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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC ISSUE 71 OUT NOW!

The Late Review: Earth-Bound

12th Sep, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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Like Henry Mercer (see last blog entry), Dorothy Macardle (1889 - 1958) was far better known for her activities outside of fiction writing, especially in the field of politics and most particularly as a campaigner for Irish independence. As far as speculative fiction goes, she is probably best known for haunted house novel The Uninvited (made into a film starring Ray Milland in 1944).

Macardle first dipped her toe into these uneasy waters with a series of short stories penned while she was a prisoner in Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol and Mountjoy Prison, incarcerated by the British owing to her activities in support of Irish independence. These stories were to see publication in 1924 in the collection EARTH-BOUND AND OTHER SUPERNATURAL TALES (Swan River Press hc, 158pp, €30.00) which Swan River brought back into print in 2016 for the first time in some ninety years.

The first nine stories are from that 1924 printing. Title piece 'Earth-Bound' concerns Irish freedom fighters on the run from the British, who are assisted by the spirit of a long lost Gaelic hero. Beautifully written, with a fine air for the music of language and vivid descriptions of the landscape, it is a story that effectively sets the tone for all that follow. In 'Samhain' a dying priest is saved by the intervention of the dead, the story infused with a feeling for the liminal status of our earthly existence and undercut by an awareness of the cruelty of man and harshness of nature, capturing perfectly the feel of life in an isolated Irish village at the start of the last century. British attempts to foil an attack on a prison are at the heart of 'The Brother', another story where ghostly intercession takes place and the sense of other worlds pressing in on this one is especially strong.

'The Prisoner' in his cell is haunted by the ghost of a former inmate from a century before, a man who wishes history to know that he did not commit the betrayal he fears he is accused of. The plot is a common enough one, the revenant with unfinished business, but even if the central plank of the story is lacking in originality and the ending is more or less as expected,  Macardle's execution is masterly, particularly in her portrayal of the mind state of men in solitary confinement. Political concerns are put aside for 'The Return of Niav', a tale of possession that in many ways made me think of Le Fanu's 'Carmilla' given a twist courtesy of Irish mythology and legend. Intriguing as the plot is, what makes the story special is the beauty of the language and the atmosphere of the piece, with a genuine feel for the splendour of the natural landscape and how even such beauty can be corrupted. A dead priest manages to achieve redemption in 'De Profundis'. While a simple enough scenario, the plight of a son seeking spiritual release for his mother is one that touched my heart and the ending left me more than happy with how it all played out.

In 'By God's Mercy' a patriot is saved from the tender mercies of the Black and Tans by ghostly intervention, the story little more than a variation on one of its predecessors, but certainly well written and rewarding for the reader. The artist Hugo Blake paints 'The Portrait of Roisin Dhu', which becomes iconic to those who espouse Irish freedom, but the back story to the creation of the painting is sinister and disturbing, with its message that great art comes at the cost of great sacrifice. Again this is a story where the real world and that of mythology overlap, beautifully written and with a subtext on the dangers of artistic obsession. In 'A Story Without an End' the wife of a Republican agitator has a dream of his death, the story showing only part of her dream coming true. It is an eerie piece, with some disturbing oneiric imagery and, for once, the lack of a "proper" ending left me feeling satisfied.

By way of an interlude, before getting to the four bonus stories Swan River have included in this volume, we have the four line poem 'On Leaving Mountjoy', a paean of sorts for the prison where many Republicans were incarcerated, including Macardle herself.

Back to the stories, and a dying child is revived by a vision of her imprisoned older brother in 'Escape', the story predictable enough in spectral terms, but winning your heart with its depiction of the cruelty of British rule and the things men would sacrifice for some greater good. A leader of the resistance is saved by 'The Curlew's Cry', his life given over into the safeguarding of a ghostly presence. It is the third or fourth variation we have seen on this theme in the collection, and just as well written and intriguing as the rest, with its depiction of the plight of a young woman whose family have been taken tugging on the heartstrings.

'The Black Banks' opens with an elderly couple wracked with grief on learning that they have lost both their children and ends with a disobedient young boy turning up on their doorstep. It's a story which punishes those who are overly judgemental and excels in its depiction of the wilful Patsy and his much put upon stepmother, while as ever the beauty of the Irish landscape and the perils that lay in ambush are an intrinsic part of the narrative. Finally we have 'The Venetian Mirror' which is the only one of these stories that is not set in Ireland. A young man who has visions of a beautiful woman in a mirror he has bought learns the story behind the glass from its previous owner. It is a tale of love and betrayal with a gratifying supernatural twist, one that treads the fine line between madness and the miraculous, with both men who have these visions believing they are insane and the world view of the Count threatened by the reality of an afterlife, so that it might be kinder if he were never to see the woman's face in the mirror again. It's an intriguing end to a strong collection.

If I have any reservations, it's that there doesn't seem to be much in the way of breadth to the characterisation in the book, with all the Irish freedom fighters of a saintly demeanour and all the British sadistic bastards, but it's a quibble and by her own admission Macardle was "a propagandist, unrepentant and unashamed". For the UK audience there are times when these stories make hard reading and serve as a valuable exercise in seeing ourselves as others have seen us. In our past, as with almost any nation, there are terrible deeds that need to be owned by future generations rather than glossed over or ignored, and Macardle's work with its unflinching depiction of British brutality and repression reminds us of this.

The book comes with an introduction by Peter Berresford Ellis, in which he discusses the author's life and work, and has dustjacket and cover illustrations courtesy of artist Brian Gallagher.  Swan River published Earth-Bound in a limited edition of 350 copies, which is now shown as Sold Out on their website, though you can probably find copies elsewhere online.

 

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