A Haunting Tale for Halloween – Matthew Marland on Little Sister Death by William Gay

LITTLE SISTER DEATH COVER 2“It is tempting to say that the discovery of William Gay’s last manuscript is a story as compelling as the novel’s own brilliantly constructed, deeply chilling plot. There are many examples of posthumously published, ‘undiscovered’ books – Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal – but Little Sister Death, William Gay’s ‘lost’ horror novel published this month by Faber & Faber is a remarkable addition to the list. Pessoa’s is a sprawling and unfinished work of over five hundred pages, Darger’s book – like the paintings which were also found in his home after his death – raw and immediate, but crucially incomplete. Little Sister Death, though, comes to us fully formed, a book about death and haunting that seems to appear from the land of the dead.

Like Henry Darger, Gay was a self-taught artist who worked in blue-collar jobs and wrote after hours. Gay was a construction worker from rural Tennessee, a man who, as Tom Franklin writes in his wonderful introduction to this edition, cut his own hair and bathed in the creek behind his house, and who found fame as a writer late in life. His first novel, The Long Way, was published when he was 57, and only handful more appeared before his death in 2012. Working as builder, a dry-wall hanger, a carpenter, it wasn’t the thing to talk about writing, especially your own. ‘You don’t come out on Monday morning and then tell these guys you’re working with about this sonnet you wrote over the weekend.’ It is thus not surprising that a manuscript was found among his paper’s after he was discovered dead in his log cabin in Hohenwald, southwest Nashville.

Little Sister Death is a truly frightening book. Inspired by the famous 19th-century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee, it follows the unravelling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to find inspiration for his faltering work. Movingly between the early 1800s and 1982, the two periods conjoined by the ghostly appearance of a girl in a green dress, disembodied laughter cackling in the night, sexual obscenities muttered from behind closed doors, the book is beautifully written and deeply unsettling. Binder, a writer with one published novel to his name and desperate to find his next story, knows the house’s terrible history but chooses nonetheless to bring his family there. As has been noted in The Telegraph, it is ‘scary story but also a study of the writer – his temperament, his torment and his devil’s pact for the price of a good story.’ Or, as Tom Franklin puts it, it is about how ‘the necessary obsessions of writing can cause its practitioners to risk alienating or losing not their loves ones but (perhaps) their sanity as well’. It is a sublime piece of writing, a darkly gripping, terrifying tale, a masterly example of Southern Gothic horror and book that confirms Gay’s place among writers such as William Faulker and Flannery O’Connor. But for all that, let’s not forget – it’s really, really scary.”

For your chance to win a copy of Little Sister Death, simply visit our @CBBookgroup Twitter handle and retweet one of our competitionTweets by midnight on Saturday 23st October.

Little Sister Death is published by Faber & Faber and is available now.

‘Mary Renault – A Confession’ by Donna Coonan, Editorial Director, Virago

9781844089611“I have a confession to make. I’m not a life-long fan of Mary Renault. I didn’t read her books feverishly as a teenager; I came to her quite late. To be honest, there was some reluctance as I never thought historical fiction set in the ancient world would be for me. But that shows just how wrong you can be. I like having my assumptions challenged. And I’m enormously proud to publish her on the VMC list.

The first book of Renault’s that I read was The Charioteer which, despite its title, is not one of her historical novels, but set during the Second World War. It is a book that I love – an intelligent, tender portrayal of a young man discovering his sexuality. A courageous, compassionate book, especially when one considers that it was published in 1953 (her American publishers refused to issue it). The Charioteer is unapologetic – there is no shame, no guilt, and no penalty – which, for its time, makes it unusual.

The Charioteer was Renault’s sixth book, and it marked a cataclysmic turning point in her writing. Perhaps writing it made her brave. After this novel, she would leave the twentieth century behind, immersing herself in the world of ancient Greece – in the battlefields of Sparta, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the teachings of Socrates. It was a bold move.

To fully appreciate the risk she took, one needs to know that she was already a successful writer with thousands of loyal readers, and understandably her publishers were apprehensive. To so completely change tack took courage. Up until then, her novels were well written and well received, but they were fairly conventional contemporary romances. That is not to say that they aren’t good books – they are – but when you know what is to come, the novels for which to this day she is justly famous, you can’t help wondering if all that time she had felt constrained and hemmed in. It was a gamble to follow her passion, but it paid off.

Despite The Charioteer being a groundbreaking and for its era a controversial novel, there is still some restraint. By setting her fiction in the ancient world, she won herself freedom: freedom to stretch her imagination; freedom to push the boundaries of what was expected of her; and freedom to write about homosexual relationships without censure. With The Last of the Wine she broke free of her tethers, and from here on in her novels have a vibrancy and pace that readers of her earlier works would never have imagined. On the page, she reinvented the past and made it pulse with life. Indeed, because these novels are such sweeping, thrilling page-turners, it is easy to forget just how much skill went into their creation: the characters are psychologically robust; the plots are imaginatively bold; and every detail is backed up with solid scholarly research that Renault uses with such a light touch, it is only when you read historians on her work that you realise it is there at all.

