Frequently in Kate Wilhelm’s best fiction memories and dreams become entwined with and are influenced beyond the norm by the protagonist’s social environment. The reader familiar with these stories will recognise much in A Sense Of Shadow (1981) that was previously seen in ‘Somerset Dreams’ for instance. At the same time as Wilhelm’s story is familiar her development of tension makes A Sense Of Shadow an effective psychological mystery.
When the dying patriarch John Daniel Culbertson summons his estranged children to his wealthy and sprawling Oregon ranch it is to inform them of his will and condemn them to his final psychological torture. Each child must undergo EEG recordings, then on Culbertson’s death they must remain in the house for seven nights before further EEG recordings are to be compared. One will ‘pass’ the test and inherit all, or none will and the ranch will go to the university. Almost immediately after this Culbertson does die.
The four children, all full grown (if not exactly mature in some cases) are joined by the youngest son Lucas’s wife Ginny and research psychologist Hugh Froelich. Culbertson has become intrigued by a paper Froelich wrote about brain waves and has taken these ideas a grand and despotic further step. For the next week they are effectively trapped in the house by the ruling of a crazy old man and their own issues.
The gothic haunted house aspect of this short novel is it’s initial strength, as Wilhelm delicately hints at doors mysteriously closing, lights being turned on and so on, without explicit supernatural involvement. Without overdoing descriptive passages she creates a brooding environment in which her story plays out. In contrast the deaths of each of Culbertson’s three previous wives in manners that seem to point suspicion back at him seem slightly contrived. That each death was witnessed by one or more of the children, but never clearly, may account for some of their individual and collective psychological damage and their feeling haunted in the old house, but it also raises questions of what is really happening now by querying what previously happened.
Froelich’s theories are the SF element here, there is brief discussion of chemical process and electrical impulse in axons causing synapses to fire, leading to his repeated assertion that there is ‘no mechanism for possession’ that true metempsychosis is scientifically impossible. However he also observes later:
Bluebeard’s sons, he thought with a shudder. They were all in a state of heightened suggestibility. Not hypnotized, but so suggestible that any stimulus, even self-induced, made them react. And their reactions were not their usual ones, but what they believed his would have been. (p126)
As the novel reaches its inevitable climax the characters are rapidly overwhelmed by their fears and apparent memories. The penultimate chapter flashes through an explosion of multiple distorted viewpoints as Culbertson’s influence seems to peak with potentially tragic consequences.
A Sense Of Shadow is both evocative in its physical descriptions and intensely creepy in its playing reality and imagination against each other. Whilst the differences between the characters can be hard to see, particularly older brothers Conrad and Mallory, there’s a growing realisation that maybe Wilhelm intended that. The daughter Janet is similarly indistinguishable, although self-defined by her body image perhaps, and even outsider Ginny increasingly is absorbed into the coalescent group. The power of the patriarch to discomfort, to influence and to enforce conformity are the heart of a disturbing feminist short novel on the fringes of SF, Horror (in this case more accurately, Terror) and the literary mainstream.