Three Tales

I’ve reached an age when anything accomplished invites the pleasingly macabre thought that it might be the last, and it is with something of this feeling I publish my new book. The title—Three Tales—is suitably spare: a minimal number, a limited promise, daring it to make its own way, with me or without me.

“Tales” carries expectations, of course. The gothic, the fantastic. Masks and deceptions for what is in truth autobiographical.

Most obviously autobiographical is the setting of “The Tabernacle,” the middle, and the longest, of the three tales. A school, an asylum, a reformatory—it is not entirely clear what it is, or where—is modelled in broad outline on the seminary I attended as a youth, on the grounds of an old revivalist camp meeting, but here given a twist, like one of Ishiguro’s sinister inventions.

I was myself surprised, as the stories came together, at how alike they were in one respect: a hero, set down in a situation that taxes his cognitive and imaginative powers, is guided by a female agent—an angel, a white witch, a spirit—toward resolution or resignation, in a place of weird or uncanny resonance. I ought not to have been surprised, because all of my novels and stories are pretty much built on this fairy-tale armature. I was pleased to discover a sympathetic vision in the paintings of Cecil Collins (1908-1989)—his The Happy Hour (1943) adorns the cover of Three Tales—whose life-long obsessions were the twin themes of holy fools and angels.

With this recognition comes a memory from childhood.

We lived, from the time I was five until I left home, on the ground floor of a three-decker frame building in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. Among the assorted terrors of childhood, two things stand out.

One was the circumstance that the occupants of the top-floor flat had a grown son who was thought to be mad. Assimilating this to my rather precocious reading, I came to believe the poor fellow was a vampire, who could at any time turn himself into a bat and enter our flat through an open window.

Equally frightening were the night passages: a long ill-lit hall to our flat, errands into the cellar with the coal scuttle or potato bucket, getting up for the toilet at night. Gibbering monsters lurked everywhere.

Although we were chapel-folk, believing and practising Christians of an austere Pietistic cast, I took no comfort from the idea that Jesus was watching me, a terrifying idea promoted by my Sunday-school teaching mother. Instead, I invented a guardian angel, if that is the right word for a tousle-haired golden child, a girl, whom I invariably visualised as standing in the public stairway leading to the upper floors of our building, looking down over the banister at me, with a light behind her, saying not a word. I needed only to invoke this image to be at peace and return to sleep.

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Rilke asks. “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?”

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