Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Nina Allen’s collection, Stardust, is that it is prominently subtitled ‘The Ruby Castle Stories’. It is a subtitle that very deliberately directs our attention towards Ruby Castle, and yet she appears as a character in only one of these stories, ‘The Lammas Worm’, (I don’t suppose it is a coincidence that this is the only one of these stories to have been previously published). In ‘The Lammas Worm’ she is a minor character, absent for most of the action and playing no very significant part in the plot, but she is at least there. In the other stories she is mentioned in passing, usually as an actress in a film that someone is watching, but she doesn’t appear. In the last, longest and best of the stories, ‘Wreck of the Julia’, she isn’t even mentioned, although for the first time characters mentioned in other stories are also mentioned here, giving only at the end a sense of interconnectedness to the collection. However, we have to recognise that all of the stories with the exception of ‘The Lammas Worm’ were written specifically for this collection, there is, therefore, a level of intentionality behind the recurrence of Ruby Castle, peripheral to the action as her appearance might be.
What do the stories tell us about Ruby Castle? We know, from ‘The Gateway’, that she comes from a circus family, and her own career started out in a circus, because that is the Ruby we actually meet in ‘The Lammas Worm’. By the end of that story she has left to work in a theatre, but seems to have pretty quickly moved on to appearing in films. Mostly horror films, we might gather from ‘B-Side’, though not exclusively so given the film we glimpse in ‘Stardust’. ‘B-Side’ also tells us that, in her late-thirties, she murdered her leading man, Raymond Latour, who had refused to leave his wife for her. While in prison, ‘Laburnums’ tells us, she was visited by the poet Matthew Cleverly, who wrote the successful cycle of poems, The High Wire and Other Transgressions, about her (though, of course, ‘The Lammas Worm’ has already shown us that Ruby’s circus career was in a knife throwing act rather than on the high wire). The final piece in the book, ‘Red Queen’, is supposedly one of these poems, a passage from which is also used as a preface to the collection. And that is the sum total of what we learn about Ruby Castle.
But it is not even as simple as that. ‘The Gateway’ is set fifteen years after the narrator lost touch with Thomas Emmerich at the start of the Second World War, in other words somewhere in the mid-1950s. At this time, Emmerich can make a casual reference to the film actress Ruby Castle. ‘Laburnums’ would appear to be set roughly in the here and now, with Matthew Cleverly aged 80 years old; he apparently wrote The High Wire twenty years before, when he was 60, and had visited Ruby Castle in prison ten years before that. In other words, she was in prison in the 1980s. Yet the story in which she makes an appearance, ‘The Lammas Worm’, certainly does not feel as if it is set before the Second World War, in fact I would say that the action takes place probably in the 1950s or 60s. So, although Ruby Castle’s biography, from circus to screen to prison, may seem consistent throughout the collection, the chronology of these events is not.
There was a moment when I wondered whether such inconsistency was part of the intent, whether we were not perhaps meant to see Ruby Castle rather like Keith Roberts’s Kaeti, a consistent perspective rather than a consistent character. But Ruby has no perspective, we see nothing through her eyes, and the eyes that do see her do so without really noticing her. And it is this thought that gave me a clue to reading Ruby Castle. She is not a character, but rather a set of images, tropes, notions that echo in the different stories, resonating with what happens there but not directly reflecting it. The most obvious such trope, of course, is performance, which crops up in various ways in many of the stories. ‘The Gateway’ centres on events at a fair; ‘B-Side’ opens with Michael having been on stage in a chess tournament and ends with a curious box in which a chess match is performed; Sofie Pepusch, whose murder sets the events of ‘Stardust’ in train, is a former ballet dancer; the narrator of ‘The Lammas Worm’ is a circus performer. But these are all unseen performances: the devastating events at the fair happen when the narrator of ‘The Gateway’ is not there to witness them; Michael has already left the chess tournament when ‘B-Side’ opens; Sofie Pepusch has retired from the stage long before ‘Stardust’ opens; and the narrator of ‘The Lammas Worm’ never actually describes his act. It is the fact that they are unseen (nobody watches Ruby Castle with any attention, the murder she committed is mentioned but never witnessed) that is important, because these are all stories about absence.
