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An Extract from Jim Crace’s novel The Pesthouse (2007)

The cover is of the American paperback edition (Vintage, 2008).


Pesthouse ppbk coverEverybody died at night. Most were sleeping at the time, the lucky ones who were too tired or drunk or deaf or wrapped too tightly in their spreads to hear the hillside, destabilized by rain, collapse and slip beneath the waters of the lake. So these sleepers (six or seven hundred, at a guess; no-one ever came to count or claim the dead) breathed their last in passive company, unwarned and unexpectedly, without experiencing the fear. Their final moments, dormant in America.


But there are always some awake in the small times of the morning, the love-makers, for instance, the night workers, the ones with stone hard beds or aching backs, the ones with nagging consciences or bladders, the sick. And animals, of course.


The first of that community to die were the horses and the mules, which the travelers had picketed and blanketed against the cold out in the tetherings, between the houses and the lake, and beyond the human safety of stockades. They must have heard the landslide – they were so close and unprotected – though it was not especially bulky, not bulky enough, probably, to cause much damage on its own. In the time that it would take to draw a breath and yawn, there was a muted stony splash accompanied by a barometric pop, a lesser set of sounds than thunder, but low and devious, nevertheless, and worrying – for how could anyone not know by now how mischievous the world could be? The older horses, connoisseurs of one-night stands when everything was devious and worrying, were too weary after yet another day of heading dawnways, shifting carts, freight and passengers, to do much more than tic their ears and flare their nostrils. Even when, a moment later, the displaced waters of the lake produced a sloshing set of boisterous waves where there had not been any waves before, the full-growns would not even raise their heads. But the younger horses and the ever-childish mules tugged against their ropes, and one or two even broke free but hadn’t the foresight to seek high ground in the brief time that remained.


What happened next was almost silent. The landslip had hit the deepest side of the lake and, therefore, took some moments to reach the bottom, ten man heights from the surface, and then took some moments more for the avalanche of stone, earth, swarf and ancient buried scrap to show how heavy it was and squeeze the life out of the gas rich sediments, the volatile silt and compacted weeds, the soda pockets, which had settled on the bed through centuries and were now ready – almost eager – for this catalyst. Shaken up and shaken out in one great flatulence, the water fizzed and belched until all the gases were discharged, to form a heavy, deadly, surface-hugging cloud, not quite as high as the pines but higher, certainly, than animals. There wasn’t any wind that night to thin the suffocating vapors and no longer any rain to wash the poison from the air, but, of course, there was gravity to direct them down, beyond the rapids and cascades, along the valley, past the tetherings, past the secret wooden bridge, past the metal fields, past the stone footings of the one-time shoe factory and leather tanning works, to seep between the palings of the pine stockades and settle on the town at the river’s crossing point where almost everyone was sleeping and dreaming of the ruined, rusty way ahead and all the paradise beyond.


Too near the lake and not sleeping was the boy called Nash whose job that night was to protect the animals from cougars, wolves or thieves – or bush fish such as rattlers, possibly – though there’d be nothing he could do but shout and draw attention to himself if any of these many perils did approach the tetherings. He’d been too cold and wet to even doze, but not as cold and wet as usual. He huddled round his stove stones – which following the midnight downpour produced more smoke than heat – in his new and somehow terrifying coat. He’d traded it only that day (with a man half his height again and three times his weight) for a good supply of dried fruit, some pork twists and a leather water bag, hardly distinguishable from one another in taste or texture, and a flagon of apple juice which the giant, like a giant, had dispatched on the spot. So when the boy heard the landslip and the waves and stood to hear them better, should they come again, his coat spread out around him on the ground like chieftain robes intended for display but – at least for anybody as short as him – not ideal for walking.


Now Nash spotted the two loose mules and hurried out into the night to picket them again. He was not surprised when the coat snagged round his ankles and feet and brought him down. The coat had already toppled him several times that night. He didn’t hurt himself – boys bounce – but he felt more winded than made sense, more dislocated than he should, and stayed on the ground for a few moments to catch his breath and find his balance. His coat of farm goat skins and hair was as good as a bed and thick enough to keep the moisture out for a while. He’d have to shorten it, he thought. He’d have to cut off half a goat and turn the trimmings into belts or gloves, turn the trimmings into profit, actually. When he had time.


