Ryder Brady, Instar (Ballantine, 1977)
[originally posted 26Feb2002]
The first question you’ll likely ask yourself after picking up Instar is, “what kind of a name is Ryder Brady?” It pretty much screams New England blueblood at you. And, true to the name, the book takes place in the heart of New England blueblood congregation spots in (presumably, given an offhand Falmouth reference) Massachusetts. And while the text generally reads as if William Makepeace Thackeray were trying his hand at a horror novel, the book does work on some levels as a sort of odd mix of drawing-room satire and existentialist suspense work.
Hugh Murray, a man who married into money, is destined to spend a few weeks over the upcoming summer of 1976 at the house of his wife’s aunt and uncle. The uncle’s all right, but the aunt makes Hyacinthe Bucket (of Keeping Up Appearances fame) look like an unprincipled ninny in a housedress. Thankfully, we learn pretty early on, the rich aren’t that much different, and the first few days go rather well, considering. The only really odd parts are the disturbing aunt and a strange, echoless screaming that occurs on foggy nights. One night, while Hugh is out walking, the fog rolls in, the screaming starts, and Hugh is in a place where he can investigate. He does, and as the result of his actions, he comes into possession of an odd little dog named Waffles. And that’s when things start to get really weird.
Brady’s got a lot to say about such topics as emotional diseases, the horrors of inbreeding, the Roman Catholic Church, and other such things that are (at least, according to Brady) shunned on the surface by New England bluebloods while they turn around and indulge in them when they thing nobody’s looking. She also seems to have a lot to say about pastoral life and whether it’s worth living. Unfortunately, not enough of it comes together to really get her message across, and thus while the drawing-room satire bit does make for a few chuckles along the way, it never really coheres. We’re left with the horror of existence. Here, flipping the coin, it seems almost as if Brady were trying too hard to make this into a bona fide horror novel while still wanting to keep her allegiance to Sartre intact, and instead of blending the two as she was seemingly attempting, she ends up getting about three-quarters of the way to the meeting point on each side. There’s a gap in the middle, but the reader should have little problem figuring out where everything was supposed to come together.
This novel is the literary equivalent of the rock and roll bootleg tape. If you can listen to a bootleg of your favorite band and visualize what the music would have sounded like had it been recorded from the board and put through extensive post-production, you’ll probably be able to puzzle out what this novel should have been and appreciate it for that. Otherwise, it’ll probably leave you wishing Brady had gone those extra steps. **