Some Irish Halloween Reading

Irish Literature That Will Keep You Awake During the Long, Dark Nights

A Transylvanian Nobleman in Ireland?
© Bernd Biege 2014

As you might know, Halloween is really an Irish invention. Well, at least in a way because the origin of the spooky celebrations can be found in the Celtic feast known as Samhain. But did you know that an Irishman gave us one of the greatest scary Halloween characters of all time? That's right - Count Dracula was "born" in Ireland.

Wherever you plan to celebrate Halloween (or Samhain) get in the mood for scary times by heading to your local library and checking out some classic Halloween stories from Ireland.

Here are some suggestions of Irish tales of terror, complete with links to an online archive of the scary stories documented or dreamt up by Irish authors over the years. 

Maturin's Melmoth - For Serious Literature Lovers

Charles Robert Maturin (1782 to 1824) was supposed to have a career ahead of him as a clergyman and he was ordained in the Church of Ireland. His extracurricular activities, however, put an end to his chances at really advancing in the church hierarchy. He started a second career as a writer of Gothic plays and novels, first under a pseudonym. When the true identity of the author became known, the Church of Ireland was not amused and cut all times with Maturin. His best-known work, the sprawling "Melmoth the Wanderer", came late in life (though sadly his life was not all that long to begin with).

"Melmoth the Wanderer" was published in 1820 and was Maturin's most ambitious Gothic novel, spanning time and space.

The hero of the novel, Melmoth, is a scholar who did the ever-popular thing of selling his soul to the devil in exchange for a rather modest 150 extra years of life. After realizing and regretting what he has done, Melmoth then goes out wandering and searching the world for someone to take over the satanic pact for him.

The scary tale may remind you a bit of Faust as well as E.T.A. Hoffmann's " Elixiere des Teufels" - which are variations on the same theme.

Maturin's famous novel is a patchwork of stories within other stories, giving the reader the story of Melmoth's life, which can at certain points seem to be highly unreliable. In addition the cautionary scary tale, there is some social commentary on British (mainly English) society in the early 19th century. There are also quite a few allusions to the false promises of the Roman-Catholic Church, as opposed to the salvation to be found in Protestantism. Modern readers might struggle with the difficult novel ... but it well worth a try.

You can find a full version of Maturin's "Melmoth the Wanderer" by following this link.

Lighter Reading - St John D. Seymour's Collections

St John D. Seymour also was a Protestant clergyman, but in contrast to Maturin, he was more of a collector, rather than a fiction writer. His late Victorian collections on supernatural themes are excellent for the occasional dip into the creepy and unexpected. His stories make for Irish bedtime reading to be finished by the light of a flickering candle. In particular, take a look at his treatise on Irish Witchcraft and Demonology, which also includes many details on the trials and tribulations of Dame Alice Kyteler.

And for more variety, you might try the True Irish Ghost Stories collected by Seymour , a classic of its kind.

Sheridan Le Fanu - Mixing Fact and Fiction

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu (1814 to 1873) was perhaps the most successful Irish writer of Gothic tales and mystery novels, and an important figure in the creation of the entire theme of crime fiction. Often regarded as one of the best writers of ghost stories during the 19th century, he played a central role in the development of the genre. Again, there is a Church of Ireland background, as Le Fanu's father was a clergyman in West Dublin. Both the Phoenix Park and the picturesque village of Chapelizod feature in Le Fanu's stories.

A word of caution - Sheridan Le Fanu tried a balancing act between invention and collection. Some of his stories are completely made up, others are given to the reader as "local tales".

One is never quite sure where reportage ends and fiction starts but you can see for yourself by taking a look at several of Sheridan Le Fanu's stories in a collection reached through this link.

The Classic - Bram Stoker

Abraham (better known as "Bram") Stoker (1847 to 1912) also came from a devout Church of Ireland family. As a young man, he enjoyed a private education at a religious school, studied law, but became best known as both a personal assistant of Victorian star actor Henry Irving and the business manager of Irving's Lyceum Theatre in London. In his spare time, he dabbled in writing short stories and novels.

In 1897 he unleashed "Dracula" upon the Victorian world - a Gothic horror novel that takes the reader on a rapid tour through half of Europe in record time. This classic Halloween story purports to be a collection of letters, diary entries, and personal records, with an ever-changing narrator. The story is easy to read and follow even today (much more than the confusing "Melmoth").

Bram Stoker's "Dracula" defies categorization and touches upon many literary genres - starting with the Gothic novel, the sub-genre vampire literature, general horror fiction, and also "invasion literature", which touches on themes like xenophobia - a fear of outsiders. It also has some pretty racy scenes, especially considering the time period when it was written. Vampires are not Stoker's invention, and his choice of making Vlad the Impaler be the undead hero might have been more or less random, but this novel certainly had a huge impact upon the genre.

For a good, long read, find Bram Stoker's "Dracula" by following this link.

By the way, in a rather silly way, Dracula came home to the Emerald Isle in 2014, when the movie "Dracula Untold" was filmed in Northern Ireland. The film uses a CGI-enhanced Giant's Causeway as a stand-in for the novel's Carpathian mountains. 

Light Relief with Oscar Wilde

Irish writer and poet Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854 to 1900) needs no introduction, and his "Picture of Dorian Gray" is often seen as a horror novel, but around Halloween it might be more advisable to opt for another story touching upon the supernatural. "The Canterville Ghost" is a short story that has been adapted for the screen and stage. It actually was Wilde's first story to be published, in "The Court and Society Review" in February 1887.

The story is a simple one: an old English country house, named Canterville Chase, is the setting as a typical haunted house, complete with a Gothic setting including wainscoting, a library panelled in black oak, armour in the hallway, creaking floorboards, clanking chains, and some ancient prophecies to go with all this.

That is when we meet the stereotypical  Americans - the Otis family, complete with questionable tastes, a boundless self-esteem, and an unwavering belief in the blessings of the modern world, as well as a dedication to consumerism. Of course, this clashes with British traditions. And most certainly with the Canterville ghost ...

For a fun Irish Halloween read, nothing can be better than Oscar Wilde's "Canterville Ghost", found under this link.