5 minute read

Patrick McGrath Biography

Nationality: British. Born: London in 1950. Education: The University of London, B.A. in English. Career: Orderly, Ontario State Mental Hospital, Oakridge, from 1971, then teacher in Vancouver. Agent: Jane Gregory Agency, Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, London NW6 9RL, England.



The Grotesque. London, Viking, and New York, Poseidon Press, 1989.

Spider. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990; London, Viking, 1991.

Dr. Haggard's Disease. London, Viking, and New York, Poseidon Press, 1993.

Asylum. New York, Random House, 1997.

Martha Peake: A Novel of the Revolution. New York, Random House, 2000.

Short Stories

Blood and Water and Other Tales. London, Penguin, and New York, Poseidon Press, 1989.


Editor, with Bradford Morrow, The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction. New York, Random House, 1991; London, Picador, 1992.

* * *

The grotesque and macabre dominate Patrick McGrath's work, as his writing seeks to explore the dimensions of the bizarre, the pathological and the neurotic. In The Grotesque, the main protagonist observes "that in the absence of sensory information, the imagination always tends to the grotesque … I mean when I speak of the grotesque—the fanciful, the bizarre, the absurdly incongruous." The struggle to control hypothesis by incontrovertible fact, to restrain the imagination by empirical data, structures The Grotesque, as well as many of the short stories in Blood and Water. The reader is frequently faced with the problems arising from a collapse of the distinctions between reality and illusion. McGrath's most recent novel Spider, a riveting suspense narrative, also explores the motives of the murderer, the insane, and the causes of psychological trauma.

McGrath's collection Blood and Water is a fresh approach to the Gothic genre, the deft combination of horror and comedy striving after what he terms an "elegant weirdness." With speaking boots, talking flies, blood-drinking humans, severed hands, putrefying angels, psychopathic killers, and such classic horror-story locations as the lonely country inn, the isolated mansion, the prison, and the remote English public school, these stories construct a fiction which is both compulsive and intriguing. While there are aspects of these stories which suggest a consciously stylized treatment of the supernatural, this does not detract from their originality of conception.

The Grotesque continues this fascination with murder and mystery. It is part suspense thriller, part horror story, part detective story. The narrative is related retrospectively (if somewhat improbably) by a severely physically and mentally disabled country gentleman bound to a wheelchair, Sir Hugo Crook, who reflects upon the series of bizarre events that followed the employment of Fledge the new butler. The murder of Sidney Giblet, Sir Hugo's prospective sonin-law, emerges as the first step in a devious strategy of a coup d'état in the Crook household, during which Fledge seduces Sir Hugo's wife, causes Sir Hugo to be severely paralysed and ultimately manages to supplant Sir Hugo as lord of the manor. Sir Hugo's gardener and longtime friend, George Lecky, is framed and wrongly convicted of the murder, despite the efforts of various characters to save him from execution.

The Grotesque frequently involves itself in philosophical speculation, pondering the nature and materiality of the "self," particularly as Sir Hugo is pronounced "ontologically dead" in the wheelchair. These existential speculations occur as the result of the attempt to establish the events to which Sir Hugo is witness, as a form of order: "Retrospection does yield order, no doubt about that, but I wonder if this order isn't perhaps achieved solely as a function of the remembering mind, which of its very nature tends to yield order." For challenge to social order and hierarchy are at the heart of the narrative. As a paleontologist, the predominant interest in Sir Hugo's life is the "birdlike" dinosaur that he discovered in Africa—Phlegmosaurus Carbonensis—and the prehistoric predatory behaviour of this animal increasingly becomes an analogy for the manner in which Sir Hugo is attacked and savaged by Fledge, "in this case, calculated opportunism on the part of an innately devious inferior with inflated social aspirations." The novel presents the dinosaur world of hunter and hunted, transplanted into the modern peaceful rural scenes of the "civilized" home county of Berkshire. Thus, the novel is not merely a mystery-suspense thriller, but also a sustained, wry critique and analysis of the values of the landed gentry and the relationship between master and servant, where the traditional relationship is comically, but subtly and calculatingly undermined.

Spider, also continues McGrath's preoccupation with murder and mystery, but achieves a complexity and intensity missing from his earlier work. As with The Grotesque, one is again presented with the perspective of a passive observer, Denis Cleg (alias Spider), who is recording in a journal, his lonely, isolated childhood in the East End of London, seeking to piece together his life by the means of narrative, "like a shattered window, in the quiet years that followed, fragment by fragment until the picture was whole." Spider's father murders his wife to make way for his new relationship with the prostitute Hilda Wilkinson, who proceeds to take over the household, and which leads to Spider's own breakdown and incarceration in a hospital for the mentally insane. The unexpected twist in the conclusion is well disguised by a complex narrative which throws out proleptic hints about its future direction, and traces the threads back to Spider's early life, as the narrative becomes a web that Spider weaves about his childhood: "And oddly, as my childhood took shape, so did I, Spider, become more coherent, firmer, stronger—I began to have substance."

The book is a study of both mental and physical cruelty, mapping the development of a schizophrenia resulting from the psychological trauma that Spider undergoes. Spider increasingly has a sense of doubleness, and erects barriers against the people he meets: "I would speak and eat and move and to their eyes be me, and only I knew that 'I' wasn't there …" The crisis of identity becomes increasingly more forceful as Spider's journal progresses, since the difficulties of language and representation become part of the preoccupation with ordering the past and protecting a self-identity, "for I am conscious always of the danger of shattering, which in turn makes me crave control, which is why the sensation of being formed, framed, written makes me so desperately afraid. For that which can write me can also destroy me."

McGrath is a novelist whose fiction interestingly explores a wide range of ideas in a condensed space, and he has breathed new and vigorous life into the well-trodden paths of the Gothic and mystery genres.

Tim Woods

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Barbara Barbieri McGrath (1953–) Biography - Personal to Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) Biography