Ingalls, Rachel 1940–
Ingalls, Rachel 1940–
(Rachel Holmes Ingalls)
PERSONAL: Born May 13, 1940, in Boston, MA; immigrated to England, 1964. Education: Radcliffe College, B.A. 1964.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Graywolf Press, 2402 University Ave., Ste. 203, St. Paul, MN 55114.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as a theater dresser, librarian, publisher's reader, and film critic; worked as a ballet critic for Tattler in England.
AWARDS, HONORS: First Novel Award from Great Britain's Authors' Club, 1971, for The Man Who Was Left Behind; British Book Marketing Council named Mrs. Caliban to their 1986 list of the twenty best novels by living post-World War II American writers.
Theft (novella), Faber (London, England), 1970.
Theft [and] The Man Who Was Left Behind (novellas), Gambit (Boston, MA), 1970.
Mediterranean Cruise (novellas; contains "Early Morning Sightseer," "St. George and the Nightclub," and "Something to Write Home About," Gambit (Boston, MA), 1973.
The Man Who Was Left Behind and Other Stories, Faber (London, England), 1974.
Mrs. Caliban (novella), Faber (London, England), 1982, Gambit (Boston, MA), 1983.
Binstead's Safari (novel), Faber (London, England), 1983, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1988.
I See a Long Journey (novellas; contains "I See a Long Journey," "On Ice," and "Blessed Art Thou," Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1985, published in England as Three of a Kind, Faber (London, England), 1985.
The Pearlkillers (novellas; contains "Third Time Lucky," "People to People," "Inheritance," and "Captain Hendrik's Story," Faber (London, England), 1986, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1987.
The End of Tragedy (horror stories), Faber (London, England), 1987.
By My Guest: Two Novellas, Turtle Bay Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Times like These (stories), Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2005.
ADAPTATIONS: Mrs. Caliban has been adapted for film.
SIDELIGHTS: An American writer living in London, Rachel Ingalls was little known until 1986, when the British Book Marketing Council named her novella Mrs. Caliban one of the twenty best novels by living post-World War II American writers. Placing her in the company of such literary notables as John Updike, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Eudora Welty, and Thomas Pyn-chon, the council's surprise selection sent critics scrambling to learn more about the heretofore obscure American. Since that time, critics have welcomed the newcomer as a masterful storyteller. As Melvyn Bragg described her talents in Punch: "Rachel Ingalls's great gift for language and time keeps you hooked on the end of her line and she reels in the story like an expert fly fisherman."
Prior to the honor conferred by the British Book Marketing Council, Ingalls had published several books, receiving favorable but unsensational reviews. Reflecting on her previous lack of notice in a 1986 interview with Kevin Kelly for the Chicago Tribune, Ingalls explained that the length of her fiction generally falls somewhere between the short story and the novella, a notoriously difficult length to sell. Her first agent, she recalled, "didn't know where to place my things."
Ingalls's work has also proved perplexing by its very uniqueness. Some reviewers call it fantasy or science fiction, while others describe it as allegory or fable. A few have concluded that Ingalls is, quite simply, an original. Among the latter is Marcia Froelke Coburn who, in a review of Binstead's Safari, in the Chicago Tribune, judged that "with her elegantly spare writing style, Ingalls has created a new kind of gothic writing—modern and minimalistic. Her characters are haunted not by vampires or ghosts but by the inexplicable quirks of life."
Mrs. Caliban is the quintessential Ingalls fiction. It is the story of Dorothy, a suburban California homemaker. She and her husband, Fred, have suffered the loss of their only child in an accident and their marriage is faltering. At home and lonely, Dorothy begins hearing strange voices on the radio. Sometimes there are comforting personal messages for her, and other times she receives odd special reports not heard by anyone else. Most alarming is the warning about a dangerous, six-foot-seven-inch creature, "Aquarius the Monsterman," who has escaped from the Institute for Oceanographic Research.
Also known as Larry, the frog-like animal appears one day in Dorothy's kitchen. She hides him and they have a passionate affair. Bragg offered an explanation, shedding light on the book's title with reference to Ariel and Caliban, two characters from William Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. He called it "the depressed fantasy of a woman left too much alone, conjuring (like Ariel) out of the radio waves the monster of innocence and desire (like Caliban) who will come and restore her."
Critics suggested that the story can be read either as a realistic tale or as a total fantasy, but generally concur that it best succeeds as the latter. In her Los Angeles Times Book Review critique, Anne Robinson Taylor called the book "a parable of modern life … delicately poised between utter seriousness and complete outrageousness." In the New York Times Book Review, Michael Dorris described Mrs. Caliban as a "tight, intriguing portrait of a woman's escape from unacceptable reality … an account of derangement so matter-of-fact, so ordinary and at the same time so bizarre, that through her words we experience new insight."
Ingalls next book, Binstead's Safari, is just long enough to be considered a full-fledged novel, and it continues the motifs of "mystery and metamorphosis," as Coburn identified them, that were explored in Mrs. Caliban. As in the previous story, Binstead's Safari focuses on an unhappy married couple, this time the Binsteads of New England. Stan is a philandering anthropologist eager to research animal-worship cults in Africa; Millie is his subservient wife, dutifully remaining at home during his subsidized journeys. A legacy from her great-aunt Edna, however, enables Millie to accompany Stan to Africa.