If Nina Allan had wanted to choose a real person as the tutelary deity of these stories, it might well have been Samuel Beckett, or perhaps more appropriately, Godot. It is the people who aren’t there that matter in these stories. In ‘B-Side’, the most important character is Lennox, the chess tutor whose opinions and taste sway everything that is making Michael; but Lennox never appears. In ‘The Gateway’, the disappearance of a little girl at a fairground before the war shapes everything that happens to the two central characters. In ‘Laburnums’, Matthew Cleverly is as important to young poet Christine as Lennox is to Michael, but he appears only as a voice on a telephone line. In ‘Stardust’ there are multiple disappearances: Sofie Pepusch is murdered and on the same day four cosmonauts are killed when their rocket explodes, then the narrator’s brother is sent away, finally, when the narrator is travelling to Siberia, her travelling companion disappears midway. And in ‘Wreck of the Julia’, Vernon’s wife is apparently killed in an aircrash, but her name is not on the list of passengers.
Such disappearances, such absences, are, of course, balanced by equally inexplicable appearances. In ‘B-Side’, Michael has a run-in with two characters from a Ruby Castle horror movie. In ‘Laburnums’, Christine keeps seeing the ghost of a childhood friend. In ‘Stardust’, the four cosmonauts are seen on a train weeks after they supposedly died in the rocket explosion. In ‘Wreck of the Julia’, Vernon’s wife reappears, as it were, in a painting he finds at an auction, and then turns up in real life now living with Matthew Cleverly’s son.
Sometimes, such appearances trigger the action. Although we don’t learn it until the end of the story, ‘The Gateway’ is set in motion by the reappearance of the girl many years after she vanished in the fairground. And ‘The Lammas Worm’ opens with the appearance of a girl whose disordered state, physically and mentally, suggests an extreme disconnect from the world; not quite as extreme as Kaspar Hauser, but something of that order. In fact, several times during this collection we make a brief shift into a parallel reality, in ‘The Gateway’ when the narrator ventures into the hall of mirrors, in ‘Stardust’ when the cosmonauts reappear on the train, and in ‘Wreck of the Julia’ when Vernon and Charlie spend a night on the mountain; and there are suggestions to this effect, without it being made explicit, in each of the other three stories. The narrators themselves seem barely aware of such shifts, and all are over very quickly, so that it comes to seem of no greater moment than the difference between Ruby Castle in life and on screen (a confusion she presumably makes when turning on-screen murder into real-life murder, though that is perhaps to read more than is in the actual text). But though they are brief, these dislocations are the key points in all of these stories, the point when the story shifts from build-up to aftermath.
Let me illustrate that point by talking in particular about ‘Wreck of the Julia’, in part because this is the most satisfyingly constructed of the stories and so the one where the point is most easily seen. Our narrator, Vernon, is an unambitious and, we might suppose, unimaginative salesman whose marriage to Eloise has ended. On the day she walked out on him, Eloise said she was catching a flight to go on holiday, but the flight crashed and when Vernon called the helpline he found she wasn’t on the passenger list. Nevertheless, he finds it easier to pretend that she simply died in the crash, and he doesn’t even tell his sister the truth. However, in the aftermath of the crash he starts having vivid dreams, in which he sees a passenger liner run aground on a narrow spit of land and the passengers in evening dress making their way to a distant island. Among the passengers, in an eye-catching green dress, is Eloise. In a subsequent dream he runs ahead of the group, gets lost on a mountain path, and becomes aware of something unspecified but horrific. Later, visiting an auction, he sees a painting that exactly replicates his dream, right down to the green dress among the passengers on the shore. He has to buy the picture, of course, and finds himself in a bidding war with a woman who is clearly upset when she loses. He approaches her, finds out she is the niece of the artist, and starts a friendship which quickly becomes a romance. Charlie tells him that the painting was done when the artist’s own marriage ended, in circumstances that closely parallel the failure of Vernon’s marriage. Moreover, the scene is based on the story of a real wreck that happened on Gomera in the Canary Islands just after the war. All the passengers got ashore safely, but four of them subsequently disappeared. Vernon and Charlie decide to go to Gomera to investigate, but on a trip to a mountain top, they find themselves lost in a strange mist and end up having to spend the night in a cave. During the night they witness a girl being chased by something monstrous (we’ve already seen a little girl being chased by a monstrous clown in ‘The Gateway’, and something similar but with very different affect in ‘The Lammas Worm’), and Vernon picks up a cigarette lighter that once belonged to one of the disappeared passengers. In the morning, they find they are very close to the bus stop after all, and now things unravel quickly. Charlie returns alone to the UK; Vernon stays on the island and finds out a little more about the disappeared passengers (they include Michael’s grandmother from ‘B-Side’ and the SS officer who broke up Thomas Emmerich’s marriage in ‘The Gateway’); when he returns to Britain he finds he can’t get in touch with Charlie, but he does track down Eloise, and having put a proper closure to his marriage Charlie becomes available to him again. There’s a lot going on in this story, not all of it is full explained and not all of it seems to be fully integrated with the rest, but it works as an increasing series of mysteries that build up to the night on the maintain, and then a rapid series of revelations and conclusions.
