Monday, October 13, 2008
Forgotten Books: Margaret Millar
In my effort to get people to read Margaret Millar I'm reprinting some comments that the late Tom Piccirilli and I exchanged in e mails via his site The Big Adios.
Finished up Margaret Millar's THE CANNIBAL HEART today and really dug it. Man, she's got such a gothic underpining to her fiction, her writing is just drenched in atmosphere. This was a solid tale of a family renting a beach house from a woman whose husband has recently committed suicide and whose retarded son has recently also died. A touch slow in the opening but soon you get the snaky feeling that all is not right (and don't we all love that?) A lot of flavor and style reminiscent of Shirley Jackson.
Tom, you nailed it with the "gothic" angle. Millar like Shirley Jackson was much enamored of gothic elements the difference being (my theory) is that Jackson and early Capote (his early stuff was pure gothic) etc came out of Faulkner as did so many other Southern writers. Where Millar came out of a very white Northern and mostly middle-class environment. But the results were similar occasionally. Millar, like Jackson, was a tart and sometimes droll social observer though in her later novels I think Millar surpassed Jackson at this.
Ed, I agree about how Millar's sense of the gothic doesn't have that sweaty southern sensibility to it, although I think she early on left behind the white north and gave her gothic a dark southern California feel. Man, southern Cali at the time must've just had such a hook. Both she and (her huisband Ross) Macdonald came out of Canada and just seemed to leave it completely behind. That black Cali mood is reflected in Macdonald's work as well. He gives you the weird gothic families underscored by a hipster PI narrative, whereas Millar focuses on the "un-hip" elements and just pours out the atmosphere. You're right that the droll social commentary comes through, usually where underlying and hidden tension in marriage and family is concerned. I know that Jackson's marriage was rough-going, and her husband had a number of flings. I wonder if all the disatisfied married characters in Millar's work parallel her own marriage. Damn, just more reason to read the bio.
Tom Nolan's biograph of Ross Macdonald (Millar) is a masterpiece.