by John Banville; Vintage, 2013; 100 pages; $12.95
Long Lankin is a Northumbrian legend, a murderer who, rather than be captured, hanged himself from the limbs of a tree that supposedly still carries the outline of the hanged man. Long Lankin is remembered as “the bogeyman,” and many an English mother has only to invoke his name to have her wayward child return quickly to the fold.
The bogeyman that is nature (often represented by the sea) and human nature permeates each of the nine stories in “Long Lankin,” a welcome reissue of an early collection by British master John Banville (“The Sea,” “Ancient Light”). That bogeyman appears in many forms: an old man or an errant stranger, a flock of blackbirds or a swarm of bees, even the wind.
In one story, three young men debate their own lives as news of a shopkeeper’s murder reaches their woodland camp. In another, an unexpected graveyard encounter forces an expectant couple to acknowledge the death of their relationship.
A young girl is taken for a ride on a stranger’s bicycle, and her view of the world is irrevocably altered. A teacher and student assess their fragile relationship as they prepare to depart from a vacation house by the sea.
In “Lovers,” old age collides with the youthful lure of adventure as the “threat” of wealth displaces a young couple’s idyllic plans. That same “threat” forces another young couple in “Island,” a companion piece-of-sorts, into the shattering realization that “you can only dance as long as the music lasts.”
The strongest of the stories are absolutely disquieting. After their party guests leave, a couple discusses marital apprehension as outside their window police investigate a murder/suicide with disturbing parallels to the Long Lankin legend. In “Summer Voices,” a young brother and sister living on a crumbling farm near the sea go for a swim only to learn a major life lesson from a dark man: “That’s what the sea will do to you.” Taking its title from a major work of Lucretius, “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things) deals hauntingly with the days of a middle-age father whose “malevolent, insidious gaiety” resurfaces in front of his visiting son and daughter-in-law.
Even in a collection as early as “Long Lankin,” the subtle artistry of John Banville is evident. Already he trusts his readers. Already he conceals layer after layer of meaning in events that are either so mundane or so monstrous that at story’s end we are shattered, frightened by our helplessness, of not knowing what the right thing to say or do might be.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.