The Green Man by Kingsley Amis (1969)

Another voice spoke then, but I never remembered to what effect. I know only that, after some lapse of time, I was standing in front of my house while a car – a Humber Hawk, perhaps – receded into the distance. I felt like a man on the moon, almost weightless, or as if on the point of disembodiment, like myself after a heavy night and a heavy lunch, like a child, observant without expectation, curious and disinterested. (p.151)

Maurice Allington

53-year-old Maurice Allington keeps a pub-cum-restaurant in the south Midlands, west of Cambridge, which the guide books refer to as haunted. He has a surly, unhappy teenage daughter, Amy, by his first wife. He’d been separated from her for 18 months when the wife died in a road accident and Maurice had to take over caring for Amy but they’d never discussed the accident and their relationship is… blocked.

He is married to Joyce, an attractive blonde he enjoys having sex with, but who has become unhappy because he doesn’t talk to her, he’s always distracted and he’s always drunk. Maurice is fairly friendly with the local GP, Dr Maybury and his wife Diana, who he has recently spent some time trying to seduce. Maurice’s 80-year-old father has his own room in the accommodation part of the pub, and potters about a fixed schedule of habits, breakfast, crossword, walk into the village, coffee and buy the paper, potter back to the pub etc with Maurice fussing and fretting about him. Running the pub is a full-time job, in which he’s helped by Joyce, by a Spanish administrator and a new young assistant, David.

Maurice drinks a phenomenal amount of alcohol. As first-person narrator of the story he takes this for granted but it slowly emerges that all the other characters think of him as a drunk, and we the readers also realise there are frequent spells of time and actions which he can’t account for – we witness him going round guests in the pub dining room unable to remember what he’s said to them even minutes earlier, an alcoholic amnesia which is almost upsetting. In this respect, and possibly others, he is an unreliable narrator.

He is also a world class hypochondriac – in a state of permanent worry about his health, continually monitoring every twinge and ache in his body, registering every sensation, especially the newish irregularity of his heartbeat and the pain in his lower back which has recently started: is it cancer? Is it kidney disease? There are numerous sequences of detailed description of every flicker of his body or consciousness, which includes lengthy descriptions of the jactitations he experiences before falling asleep ie the twitching of limbs often accompanied by half-dreams of falling or stumbling.

At this level of intensity jactitation is associated with hypnagogic (onset-of-sleep-accompanying) hallucinations. These antecede jactitation, taking place when the subject is more fully awake, or even wide awake, but with the eyes closed. They are not dreams. They might be described as visions of no obvious meaning seen under poor conditions. (p.16)

Although given to standard rants about the modern world, about pop music, TV, junk food and so on, Amis goes out of his way to make Maurice as different as possible from his previous protagonists, for example giving him an informed appreciation of art and statues, books and history and – being a publican – wine – we hear a lot about various chateaux and vintages and how they should be prepared and drunk etc.

The character’s interest in history is necessary to underpin his scholarly investigations into the ghost which is said to haunt the pub and he does show a consistent interest in, say architecture and in statuary. But these attempts to distinguish Maurice from other Amis’ anti-heroes are eclipsed by the character’s consistency with his predecessors:

  • his obsession with sex and orgasm, pages devoted to describing his congress with his wife and his mock-military campaign to seduce the GP’s wife, accompanied by offensive insults of women, their yapping and simple-mindedness or whatever crude dismissals
  • his drunkenness
  • his bloody-mindedness

In fact the sex theme goes a step beyond what we’re used to because Maurice is not only scheming to seduce and sleep with Diana – his real goal is to arrange a threesome between himself, Diana and his wife. Thoughts and fantasies about t his ‘orgy’ occur on almost every page.

Plot

The book is in five chapters but falls naturally into two halves, a build-up in which we only see occasional hints and tips, and the terrifying revelation.

Part one

Sets up Maurice and shows him going about his usual occasions, managing the pub and the staff, stubborn Ramon and capable deputy David, managing his sullen unloved daughter Amy, keeping up a continual inner monologue about his physical and mental sensations, estimating the chances of bedding Diana. Dr and Mrs Maybury have dropped in for dinner when Maurice’s father dies abruptly of a cerebral haemorrhage. On the day he makes the funeral arrangements he drinks so much he can’t remember driving back to the pub. He makes love to his reluctant wife and the next day he successfully mounts an operation to have sex with the doctor’s wife, at the back of his mind calculating how to drop hints about his ultimate goal of setting up a threesome.

