I’m a great fan of Daniel Kehlmann’s fiction which is why I was so keen to see his first play, The Mentor, premiered in my home town’s Ustinov Studio a couple of months ago. There I was all agog, tickets at the ready only to be too unwell to attend on the night but I gather from H that it was excellent. Consolation arrived in the shape of a new book by Kehlmann, albeit a very brief one – too short to call it a novella, more of a short story. It’s about a writer who takes himself off with his wife and daughter to a remote retreat in the hope of getting a grip on the screenplay that seems to be eluding him.
Our unnamed narrator is writing a sequel to the comedy whose royalties pay the household bills, much mocked by his actor wife in their recurring cycle of bicker and make-up. Susanna’s the one who booked the modern, mountain-top house from which our narrator stares out at stunning views while she and their four-year-old, Esther, play outside. Ideas for the film prove slippery, pressure from the producer increases and our narrator is exhausted. His dreams are troubling – a strange, narrow-eyed woman appears in them, morphing into Susanna, then back again. Rooms shift and change shape. A taciturn shopkeeper hints at strange happenings on the mountain to which there’s only one vertiginous road. Outside the shop, a woman in sunglasses tells him to ‘get away’. Meanwhile, back at the house, it seems that our narrator is not the only one haunted by bad dreams.
Kehlmann’s story starts brightly enough with a scene from the new film his narrator is trying to write but before long we’re in gothic territory as the narrator stares at the reflection of the living room in a window but finds himself missing from it. There are many familiar tropes here even for those of us who rarely read horror – that missing reflection, messages obliquely communicated, dreams becoming waking nightmares – all adroitly handled so that they’re deeply unsettling rather than stale. Whether Kehlmann wants us to think of this as a parable – a chilling depiction of a man stalled in his writing, feeling trapped by domesticity, expectation and obligation – or as a straightforward piece of horror in the Shirley Jackson mode, I’m not sure, but I’m persuaded towards the former. There’s that face morphing into Susanna’s and the house is the same age as Esther not to mention the way in which it ends. Either way, it’s a riveting read.