Invisible Ink: No 114 - Rachel Ingalls

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The Independent Culture

Authors can vanish in their own lifetimes. Rachel Ingalls is hard to find, even though she's been hailed here as one of the best US writers of the past 50 years. She's rigorous, dark, shadowy, cool, and leaves a lot unsaid but not unimagined – in short, she has all the elements you need to become a cult figure. Why hasn't she become one?

Ingalls has the most concealing of biographies; according to Graywolf Press, she was born in 1940 and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She spent some time in Germany. She had various jobs, from theatre dresser and librarian to publisher's reader. She's a film addict and has lived in London since 1965. She's the daughter of a Sanskritist and the sister of a computer scientist. In 1986, the British Book Marketing Council named Mrs Caliban one of the 20 best post-war American novels. And that, I'm afraid, is your lot.

Perhaps she's shy and writes for her own pleasure, which would be a shame because here we have an astonishing American Gothic aesthetic wedded to the English talent for understatement, the lovechild of John Collier and Joyce Carol Oates, if Oates concentrated more on her surreal side. As the Village Voice points out: "Her razor-sharp lines cut through decorum to expose writhing mental states."

As Ingalls is a private person let's respect her wishes and concentrate on the writing, but you'll have to run with me here. Mrs Caliban is a bizarre fantasy about a depressed California housewife's affair with a gentle green aquatic creature that has escaped from a laboratory. She sits with it in the kitchen and takes it around town in a wig, and somehow this ludicrous situation catches her confused mental state beautifully. Then there's The Pearlkillers, four wonderfully acidic and cryptic tales which will draw you back time and again. Or Black Diamond, five tales grouped around the idea of kinship, and Binstead's Safari, in which African lions are symbolically invoked to turn a marriage on its end. Or how about Last Act: The Madhouse, which inspired a character in Wayne Wang's film Chinese Box?

A fabulist who writes about repressed states, she springs shocks on her readers that prove psychologically fair but unexpected, and is an original, accessible voice. But what was once mainstream is now deemed too daring for regressive times, and the novella format has fallen from fashion; our loss.