When we first acquired rights to publish Mary Renault, the more I spoke to people about her, the more I realised just how influential she is – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Emma Donoghue, Madeline Miller, Sarah Dunant, Charlotte Mendelson – all are in her thrall. When Renault took that first step into the past – with The Last of the Wine – she secured her immortality.”

The Last of the Wine, our book of the month, is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics.  Follow Virago Press on Twitter at @ViragoBooks.

Five Classic Mary Renault Novels

In honour of our book of the month, THE LAST OF THE WINE by Mary Renault, for this month’s ‘Five Books Feature’ we have given ourselves the tough act of choosing just five classic novels from Mary Renault’s illustrious oeuvre. With a writing career that spanned five decades and hundreds of thousands of copies of her novels sold worldwide during her lifetime, we certainly had plenty to choose from! As ever, we’d love to hear your favourites too.

97818440895051) The Charioteer

In this story of a love affair between two young servicemen in the Second World War, Mary cleverly recasts contemporary questions surrounding the politics of homosexual love in the classical context of platonic ideals. When it was first published in the UK in 1953, William Morrow’s fears of hostility towards the serious gay love story in the U.S. meant that it couldn’t be published across the Atlantic for a further six years. Good thing it finally escaped the censors, as its recent Virago reprint features a fantastic introduction from Simon Russell Beale.

2) Return to Night9781844089536

Mary’s fourth novel was important in more ways than one. Aside from being another great example of how Mary allows her readers to get inside the heads of famous classical figures, this was also the book which allowed the author to take a one-way trip out of the UK. When MGM Studios bought the rights for $150,000 (worth over £1,000,000 today), Mary and her long-term partner Julie Mullard were able to escape to South Africa which, in the 1940s, had a far more liberal attitude towards homosexuality than the English Home Counties.

97818440895743) Fire from Heaven

There are no surviving contemporary accounts of the first two-thirds of Alexander’s life. In this first novel about the heroic leader, Mary exploits this fascinating gap, gaining some serious posthumous success in the process. In 2010, it was shortlisted for the Lost Booker Prize (an award given retrospectively to novels from 1970 when the Booker Prize skipped a year). Despite losing out to J G Farrell’s Troubles, Mary gained a series of high-profile fans, including broadcaster Katie Derham, critic Rachel Cooke, and poet and novelist Tobias Hill.

4) The Last of the Wine9781844089611

The first of Mary’s classical works, the strand of writing for which she is best known, this novel (this month’s Book Group read) moves through the lives of Theseus, Plato, Dionysius and Alexander during the Peloponnesian War, blending fact with Mary’s unique brand of imaginative speculation and humanising these legendary figures. Coupled with highly realistic scenes of daily life in times of both war and peace, this is an absolute must-read for Mary fans.

The Nature of Alexander5) The Nature of Alexander

For our final pick, we’ve chosen a non-fiction gem. Despite writing several historical novels featuring the mighty Alexander, Mary still felt this wasn’t enough to tell his whole story, completing this biography instead. Mary manages to capture, on the one hand, his extraordinary grace and beauty and, on the other, the brutality and menace associated with his life and legacy. What Mary creates is a profile of a truly great man, although whether that reputation is based on equally great reasons is for you to decide…

There you have it – our favourite five Mary Renault novels. Any that you think we’ve left off? Tweet us your suggestions @CBBookGroup.

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault is our October book of the month, available now from @ViragoBooks

Introducing our October Book of the Month: The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

‘Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers’ – Hilary Mantel

Curtis Brown has a rich Estates list, and having touched on the theme of rediscovery last month, we thought it was time to bring out an incredibly important author, who Virago have been republishing this year: Mary Renault. With fans from Simon Russell Beale to Tom Holland, and Sarah Dunant to Hilary Mantel, we want to introduce her to a new set of readers…

Before setting her sights on the more ancient side of history, Mary wrote six fantastically compelling novels, but it is her work set in Ancient Greece that gained her widespread admiration for her scrupulous recreation of post war Athens.

The Last of the Wine was the first to mark this change in style in 1956, telling the story of champion runner Alexias in Athens at the end of the Golden Age and the Peloponnesian War with Sparta.

We follow Alexias from birth through to manhood, when he gets noticed for his beauty and his sporting prowess. In his adolescence, he meets and falls for Lysis, a man in his twenties who is a student of Socrates, and becomes Alexias’ mentor. In spite of their relationship, they both seek to marry and have children, as was the pressure and custom of the time. Lysis and Alexias compete in the Olympic Games, while Alexias juggles his training with his new responsibilities as man of the house, after the death of his father sends him reeling.

Mary Renault coversIn the latter portion of the book, war wreaks havoc on Athens, and Alexias is forced to fight both on land and at sea to protect his family, and regain his city from the oligarchs. The intense realism of Renault’s writing sets this story apart, as you see Ancient Greece through Alexias’ eyes.

Richly descriptive, and absolutely addictive, Renault weaves a tale of beauty, courage and war that will leave you wanting more. As always, we will be posting more about the book, so watch this space.

Last of the Wine is published by Virago Books.