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Labyrinthine nightmares: “Treading the Maze” by Lisa Tuttle

“My preference was for ambiguity,” says Lisa Tuttle about her approach to the genre work from the early 1970s that would soon be embraced as horror fiction in the classic “Paperbacks from Hell” era. First published in 1986 by the British house Sphere, A Nest of Nightmares lands squarely within the golden age of horror paperbacks, which ran from the late ’70s through the early ‘90s. Despite its temporal proximity, however, the collection was not published in the U.S. until Valancourt Books released its branded reprint, complete with original cover art by Nick Bantock, in 2019.

One reason for this might have to do with an observation Will Errickson makes in his introduction to the Valancourt edition (also the place the Tuttle quote above can be found). Errickson writes:

One of the criticisms levelled against the horror genre is that it is too often a fantasy land of adolescent male aggression, obsessed as it is with the extremities of life and limb, madness and fear, sex and death, of killers and outcasts, monstrous egos and unstoppable rage. Horror becomes an endurance test, a game of one-upmanship: how far can the writer go, how much can the reader take? None of this for Tuttle. Here horror tiptoes, glides, smothers, appears in tiny details, climbing in at the corner of the page, lying in wait till the final sentences, then springing forth fully formed yet all too recognizable.

Tuttle’s brand of horror is quieter than many of her male counterparts; Sphere published A Nest of Nightmares the year after the house unleashed the final three volumes of Clive Barker’s Grand Guignol compendiums Books of Blood on an unsuspecting reading public. And yet the sense of unease she achieves is due in no small measure to her relative lack of bloody extravagance; where many of her masculine contemporaries shout, Tuttle whispers.

“Treading the Maze” inhabits the subgenre generally known as folk horror. It features a couple, Amy and Phil, on vacation in the southwest of England. As the story opens, the pair arrive at their bed and breakfast, teasingly called the Old Vicarage. Teasingly, because the heart of folk horror involves interlopers (usually, though not always, from the big city) appearing in a rural environment where they encounter ancient pagan rituals or practices. In the case of Tuttle’s story, what Amy and Phil witness from their bedroom window is a group of people dancing weirdly through a turf maze carved into a nearby field. The next morning, Phil decides he wants to follow in their footsteps, a choice that will have dire consequences for both characters.

As a leavening feminist influence on a largely male-dominated genre, it is unsurprising that Tuttle should choose to narrate her story from the first-person perspective of Amy. This is not simply to centre the woman, though Amy’s experience does constitute the focus of the tale. Rather, the narration allows Tuttle to remain at one remove from Phil, whose actions in “treading the maze” for himself provide the dramatic momentum for the story’s second half. Amy is also, it should be noted, a foreigner – she is American, and has lived with her partner, a native Brit, for a scant two years. Her outsider status allows for a level of bewilderment at the events unfolding around her, though Phil’s relative knowledge about the local rituals – he regales the B&B’s landlord with a history of turf mazes and their importance – proves ineffective in saving him from his ultimate fate.

The nature of that fate is clear: shortly after treading the maze, Phil dies. The specifics, however, are withheld, and herein lies Tuttle’s stated recourse to ambiguity. The uncanny nature of the Old Vicarage’s surroundings is made clear in the opening paragraphs, when Amy catches sight of what appears to be a man standing alone in the adjacent field: “He was too far away for me to make out his features, but something about the sight of that still figure gave me a chill. I was suddenly afraid he would turn his head and see me watching him, and I clambered down hastily.” The language here – “gave me a chill”; “I was suddenly afraid” – connotes incipient threat, and the unexplained appearance – followed by the equally mysterious disappearance – of the anonymous figure provides an eerie blight on the otherwise bucolic setting.

Tuttle juxtaposes the quotidian nature of the couple’s dinner at a local pub and tea in the company of a Belgian couple also staying at the B&B with the unsettling image of the dancers in the field, who Amy and Phil spy out their bedroom window in the middle of the night. (Amy wakes to find Phil indulging in an illicit cigarette – another harbinger of bad things to come). The language Tuttle employs is evanescent and explicitly recalls the glimpse of the stranger at the story’s opening: “They were indisputably human figures – five or perhaps six or seven of them, all moving about in a shifting spiral, like some sort of children’s game or country dance.” A moment later, Amy notices one of the shadowy dancers turn to look up at the window. “In the pale moonlight and at that distance I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. It was just a dark figure with a pale face turned up toward us.”

The cumulative effect here – comprising the nighttime, the moonlight (in all its symbolic connotations), the “dark figure” and its “pale face” – is of creeping unease, a feeling that will reach its apogee in a chilling inversion late in the story, when Amy treads the maze herself and looks up to the bedroom window, where she sees what appear to be the mirror images of herself and her deceased partner.

The story ends on a note that is at once more explicit than what has gone before and simultaneously unnerving in its ambiguity. Nothing is settled, though Amy comes to a sort of realization – the uncanny narrative’s version of a Joycean epiphany – about the nature of the maze and her relationship to it. The lack of an explicit explanation or resolution at the story’s close is not, as they say these days, a bug but a feature. In following Henry James’s lead and releasing herself from the thrall of “weak specificity,” Tuttle has crafted a story much more unsettling than an explicit presentation could ever hope to be.

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