Tuesday 7 July 2020

"Plunge Hill: A Case Study" by J.M. McVulpin

Plunge Hill: A Case Study

by J.M. McVulpin

The return of the Eden Book Society series

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Eden Book Society series is one of the most exciting things happening in horror fiction.  For those who are new to the project, I will briefly explain the literary conceit which acts as a narrative frame to the series.    The (fictional) "Eden Book Society" was set up in 1919, publishing horror novellas for a private list of subscribers. Eden books were elusive artefacts - written under a pseudonym, available only to a select few, occasionally turning up in jumble sales or unexpected locations. Dead Ink Press, the publishing house behind this literary experiment, purportedly acquired the back catalogue of the Society, and will reprint the novellas sequentially, starting from 1972. In actual fact, the books are penned by a group of specially commissioned writers, who face the challenging task of evoking the style of 70s horror whilst taking contemporary readers back to the atmosphere of that decade.

Following the publication of Jonathan Buckley’s Starve Acre (subsequently reissued by John Murray in a slightly different version crediting its actual author, Andrew Michael Hurley) there was a hiatus of several months, which led me to fear that the project had floundered short of its six-novella target.   Thankfully, my concerns proved unfounded as the latest instalment plopped through my letterbox. 

Plunge Hill: A Case Study, takes the series’s “meta” concept to another level.  Whereas the other novellas in the series are works of fiction created by fictional authors, Plunge Hill: A Case Study is presented as a bona fide real-life psychological study by one J.M. McVulpin, author of such esteemed monographs as Diagnosis Hysteria and The Insulin Shock Therapy Handbook.  But why would a consultant psychiatrist choose to publish a work of non-fiction with the Eden Book Society, a subscription-only publisher specializing in horror?  Even if we were to suspend our disbelief and just for a moment presume that the Society did exist, the figure of McVulpin comes across as an incongruous addition to its roll-call of authors, suggesting that McVulpin is (probably) the creation of yet another fictional 1970s author.  It’s enough to send one’s mind spinning in circles. 

Of all the novellas featured in the series to date, Plunge Hill is probably the one which relies most heavily on the Gothic tropes of the unreliable narrator and the “found text”.  Bridget “Brix” Shipley, a typist at Plunge Hill Hospital in the North-West of England, takes her own life, and the ensuing scandal leads to the closure of the hospital.  McVulpin decides to place before the public the real facts surrounding Shipley’s death.  His declared purpose is to defend the reputation of the hospital and, purportedly, Shipley herself, by proving that she was the unfortunate victim of a psychological disorder,  a hidden pathology “that bloomed in darkness”.  To this end, McVulpin compiles and presents as a “case study” the letters which Bridget used to send to her parents (from whom she was estranged) and to her sick brother Maurice. Bridget, a Londoner and an outsider, does not seem to fit in with her work colleagues, all of them local residents who treat her with suspicion. 

Bridget’s letters alternate with extracts from the diary of her predecessor Anouk, the typist Bridget was hired to replace.  Bridget claims to have discovered the diary in a hiding place at the hospital, but McVulpin insists that it is Bridget’s own fabrication.   A strange story emerges, one of weird experiments and terrifying secrets.    Who and what are we to believe?  Anouk’s diary, possibly forged by Bridget? Bridget herself, who admits to not trusting her own memory and is not above glamourising her “new life” to impress her relatives?  Can we trust McVulpin himself, who admits to having an agenda in publishing his case study, and whose notes reveal him to be as interesting a psychological study as Bridget herself?   What we’re left with is the warning which opens the book: The lesson, such as it is, to be gleaned from what you are about to read is a stark one: beware fiction.

These narrative games certainly make Plunge Hill interesting.  The novella, however, is equally entertaining if we were to take it purely at face-value – a scary extravaganza which combines the medical Gothic previously explored in A Dedicated Friend with a folk horror streak (aptly) reminiscent of 1970s movies such as Robin Redbreast.  I hate spoilers, so I won’t reveal more.  Just as I won’t reveal who the real McVulpin is.  Or “are”…

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