But, on top of the disturbance caused by his father’s death, and his almost permanent drunkenness, something new emerges. In amongst this daily business he sees, or thinks he sees, people who are there one minute and gone the next: a woman standing at the top of the stairs, a man at the top of the stairs, disturbances in the air. When his son Nick and his unsympathetic wife Lucy come to stay to support Maurice over the funeral period, they end up discussing the reality (or not) of ghosts at some length, each giving different opinions on the subject, Maurice nervously keen to gauge the others’ responses. These conversations crystallise Maurice’s sense that the occurrences are taking place more frequently. He begins to wonder whether his father’s death was… caused by something…

As if by accident he finds himself pulling down an old history of the pub and coming across a passage he can’t remember seeing before, about a manuscript by the supposed previous owner of the house and its ghost, one Dr Underhill, which is supposedly stored at Cambridge. He contacts his old tutor at nearby Cambridge and goes to explore the library of All Saints’ College, whose reluctant librarian eventually tracks it down for him, and leaves him to read it. The manuscript sheds light on Underhill’s beliefs and practices. Back at the pub, Maurice stumbles across notes he appears to have made while in a drunken fugue of a conversation he had with Underhill’s ghost in which the latter said there is more to be discovered at Underhill’s grave. Did the conversation really happen? Is Maurice going mad?

Part two

Picks up speed and rapidly achieves disturbing, and then terrifying, intensity. After having sex with her again, Maurice persuades his mistress Diana to help him dig up Underhill’s coffin and inside, as he’d expected, finds a metal canister which contains a silver figure and a further manuscript. From this it becomes clear that Underhill was an advanced necromancer, child abuser and murderer. He could call up demonic visions, generally of an orgiastic nature, terrifying the 14- or 12-year-old girls he’d enticed to his room, allowing him to have sex with him, then killing them.

Underhill also appears to have been able to call up a demonic wood giant, a fifteen-foot figure made of bits of tree, bark, branches etc, which does his bidding and which must have been responsible for not just murdering his wife, but tearing her limb from limb, a murder associated with him in the history books but for which he was never convicted. The monster’s appearance, 300 years earlier, explains the look of horror on the faces of the ghosts Maurice has seen.

The manuscript instructs he who finds it to make sure he is alone in the house, with all his family and servants asleep, by midnight. Maurice vows to fulfil this instruction.

Interview with God

Maurice has returned to the pub with the manuscript and silver figurine and is going about his pub-running business when he notices the noise of an approaching tractor is slowing down and so is the racket from his daughter’s TV. They both grind to a standstill and he realises he is in a kind of pocket where time continues while everything around him has frozen.

And then he sees a smart slender man in a nice suit sitting in the armchair who starts speaking in a dry, ironic, educated voice and recognises – it is God! He is talking to God. An ironic allusive God who makes it plain he is an experimental God, not in full control of the universe, himself limited by rules and regulations he laid down in the early ages, himself only slowly discovering their consequences, not possessed of foresight or predestination, not able to answer some of Maurice’s questions. But he makes it clear Maurice will need help in the coming confrontation and throws him a beautiful crucifix. Was JC your son, asks Maurice. Yes, the young man replies:

‘That was coming out into the open, wasn’t it?’
‘Mm. I must have been bored, I suppose. I thought, why not? Then I thought I was heading straight for disaster. I needn’t have worried, need I? He hasn’t made much difference to anything, as you see.’ (p.144)

And then he has gone, and time starts up like a clockwork turntable, the noises slowly resuming.

Ménage à trois

To the reader’s surprise and Maurice’s amazement, his wife Joyce casually acquiesces in the suggestion that she make up a threesome with Diana. He is disconcerted when Joyce tells him that everyone knows Diana is bitterly unhappy with her husband – Maurice had never realised this. His obtuse lack of knowledge about others, and the readiness with which Joyce agrees to the threesome, makes me wonder if he is completely missing a lesbian theme between the two women.

