When Moral Writers Tackle Shocking Subjects
Novels are divided into classes. There are the intellectual exercises, the grand style experiments, the century-wide statements of the human condition, some readable, some not, many of which win academic prizes. And there are books that can speak truths although they aim for a middle market of readable, nicely written stories that sell.
This is the story of Margaret Bingley.
Authors like Ms Bingley can be successful in their own right without impinging on the consciousness of an attention-deficient public, whose recall-rate of virals featuring inadequate Russian driving skills is above works by novelists who bring a lifetime of experience to their craft. Equally, critics will ignore writers they consider solid and old-fashioned in favour of current literary darlings.
Bingley is a working writer. She doesn’t like reality TV, alternative comics or political correctness. She penned a column in her local paper, the Grantham Journal, called ‘The Way I See It’. In photographs she’s a natural smiler, and appears quite at ease with herself. I suspect that if we met we would hold quite different views. It really doesn’t matter; I admire her because she’s a steel fist in an oven glove.
After the success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, Bingley’s erotic volumes, written under the pseudonyms of Fredrica Alleyn and Marina Anderson, were all reissued with glamorous new covers. Their titles say it all; ‘Fiona’s Fate’, ‘Dark Secret’, ‘Forbidden Desires’. But before this she wrote unclassifiable thrillers, ‘Such Good Neighbours’, ‘Children of the Night’, ‘After Alice Died’, ‘Gateway To Hell’ and others. She is not someone I would have sought out in a bookshop, but back in the 1980s a TV producer commissioned me to adapt her novel ‘The Waiting Darkness’ for television.
I quickly realised it wasn’t my kind of book; the language was plain and straightforward, the setting a suburban world from which I had spent years distancing myself, but as a hungry would-be author I accepted my one-and-only commission and set to work. I didn’t meet Bingley, and I don’t know if she even knew about me or what I had been commissioned to do with her novel.
It’s not until you strip down a novel into its component pieces that you realise how well constructed it is. Behind the net curtains in ‘The Waiting Darkness’, where young Rosalind tries to be the perfect wife to her weak older husband, there’s something unpleasant afoot. Her daughter Anna is uncontrollable, and sets out to poison her stepfather’s mind against his new wife any way she can – but why would she do such a thing? The outcome took me totally by surprise. I realised that what I had here was something fresh and subversive, a viral ghost story of deviant psychology quite devastating in its implications. It worked because it was about a moral breakdown as much as a supernatural story, and could therefore only have been written by someone who understood what it meant to have a moral compass.
The finished script left BBC executives aghast, but the book was so well structured that I couldn’t remove anything they found offensive.
There was a lot to be offended by, but only when you realised the implications for the family at the centre of the plot. The more you thought about it, the more disturbing it became. I rewrote endlessly to lessen the impact, but the executives backed off. Finally they decided that they weren’t looking for anything like this at all, no matter how much they liked the idea of being edgy. If only we could have waited a few years, we’d have had a winner, but these things are always about timing.
The trouble is that what once shocked can no longer have any effect when fundamental morality has been largely abandoned. Who knew we’d eventually live in a world where someone as morally repugnant as Simon Cowell would be regarded with respect? What would it take now to rattle the cage of a television executive? So kudos, Mrs B, you once shocked a national institution.
The photograph is by Gregory Crewdson, whose desolate pictures of American homes and streets perfectly evoke the mood we were after.