Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lost Books, Part IX: Black Alice

Just so we're clear on this right at the beginning, Black Alice - by the late John Sladek and the more recently departed Thomas M. Disch - is neither science fiction nor fantasy. I suppose a case could be made for calling it a psychological horror story, and there are some decidedly Phildickian aspects to the plot and characterisation... but bizarre as the world it describes may seem forty years later, Disch and Sladek did not invent it.

Alice, the only child of Roderick and Delphinia Raleigh, is an extremely bright but decidedly troubled eleven year old girl. Neglectful parents and a quietly sadistic governess had driven her almost to the brink of schizophrenia before her great-uncle Jason realized what was happening and replaced the governess. Two years later, Alice still converses with a voice in her head, named 'Dinah' after her only confidante of the time, the daughter of the household's black cook.

Roderick, who married Delphinia for her inheritance, is discomfited when his father-in-law leaves his entire estate to Alice - bypassing Roderick, who is too lazy to work and tires of having to beg Jason for money. When his plan to have Alice institutionalized fails, he finds accomplices who will kidnap Alice and demand a million-dollar ransom. Inspired by John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me and possibly Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, they force-feed Alice drugs that will darken her skin, dye and curl her blonde hair, and tell her she is now a black girl named Dinah... confident that even if she escapes, no-one will believe a black girl who claims to be missing heiress Alice Raleigh.

Alice is then left with Bessy, a madam who Roderick has known from his days in Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity, but whose business has dwindled to only two prostitutes in a former funeral home in Virginia - the masculine black Clara, and the beautiful but severely retarded blonde Fay. Alice quickly works out who is behind the scheme, and does her best to leave a trail of clues that will lead the FBI to her... but the only FBI agent in the area, Owen Gann, is deep undercover with the Ku Klux Klan, and can't afford to have his secret known, because the local Klan is busy preparing for a visit by busloads of civil rights activists from the north.

Apart from an amazingly twisted and satisfying thriller plot (especially for a novel less than 200 pages long), Black Alice can also boast wonderful characterisation. Apart from Alice, with her internal battle to retain her own identity, Disch and Sladek give us insight into: Roderick, who seems to have studied Nietzschean philosophy under Leopold and Loeb; Bessy, much possessed with death (her own); Gann, chosen for his role because of his Southern upbringing, and torn between his job and his loyalty to the sort of people he grew up with; Jason, a sympathetic lawyer; Peter Boggs, a sympathetic Klansman (in stark contrast to the perverted Cyclops and Dragon above him); Fay; and many others.

It is, of course, out of print. I'd like to think it's because its American setting, with its murderous racism, now seems more alien than most sf futures and darker (no pun intended) than many dystopias, too fantastic to be believable as the past. I'd really like to think that...

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