Book Review : ‘Lulu’--a Gothic Tale of Horrors

Times Book Critic

Lulu Incognito by Raymond Kennedy (Vintage Books/Random House; paperback: $6.95; 257 pages)

“Lulu Incognito” is a creamily controlled tale about the spiritual enslavement and destruction of a young girl by an older woman.

Its style is mannered, with archaic touches, and steeped in an aura of the demonic. It seems not so much written as stitched in silk upon a poisoned pillow, one that causes bad dreams and the hair to fall out.


Lulu is a sallow shopgirl in a Massachusetts town. She is devoutly Catholic and helplessly mousy. Or, as Raymond Kennedy puts it, “one of that vast multitude who strive all their life to avoid the attention of others.” She is, he adds, “falling into the common clay of life.”

There you have the rhythm, more like that of a musical than of a book. The characters make entrances and exits fully costumed and established; the only real development lies in what happens to them and in their vocal flourishes. In this case, it is a musical with a touch of Grand Guignol.

Into Lulu’s shop and wishy-washy life comes the amazing Leon Rafferty. He is perfectly turned out in pastel hues, perfumed, but with an animal reek to him, and full of witty and flattering things to say. He argues to Lulu that she is extraordinary, though she counters by saying--it could be a song lyric--”I’m very much of a dunce and don’t have anything to say about anything.”

Service of an Aristocrat

Next thing you know, she has entered the service of the town’s reclusive aristocrat, Julia Gasevoort. Julia, Rafferty explains, has had her troubles. Her sister ran off with her fiance. Her daughter was killed in a car crash. By a peculiar testamentary twist, Julia’s inheritance from her deceased husband, held in trust for the daughter, will revert not to her but to her niece and nephew, the children of her detested sister. In any case, she needs a companion and Lulu is just the person for the job.

The regal and beautiful Julia receives Lulu with seductive warmth. She gives her a lavish wardrobe, a beautiful room and the run of the place. “You will enjoy a freedom in this house rivaled by no one save myself,” she tells her. Particularly not by Chloris, the niece, who lives there and whom Julia abuses in sudden and seemingly uncharacteristic shrieks.

She draws Lulu into an intimate spell, compounded of flattery, gifts and, above all, a complicity in despising everyone else. She is even patronizing about Rafferty, her mysterious servitor. She calls Rafferty “a cleverly conceived piece of machinery that the gods are testing on an experimental basis.”


Fed on this diet, Lulu grows confident and even beautiful. She learns to abuse Chloris, and if she no longer knows who she is, it is no great loss since she never was anyone much. As Douglas, the nephew, says when he arrives on a visit: “If I didn’t know better I’d say that Julia hadn’t so much hired you as created you.”

It all seems like a pastiche of one of those fairy tales where the heroine arrives at a mysterious castle, is given every sort of luxury and attention, and is cautioned only about not entering one locked room. Something evil lurks there. In fact, Lulu has been taken on to complete the abasement of Chloris, and to achieve the subjugation of Douglas. It is all against her will--she falls in love with Douglas, in fact--but Julia has destroyed her will.

Lulu Destroyed

In a complex erotic scheme, she is made to lure Douglas to her and then crush him by yielding to the flamboyant Rafferty. At the end, Julia is evil triumphant; her niece and nephew are zombies, and Lulu is destroyed.

Well, well. Kennedy, who writes very well and knows what he is doing, has given us a specimen of thinking man’s Gothic. There is enough detachment, even humor, in it to keep us hovering between melodrama and its parody. It is, you might say, Gothic-on-wry with a slice of pickle on the side.

“Lulu Incognito” is a stylish and sometimes entangling contraption. It is a contraption, all the same, which means that as it goes along we get what has been secreted there from the start but nothing else. More and more of its curious machinery is revealed--it is like touring a superior cuckoo clock.