They travel via London, with Millie gaining so much confidence that the couple's roles appear almost reversed. Stan watches in bewilderment as Millie charms everyone and even takes a lover, hunter Harry Lewis, nicknamed Lion. A legend in Africa, Harry reportedly has the supernatural ability to transform himself into a lion and might well be the magical force behind the very lion cult Stan has come to study. After Harry is killed by poachers, a mysterious lion begins shadowing the Binsteads' party, and tragedy finally strikes both Stan and Millie. This is a story, wrote reviewer William Scammell in London Magazine, whose "feel" is "rather like that of Jane Eyre transposed into a new key: a powerful female fantasy about initiation into perfect love and perfect death." A reviewer for Time observed that Ingalls handles the fantastic elements of the story "so deftly that she makes events seem not only plausible but inevitable."
It is in the novella, however, that Ingalls "seems to have found the ideal form in which to exercise her astonishing imagination," appraised Anne Bernays in the New York Times Book Review. The collection that followed Binstead's Safari was published in the United States as I See a Long Journey and in England as Three of a Kind.
In the last of the three novellas, "Blessed Art Thou," Brother Anselm, a monk, is visited by the angel Gabriel, and the two make love. Gabriel then disappears, and the California monastery soon falls into a state of chaos as Brother Anselm grows breasts and otherwise becomes visibly pregnant. The story concludes with one of Ingalls's typically adroit surprise endings. Critiquing the work for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, William Packard lauded "Blessed Art Thou" as a story "in the best tradition of medieval gesta or French contes and fabliaux … worthy of Ovid or Boccaccio."
The Pearlkillers is another collection of novellas. In his Los Angeles Times Book Review assessment, Packard found Ingalls at her best in the final novella, "Captain Hendrik's Story." Centering on a sea captain who leaves home on a voyage only to be shipwrecked for ten years, the novella juxtaposes the Captain's heroic account of his adventures with the sordid tale unveiled by the ship's only other survivor.
Times like These is a collection of short stories that "has unsettling things to say" about violence, human psychology, and society's tentative grip on morality, commented Patrick Sullivan in the Library Journal. "Gothic and ferocious, these are the fables we can't stop reading, even as events take turn after turn for the worse," observed reviewer Ed Park in the Village Voice. For Park, it is Ingalls's darkly rendered plot twists and shock endings that best characterize her fiction. He remarked favorably on her "way with the shocking, perfectly deployed eureka. The hair-whitening jolt has become an Ingalls trademark, and it electrifies her new collection, Times like These."
"Somewhere Else" finds a married couple who are travel agents embarking on an eagerly awaited free trip, only to find that it will never end. "Veterans" chronicles the slow but increasingly pernicious intrusion of a drunk and depressed Korean War veteran into the happy family life of the fellow soldier who saved his life. In "Last Act: The Madhouse," a teenage opera fan falls in love with a girl his parents do not like. He gets the girl pregnant, but his parents devise a diabolical plan to separate the two young lovers. When he finds out what they did, years later, madness and more tragedy await. "No Love Lost" presents a postwar world in which society's brutal means of dealing with the aged and weak shakes a family to its core.
Ingalls's writing "takes the reader seamlessly from the real to the surreal in these stories that burrow in memory," remarked Michele Leber in Booklist. Sullivan named Ingalls's collection "powerfully disturbing," and Park called her work "brutally beautiful fiction." Sullivan compared some of the best stories in the collection with the work of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "Ingalls's command of her varied worlds … is impressive."
Other of Ingalls's chilling tales have earned favorable comparison with the works of such American masters as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In her interview with Kevin Kelly, however, Ingalls revealed that her greatest literary influences have been the radio, which she listened to avidly as a youth, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and Bulfinch's Mythology. Fusing elements from each to create her own singular style, Ingalls, Kelly noted, can be placed alongside such writers as Flannery O'Connor and Grace Paley "in the literary tradition of taciturn writers whose output is small but whose work is so precise and visionary that it changes the way we look at things."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 42, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Atlantic, April, 1986, Jack Beatty, "Discovery of the Month," p. 16.
Booklist, September 15, 2002, Michele Leber, review of Times Like These, p. 32.
Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1987, Kevin Kelly, "Who Is Rachel Ingalls? And Why Is She Writing about Love with a Sea Monster?," p. 1.
Chicago Tribune Book World, February 14, 1988, Marcia Froelke Coburn, review of Binstead's Safari, p. 4.
Library Journal, October 15, 2005, Patrick Sullivan, review of Times like These, p. 50.
London Magazine, August-September, 1983, William Scammell, review of Binstead's Safari.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 26, 1983, Anne Robinson Taylor, review of Mrs. Caliban; September 7, 1986, William Packard, review of I See a Long Journey, p. 3; August 16, 1987, William Packard, review of The Pearlkillers, p. 11; March 29, 1988, Elaine Kendall, review of Binstead's Safari, p. 1.
New Yorker, July 25, 1983, review of Mrs. Caliban, p. 87.
New York Times Book Review, August 31, 1986, Anne Bernays, review of I See a Long Journey, p. 9; November 15, 1987, Ursula K. LeGuin, review of The Pearlkillers, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, September 19, 2005, review of Times Like These, p. 45.
Punch, February 3, 1982, Melvyn Bragg, review of Mrs. Caliban.
Time, April 11, 1988, review of Binstead's Safari, p. 74.
Village Voice, December 23, 2005, Ed Park, "They Never Forget," review of Times like These.