Getting suspended from college is a bummer. Coming home to find your mom and sister have moved into the House of Usher is worse. But that's not the only problem facing 17-year-old Richard, the feverish narrator of Rustication. Richard's father has just died, deeply in debt, amid rumors of unspeakable acts. His tubercular mother has a tenuous claim on an inheritance, but until that judgment comes through — any day now, surely — the family huddles around a fading fire in a decaying mansion on a peninsula on the southern coast of England. At night you can hear the ghost of a dead baby in the chimney. (I imagine the real estate agent gushed, "Quirky charm!")
Rustication — an antique word for suspension from college — is the fifth novel by Charles Palliser, an American who lives in London but writes in the 19th century. (Quincunx, his debut, was an international bestseller.) His new gothic mystery comes to us in the form of Richard's recently discovered journal, which sheds light on a once-notorious murder. "Someone has pasted into it a number of the anonymous letters relating to the case," Palliser explains in the foreword. "I have reproduced them exactly as and where I found them." And true to his word, there's one of these letters on the very first page, reproduced in the scrawled font of a maniac — or an overachieving page designer — and containing such shocking threats of sexual violence that any good Victorian lady would faint dead away.
These notes — heavy on rape, castration and challenging yoga positions — are the garnish sprinkled throughout Richard's journal of what happened during four winter weeks in 1863. By comparison, any family troubles you have over the holidays will seem like a Norman Rockwell painting — unless your holidays involve addiction, incest, pedophilia, vivisection, infanticide and murder, in which case you should stop reading this review and jump immediately to syndicated advice columnist Carolyn Hax.
The sordid pleasure of Rustication arises from watching Richard try to make sense of the skewed world he discovers at home, where it's so wet and dank that this novel should come with a tube of fungicide. He arrives from college trailing clouds of disgrace only to find that his newly impoverished family doesn't want him either. "Why are you here?" his mother asks, while his sister greets him by saying, "You should leave as soon as possible." Both women are unnervingly evasive; they leak provocative tidbits and then mutter, "I shouldn't have said so much!"
Richard is hiding his own indecent secrets, too — he's 17, after all — but he can't get a straight answer about his father's death or their financial situation. He constantly has the feeling that he has interrupted conspiratorial conversations. "Why do you have to find a mystery everywhere?" his sister snaps at him as she scurries off mysteriously.
Since no one will tell him anything, Richard must solve the problem himself, but this investigation will require all his mental dexterity, which might be sharper if he didn't spend every night toked up in his room on pipes full of opium — his "lovely little friends." Like any addict, he repeatedly promises himself, "I will never smoke again," but then as bliss washes over him, the benefits seem undeniable: "I am not fleeing from daily reality," he claims, "but experiencing it more intensely." (Tell that to the mutilated sheep, Richard!)
Palliser keeps us off balance by leaving us locked in Richard's wildly unreliable narration. Strolling about the dank village — sometimes late at night — Richard finds that people react to him erratically, with inexplicable hostility. Could it be because he's the one sending rape threats through the mail? Could be. But when he's not high as a loon running around half-naked in the rain, he seems like such a nice young man — granted, one who's been freebasing Northanger Abbey.
The novel's weird genetic makeup is strangely alluring. Much of the story is taken up with ladies' gossip, romantic strategizing and plans for the big upcoming ball. When they're not worried about being raped and sliced open by a knife-wielding maniac, these women speculate about who the earl's nephew will dance with first. In her greatly diminished economic station, Richard's sister is still struggling to maintain her place in a rough game of marital competition, and somebody seems willing to kill to even the odds. Fortunately, Richard is on the case, analyzing those vile, anonymous letters and gradually decoding the deadly social tensions in this village as though he were the hero of a Victorian version of The Curious Incident of the Mad Dog in the Night-Time.
Palliser blows dark fog over the marsh just as adeptly as he choreographs the great battle of an afternoon tea. A literary Dr. Frankenstein, he has stitched together parts of Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe. The result is deliciously wicked, particularly as the violence grows creepier, the sexual tension more febrile. "I can't throw off the feeling," Richard writes in his journal, "that something malign is coming nearer and nearer. And in this house at the end of a promontory, I'm trapped." I kept wanting to scream at him: "The journal entries are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!"
The pacing is generally good in Rustication, but the details of the plot get a little clotted toward the end. Just when we want the madness to climax, there's a great effort to explain everything, which is considerably less satisfying than the full paroxysm of madness we crave.
Of course, if we knew for sure whether Richard was the maniac terrorizing this village, the novel wouldn't have much suspense at all. Not to give anything away, but at one point, he tells his mother that he plans to support himself by moving to the city and becoming a book reviewer. At that moment, I knew he was crazy.