That afternoon he finally meets the two women in the hall, takes them to an accommodation annex, locks all the doors and starts to strip. However, before he’s even got his shoes off the two women are in bed clasping each other close, kissing and caressing and in what, I suppose, is a basically comic scene, Maurice finds it impossible to insert a hand or arm or any other part of his anatomy between them. They are completely obsessed with each other and completely heedless of him and so he eventually gets dressed, hangs a ‘Do not disturb’ sign on the door and strolls back out to the pub. Oh well.

The thought of two women making love can be an exciting one, but let me tell you that, when they are totally absorbed in each other as these two were, the actuality is sedative. (p.136)

Climax

The fateful day moves on into the evening and, no longer afraid or even puzzled, Maurice prepares in the only way he knows how by driving into the nearest town and, after failing to distract himself at a cinema, proceeding to down countless drinks at a pub and getting so drunk he doesn’t remember driving back or the crash he’s involved in when he overtakes on a bed into an oncoming car, and drives off into the grassy verge before hitting a tree. Someone gives him a lift back to the pub and deposits him in a bad state a little before the appointed hour of midnight. He drunkenly ensures everyone is asleep as the manuscript demanded, all the staff sent home, his wife asleep, his daughter too and settles down to wait.

But at midnight nothing whatever happens so Maurice patrols around and drinks some more. But at 1 o’clock precisely Underhill appears, greets Maurice as his acolyte, as the only one clever enough in 300 years to follow the trail of clues he has left.

And then Underhill conjures up orgiastic visions, of prehistoric men and women, grotesquely sexually endowed, dancing and screwing in frenzies, with a terrifying feel they might mutate into unhumans at any moment, and with a set of piercing red eyes staring threateningly at Maurice continually from the black depths of the cavern wherein all this takes place.

And as the visions rise to a climax Maurice realises he can hear a strange shifting and creaking and loud noise outside and goes to the window where he sees the Green Monster emerging from the woods and… his daughter Amy in her pyjamas out in the road. And the Monster making straight for her. In a flash Maurice realises that Underhill has chosen him of all the subsequent owners of the house to reveal himself to, because he, Maurice, has a daughter of the age Underhill likes and, if Underhill can’t seduce her, he can at least terrify and murder her.

Maurice runs out into the road and screams at Amy to run down into the village and then himself makes for the green giant. He attacks but is knocked to one side, the giant crushes the family cat and is closing in on Amy as she runs screaming when Maurice flings Underhill’s silver figurine back into the graveyard. In some voodoo way this undermines Underhill’s power and causes the green giant to explode.

Epilogue

Maurice gets the trendy vicar (cue Amis-like rants about trendy vicars) to carry out an exorcism on the pub, during which he hears the distant voice of Underhill begging for forgiveness then screaming. Then he drives the vicar up to the dell where he had sex with his mistress and which he has come to realise plays a special role in the haunting, to carry out another exorcism. Here Maurice sees evidence of boughs and branches broken off, as if was here that the green monster was created and, in a last flurry of the supernatural, spots a small whirlwind emerge from the woods and aim right at the vicar – until Maurice pushes him out of the way. Maurice destroys the fateful figurine by smashing it up with a hammer and distributing the parts around the graveyard.

Back at the pub Maurice’s wife announces she’s leaving him, for Diana, they have discovered their lesbian selves. He feebly tries to keep her, but acquiesces when she insists. When his daughter asks him if everything she saw last night was real he hesitates a moment and then tells her the truth: she realises this and it in a flash brings them closer together. Not only did he save her but he respects her enough to tell her the truth. (He had previously told the sceptical Dr Maybury that he found Amy sleepwalking in the street.) He finds himself reconciled with his son Nick and more respectful of his wife Lucy who, after all, listened more seriously to him than anyone else. Both Nick and Amy suggest they move away and Maurice realises he has to sell up and go somewhere else…

He is sort of at peace. Though knowing now what kind of God runs the whole show and knowing that even after death he will not escape him, though he will be hugely relieved to discard his ill, obsessive, alcoholic, driven, unhappy self.

