“I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there,” two-time Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel wrote in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost. “Or — to put it in a way more acceptable to me — I am used to seeing things that ‘aren’t there’.”
Mantel, who passed away at age 70 in September 2022, was in this case referring to an experience in which she ‘saw’ her step-father’s ghost on a staircase in July 2000. But as her initial remarks suggest, this was far from the only ‘paranormal’ encounter that Mantel had during her life – and one of the first she had, as a child, was truly terrifying.
“Sometimes you come to a thing you can’t write,” she remarks, much further into her memoir. “You’ve written everything you can think of, to stop the story getting here. You know that, technically, your prose isn’t up to it. You say then, very well: at least I know my limitations. So choose simple words; go slowly.”
Mantel notes that in many memoirs, readers are often expecting a revelation of sexual abuse in the writer’s past. “That’s the usual horror,” she notes, before continuing. “Mine is more diffuse. It wrapped a strangling hand around my life, and I don’t know how, or what it was.”
She then tells her story:
I am seven, and I am in the yard at Brosscroft; I am playing near the house, near the back door. Something makes me look up: some shift of the light. My eyes are drawn to a spot beyond the yard, beyond its gate, in the long garden. It is, let us say, some fifty yards away, among coarse grass, weeds and bracken. I can’t see anything, not exactly see: except the faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air. I can sense a spiral, a lazy buzzing swirl, like flies; but it is not flies. There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave.
I can sense — at the periphery, the limit of all my senses — the dimensions of the creature. It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking; as if pinned to the moment, I cannot wrench my gaze away. I am looking at a space occupied by nothing. It has no edges, no mass, no dimension, no shape except the formless; it moves. I beg it, stay away, stay away. Within the space of a thought it is inside me, and has set up a sick resonance within my bones and in all the cavities of my body.
I pluck my eyes away. It is like plucking them out of my head. Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse. I move from the spot. My body weighs heavy, my feet have to be hauled up from the ground as if they were sticking in gore. I walk out of the sunlight, through the Glass Place, into the enclosed dimness of the cold kitchen. I say, Mum, I want to come in now, can I do some drawing?
I see myself through her eyes: sweat running from me, my cheeks fallen in, my chest heaving to control the thick taste of blood and sick that’s in my mouth. I pray, let her not look at me.
‘Yes,’ she says, sweetly, her back turned. ‘Of course you can.’
It is the best yes I have ever heard. It is the best yes I have ever heard in the course of my life. If I had been sent out again, into the secret garden, I think I would have died: I think my heart would have stopped.
When I grow up I laugh at this. I say, I’m like Aunt Ada Doom, I saw something nasty in the woodshed. I say that, like Aunt Ada, I was never the same afterwards, I was always doomy after that: and what was it anyway? I don’t know. Something intangible had come for me, to try its luck: some formless, borderless evil, that came to try to make me despair. When I’m on my own, and I think about it privately, then I scarcely laugh at all.
(Mantel also spoke about the experience on camera for the BBC a couple of years ago, which I have embedded below.)
Was Mantel’s ‘sensitivity’ to an unseen world a consequence of some sort of neurological condition? She remarks that she regularly suffered from migraines, and that is was “within the migraine aura that my words came out wrong, that the door disappeared into a black space: it was within the aura that I heard the dull hum and the muttering on the left-hand side of my head.”
Migraine stirred the air in dull shifts and eddies, charged it with invisible presences and the echoes of strangers’ voices; it gave me morbid visions, like visitations, premonitions of dissolution.
For a time, when I was eight years old, my field of vision was filled with a constant, moving backdrop of tiny skulls. As a student, I had told Dr G about them, in a burst of frightened confidence. ‘Black on a white ground, skulls skulls skulls, the size of my little fingernail, unrolling,’ I said. ‘Unrolling, like a satanist’s wallpaper.’
Dr G smiled a wintry smile. ‘Ah well,’ he said. His voice was soothing. ‘We all have our little metaphysical fancies.’ )
Whatever the cause of Mantel’s “metaphysical fancies”, it is clear from her own account that her paranormal entity encounter as a child cast a long and rather dark shadow over the rest of her life.