Vivian Schilling. Quietus. 2002; Fayetteville AR: Hannover House, 2018. Print.
This book got my attention because of its title. The word quietus would have likely disappeared from the English lexicon if it had not been for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In his famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, Hamlet says, “When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin…” In other words, “When he could make his exit with an unsheathed dagger.” It is the half-mad (or is he really mad?) Hamlet thinking of suicide.
I had read Infinite Jest for a similar reason, that its title alluded to Hamlet. That book I enjoyed thoroughly, and it had numerous allusions to Hamlet. Quietus does not appear to have any such direct allusions to Shakespeare; however, it does have at its core a similar question of madness and some speculation about death, “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
Kylie O’Rourke and her husband Jack survive a plane crash in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Of the dozen people aboard, five survive. Kylie is the most badly injured of the five and does not regain consciousness for three weeks. But weird things are happening.
Before the crash she had seen a raven perched on the wing of the plane. Though when she is rescued she is found buckled to her seat, she remembers going to a cottage with some of the other people in the plane, some who survived and some who did not, as well as with some helpful strangers.
She cannot let these things go. A hospital psychiatrist explains that her account it not unusual for someone with a near death experience (NDE). One tidbit this doctor tosses to the reader is that a Gallup poll indicated that a significant number of people have had some kind of NDE. But how does that explain the raven? Or that one of the people in the cottage seems to have come to Boston where she lives and is stalking her?
So was this an NDE? Was it something like the infamous “incident at Exeter,” also in New Hampshire, that purported to be aliens? Is she hallucinating? Is she lying? Or, perhaps, is someone gaslighting her?
There are at least three issues which Hamlet raises that come up in this novel. King Hamlet’s ghost appears twice in the first act of the play, but it is seen by a number of people. Since there are at least three witnesses to the same thing, it is no hallucination.
However, later in the play, the ghost appears again when Hamlet is talking to his mother the queen. This time only Hamlet sees it. Is he gone mad? Is his mother in denial? We do not really know for sure, but Hamlet is not acting completely sane.
So it is in Quietus. Jack says that he sees the raven on the plane also. But when Kylie sees a man from her apparent NDE in Boston, no one else does. She asks the owner of a shop where she saw him if he recalls the man, but he does not. When she says his name was Robert Petrie, the shopkeeper chuckles and points to a TV set where a re-run of The Dick Van Dyke Show is on. Van Dyke played a character named Robert Petrie.
Later she encounters this Petrie in a near-empty subway car late at night. He attempts to rape her, but the one other passenger in the car just sits there as though nothing is happening. Is she imagining all this?
When she confesses this to Jack, he tells her to report him to the police. His brother Dillon, a successful Boston surgeon, has a connection with a police detective, so she tells her story to him. The police have her look at mug shots. She sees a photo exactly like the man who has been stalking her from 1974. He was executed a few years later for murder. Even if he were still alive, he would be a lot older. (The book does tell us that it is set in the twenty-first century.)
One of the subplots of Hamlet is a fraternal rivalry. We learn that Claudius becomes King of Denmark by murdering his brother King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father. We also know that Claudius marries the king’s widow, not so much for the political advantage but because he loves her, too.
So in Quietus we learn that Jack’s brother, who helps save their lives after the plane crash, also carries a torch for Kylie. Dillon’s girlfriend confesses that while she and Dillon have a very good relationship and he treats her very well, she will never have his heart because it belongs to someone else.
Hamlet himself confesses that he has not gotten over the death of his father. He is still mourning when it seems everyone else has moved on. Hamlet admits that the ghost “could be a devil” who “abuses me” because “of my weakness and melancholy.”
Not only might Kylie be suffering from PTSD, we learn that she has never really gotten over the death of her mother and little brother in a car accident some dozen or fifteen years before. Was her own experience in a near fatal wreck leaving her open to deceiving spirits as Hamlet feared he might be?
(Also, some people wonder if Hamlet and Ophelia were having an affair. Since brother Tucker was fourteen years younger than Kylie, and she confesses that she “mothered” him, is it possible that he was really her son and the brother story was just a pretense to cover a youthful indiscretion?)
The “answer” to such questions in Hamlet’s tragedy is an orthodox Christian one. The ghost is probably demonic as the Bible says Samuel’s ghost was (see my post on this subject). Quietus is more ambiguous. There is a suggestion of oriental or new age mysticism along with traditional Catholicism in the book’s exploration of “the undiscovered country,” but it could be something else such as a simple romantic death wish.
What is going on? Is Kylie experiencing PTSD, not uncommon after such a terrible plane crash? Is there something supernatural going on? Is it aliens who can go as fast as an airplane and disguise themselves as a raven? Is a jealous husband, envious brother-in-law, or a creepy stalker gaslighting her?
While most of the tale takes place in Boston—which the author knows well—some of it is also set in Savannah, Georgia, another East Coast city with a strong colonial heritage like Boston. It is the location of the bestseller Midnight in the Garden and Good and Evil. If you, the reader, liked that book, then you will probably enjoy Quietus.
N.B. This reader grew up in the Boston area, still visits the area a couple of times of year, and has led tours of Boston. Most of Ms. Schilling’s descriptions of Boston and its streets were spot on. I was puzzled, though, when she named a prison adjacent to Massachusetts General Hospital. In a note at the end of the book, she says that she moved the prison next to the hospital for the sake of the story. Poetic license makes the story a little more interesting.