The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath

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The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Nasty, funny and with a well-chosen vocabulary, The Grotesque is an enjoyable Gothic skit. All the ingredients are there: the sympathetic background, the spooky names, the mysterious butler, the big, crumbling manion house. You'll enjoy it for what it is - a camp and hammy creepy story.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: January 1997
Publisher: Vintage Books USA
ISBN: 0679776214

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Our Modern Gothic Hero, Sir Hugo Coal, is confined to a wheelchair. He had a "cerebral accident" a while ago, and this chair is where he ended up. It is thought that he is catatonic: that he can't feel, or see, or hear, or think. But of course, he can, it wouldn't be very Gothic otherwise, would it? He sits in his chair, facing the intricately carved, oak-panelled walls of his family home, Crook, placed there by his butler, Fledge. He passes his time ruminating on his fall from grace and considering the evil that felled him. He also considers himself and his condition - "The Grotesque", he calls himself.

Until his accident, Sir Hugo was a gentleman paleontologist. He had excavated and brought home from Africa the entire skeleton of a species of dinosaur, Phlegmosaurus Carbonensis, and had spent twenty five years in painstaking reconstruction work. He had also been the author of a theory running against all current thought; that his primeval, carnivorous discovery had been the forerunner of the modern bird. Sir Hugo views himself as a radical theorist; such a man who could only be found among gentlemen-scholars and most certainly not among the nasty, uppity, professional people more common at the Royal Academy than he'd like these days. And he doesn't see the irony in that. Sir Hugo is an unpleasant, self-absorbed man who was wont to take a toad to his dinner table and show it more attention than he did either his wife, the genteel Harriet, or his daughter, the spirited and vivacious Cleo.

It all began when the Coals employed a new butler, Fledge, who brought with him to Crook his wife, Doris. Fledge was a strange, inscrutable man and Doris was a nervous, mousy woman who appeared in a state of perpetual dread. Almost immediately Sir Hugo began to suspect that all was not as it seemed with Fledge, and the sense of evil and foreboding seemed to surround him with ever more suffocating venom. However, as with all good Gothic stories, no one else could see it, and Sir Hugo was too selfish, too arrogant, to sense real personal danger or to act to prevent the disintegration of his household. That is, until the disappearance one dark and stormy night of Sidney Giblet, young aspiring poet and Cleo's fiance...

Sir Hugo has much to regret as he sits, dribbling, in his chair, having his toenails clipped by the drunken Doris.

Oh, I'm not a big fan of the world of Goth you know, but I do like some decent black humour and I did like McGrath's book. Crook is the perfect Gothic setting: it's an old, crumbling manor house covered with ivy, and full of dark, gloomy passages and corridors. Sir Hugo's estate is next to a huge marsh, the scene of Sidney Giblet's disappearance, with its attendant black clouds, stormy nights and hooting owls. Fledge is the perfect Gothic villain, a man who says little but insinuates himself with ease into the regard and affection of everyone but Sir Hugo and Cleo. Evil things happen but no one except them can see what's really happening. What happened to young Sidney? What does George Lecky down at the pig farm have to do with it? Is Fledge the evil, corrupting influence Sir Hugo believes him to be? And how did Sir Hugo end up in his wheelchair in the pitiful state of a self-styled "Grotesque"? Well, of course, I can't tell you.

I will tell you, though, that The Grotesque is written beautifully; you couldn't pick a hole in McGrath's fiendishly-chosen vocabulary, or in his surreal, atmospheric descriptions of the weather, of the marsh, of the house and their images not only of the crumbling structures but of crumbling morality, decline and deviance. I loved the clever way he turns from high camp, to vicious, black humour, to suspense, as the plot twists and turns its way to its unpleasant denouement. I loved his names: Phlegmosaur for the ancient, unmoving and unmoved dinosaur bones; Sidney Giblet for the poor boy with a truly Gothic and dreadful fate; Fledge for the machinating, power-hungry butler-in-ascendance, and, of course, Sir Hugo Coal, the presider over, and narrator of his own, black-as-coal decline. I loved the way Sir Hugo nastily enjoys his snobbish condescensions, but is oblivious to himself as anachronism. He describes the traditional sort of alms-giving Crook Christmas party as "mawkish" and then treats us to his definition of that word:

"Are you familiar, by the way, with the etymology of the word mawkish? It comes from an Old Norse word for maggot, or flesh worm and means 'nauseatingly insipid."


As things turn from the darkly humorous to the pure macabre, tension is built almost without you noticing. I finished The Grotesque in half an afternoon, almost breathless, I so wanted to get to the end. I hadn't even noticed that I'd stopped laughing. It's a great, spooky story, it's a comment on the disintegrating influence of the aristocracy, and it's also a fascinating study of mental decline, obsession, and delusional thinking. And you really have to like a book that sends you off to more books, don't you? Apart from all that "rattling good read" stuff (which it most certainly was), The Grotesque, with its myriad of clever little themes and clear influences. could have been no more than a weak pastiche. But it wasn't. And it also sent me down a few reading avenues, some new, some old. I think I'll read Cold Comfort Farm again soon and revisit that nasty, but funny, kitchen table and I wouldn't had it not been for thinking about the aristocracy in decline as laughed at by McGrath. I think I might look up some straight literary horror too; Turn of the Screw by Henry James, maybe. And after that...

Oh. I'm rambling. I liked The Grotesque, it's probably not a keeper, but I enjoyed reading it. So will you.

For an even nastier piece of humorous fiction, try our review of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.

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Buy The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath at


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