In the late 1980s (when I read a great deal of Scottish literature) I particularly enjoyed two novels by a Scottish writer called Colin Mackay, although I knew almost nothing about him. The first, The Song of the Forest, was a set in Scotland’s distant past in a remote rural community; it was noticeable for its mythic, poetic style (I have since discovered it began life as a poem). The second, The Sound of the Sea, had a more contemporary background in the Falklands War, but also drew on the experiences of his father in the Second World War and his grandfather in the First. I was aware he had written a third novel, House of Lies, but had not bought it at the time of publication (1995) and as it soon fell out of print, it almost fell out of mind. Nevertheless, every so often I remembered this ‘lost book’, even retaining a picture of its stark black and white cover with its rather lurid use of red in the aforementioned house’s door and the word ‘Lies’.
It was only after reading it, when I decided to research a little into Mackay’s background (now so easily done online), that I discovered that House of Lies was his last published novel (though not the last he wrote), and that he committed suicide in 2003. (You can find out more about his work and read an interview here, and read his obituary in the Scotsman here). His autobiography, Jacob’s Ladder, written after he had decided to take his own life (It’s first sentence is, “Soon I will be dead”), is available online here.
Not only was the sad end to Mackay’s life something of a shock, so was House of Lies itself. it was quite different in tone form Mackay’s previous novels, a savage satire aimed at British Communists in the form of a horror story. Here is Mackay’s own summary:
“It’s set in a communist newspaper office in London at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Newspaper workers who have spent decades sanitising and distorting what was really going on in the Soviet Union are faced with a general public which now knows more of the truth. They start being visited by the ghosts of people who were tortured and lost their loves in Russia.”
This description seems a more focused idea than its execution. We begin, for example, with a brief prologue set in Moscow a few years later. Perhaps this is meant to offer a little balance – while Mackay attacks the blinkered nature of communism he does not seem to be suggesting unrestrained capitalism in its place:
“Were strip clubs really the sort of benefit we had wished to confer upon people longing for the joys of freedom?”
It may also be intended as a way of grounding the supernatural story which follows in contemporary reality, but, never returned to, it seems a misleading introduction.
The story itself begins with Tam Burns, an unemployed dock worker with literary aspirations, who gains employment as the night watchman on the premises of a communist newspaper in London via a meeting with its editor, Finlay McRath, at a creative writing class. Tam at first seems our introduction to the world of the newspaper, an everyman we can identify with. In one scene, when a statue is delivered to the offices, the various journalists are quite happy to leave it to the ‘workers’ like Tam to bring the statue inside, thus highlighting a more general hypocrisy. The statue, a symbolic representation of a member of the secret police, has been sent anonymously from Russia, and it is soon suggested that it has come to life and intends to repay the newspaper’s staff for their wilful blindness to persecution in the Soviet Union:
“I do the work of historical necessity here. That’s what I was told. I’m the liquidator.”
This fits well with Mackay’s satirical intent, but too many other elements muddy the waters. Burns, we discover, is not representative of the working man, but a union leader who neglected his daughter after his wife’s death because of the ‘big strike’. Coming half way through the novel, this leaves the reader slightly unanchored in the narrative. The other characters are caricatures of unpleasantness and self-absorption which can make the satire seem rather heavy-handed. Even the haunting of the house is not dependant on the fall of the Berlin Wall or the arrival of the statue, but has been going on for many years. Not only did it lead to the suicide of the previous caretaker after he had murdered his own daughter, they now seem to do most of the haunting. In other words, there is rather an excess of the supernatural in the novel, and with so many people being haunted, there is no other explanation than that the house is riddled with ghosts.
One might also question the target of the satire: exactly how many people in the UK, ten years after Margaret Thatcher came to power, still believed whole-heartedly in the Soviet Union? And were they really so powerful and dangerous that they needed bludgeoned (literally as well as metaphorically in this novel) by such a talented writer? Because talented Mackay certainly was, and the risk-taking of this novel alone (a horror / political satire cross-over) proves that he still had an enormous amount to offer.