Some writers make me laugh out loud; Rachel Ingalls makes me cackle. Embedded in her fictions are blackly comic asides; razor-sharp lines that cut through decorum to expose writhing mental states; a gallery of ominous, marvelously conjured creations (a maze of ice, a pregnant monk). But what triggers the ugly—yet strangely joyous—sound in this reader’s throat is 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.
It’s hard to get too specific about Ingalls’s aesthetics of surprise without inserting a string of spoiler alerts. Those who enjoy the fourth-quarter rug-pulling practiced by The Twilight Zone and movies like The Usual Suspects will find satisfaction here, but Ingalls’s method transcends gimmickry. Her characters’ detailed inner lives rhyme with pieces of our own, even as the air of menace thickens. By the time things turn too strange or intense—and with Ingalls, there’s always such a time, if not several—it’s too late for us to pull out.
For her 1982 masterpiece, the short novel Mrs. Caliban, Ingalls takes a B-movie premise (aquatic humanoid escapes from lab) and pounds it into a thrilling new shape—a vehicle for social satire, kitchen-sink realism, surreal domesticity, and just plain blood-curdling screams. The book deals with incest and insanity, curtailed feminine social spheres and the Other; horrific violence and a palpable sadness saturate the pages. Why is it so much fun? (Maybe because the creature’s name is Larry. And he likes avocados.)
Much of her brutally beautiful fiction (most of which clocks in at novella length) takes place on cleanly described but deliberately anonymous American soil. People go into “town” or “the capital”; names have a wholesome sheen (Beverley, Roy, Joan). But Ingalls, who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has lived in London since 1965, and it’s as if she’s merging a 40-year-old version of her native land with contemporary nightmares. The effect is unsettling, like visiting a town where all the letters have been rubbed off the signs. Everything feels fresh and ancient.
Near the start of Binstead’s Safari (1983), a character offers someone a title for his work in progress, a book about elephants: “You could just call it They Never Forget, or something like that.” The tag also fits the oeuvre of an author whose great, obsessive theme is the return of the repressed. This reaches a crazed crescendo in a 1992 tale (from Be My Guest): Two adopted children, siblings in name only, go in search of their respective mothers and the true stories behind their abandonment. Let’s just say that the oedipal complex turns out not to be so complex after all. And “Veterans,” from the current book, is like a companion piece to A History of Violence: a series of slow-burning fuses that we follow nervously as they trail an ex-soldier into his new life.
Times Like These is a return of sorts as well: The first three tales appeared in the U.K. (along with the two chillers of Be My Guest) as 1992’s Black Diamond; the remainder, all of which touch on war and its emotional, personal aftermaths, comes from a 2000 collection. “Last Act: The Madhouse,” the opener, puts all its cards on the table: The title pretty much tells you how it will pan out, and the discussion of the protagonist’s early love of opera is an instruction manual on how to imbibe this tale:
There were arias of anger, forgiveness, longing, supplication; if you wanted to cram them all into one work, the story had to make room for them. Occasionally things got to the point where—because of the need to fit in all the songs—the plot no longer made sense. William didn’t mind too much about that. He preferred an overcrowding of drama to a lack of excitement.
Ingalls proceeds to apply a steady stream of shocks, as a teenage romance turns disastrous after an unwanted pregnancy and parental meddling. In an outrageous twist on the Cyrano story, the letters between William and his sweetheart are intercepted by his mother, who expertly forges both of their hands, sending mixed messages to pry them apart. And we haven’t even come to the aria yet.
Gothic and ferocious, these are the fables we can’t stop reading, even as events take turn after turn for the worse. Ingalls lures us in with hard facts, setting the tone of “Last Act” in the first paragraph: “Four other boys in William’s class shared his name. At home, he was Will. At school someone else was called Will, two were Bill, and one went under a middle name. Only William was given the full, formal version.” “Somewhere Else”—an unmooring vision of hell—gives us a detailed rundown of a couple’s mail. It’s an insidious brand of precision and misdirection, a smoke screen for secret processes. Mrs. Caliban begins, “Fred forgot three things in a row before he reached the front door on his way to work. Then he remembered that he had wanted to take the paper with him.” We never learn the other two things.