Rachel Ingalls, an expatriate American writer who made her home in London, where she died March 6 at 78, was “not exactly a hermit,” she once told the Daily Telegraph. But neither, she said, was she any “good at meeting lots of strangers.”
Obscurity suited Ms. Ingalls, who grew up near Boston, the daughter of a Harvard Sanskrit professor, and found herself drawn to England by the quadricentennial celebrations of Shakespeare’s birth in 1964.
She remained largely anonymous for the first two decades of her writing career, as she turned out short stories, novellas and works of hard-to-categorize lengths in between. Her chosen genre was what the London Independent once described as “the kind of macabre, fantastic and haunting fiction called American Gothic,” ranking Ms. Ingalls as “one of the most brilliant practitioners of this Gothic since Poe.”
But in 1986 came an event that Ms. Ingalls described as a “fluke.” The influential British Book Marketing Council ranked her 1982 book “Mrs. Caliban” — the story of a California housewife with a dead child, a dead dog and a dying marriage who undertakes an affair with a six-foot-long sea monster called Larry — among the 20 best novels by living American writers after World War II.
Suddenly, Ms. Ingalls, in her mid-40s, found herself alongside such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty and John Updike — the last of whom lauded the work as “so deft and austere in its prose, so drolly casual in its fantasy . . . An impeccable parable, beautifully written from first paragraph to last.”
“I wasn’t prepared at all for what happened with the Book Council,” Ms. Ingalls told the Boston Globe after the honor was announced, in one of the few major interviews she granted over the years. “I was astounded. Still am. . . . I was just sort of muddling along.”
Rachel Ingalls, the author of works including “Mrs. Caliban,” died March 6, 2019, at age 78. (Gaia Banks/New Directions)
“Mrs. Caliban” had until that point sold roughly 200 copies in the United States, according to the Los Angeles Times. With the recognition she received in Britain, Ms. Ingalls was thrust into relative fame among readers of serious fiction on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Mrs. Caliban” never “beats us over the head with meaning, but somehow we are moved,” novelist Michael Dorris wrote in a New York Times review. “The book is a strange conversation overheard on a bus: sketchy, incomplete, maddening, but totally unforgettable.”
The celebrity Ms. Ingalls achieved peaked just before her death. In 2017, the publishing house New Directions reprinted “Mrs. Caliban.” This year, the same house reprinted her 1983 novel “Binstead’s Safari,” about an anthropologist whose wife accompanies him to Africa in search of a supernatural lion.
Around the same time, the New Yorker magazine featured Ms. Ingalls in a profile that described her as “unjustly neglected.” This attention followed rumblings that the 2017 Academy Award-winning film “The Shape of Water,” about a janitor who falls in love with a merman at a government laboratory where she works, bore suspicious similarities to “Mrs. Caliban.” The director, Guillermo del Toro, said that he had not read Ms. Ingalls’s fiction, and if there were any parallels between the two works, Ms. Ingalls did not complain.
“The main thing to me is just being published,” she had told the Globe in the 1980s. “And, really after that I don’t care.”
Rachel Holmes Ingalls was born May 13, 1940, in Boston and grew up mainly in Cambridge, Mass. Her early literary influences included “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” with their stories of frog princes that helped inspire “Mrs. Caliban.”
“These fairy tales spread all through Europe — some of them were fireside tales told by women to young girls to warn them against grown-up life in the world outside of the family,” she told Harvard Magazine shortly before her death. “But they go deeper than that — they are about the connection between the human and the animal worlds in which we still live.”
She attended several private high schools before dropping out. She wanted to lead “the free, happy, student life,” she told the Globe. “Going to the theater. Going to the opera. Everything like that. But, you see, when I wanted all that . . . I was only 15 instead of the usual 25!”
After studying in Germany, she returned to Massachusetts, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English from Radcliffe College in 1964. She moved that year to England, where she had a great-aunt, working for a time for a publishing house and as a ballet critic for the London Tatler.
Her first book, the novella “Theft,” was published in 1970. “Mrs. Caliban” was her third.
Among her subsequent volumes were “I See a Long Journey” (1985) — a collection of three novellas that included “Blessed Art Thou,” about a monk impregnated by the angel Gabriel — and “The Pearlkillers” (1986), another collection whose characters “are swept along through tepid, flat circumstances until suddenly all hell breaks loose, and the Furies erupt to claim their prey,” the novelist William Packard wrote in a Los Angeles Times review. She wrote 11 books in all.
Ms. Ingalls’s sister, Sarah Daughn, confirmed her death and said that she had multiple forms of cancer, including myeloma. Besides her sister, survivors include a brother.
Reflecting on the influences that had shaped her storytelling, Ms. Ingalls recalled the radio shows and fairy tales of her girlhood.
“It’s interesting that the conventions of melodrama are such that I realized straightaway — at the age of 6 or 7 — that the soap operas on the radio were meant to be entertaining and not real,” she told the Globe. “I knew that life wasn’t like that. I still think life is exactly like Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”
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