A similar structure pertains to other stories in the collection, in particular ‘The Gateway’ and ‘Stardust’ which are, in their way, almost as good as ‘Wreck of the Julia’. If they don’t quite attain that level of satisfaction, it is because there is too much going on in them. In ‘The Gateway’, for instance, we get the story of a little girl who disappears into the hall of mirrors in a fairground in Germany before the war and reappears as a young woman in London in the mid-fifties; we also get the story of her father’s friend who was supposed to be looking after her at the fair, and who chased her into the hall of mirrors only to be thrown briefly into a dark and threatening alternate reality; we also get the friend’s affaire with the girl’s mother, only for the mother to subsequently leave her husband for an SS officer; and we also get the father’s fascination with the makers of the hall of mirrors, which leads him to some strange discoveries about their past, but which also leads him into a post-war relationship with a woman in East Germany. There are a few other things going on that I have skipped, but that is more than enough for any story, and because none of these threads is told straight, each strand interrupts other strands and all are told out of chronological sequence, I ended up feeling that the story was a little too cluttered to work as well as it really should have done.
‘Stardust’ is more clearly structured, but has a similar problem. It is the only story in which the date is specific, it opens in Russia in July 2029. Alina is with her family preparing a small party to watch the launch of the world’s first fusion rocket. But the rocket explodes on launch, and at almost the same moment they learn that her grandfather’s second wife has just been murdered. These events produce tensions in the family, first her step-brother Nicky is sent away, then she is sent to stay with people she doesn’t know in Siberia. On the train she makes friends with a salesman who is sharing her compartment (there’s a fascination with salesmen, Vernon in ‘Wreck of the Julia’ is a salesman, and Marek Platonov in ‘The Lammas Worm’ gives up being a knife thrower to become a salesman); but after several days he disappears, and at the same point she sees the four cosmonauts who were supposedly killed in the rocket explosion. Later she becomes a writer, writing a play about all this that is only allowed to be performed in Russia when it is dismissed as science fiction. Again there is rather too much going on for a story of this length, and the alternate reality that Alina seems to step into on the train does not really connect with the story we have been reading to this point, but the whole thing is better structured and controlled than ‘The Gateway’.
The other story that works particularly well for me is ‘Laburnums’, partly because it is the shortest piece in the book but least crowded with plot. It focuses on Christine (this and ‘B-Side’ are the only stories not told in first person), a young poet working as copy editor on a magazine, and on her varying relationships with the old poet who is her mentor, her mother, and the childhood friend who has apparently returned as a ghost. The story is relatively simple and all the more effective for that. I was less struck by ‘B-Side’, again because there is rather too much going on, with not enough of it reaching a resolution that works. It tells of a young chess player who has lost a match, is beaten up by yobs, finds his mentor is in hospital and unlikely to come out, gets some good advice from a former student of the same mentor which he ignores, encounters a couple of characters from a horror film, and receives a box containing an animation of a chess game in which the former student is humiliated. And I didn’t feel any of this was sufficiently developed to make it work. It doesn’t help that ‘B-Side’ is the opening story in the collection, a poor start I felt, though it may also indicate that it was one of the earliest written. Though ‘The Lammas Worm’ is the only one previously published, and though this is the one story in which Ruby Castle plays a part, it also feels out of step with the rest of the collection. ‘The Gateway’, ‘Laburnums’, ‘Stardust’ and ‘Wreck of the Julia’ are all stories of subtle dis-ease, hints of something working alongside the story, sudden disconcerting steps into an off-kilter world. ‘The Lammas Worm’, on the other hand, seems intent on something closer to more traditional horror; it may well be the simplest story in the collection, but it has the least resonance for me.
And where in all of this is Ruby Castle? Ah, well there lies the mystery.