Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Ghosts of Rathmines

I don't get much enjoyment out of folkloric ghost stories. Nor do I typically like ghost stories written prior to the 20th century, even those of acknowledged masters like J. Sheridan Le Fanu. So I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Stories and Old Albert: An Epilogue, two books by Brian J. Showers I recently picked up as part of a set of titles from and related to Showers' Swan River Press. The Bleeding Horse is a set of linked ghost stories set in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines, influenced by local history and in the spirit of Le Fanu's "Ghost Stories of Chapelizod," while Old Albert is a novella that returns to that setting. I expected I might find the stories overly traditional, straightforward, uninvolving, and only vaguely frightening. I needn't have worried. The Bleeding Horse (with Old Albert) is one of the finest ghost story collections I've read in some time, so good that it made me break the six-month gap in horror reviews on this blog just so I could rave about it. Showers uses the conventional folkloric ghost story as a jumping-off point for a set of progressively ambiguous, modern, and frightening tales that are much more than the sum of their parts.

At first the book seems to be the sort of thing I was anticipating, charming but basically empty, beginning with the title story's account of a historic battle and its ghostly echoes in a pub with a peculiar name. "Oil on Canvas" would be a similar trifle, about the afterlife of Jack B. Yeats, painter and brother of the famous poet, except for an unacknowledged connection to the first story that slightly heightens the chill factor. Not by much, but enough, especially since the collection is only beginning. "Favourite No. 7 Omnibus" ups the ante further, and is the first demonstration of Showers' remarkable skill at giving the ordinary business of the ghost story an atmosphere of profound supernatural awe. What happens in "Favourite No. 7 Omnibus" is unsurprising, but the structure, and the decision not to make certain connections explicit, lends the story an unexpected eerieness.

I should say something here about Showers' command of humor and narrative distance as they relate to the subtle ghost story. The greatest practitioner of these virtues was M. R. James, and while the voice of Showers' narrator is not exactly James', they have in common a dry, precise-verging-on-pedantic quality that makes the horrors that much more effective by contrast. The Bleeding Horse is nominally a guidebook to Rathmines, complete with footnotes, and the juxtaposition of supernatural peril with the kind of vaguely-interesting trivia one gets on walking tours is at once hilarious and unsettling. ("On the night of 15 April 1921, a company of IRA men knocked on his door. Feeling that Vicars had been too sociable with the local British officers, they set fire to the house and dragged Vicars out to the lawn where they shot him in the head." I don't think there's a word in the English language that would work better in that second sentence than "sociable.") Showers also has James' gift for pastiche of different kinds of documents from the past-- newspapers, diary entries, and so forth. These aren't antiquarian ghost stories, but readers who admire James for style rather than trappings should give Showers a try right away.

Comparison to James is perhaps most appropriate in the case of "Quis Separabit," a story that terrified me more than any ghost story has since the time I really thought about what it would be like to be in the room with the creature from "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." I would love to quote the description of the ghost from this story, but I'm not sure that it would work out of context, and in any case you deserve to experience it for the first time as part of the full tale, which takes the known history of the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels and links it to the figure that appears in a flea market after the sun has gone down. The fair closes at dusk, and you ought not to linger, unless you want to meet the Blackberry Man.

The final story, "Father Corrigan's Diary," completes an internal evolution that has encompassed the ghost tale of early modern folklore, the traditional nineteenth-century ghost story, and the Jamesian revolution by offering an ambiguous, psychologically suggestive story so rich in a sense of the vast and inexplicable terrors of the world that the only thing I can think to compare it with is Edith Wharton's masterpiece "Afterward." The conceit is, again, familiar: entries from the diary of a Victorian clergyman. But the force that haunts him and his colleagues is hard to pin down. It might even be Father Corrigan himself. All I know is that I wouldn't want to meet it, even with the wall of a confessional between us. I always think it's a cop-out to say the effect of a story can't be conveyed in words, but so it is with "Father Corrigan's Diary."

Part of the reason for that is the mood that has been built up across the stories of The Bleeding Horse. It's not so much the literal connections among the stories, though those help, as it is the sense of a metaphysically coherent world of darkness and danger. Unlike a conventional ghost story collection, this one doesn't allow you to escape its various presences by turning the page and entering a space whose demons are, if similar, distinct. In this way, The Bleeding Horse combines the best features of a collection and a slow-building novel. Old Albert extends the experience with several more stories, linked this time not only by the setting but by the.. thing that can be found in Larkhill House. I don't know what it is, and I don't want to. Different in tone from the stories of The Bleeding Horse but thematically and atmospherically simpatico, Old Albert is further enhanced by an "afterword" from Adam Golaski that demonstrates Golaski's own impressive brand of modern-yet-classically-inspired supernatural fiction. Taken together, these two books are like a history of the ghost story from the middle ages to the present day.

The use of Rathmines is no mere device for increasing spookiness. It's a matter of recognizing that some places have an air about them, a hauntedness that is larger than any one restless spirit or chained demon. The weight of history can be present in a place, a perpetual reminder of human smallness:
Most people do not realise as they go south along South Great George’s Street from Dublin’s city centre that they are walking a very old path. It is one of the four roads to Dublin, a highway of pre-Norman origin that still feeds the city like a great tributary. This particular road connects Dublin with the not far-distant neighbourhood of Rathmines. At one time Rathmines was a desolate morass of scrub and gorse, of swampy ground and wandering, unbounded rivulets. But from this unwelcoming terrain sprouted first a rural village, then, from tillage land, a booming township, and now a fully urbanised neighbourhood of the ever-expanding city…. There should be little wonder that the neighbourhood which we today call Rathmines is like a vast house, forever haunted by its former residents. Those among you with sensitive temperaments will understand what I mean. We notice the details that most do not. We see the stories that others are unable or unwilling to read… The buildings that line the street are themselves entities, unique in their moods and vitalities. Many contain certain rooms that are by nature unwelcoming, and we would do well not to enter them. To do so would cause our stomachs to flutter, and the shadowy corners that subsist within would prickle the hair on our necks with disquieting expectation. What are these shades that exist alongside us? All we can hope for is that we do not enter one of these places whose disposition is darker than our own.
We may not want to enter these places, but with Brian J. Showers as a guide, we should all seize the opportunity to walk past them.

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The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Stories was originally published by Mercier Press in 2008; you can buy it from or The Book Depository, or from the author. Old Albert was originally published by Ex Occidente Press in an edition that is now out of print; it might be available from dealers, or you could buy the reprint from Swan River Press. I own the latter edition; it's lovely, and looks very nice on the shelf next to The Bleeding Horse, which has the same dimensions. "Quis Separabit" from The Bleeding Horse is also available as a chapbook (scroll down). You can read Jim Rockhill's "Note to the Reader" from Old Albert, a sort of preview of the novella, in The Swan River Press Reader, a free e-book with selections from the publisher's current titles.

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