Great Tales of Irish Horror, edited by Peter Haining
For the month of March I have decided to read the book “Great Tales of Irish Horror”, which was edited by the renowned anthologist Peter Haining. As I read each tale, I have decided to post my thoughts on them, including any relevant images whenever possible.
I. Lurking Shadows:
1)'”The Morgan Score”, by Jack Higgins: This was an odd choice to start off a collection like this, and I wonder if Haining wasn’t trying to make a subtle political statement by its inclusion amongst this collection of of ghosts stories and historical horrors. This short story, by the author of “The Eagle Has Landed”, is more of a thriller about intrigue and betrayal within splinter factions of the IRA. It is well written, but seems out of place in this book. The only “horror” here is the warring of brother against brother.
Jack Higgins (1929- )
2) “The Doomed Sisters”, by Charles Robert Maturin. Maturin is most famous for writing one of the biggest novels of Gothic fiction, “Melmoth the Wanderer” about a misanthrope who sells his soul to the Devil.
1966 paperback edition of “Melmoth the Wanderer”, by Four Square Books.
Apparently, when he died, his family destroyed most of his short fiction because they considered them scandalous. One of the few to survive is this tale about three sisters who all come to grim ends.This is the sort of thing I was hoping to find in here, excellent tale about witchcraft, murderous bridegrooms, fairy kidnappings, and family curses.
Charles Robert Maturin (1782-1824)
3) “The Child Who Loved a Grave”, by Fitz-James O’Brien: Despite all of the great things I’ve heard about his supernatural fiction, this story seemed to me to be little more than a ghoulish version of an O. Henry story; mawkish, albeit with some creepy stuff about a boy with a gravestone fetish. Editor Peter Haining claims in his introduction to the tale that O’Brien is known as ‘the Celtic Poe’, but I’ve seen little evidence to support this anywhere other than in this book and a few odd web sites, which probably got it from him. I know that O’Brien was admired by H. P. Lovecraft, and he is credited, along with Poe, as being one of the progenitors of the science fiction genre, but I have found no evidence of a specialty in the macabre. His biggest tales are “What Was It?” and “The Diamond Lens”, both of which I have access to in other collections, so I may read those and see if they change my opinion of his work. More on this at a later date.
Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862)
4) “The Diplomatist’s Story”, by Shane Leslie: This story is a tale about a diplomat named Lord Monaghan who is witness to a death premonition from a banshee that haunts the residents of Mullymore castle. During its final manifestation, it notices Monaghan and utters a cryptic phrase in French, ‘Il y a place encore pour un.’ Roughly, “There is room for one.”, the import of which eventually becomes clear at the end of the tale. The banshee in this tale is different from the traditional wailers and, in fact, brought to my mind the worm-faced watchman of “The Yellow Sign”, by Robert W. Chambers, which haunts an over sensitive painter.
Shane Leslie (1885-1971)
5) “The Painting of Róisín Dhu”, by Dorothy Macardle: Macardle was a novelist, whose most famous novel “Uneasy Freehold” (1941) was the basis for the Universal haunted house film “The Uninvited” (1944). She was also apparently very involved as an activist in the Irish social and political scene, and was even imprisoned in 1922 for her involvement in the Irish Nationalist Movement. It is no surprise then that the title of her tale makes reference to the Róisín Dubh, or ‘Black Rose’, a symbol of Ireland, which is celebrated in national poetry and song.
USA poster for “The Uninvited” (1944).
This particular tale, about an obsessive artists who wants to paint the portrait of the fair Nuala, daughter of the King of the Blasket Isles. Her father denies him access to her, but heedless of her father’s decision, she runs off to join him, with intentions of loving him, but he is only interested in capturing her beauty on the canvas. The rest of the story plays out more or less like “The Oval Portrait”, by Edgar Allan Poe; a familiar tale, but very well written, and with a Celtic twist.
Portrait of Dorothy Macardle (1889-1958)
6) “Danse Macabre”, by L.A.G. Strong: Leonard Strong was an accomplished novelist, playwright, poet and critic, who is known among other things as the creator of a series of mystery novels involving the character Detective-Inspector McKay, of Scotland Yard. He apparently is also known to have authored a few good ghost stories in his time, this colorful tale being one of them. It recounts the story of a swain named Flanagan, who once was the town Romeo until he picked up a sullen beauty at a Red Cross dance; the circumstances of his experience driving her home bring about a total turn around in his health and fortune. Basically, this seemed like a variation on the spectral hitchhiker legend, with a decidedly Irish flavor, mostly due to the attention to the local dialect, which apparently the author, Mr. Strong, had an ear for.
L.A.G. Strong (1896-1958) in a portrait by caricaturist David Low.
7) “The Happy Autumn Fields”, by Elizabeth Bowen: Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen was a novelist and short story writer, among other things, who spent her time traveling between London, England and her family home in County Cork, Ireland. She is perhaps most known for the novel “The Heat of the Day” (1949) about a love triangle in London right in the midst of the WWII air raids which also has some espionage intrigue.
Bowen apparently also wrote ghost stories, the most famous of which can be found in the collection The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945). She is said to have been a film enthusiast and was influenced by it as well, which I can maybe see in the story included here. In Haining’s introduction to the tale he quotes Irish writer W.J. McCormack, from his essay “Irish Gothic and After” (1991) as saying “…that it ‘may well owe something to Sheridan Le Fanu’s far more lurid double narrative involving women–the vampire tale, Camilla (sic)…'” I completely disagree. “Carmilla” is a masterpiece of Gothic fiction, with excellent characterization, atmosphere and a very memorable villain, who inspired the whole sub-genre of lesbian vampire fiction and film. If anything, it has more in common with the erratic film adaptation of Le Fanu’s tale, “Vampyr” (1932) by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, which has many striking images but no real narrative thread.
It seems that the main character, Mary (?) is lost in a memory about a fateful afternoon from her younger days and cannot quite remember her relationship to the main characters in the memory. The is no real horror here either. I found it very difficult to get through this story, as it is all scattered and dreamlike with nothing really happening for most of the tale.
Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)
8) “Mr Murphy and the Angel”, by Brian Cleeve: Generally a writer of thrillers, this is less of a Horror tale than a morality tale. It is very well written though, with folksy humor and a light hand in the more serious passages. It is the story of a drunkard who stumbles upon an angel, which has had an accident and is grounded for ten days. Wary at first, he begrudgingly agrees to take care of it for the duration, during which he has a change of heart. As a reward for his kindness and hospitality, she gives him the gift of a feather from her healed wing , which acts as a gauge for the cleanliness of his soul. If he keeps on the good path it stays white, if he strays into sinful territory, it darkens as a reminder. I do not wish to give away the story, so I’ll stop there. It reminded me a bit of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), a sort of feel-good morality tale, but with a darker spin and an ambiguous ending.
Brian Cleeve (1921-2003). Looks a bit to me like actor Ralph Fiennes, don’t you think?
And so ends the first section in “Great Irish Tales of Horror”. I shall save section 2 for St Paddy’s Day 2016.