Falling in Love with Monsters & Other Surreal Tropes: Rachel Ingalls’s “Mrs. Caliban” & “Times Like These”

 In 1983, John Updike, the novelist and critic, introduced me to one of my favorite novels, Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban.  His review in The New Yorker was strangly inspiring and powerful.  I love reviews, but Updike’s reviews were exceptional, as though he were able to turn each narrative inside-out and explain its essence.

Mad housewives often inhabited the pages of literature in the late 20th century. Perhaps it had something to do with Second Wave feminism.  The heroine of Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy, is an unhappy housewife whose son has died and whose husband is mostly absent. She has begun to hear programs on the radio that couldn’t possibly exist.   In a cake mix commercial, a woman’s voice said, “Don’t worry, Dorothy, you’ll have another baby all right.”

Her husband Fred usually ignores her.  When he leaves after breakfast, he doesn’t say good-bye.

She stood by the door while he went out and down the front walk.  He didn’t look back.  And, of course, he hadn’t kissed her goodbye for years.  This was the same way that affair of his with the publicity girl had started:  staying lat at the office.  Maybe.  Or perhaps it was genuine, but she couldn’t tell anything about him any longer.

Later, while doing housework, she turns on the radio.  An announcer says that a dangerous giant lizard-like creature has escaped from the Jefferson Institute for Oceanographic Research.  She decides this announcement is not a hallucination, because it is not addressing her personally. And, indeed, when the monster shows up in her kitchen, and Dorothy falls in love with him, she knows it must be real.  She is determined to save him from the cruel scientists who have been keeping him prisoner. 

But is the monster real? If so, he is certainly preferable to Fred.  And we are completely on the side of Dorothy and the sea creature.

The woman-and-monster affair was a common trope in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. There were a slew of heroine falling in love with monsters or animals.  In Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets, a woman has sex with a dolphin;  in Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, the wife of a zookeeper falls in love with Erasmus, an ape whom she has rescued from scientists’ research; and in Jane Gaskell’s feminist fantasy novel, The City, the heroine, Princess Cija, who has been abducted and raped by powerful soldiers, falls in love with an ape-man in the jungle. 

 One can’t read about women and monsters all the time.  This week, I finally got around to reading more Rachel Ingalls:  her brilliant short story collection, Times Like These, which has been on my shelf for a while.  These remarkable stories are strange, unexpected, and sometimes Gothic. 

Ingalls is often interested in mad or mildly delusional people (like Dorothy in Mrs. Caliban). In “Last Act: The Madhouse,” William, who is besotted with opera, listens to his opera records after school. There are many madwomen.  He wittily observes,  

In quite a few of these operas, for instance, there was a mad scene. When a coloratura soprano was in the cast, you could be fairly sure that before the last act she’d be crazy, although still able to hit a high E.

William falls in love in high school, and gets his girlfriend Jean pregnant.  He gallantly promises he’ll marry her, but his upper-middle-class parents object.  And after Jean is spirited away by her parents, no one knows what happened to her. He hears later that she had attempted suicide and was put away somewhere.  Years later, he hires a detective to help him look for Jean.  They go from madhouse to madhouse, looking for someone who resembles his photo of Jean.  But one wonders by the end exactly who is mad, as William’s behavior spirals out of control.

Ingalls never steps in the same river twice.  In the surreal story, “Somewhere Else,” a travel agent receives a letter saying he has  won a prize: a vacation.  Just as you might suspect, he and his wife, who also works at the travel agency,  are too busy ever to travel themselves. The  other winners are also travel agents who never have traveled.  The  destination proves to be surreal and spooky.

Unhappy marriages are common in Ingalls’s stories.  In “Correspondence,” Joan is the second wife of Max, a sexy war correspondent.  He is addicted to travel and danger, and carries certain lucky charms which he claims protect him in war scenes.  Women find him very attractive.  When Joan sees him flirting at a party, she remembers that this is how he started an affair with her, while he was married to his first wife.  She is tired of his macho correspondent routine.  She wonders, What would happen if he didn’t have his lucky charms?

Each of these strange short stories is bizarrely well-imagined, and each is different from the others.  Ingalls (1940-2019) was an American from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who moved to London in 1965.   Perhaps this dual-country point-of-view shaped her unique imagination. 

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