But for the moment, unaccountably, he was too comfortable to move. He had no time or energy for anything, not even sleep. He lost himself in the hairs and skins, forgot the night-time and the mud. He did feel sleepy, finally, but not alarmed. Too lost to be alarmed. The air was weighty, and its smell was stupefying  – somewhere between the smell of mushrooms, eggs and rotting, clamped potatoes. He’d stand up in a moment, shuck off his dreams of belts and gloves, remove the coat, and catch the mules. He’d be in trouble, otherwise. A mule was wealth. But, though his dreams soon ended, he never caught his breath and never caught the mules and never found out what had happened at the lake. This wasn’t sleep oppressing him. He dimly recognized as much himself. He was the victim of magic, possibly, or fever – there was already fever in the town, he had heard – or a curse, the sort that storytellers knew about – or else some dead air from the grave, encouraged by the rain, had come to press its clammy lips on his. He’d tasted it. His lungs were rigid, suddenly. He was in the gripping custody of hair and skins. He’d been a fool to trust a giant. It must have seemed the coat had always meant to smother him, was trained to kill. This was a homing coat that now would flee, as loyal and cunning as a dog, to rejoin the tall man that had traded it and, no doubt, would trade it many times again, exchanging death for apple juice.


Down in Ferrytown, not sleeping, either, were two passengers from ten days west, a beauty boy – no beard – not twenty yet, and his slightly older wife. They’d found a berth in the lofts of the dormitories, against the guest house rules which naturally put the women behind locked doors in different quarters to the men, but two-a-bed nevertheless. It was less comfy and colder than those ground-floor beds where his parents and his sisters were, but more private and consoling. This couple didn’t have to share their air with anyone, except the devil. In bed the devil always is the third. So it was three-a-bed for these two newly weds. No wonder they’d been making love, as usual. Moving on each day and spending every night in some new space was oddly stimulating, they’d found, as was having sex as quietly as they could in sleeping company, against the rules. But now that lovemaking was concluded, they were quarrelling in whispers despite the likelihood that everything they said could be heard by strangers. The consolations of love-making don’t last long when you are fearful, regardless of the massive hope beyond the fears. How many days would it be before they reached the ocean and the ships? The beauty boy thought one more month. He’d not pretend that things were better than they were. The far side of the river was an odd, perplexing place, he’d heard, haunted, wrecked and hard underfoot, with prairies of rubble where people had once lived in bastions and towers. The way ahead would be hard beyond imagining. His wife, though, did not believe such stories. She was uncompromisingly optimistic, hopeful beyond reason. The rain that night had been more salty than she’d expected. When the rain tastes like tears, then the sea is close. She’d seen a white bird, (“That’s a sign”) and she’d heard another passenger say they’d reach the shore – the mighty river with one bank – in just three more days. Then the future could begin. So much for rubble, bastions and towers. Her husband was too easily impressed. She drifted off to thoughts of boarding ship in three days time, and no more quarrelling . . .


Not sleeping and on the verge of calling out for the busy couple in the lofts to keep quiet was a woman who had strained her back. She’d been too keen earlier in the day to help her horse negotiate the steep descent into the valley and had fallen awkwardly. She sat up in her cot and flexed her spine, hoping not to wake the woman at her side. The pain shot down the outside of her left leg and cramped her toes. She crossed her fingers, willing it to go, and in a while the pain had disappeared . . .


Not sleeping was the ferryman who, having heard the rain, knew that he would have to drag himself from bed too soon, call his four sons, and go down to the crossing to secure the raft more securely and further in to the shore before the water surge. Not sleeping was the baker and his daughter who had just got up to start preparing flat bread, ashcake and pealoaf for the morning, enough dough and cornmeal for at least one hundred and sixty passengers who’d need to eat before they were ferried on the raft to the east bank of the river and yet another day of lugging to the coast . . .


Not sleeping was a woman who had always been alarmed by travel and by travelers –all her life – and not much liked by anyone she met, but had been much more terrified of staying put, where she was born, while all her family and neighbors emigrated east, fired up by boredom, hope and poverty. Now she was sick from too much wayside grain and drinking sullied water for more than a month. She’d rather breathe her last than gag up any more, she’d told her husband, “I should have stayed at home.” He’d said, “You should.” She pulled her knees up to her chest and tried to belch the colic out . . .


Not sleeping was a tall man from the plains – not quite a giant, except to boys – who had to go out, barefooted, in the cold to the town palisade for the second time that night to urinate. He would have worn his goatskin coat if he’d not traded it that day for a good supply of pork twist and a water bag. He was standing with his trousers down and pissing apple juice when what had come out of the lake with such a show just moments previously arrived without a sound and almost without a shape to overwhelm whomever it could find, the wakeful and the slumbering.


