Ageing, Book review., Books, Cordelia Gray, Edward Merriam, Family Portrait, Graham Masterton, Horror, Literary criticism, Maurice Gray, Skinned Alive, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Vincent Pearson, Walter Waldegrave
[The following contains spoilers.]
Graham Masterton‘s 1985 horror novel Family Portrait has been recently reissued for the Amazon Kindle, providing an opportunity to once again savour the old school flavours of the 1970s and 80s. One reading Family Portrait in ignorance of the author may discern a hand just as distinct and accomplished as those of some of the bigger names of the period. Stylistically, Masterton is more readable than Stephen King, and he is more of a laugh than Peter Straub. Yet the uninformed reader of Family Portrait may not guess that Masterton is actually a British writer, originally born in Edinburgh, as his novel delivers a faithful pastiche of King’s trademark rural Americana, complete with such stock small-town characters as the fruity family doctor and the sheriff who must do his duty.
The weakest feature of Family Portrait is indeed the characterisation. To put it bluntly, Masterton does not care about his characters and neither do we. The art magnate Vincent Pearson eventually steps forward as the hero, but he is not massively bright, emotionally sophisticated, nor even particularly likeable. He is almost comically unfazed by the death of his right-hand man Edward Merriam, and he scarcely gives Edward a second thought after discovering his body. Once we have followed Vincent around for several chapters, we may wish that the forlornly old-fashioned doctor, or the eccentric local art expert had been given the job of hero instead.
Characters come and go, but the two who are designated for rescue at the end of the novel – Vincent’s teenaged son and Edward’s ex-girlfriend (who is seemingly just roped in because she is the nearest female character to hand) – drift into the story so late that we cannot become sufficiently attached to them to care whether they live or die. This is a novel where the editor should have removed whole characters rather than merely the occasional, extraneous adjective, but unfortunately the story is held together by networking. There are characters who exist only because they provide the link to another character whom Vincent will need to rely upon later.
Vincent’s girlfriend Charlotte, for example, unlocks the door to Dr McKinnon, who provides crucial insights into black magic. On these grounds, the otherwise useless Charlotte is allowed to remain in the story, and we will have to tolerate her pointless company and stream of stupid questions until the finish. Poor Sheriff Smith finds himself stranded uselessly in the middle of the novel, like the guy left without a partner on the dance floor. This all-American hero will not be needed, as the criminals are supernatural beings who are beyond the law, but as Smith’s wife is friendly with the local psychic and he is himself acquainted with a doctor who will also come in handy, then the Sheriff gets to tag along too.
The strongest feature of Family Portrait is some deft footwork at the end of the dance, when several smart revelations about both Vincent and the portrait tie up the story with a bow. Yet the horror of the novel is steadily sacrificed in order to explain its convoluted plot. The first third of the book is dark and savage. We are aware that two exquisitely-mannered old people suffer from a compulsion to kidnap young hitchhikers and skin them alive. In the opening chapter, we actually witness this stomach-churning torture, which for somebody as sensitive as myself is as agonising to read about as it must be for the poor victim to experience. To be skinned alive must be the ultimate in human degradation – not only due to the itchy discomfort, but because the paralysed victim is left wholly and monstrously naked, literally reduced to raw meat.
We are thereafter introduced to an array of characters and we have to guess which one of them will be selected for the next skinning. At first the plot is agreeably unpredictable – when Edward Merriam is finally left alone with Cordelia Gray, the consequences will be as ghastly as we anticipate, except that he will not be skinned. Indeed, it turns out that nothing will beat the awfulness of the opening chapter. But whilst the threat of its repetition casts a chilling shadow over the unfolding novel, this shadow eventually fades away.
We will only witness the gross policeman George Kelly being skinned alive, and he is one of the least sexually attractive and morally worthy characters in the story. From this, we can deduce that anybody with a pretty face or a good heart will be spared the torture. This is a disappointment, as the hope that Jack or Vincent might have perished in agony had previously kept the pages turning. Perhaps Masterton should have written an alternative edition of Family Portrait, in which somebody like George is the hero whilst all of the characters who were originally spared get sadistically destroyed. If it did not work much better as horror, this would at least be more satisfying than the original story.
As this was written in the 1980s – and since Masterton’s earlier number The Manitou (1976) reflects fashionable sentiments about the suffering of Native Americans – one may assume that Family Portrait is making some sort of satirical point about fur farming. If so, this does not really work, for the Grays wear human skins from necessity, or at least to survive mortal decline, rather than out of extravagance.
The novel’s waning in tension – and its failure to live up to its gory promise – creates something of a void, which is unfortunately filled by the plot. Masterton’s story is so unbelievable that most of the characters end up standing about helplessly, telling each other how unbelievable they find it. They form a little gang to investigate the Grays, which seems faintly amateurish and somewhat like Scooby Doo. It always produces greater suspense to have the good characters bickering, two-timing, and stabbing each other in the back. Moreover, the passivity of characters such as Sheriff Smith and Charlotte, who are just carried along by events, reflects our own incredulity and helplessness as readers, and this makes the Grays appear oddly fictional from within their own story.
Masterton at times seems to add implausibility to taste. There are events that are so obviously implausible that they become starkly uncanny, such as the Sheriff nearly bleeding to death from a paper cut and Vincent finding a terrified cat which has stuffed itself into a wine bottle. Then, there is a fine, sustained implausibility which invests the novel with a certain quaintness. Vincent and Edward together man an art gallery which contains “seventeen million dollars’ worth of mid-Victorian masterpieces,” despite having no security guard nor any CCTV. One imagines that their insurance premium is pretty steep. Vincent’s Victorian pictures are not restored in a laboratory by a team of technicians, but in an alcoholic’s country cottage. The restorer allows his cat to wander around his studio. One wonders if Vincent has ever complained about finding little paw prints in a prized Millais.
After a while, however, the implausibility becomes irritating. When Vincent proposes that “They may have included Laura in the painting, so that I wouldn’t be able to burn it,” our next step is to wonder why he could not cut her out of the picture with a knife. Yet we have to wait another five chapters until this idea occurs to Vincent. In the climactic painting-hopping scene, we may initially chuckle that an obvious joke would be to inject Vincent and his son into a Salvador Dali painting. Yet this immediately happens, making the chuckles turn to groans, particularly as one would be more likely to spot the sophisticated fin-de-siecle Grays swigging coke than to find them purchasing something as crass as a Dali for their collection.
When you see scenes from this novel in your mind, all of the colours are just very slightly softened. I enjoyed this book and I was charmed by its cute, retro glamour. It is hard not to look back fondly upon the 1980s – a now pastoral world of great movies and exciting pop music. Likewise, Family Portrait is a work of clunky but wholesome storytelling – indeed, as I have intimated, it is in many respects like a novel written for children. Masterton had graduated to horror after previously editing the soft-porn mags Mayfair and Penthouse, and Wikipedia can name twenty-seven sex-instruction manuals which he has apparently authored. Not many men could come up with enough material to fill twenty-seven sex manuals. But who buys soft porn or reads “How To” sex books these days? Even Masterton’s sexual virtuosity seems to be more than a little innocent.