The Pillow Friend, by Lisa Tuttle, straddles two categories of fiction, psychological horror and the more conventional quasi-literary “women’s fiction.” Tuttle’s prose is exquisite. She is able to describe the thoughts and impulses of a girl growing toward womanhood in an immediate, authentic way. Her ability to set mood and place cannot be doubted. The book is dark and disturbing, but at the end, it felt less like a horror story and more like a report on a woman’s descent into insanity.
The book introduces us to Agnes Gray when she is six years old, growing up in Houston, Texas in the early sixties. Tuttle’s description of place is flawless. I could feel the wall of heat, smell fresh-cut grass and stale cigarette smoke.
Agnes is the youngest of three children. She has twin sisters who are about six years older than her, who are never described to the reader and don’t even have dialogue until the last third of the book. Agnes’s mother, a former actress who gave up her career for marriage and a family, is also a twin, and her sister Marjorie is a source of mystery and magic. Agnes and Marjorie have a bond, and very early in the book, Marjorie tells Agnes that Agnes has the ability to make wishes comes true, if she is willing to pay the price… but there is always a price.
Agnes is a dreamy little girl who lives mostly in a fantasy world, and she has a dream of a baby doll that speaks to her. Marjorie promises her a doll that speaks. When Agnes gets a mechanical doll that talks for her seventh birthday, she has a tantrum and is sent to her room, missing a visit from Aunt Marjorie. She still gets Marjorie’s gift, though: a five-inch-tall antique porcelain figure of a little man in formal attire. Agnes names him Myles and keeps him on her pillow. He is her pillow friend.
Myles does begin to speak to her, but the words are broken and muffled, the way you might hear them through the wall of a neighboring apartment. Agnes writes them down. Soon, Myles’s words become clearer, and he tells her to do things, like walking into strange houses in neighborhoods she doesn’t know, sometimes taking things, sometimes eating food from the refrigerator. Agnes’s mother does not like Myles, and one day the doll disappears. In one of the best scenes in the book, Agnes is playing in her parents’ closet one night close to Christmas, while they are out and the twins are supposed to be watching her. Agnes’s excuse is that she wants to look for Christmas presents, but while playing in the closet she finds Myles, bound ritually in strips of black silk, hidden in a shoebox. This is a wonderful and frightening scene. It makes us realize that the mother knows much more than she is letting on.
Agnes hides Myles in a hole in the trunk of a neighbor’s tree. The battle of wills is not over, though, because Agnes’s mother finds him again, and Myles disappears from Agnes’s life for a time.
In the next section, Agnes is about thirteen, and her parents’ marriage is fraying apart. Agnes is sent to spend three weeks with Marjorie in the summer. Marjorie lives in the house she and Agnes’s mother grew up in, a four-room shack in a pine forest. Alone with Agnes, Marjorie reveals some more of the magical power women in the family have. Marjorie, for instance, has conjured herself a lover, a living, breathing male who is not exactly a person. Agnes wishes she has a horse, and a white horse appears. When the visit ends, she begs to be allowed to stay with Aunt Marjorie but the section ends with her going home.
It seems that Agnes has the ability to change reality by wishing. It is not as clear whether she is creating people around her, like her aunt’s boy-toy, or controlling real people, like her high-school boyfriend Alex. The book wobbles off-course here, shifting into conventional fiction. Agnes graduates from high school and goes to the University of Texas. She develops a crush on a British poet (the same poet her aunt had an obsession with). Because Agnes can wish things true, of course they meet, fall in love and marry, and The Pillow Friend shifts from an eerie, creepy puzzler to a long vivisection of a dysfunctional marriage, periodically throwing in behaviors that make Agnes look not cursed but mentally ill.
Conventional women’s fiction of the seventies and eighties had a set of tropes that were religiously adhered to. These included an incident with menstruation, usually the main character’s first period; a consensual sexual encounter that was unsatisfactory; a controlling man, usually a husband; and a pregnancy, with some conflict about whether to end it or carry to term. Tuttle includes every one of these elements. The setting for the marriage shifts to London and Scotland, and even though Agnes finds Scotland beautiful and there are some dramatic descriptions, the strong sense of place that was a hallmark of the first part of the book is missing. The marital squabbles seem familiar if not clichéd; Agnes is uncertain and Graham, the poet husband, is set in his ways, and these quarrels do not reveal character.
The dénouement is shocking, but not a surprise.
One possible interpretation of the book is that the “price” Agnes must pay for warping reality is a loss of contact with reality, which would put the book solidly in the horror camp. It is just as easy to read the book as the story of a woman who never has a chance of escaping from her madness, with delusions of magical power that are shared and encouraged by other mentally ill family members. Either interpretation is supported by the events in the book. In any case, the emotion I feel for Agnes is pity, never sympathy, even though this is a very interior novel and Tuttle does an excellent job of capturing an adolescent’s fears, thoughts and desires. I am interested in Agnes, but never engaged by her.
In the end, I think Tuttle may have tried to do too much here. There’s the coming-of-age story, the magical/horror motif, a comment on generational madness, and the exploration of what happens when you marry someone who isn’t what you’ve tried to make them be. These are all honorable attempts, but too much for one book. I have given books I haven’t liked more stars for accomplishing what they set out to do. I do not know what Tuttle was intending, so I can’t do that here.
Tuttle’s prose is beautiful, and the ambitious reach of this book gets my applause. I would give another book of hers a try, but The Pillow Friend is too unsettling and too unsettled for me.