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Fiction from Fairy Tales

The continuing appeal of novelist Rachel Ingalls

March-April 2019

Illustration by Gaby D’Alessandro


Illustration by Gaby D’Alessandro

Rachel Ingalls’s 1983 novel Binstead’s Safari has been reissued by New Directions this February, and that is no surprise: her cult novella Mrs. Caliban (1982) attracted renewed interest and a reprint in 2017 when its plot—a lonely housewife named Dorothy falls in love with Larry, a scaly green frog-man—drew parallels to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, winner of four Academy Awards that year, including Best Picture.

Ingalls grew up in Cambridge and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964. The following year she moved to the United Kingdom, where she had a great-aunt; she has lived there ever since. She has written a dozen books, including a 2013 short-story collection called Black Diamond, a volume that prompted the critic for the UK’s The Independent to call Ingalls “one of the most brilliant practitioners…since Poe” of American Gothic. And in 1986, the British Book Marketing Council named Mrs. Caliban one of the 20 best novels written after World War II by a living author. This put Ingalls side by side with John Updike ’54, Litt.D. ’92, Eudora Welty, and Thomas Pynchon, catapulting her to instant critical notice and acclaim.

“Her work is indelible on the brain,” Daniel Handler (perhaps better known by his nom de plume, Lemony Snicket) wrote as he contemplated the task of composing an introduction for Three Masquerades, a 2017 Ingalls collection. “It is easy to read and hard to forget.” Journalist and fellow author Dan Sheehan notes that her work infuses “quotidian life with a kind of hallucinatory menace.…familiar spaces shimmer and degrade.” Rivka Galchen, the short-story writer and novelist who provided the introduction for the reprint of Mrs. Caliban, observes, “Ingalls’s vision is current and ancient at once, and we see this not only in the plots but also in the curious way she handles detail.” Her style tends toward the concise, in the form of short stories and novellas.

Binstead’s Safari, billed as a novel, clocks in at just over 200 pages. Stan Binstead, a tenured but irrelevant anthropologist, embarks on a trip to London and East Africa to explore the folklore of mortals who moonlight as lion gods—and to continue his aimless philandering. Thanks to a tidy inheritance, his neglected wife, Millie, tags along. An indulgent three weeks of sightseeing alone in London transforms her; she becomes the center of attention once the couple begin their safari—and quickly enters into an affair with a man who might just be the stuff of myths.

Though there appears to be no intentional connection between del Toro’s water god and Mrs. Caliban’s Larry, the visual vividness of Ingalls’s writing has long been influenced by film, theater, and the sensorial nature of everyday life. Last fall, during an email exchange via her agent, Vivien Green (the novelist was not available to meet, and does not own a phone), Ingalls summarily dismissed any notion that Harvard had influenced her writing, and denied any writing process beyond sitting down with a pen, or sometimes a pencil.

But Binstead’s Safari was the one exception to the rule. “I wrote 40 pages of it and then left them,” she stated. “I didn’t go back until a long time afterwards—years afterwards.” When she did begin writing again, she wrote more—much more—ending up with 800 pages. With the help of a previous agent, Richard Simon, she began to cut. In the process, she learned a few things: “People don’t know what they are talking about when they refer to ‘character,’ and ‘developing character,’ and all of that. What I did was to look at what I’d done scene by scene, keep a bit of dialogue, and yank out all the boring people and speech, which came to at least 550 pages.” The finished novel, at 218 pages with nary a plot hole, makes the writing adage “Kill your darlings” ring truer than ever.

Although Ingalls read a lot about East African safari culture in sources written by game preserve wardens—people “who knew what they were talking about”—but “nothing written by people who had gone as tourists” (a clear dig at Stan Binstead), she recommends reading folklore, rather than documentaries or nonfiction, alongside her novel. “Read Grimms’ Fairy Tales, where you can find many stories involving the princess and the frog prince,” she suggested, referring to the themes of anthropomorphic metamorphosis that feature prominently in both Binstead’s Safari and Mrs. Caliban. “These fairy tales spread all through Europe—some of them were fireside tales told by women to young girls to warn them against grown-up life in the world outside of the family. But they go deeper than that—they are about the connection between the human and the animal worlds in which we still live.” Both Dorothy and Millie blossom when their innate vibrancy, previously dampened by useless husbands, is revealed by lovers who are more than human. These themes echo the maternal warnings Ingalls referenced: dangers lie not in monsters but in men.

As Ingalls’s evocation of mythology implies, she looks to stories in all forms to inspire her work, though she is cautious about divulging details. “A lot of what other people do in their ‘reading time’ I have spent on entertainment, particularly theater, ballet, and opera,” she explained. Drawn to “great stories in a different form,” she admires playwrights like Shakespeare and Ibsen, but denied any notion that either theater or poetry—another love—has significantly shaped her authorial sensibilities.

What advice, if any, would she give writers? “Just look around you. Notice how the world is, how it should be, how it isn’t. Have some friends, have a family. All of those can go into a book. Above all, read a lot.” She also recommended attending live art and observing its process of storytelling: “Go to literary sources which are not books, such as film and theater, and anything else which deals with the same themes as books.”

Ingalls cited Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa as a possible point of reference for the setting of Binstead’s Safari. And yet, “I can’t really talk about how I see things, because when I sit down to write, I don’t actually see at all—it just comes out, and I can’t explain that, or talk about it, really.” It is her works that do the explaining—their frank assertion that folklore and mythology are, as Ingalls said, “the basic stories of our lives,” that rebirth and transformation are possible even in death, and that the least obvious answer is usually the inevitable one.

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