Drug cults, incest and the tooth fairy

Graham Joyce's dark visions walk the thin line between truth and nightmare.

Published January 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In Graham Joyce's 1996 novel "The Tooth Fairy," a young boy develops a dysfunctional sexual relationship with the eponymous sprite. In 1999's "Dark Sister," a woman who uncovers a century-old diary kept by a witch finds herself compelled to cast the spells it contains. And in "Indigo," published this month, a charismatic millionaire leads a group of young people on a deadly search for a color no one's ever seen. These are fantasies, right?

Well, maybe. Joyce walks with the grace of a circus star, or a Henry James, on that narrow line between seeming and being. Can Maggie really transform herself into a bird, or is she just high on the herbs that go into her potions? Did Sam invent the tooth fairy, as his parents and his psychiatrist believe, or did the fairy invent Sam, as the creature insists? Do the indigo seekers see true visions or psychotic hallucinations? Joyce builds suspense by keeping his readers guessing up to the very end -- and sometimes beyond.

Beyond, of course, is better. Readers of Lewis Carroll will remember that faint but persistent sense of betrayal when Wonderland turns out to be nothing but Alice's dream. And imagine what a letdown "The Turn of the Screw" would be if men in white jackets carted off the governess for thinking she saw ghosts. Still, Joyce feels the need to settle the matter in two of these three novels (I haven't read his other two). He answers the question "Magic?" with a definitely not, an almost certainly and a keep guessing; I won't say which is which. Was he (or his publisher) hoping he could make the switch from fantasy to more mainstream thrillers? Having tested each option, perhaps he'll realize that nightmares are most powerful if the dreamer never wakes.

Whether you call them fantasies or psychological thrillers, the novels share a dark vision of how people can hurt each other and lose themselves. Appropriately for both genres -- after all, fantasies, like dreams, are classic shrink fodder -- they dwell on the sorts of scenes and themes that make therapists sit up and take notes: incestuous desires, guilt and power, lost body parts, the causes and consequences of violence, the effect of battling parents on their offspring. Perhaps not surprisingly, psychologists play a prominent role in all three books.

In "The Tooth Fairy," a horrific yet entrancing coming-of-age tale, trouble begins for Sam, more or less, when he loses a tooth at age 6. To test whether the tooth fairy really exists, he tucks it under his pillow without telling his parents. That night an intruder appears, a shadow with pointy, glowing blue teeth and a peculiar smell. "In addition to the scent of grass after rain was the odor of horse's sweat, and birdshit, and chamomile." Sam's ability to see the fairy upsets the sprite as much as the boy, yet it keeps coming back for more. Sometimes, as in the memorable scene when it exposes itself in church and makes Sam do the same, it's clearly male; at other times it's just as clearly female. Its scent shifts around too: marsh gas and mushrooms dipped in honey when it's a girl, a whiff of burning when it's a boy and mad. "'You want to know what pisses me off about you?'" it yells at Sam during one visit. "'You're always looking at things. Always looking at things you shouldn't be looking at! You gonna stop? -- Gonna stop seeing things, you google-eyed fuck?'"

Eventually Sam spills the beans about the terrifying visits. To help him stop seeing things, his parents send him to see Dr. Skelton, a hard-drinking Scotsman. The psychologist is given to exercises like advising Sam to snitch condoms from his parents or handing him an imaginary gun and telling him to shoot the tooth fairy. Sam's first ejaculation follows fast on the heels of that particular bit of advice; when he next sees the tooth fairy, female now, it's not imaginary bullets that he fires at her.

Parallel to his scary but pleasurable relationship with the tooth fairy, Sam leads a more conventional secret life. With Clive and Terry, his two best buddies, he likes to set fires and smash up public property. The tooth fairy ducks in and out of both sides of Sam's double life, alternating between getting him in trouble and saving him disastrously. When Terry's father shoots his family and himself, is it the tooth fairy's fault? Or did the sprite save Terry's life that night by insisting that Sam invite him over for a sleepover? Did the tooth fairy kill the Boy Scout who was about to rape Clive? Did Sam? Dr. Skelton, the ostensible voice of reason who should be sorting all this out, sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholic fuddle, even going so far as to see the tooth fairy himself.

With its genre-busting fairy and its sensitive rendering of childhood guilt, "The Tooth Fairy" should make readers see adolescence in a whole new way. "Dark Sister" and "Indigo," however, while more tightly constructed, are also more conventional.

"Dark Sister" is a strangely old-fashioned feminist fable. Maggie, a suburban housewife and mother of two, longs to do something more with her life -- take a course in psychology, perhaps. But Alex, her husband, won't let her. He's threatened by the possibility of her independence. Bored, Maggie becomes obsessed by a diary they turn up when renovating their fireplace. New entries and weird recipes appear in it daily, as if newly written. Her passion for the book's revelations and its dead author carry her further from Alex's control than any mere course could do, linking her with a sexy herbalist, an elderly wise woman and ultimately a whole genealogy of witches. But her new inheritance brings with it danger as well as power -- witches, after all, tend to get burned, drowned, buried alive. It takes a daughter, a goddess and a line of elder sisters to rescue her from phallocentric violence and return her to her chastened husband.

Like "Dark Sister," "Indigo" has a violent core and a '70s aura -- in this case, of druggie cults. Before he can receive any money from the estate of his manipulative father, Jack Chambers must find the missing heir, a mysterious young woman named Natalie, and publish a manuscript his father left behind. It's a guide to a spiritual pilgrimage Tim Chambers had embarked on, gathering a crowd of susceptible young followers: the quest for the elusive color indigo, which can render the adept invisible. Here's a sample of Tim's writing: "Darkness, and its attendant properties of shade, shadow, silhouette, adumbration, and the like, are all the allies you need in your sorcery. Twilight, as you will see, is the crack between the worlds. Similarly the grey light of dawn." As he attempts to carry out his father's will, Jack finds himself falling in love with his half-sister and testing out his father's brand of sorcery. It's a well-built thriller, complete with a genuinely chilling revelation about the true meaning of indigo.

Joyce bundles redemption with horror, horror with redemption. For every character who loses her mind or his toes, there's another who gains a voice or redeems the mistakes of her parents -- and vice versa. Before he kills himself, Terry's father in "The Tooth Fairy" invents a "Nightmare Interceptor" -- an alarm clock with a sensor that clips to a sleeper's nose, waking him when things get too bad. While it can't save the life of its inventor, it does offer the younger generation the chance to take a reality check. But Joyce understands its danger: Once your life starts to feel like a dream, you better be careful with alarm clocks.

By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

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