol Winston one rainy cold summer night. Errol is looking for an apartment to rent and winds up at the Didcot's home, the wrong house, because he misreads the address on his paper. All seems well when the Didcots offer him their own room instead of the one in his advertisement. But their kindhearted gesture and seeming friendliness are masks for bizarre desires. Nelly's maternal instincts seem to be transforming into erotic desire with kisses on Errol's cheek giving way to warm embraces that last too long. Arthur becomes an odd tutor of sorts, way too invested in his lodger's adult education by taking him to seedy night clubs and picking up drugged out prostitutes.
I think of the two books A Dark Corner succeeds both as a crime novel and a psychological horror story more than the creepy story of A Helping Hand. Probably because A Helping Hand reminded me too much of Harriet which is a true horror story and I couldn't get Jenkins book out of my mind. I tended to dismiss what Dale was doing in her version. A Dark Corner, however, is transgressive and daring for its time. More importantly, you feel for Errol's plight and long for his escape more because he is able to leave and go to work and yet somehow manages to be trapped in a way that's more terrifying than Mrs. Fingal's physical entrapment.Valancourt Books but are unavailable for sale in the UK. That's because Daunt Books has exclusive UK reprint rights for Dale's entire body of work. A Helping Hand is available from Daunt Books and for sale in the UK only. Daunt Books is also releasing Sheep's Clothing (1988), Dale's final novel, in September. There may be other Celia Dale books planned for subsequent release in the UK. I'm unsure if Valancourt is reprinting any more of Dale's books. But these two are fine entry points into the world of Celia Dale, both excellent examples of modern crime novels that also serve as superior examples of the novel of psychological terror.