Self-consciousness

All Amis’s novels show a hyper self-consciousness on the part of their characters. Amis notates the ever-changing moods and states of awareness, the fluctuating consciousness, thoughts and impulses of Lucky Jim Dixon and all his successors in minute detail. By and large these fleets and flickers of the mind are played for laughs, the first person or third person narrators erupting in a continuous fountain of unexpected and outrageous perceptions, thoughts, witty insights and insulting one-liners.

However, behind the comedy or where the comedy lapses for any period, you become aware that this is a writer with a peculiarly intense feel for the inner landscape of the mind. This tendency really comes to the fore in the ‘experimental’ (ie not written for laughs) The Anti-Death League, especially in the perceptions of the main male character, James Churchill. Oppressed by the gruesome military operation he has been briefed about and then by the sudden illness of his girlfriend, Catharine Casement, he is given several prolonged passages describing how he senses the presence of death, described as a ‘node’, as both an area of deathliness, and as a plate-shaped object, threaded with a string, which hovers over matrices of relationships, with some figures on the periphery but Catharine herself transfixed by the thread.

Strange and eerie perceptions, which don’t owe much to traditional tropes and images of death, and seem much closer to tropes from Amis’s beloved science fiction.

The same happens in this novel and to an even greater extent – partly because it is a first-person narrative and so we are continually immersed in Maurice’s disquieting mind. Maurice keeps a running commentary on his sensations, feelings, thoughts, on his consciousness. It isn’t portrayed in the experimental techniques developed by the Modernists eg Joyce or Woolf. It is conveyed in traditional declarative sentences. But the feeling of becoming drunk, of falling asleep, of twinges of pain in his lower back and so on are described in minute, disconcerting and morose detail.

I was putting the Volkswagen into gear when a dull pain of irregular but defined shape switched itself on in my left lower back, a little below the waistline. It stayed in being for perhaps twenty seconds, perfectly steady in intensity, then at once vanished. It had been behaving in this sort of way for perhaps a week now. Was it sharper this morning than when I had first noticed it, did it come on more frequently and stay for longer? I thought perhaps it was and did. It was cancer of the kidney. It was not cancer of the kidney, but that disease whereby the kidney ceases to function and has to be removed by surgery, and then the other kidney carries on perfectly well until it too becomes useless and has to be removed by surgery, and then there is total dependence on a machine. It was not a disease of the kidney, but a mild inflammation set up by too much drinking, easily knocked out by a few doses of Holland’s gin and a reduction in doses of other liquors. It was not an inflammation, or only in the sense that it was one of those meaningless aches and pains that clear up of their own accord and unnoticeably when they are not thought about. Ah, but what was the standard procedure for not thinking about this one, or any one? (p.39)

And so glumly on, for page after page. Not many laughs here. Maybe Maurice is cast as a hypochondriac partly to explain this super-sensitivity, partly also to explain the hyper-sensitivity which is an important element in his seeing or not seeing the ghosts, but the same could be said of his alcoholism and his losing track of time and consciousness.

Conclusion

What a strange unsettling book, not least because it appears to be two or three different novels all crammed between one cover. There is the late 60s social satire of the mistress-orgy-lesbian theme – there is the very obvious and, at its height, genuinely scary ghost story element – there is the strangely off-the-cuff theology of the encounter with God, an odd and rather dominating thing to happen in any novel.

But the dominating impression of the novel is of the disconcertingly intense interiority of Maurice’s consciousness, hag-ridden by compulsive tics and mannerisms, haunted by strange visions, driven by unremitting sexual predatoriness, and laid waste, bombed and blasted by a truly incapacitating alcoholism.

If this is any kind of reflection of Amis’s own state of mind, what a hellish existence.

Much sooner than I could have expected (I had not really had any such expectation), I found I had begun to understand the meaning of the young man’s prophecy that I would come to appreciate death and what it had to offer. Death was my only means  of getting away for good from this body and all its pseudo-symptoms of disease and fear, from the constant awareness of this body, from this person, with his ruthlessness and sentimentality and ineffective, insincere, impracticable notions of behaving better, from attending to my own thoughts and from counting in thousands to smother them and from my face in the glass. He had said that I would never be free of him for as long as the world lasted, and I believed him, but when I died I would be free of Maurice Allington for longer than that. (p.175)

The TV series

The novel was made into a three-part TV series for the BBC, starring Albert Finney as the haunted boozer.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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