St Patrick’s Day is upon us, or so my desktop calendar assures me. Since I have (to the best of my knowledge) no Irish blood whatsoever, it’s not an occasion I usually celebrate. That doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t raise a glass of Guinness to some fine Irish authors, especially if they’re authors of the ghostly and the ghastly – and today seems as good an opportunity as any to do just that.
Ireland, for a relatively small country, has given the world more than its fair share of horror writers. Perhaps it’s something to do with Ireland’s rich mythological and folkloric heritage, with the banshees and little people who traditionally haunt the Emerald Isle. Or perhaps it’s that atmosphere of brooding Celtic mystery. Either way, horror fans the world over have cause to be grateful to the Irish, not least for these fine writers…
Maturin was an Irish Protestant clergyman – but his career in the Church of Ireland suffered something of a blow when Samuel Taylor Coleridge denounced his play Bertram as atheistic and “proof of the depravation of the public mind.” Maturin thereafter relied largely on his pen to support his family, writing several Gothic plays and novels. The best-known of his works was undoubtedly Melmoth the Wanderer. A Faustian tale, in which a scholar sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for 150 extra years of life, it was well-received following its publication and still has its admirers today.
“Yes, I laugh at all mankind, and the imposition that they dare to practice when they talk of hearts.” – Melmoth the Wanderer
Though perhaps not as well-remembered as she deserves these days, Irish-born Riddell was a popular writer in the Victorian period, and penned a number of highly atmospheric ghost stories, including The Old House in Vauxhall Walk and The Open Door. These stories are often anthologised, and are worth a read, not least for their skilled evocation of mood and vivid descriptions of place.
“He had been walking for a long time, ever since dark in fact, and dark falls soon in December.” – The Old House in Vauxhall Walk
Sheridan Le Fanu
Le Fanu is remembered primarily for his vampire novella Carmilla – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that his female vampire is presented as having lesbian tendencies and a taste for pretty young women. Those looking for racy bedtime material, however, might be disappointed by Le Fanu’s story, which is actually a masterpiece of mood, setting and character. Many of the stock Gothic elements are here: a lonely castle, a Middle European backdrop (Styria, in Austria), and a threat that originates in the past but has profound implications for those living in the present.
Despite Carmilla’s evergreen popularity, it would be a shame to disregard Le Fanu’s other stories, as no less a person than M.R. James described him as “absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories”. You can find many of his works here.
“But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.” – Carmilla
Ah, of course – who could possibly forget Stoker, creator of the deathless Count Dracula? Dracula was influenced by Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and shares with it elements besides vampirism: a mysterious European setting, a sense of both geographical and metaphysical isolation, and a remote castle. The general consensus these days seems to be that Dracula is not a first-rate novel in terms of its literary merit, but it – or rather, perhaps, the mythical literary being it created – has earned an undeniable place in the horror pantheon.
“I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt; I fear; I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul. God help me, if only for the sake of those dear to me!” – Dracula
Wilde is included, of course, not least because of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Faustian tale of a double life, and The Canterville Ghost. In many ways Wilde’s tales are not obvious candidates for the “horror” shelf, since they avoid overt ghoulishness or gore. The Canterville Ghost, for example, is a gentle, humorous tale with just a small nod to the theme of sexual awakening; Dorian Gray is, amongst other things, an exploration of psychological and societal depths and faultlines. It will make you shiver – not because of ghosts or ghouls, but because of its portrayal of human vanity and duplicity.
“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” – The Canterville Ghost
Happy St Patrick’s Day!