The Pearlkillers: FOUR NOVELLAS by Rachel Ingalls (Simon & Schuster: $15.95; 214 pp.)

Packard is the author of the novel, "Saturday Night at San Marcos," (Thunder's Mouth)

When Rachel Ingalls' last collection of three novellas was published in 1986 as "I See a Long Journey," one incisive critic commented: "She engages the reader in the deadly habituation of someone's casual life style, only to rush the reader to a sudden climax that is as inevitable as it is bewildering."

That formula still holds for Ingalls' new collection of four novellas, "The Pearlkillers," and if anything, she pursues the formula to an even more deadly effect. Her characters all bear the mark of Cain: They are innocents (no matter that some may be killers) who are swept along through tepid, flat circumstances until suddenly all hell breaks loose, and the Furies erupt to claim their prey.

Her first novella in this present collection, "Third Time Lucky," begins with an old woman who learned "through a dream that in a former life, she'd been a priestess of Isis, and many centuries ago, she had lived in a particular house, where she'd had a wonderful garden full of flowers and herbs, and plants that possessed healing properties." This sounds quaint, albeit curiously tainted. It's no wonder then that when young thrice-married Lily accompanies her present husband to visit the colossal ruins of Egypt, they fight, and he dies a peculiar death. Lily finds herself musing, "what a waste it was that people had only one life, that the choices were always so few, that you couldn't lead several lives all at once or one after the other."

The second novella, "People to People," is like an eerie rewrite of a Thomas Hardy novel: A man turns up out of the past; he's had a change of heart and wants to confess to a murder that took place way back in college days. Of course his confession would implicate several other people who took part in it also, and these people don't think it's such a hot idea: "He gets religion, and they slam us in the can for the rest of our lives. After 20 years." So naturally there is an eruption at the end that turns into a wholesale slaughter: It's as if the dislocated present were trying to extirpate the past.

"Inheritance," the third novella in this collection, is about a young woman who is mysteriously drawn into a family's intricate arabesques, how she yields more and more to their delusional control over her, until finally she herself is installed as the inheritor of an occult bloodstream ritual that includes lobotomy and a perfect pearl relic. It is, in its own way, the title story of the collection.

The final novella, "Captain Hendrik's Story," is Ingalls at her best. The last of a long line of explorers, Captain Hendriks sets off on an expensive expedition, is gone for 10 years, long enough to be declared officially dead. Finally he turns up at his home with an incredible story about how he is the sole survivor, his entire expedition having been taken prisoner by pirates for one year, and after everyone escaped, they went through other unimaginable calamities. It looks for all the world like a modern Odyssey, with Odysseus finally returning home to tell his heroic story of harrowing adventures.

And in fact, after Captain Hendriks is sufficiently rested, he does decide to write out his entire story, and it is a lulu--like Othello's telling all about his "feats of broil and battle" and even complete with weird tales about "the Anthropophagi and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders." The story is a knock-out and is published in two completely different versions in two different publications. One begins to wonder: What the hell really happened on this mysterious expedition?

Suddenly, unexpectedly, another survivor turns up at the Hendriks home with his own version of what happened over the last 10 years: His name is Sten, and he claims that he and Hendriks were the only survivors of a freak tidal wave that wrecked their ship and killed the rest of the expedition at the very outset, and the two men were forced to live by their wits in various cities operating as pimps, fortune tellers, blackmailers, hit men, forgers and roustabout street-wise charlatans. No grand agon here: just lies piled on lies so these two rascals could keep on living from day to day.

Captain Hendriks is on the spot: What should he do about his family? "He tried to imagine sitting them all down and telling them: This is what really happened." No way. So instead, Hendriks determines to brazen it out, as he tells his seamy cohort in crime: "It's my fiction against yours." Which is something of the art that Ingalls is so fascinated to explore: how we devise our prismatic viewpoints of the past so we can accommodate whatever comfortable sojourn we devise for ourselves in the present.

Of course for any one viewpoint to win out over any other in this delusional universe, there has to be a general blood bath. And at the end of "Captain Hendrik's Story," it happens quickly, expeditiously. Truth--or at least that psychopathic viewpoint that has managed to out-bully all its rival viewpoints--wins out.

In Ingalls' world, civilization and even sexuality itself are just loose flimflams and charades that are masquerades for much darker, demonic powers. Sooner or later, reality begins collapsing backwards into atavism and prehistoric ritual, and when that happens, we know we are rushing headlong toward the final, awful denouement.

In her best work, Ingalls is as monochromatic as Edgar Allan Poe, going straight to her target with the same ease and surety as an arrow skims to its bull's-eye. Her world view is more complex than Poe's: Where Poe simply demonstrated the inevitable eruption of the dark powers, Ingalls has an alarming vision of the parasitical and parricidal relation between the present and the past.

And just as Poe's craft was exactly suited to the conventions of the short story form he invented, so Ingalls' vision is exactly suited to the length and scope of the novella form. This is because, like Poe, Rachel Ingalls is more than a master storyteller: She is also a superb artist.

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