Priapic pub landlord Maurice Allingham runs the Green Man in Hertfordshire. He has a y0ung wife, a young daughter Amy (by his first, dead, wife), a heroic drinking habit, some off-colour views about women but resolute common sense about more or less everything else, and a life which is on the point of falling apart. The Green Man is a ghost story. And there’s actually a ghost – it isn’t just Allingham’s mind crumbling under the strain of being a functional alcoholic and finding everyone else virtually intolerable: no, a 17th century necromancer called Dr Thomas Underhill haunts the pub and has entered into the modern era (1969) for his own naughty purposes.
There’s an ancient book – well, there’s always an ancient book, would feel cheated if there weren’t – and, as in novels such as Nigel Williams’ Witchcraft and Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y, the book Leads To No Good in neon letters. It’s a slightly odd novel: spelling the supernatural out is a bit of a gamble – and God even turns up too, to spur Maurice on to defeat Underhill, explaining that the good doctor is something of an embarrassment to the everlasting and really does need to be dealt with if Maurice could just get on with it. Bringing God in the flesh into any novel is not for the faint-hearted and you would generally say that if someone is foolish enough to try it then they probably don’t have the skill to deal with it – but having clattered down an ill-advised path, Amis makes a great fist of it. In fact, this bald-faced confrontation of the unknown is both unexpected – although Amis liked sci-fi – and superbly done, one of the best scenes in the book. In fact, bits of the whole thing would look rather good incorporated into a quirky episode of Doctor Who, which is not quite the left-handed compliment it appears.
There’s a tiresome subplot involving Maurice’s sexual dalliances – really, the poor fellow can’t help himself – which comes close to derailing the action but by the end he has been made to look something of a fool and might actually begin to get on with Amy. Quite funny at times, too.