By Hilary Mantel
Holt, 365 pp., $26
Hilary Mantel is a writer of dark extremities. She performs as if from the depths of a well, her prolonged bleakness pierced by splinters of beauty and treacherous wit. Almost disagreeably, almost against our will, we are sunk into an unremitting painfulness that is relieved -- but also intensified -- by jolts of outraged tenderness and outrageous exhilaration.
Only a writer possessing such refinement of anger and such disconcerting skills could make the following acceptable, let alone grimly seductive:
Alison, a blowsy, obese medium, makes her living touring Britain's depressed towns and dreary suburbs, conducting seances. She and her fellow mediums, a back-biting but mutually supportive sisterhood, travel together to show up at ''fayres," the spiritist version of a trade show. All use their own versions of gimmickry to psych out their audience; yet they are not immune to the supernatural manifestations they peddle.
Alison least of all. She is shaken, depleted, all but wrecked by spirit voices and apparitions. The visitations, along with her clients' starved need to believe, gnaw into her like medieval stigmata.
And such is Mantel's force -- rough yet oddly subtle -- that the reader is compelled, not exactly into belief but, as in the grim ghostliness of ''The Turn of the Screw," a suspension of disbelief.
The hauntings are playful in some cases -- the wraiths of two old women ride in Alison's car discussing the prospect of dessert at the next stop -- but brutally terrifying in others. Some of the voices and apparitions are from Alison's childhood of unbearable horror, one that reveals itself gradually, chokingly, as ''Beyond Black" unfolds.
Mantel presents Alison in two fashions, two stories almost, that infiltrate each other. One is the fey and often comic figure of a jittery prima donna preparing for and performing for her audiences. She is attended by Colette, her manager, a shallow, all-but-featureless modern young woman whose loyalty and practical helpfulness fail to conceal a deeper envy and the need to control her multitudinous if inept employer.
Onstage Alison is all mystery and assurance. She manipulates the seekers who form her audiences, making intuitive guesses, blurring her answers or shifting ground when she guesses wrong, and using the ultimate out: It is not she but the spirits who are speaking, and they are as fallible and deceptive, dead, as they were alive. When a guess about a questioner's father turns out to describe her uncle, Alison insists, delicately hesitant, that this uncle is in fact the father.
Offstage she is all hungers, fears, and vulnerabilities. Her head and answering machine fill up with the voices of the dead. Morris, the lecherous, foul-mouthed ghost who acts as her spirit guide, sits beside her in her car, a continual kvetch, until Colette's arrival consigns him to the back seat. (Unable to see or hear him, Colette notes the odor of feet.) At mall stops he drops porno magazines into the carts of male shoppers, who must then explain them to their indignant wives.
Morris becomes grimmer as the story turns darker. He is the link to Alison's childhood inferno. She is the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute who served as live-in den mother to a half-dozen thugs and stone killers.
Only bit by bit do details of the past filter through. Alison's mother rented her out at the age of 9 for sexual use by the gang; they carved the child's legs to punish her for bad attitude. There were feuds, murders; another prostitute was cut up and fed in pieces to the dogs. Almost more terrible was the grisly vengeance that Alison, barely adolescent, took upon two of them.
Deliverance came with the mentorship of an old woman, perhaps her grandmother, who was a medium. And Mantel makes the half-world between the living and the dead, between scamming clients and helping them, Alison's precarious salvation.
Until, that is, Morris -- formerly a minor gang member -- leads his dead associates back to move in on her. Their talk is raunchy and lethal by turns. They assume hideous shapes -- one has six legs, another a tongue that droops down to his toes. They drive two of Alison's intimates to death, by fright and suicide respectively.
Imperceptibly, artfully, Mantel has elevated her material monsters into metaphysical monsters. As ghosts they transform from the specifically grounded brutalities of crime to Hieronymus Bosch-like distortions of pure evil. Joking all the time, of course, but then the devil has the best lines. The gang leader, who never appears but whom they all fear, dead as they are, is hushedly spoken of as Nick (one of the devil's sobriquets).
Whereas Alison, mangled and buffeted, will rise up through a single act of painful charity. In Mantel's story of mediums and ghosts and the tawdry on-the-road tedium of ectoplasmic showbiz, a battle of good and evil has been fought. It is victory, if not glory, exactly. Alison is last seen driving to another weary engagement with two elderly ghosts discussing their bit of walnut cake from the back seat.
Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.