This used to be America, this river crossing in the ten-month stretch of land, this sea-to-sea. It used to be the safest place on earth.


From the reviews

“Readers will certainly note the parallels between The Pesthouse and Cormac McCarthy’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road,” said Mark Luce in the San Francisco Chronicle,
but while “McCarthy may have cornered the market on blood-red prose that captures postapocalyptic violence and horror…Crace provides an equally intriguing vision that seems less frenzied but not too sanguine.” To read the review, click here.

Writing in The New York Times, Francine Prose found it “surprising of British critics to so underestimate Crace, who is not a naïve writer…I’d imagine that what made the book so satisfying to write
was not the chance to punish America for its sins against nature, but rather the appeal of making the future reverse the past in the great eastward migration that Crace charts.” To read this review in The (members-only) New York Times, click here

Crace’s new America, back to front in space and time, is completely and rigorously imagined, a world entire of itself...entirely compelling…The story is a gripping, harrowing adventure tale
and Crace’s language is extraordinary…simple, often beautiful.”
To read Peter Bradshaw’s review of The Pesthouse in the New Statesman, click here.

In the Times Literary Supplement (9 March 2007), Toby Lichtig wondered if The Pesthouse was the epic it might have been, while finding much to admire: “Crace builds his effects from the bottom up
with careful details…Crace’s originality is refreshing, his voice commanding.”


“A suspenseful road novel....Crace’s gifts are lavishly on display....his descriptive powers soar...Crace’s mordant humor shines darkly, making [The Pesthouse] both provocative and winsome....a meditation on some of the deepest questions about America.” Los Angeles Times Book Review


“Throughout [The Pesthouse], a delicate, touching shy romance blossoms....Crace is a writer about plain things, but he writes about them in a way that’s both startling and subtle, a shimmering surface over still depths.” Washington Post Book World


“A cracking adventure story....Crace pulls off a transcendent ending that offers a biting commentary on the ongoing American experiment.” Entertainment Weekly


“A dark envisioning....the best part of this novel, perhaps for [its characters] as well as us, is the hauntingly rendered depiction of what is already gone.” Boston Globe


“Forceful....[Crace’s] prose carries the contours of a Donatello sculpture as [he] chisels gracefully flowing sentences with eloquence, precision, and the occasional cheeky hint of the impish.” San Francisco Chronicle


“Sly....a quintessential American story.” Seattle Times


“[Crace has] a muscular way with words.....[he] presents a compelling picture of an America betrayed by its overfetishization of rugged individualism and of Americans paradoxically at their best when cutting against the grain.” Playboy


“Deft....Crace’s imagination is matched by his crystalline prose.” Charleston Post and Courier


“Sly....a sweet, screwball love story....Crace lavishes his story with descriptions of nature and creates landscapes in crystalline detail.” Cleveland Plain Dealer



Crace on The Pesthouse

According to Jim Crace’s early thoughts,  The Pesthouse would be “a long, picaresque narrative set in the United States about two hundred years from now. The country has fragmented. The machines have stopped. The novel provides America not with a science fiction future but with something that it has always wanted and lacked - a medieval "past", an ancient European experience.

“The theme is The Gift of Stones in reverse. It is not about a prehistoric community adapting itself to progress, but a modern, slightly futuristic community adapting itself to a world without science, political institutions or social coherence. Conventional Science Fiction promises a future of greater and more terrifying technology in which the global becomes the intergalactic. The future being offered and delivered by my novel is a future without technology, in which the global is reduced to the local. History summons. The Middle Ages have returned.

“What will happen to culture and enlightenment when all the phones have failed and we’re sitting by the wood fires once again? Will the Medieval Americans seek a new world of greater promise? Will they take to the boats and head East?”



‘The Bald and the Beautiful’: an essay by Dr Nicola Allen


Thank you to Dr Allen for allowing publication here of her essay on the image of the shaven-haired woman in the fiction of Jim Crace.


According to Dr Allen, characters such as Syl from Being Dead and Margaret from The Pesthouse draw on a long aesthetic tradition in which the shaven-haired woman is
a physical incarnation of trauma and/or sacrifice”. In Crace’s treatment, however, these characters “serve as more universal, less gender-specific points of identification”, while still evoking
“a sense of common human frailty” through the association of hairlessness with suffering.


Dr Allen’s thought-provoking investigation first appeared in Critical Engagement 2.2.



Jim Crace has described The Pesthouse as “an unambiguously optimistic book”.

To read The Writing Magazine’s interview with Jim Crace on the inspiration behind The Pesthouse, you’ll need to download three separate pdf files: