Some Irish Halloween Reading

Some Irish Literary Gems That Will Keep You Awake in Long, Dark Nights

A Transylvanian Nobleman in Ireland?
••• A Transylvanian Nobleman in Ireland?. © Bernd Biege 2014

As you might know, Halloween is really an Irish invention ... well, of sorts at least, as the origin of the spooktacular celebrations can be found in the Celtic Samhain. But did you know that an Irishman provided one of the Halloween essentials, be it as movie fare or as a costume? Of course, we are talking about Count Dracula.

So, to get you in the Halloween (or Samhain) mood, whether in Ireland or Indiana, you can do worse than heading for your local library and checking out some Irish tales of terror.

Here are some suggestions, complete with links to an online archive of the strangeness documented or dreamt up by Irish authors. Let's get Gothic for the pumpkin!

Maturin's Melmoth - a Heavyweight

Charles Robert Maturin (1782 to 1824) had a career ahead of him as a clergyman, he was ordained in the Church of Ireland. His extracurricular activities, however, put paid to any major advancement 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 hung Maturin out to dry. His best known work came late in life (though it has to be said that the latter was not long) - the sprawling "Melmoth the Wanderer".

"Melmoth the Wanderer" was Maturin's most sprawling (in time and place) Gothic novel and published in 1820. 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.Then he goes off, as was his wont, searching the world for someone to take over the satanic pact for him.

His continued existence has been compared to the "Wandering Jew", but you can see Faust and also E.T.A. Hoffmann's "Elixiere des Teufels" as variations on the same theme.

The novel is a patchwork of nested stories within other stories, giving the reader the (at points highly unreliable) story of Melmoth's life.

There is some social commentary on British (mainly English) society in the early 19th century. And there is also some rabid foaming at the mouth when it comes to the Roman-Catholic Church, as opposed to the salvation to be found in Protestantism. Modern readers might well struggle with the novel ... but it still is 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, and antiquarian. His late Victorian collections on supernatural themes are excellent for the occasional dip into the matter, some bedtime reading to be finished by the light of a flickering candle ... I recommend 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, maybe, the most successful Irish writer of Gothic tales and mystery novels (many of the latter are milestones in the history 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 made up, others are given to the reader as "local tales". One is never quite sure where reportage ends and fiction starts ... have a look at several of Sheridan Le Fanu's stories in a collection reached through this link.

Big Daddy - Bram Stoker

Abraham (better known as "Bram") Stoker (1847 to 1912) also came from a devout Church of Ireland family, 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 through half of Europe in record time ("... denn die Toten reiten schnell!") and purports to be a collection of letters, diary entries and so on, with an ever-changing narrator. Which, actually, is still readable today ... more than the confusing "Melmoth".

Bram Stoker's "Dracula" defies categorisation and touches upon many literary genres - starting with the Gothic novel, the sub-genre vampire literature, general horror fiction, and also "invasion literature", a British way of giving xenophobia a voice. It is also an exercise in eroticism. Vampires are not Stoker's invention, and his choice of making Vlad the Impaler the undead hero might have been more or less random, but this novel certainly had the most massive 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 in 2014, when the movie "Dracula Untold" was filmed in Northern Ireland ... why a CGI-enhanced Giant's Causeway had to stand in for the Carpathian mountains might owe more to tax incentives than logic.

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 I'd rather recommend another story touching upon the supernatural. "The Canterville Ghost" is a short story that has been (more or less successfully, I prefer the original for sheer wit) 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 simple - an old English country house, named Canterville Chase, is set up as the archetypal 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.

In come the stereotypical US Americans ... the Otis family, complete with unrefined tastes, a boundless self-esteem, and an unwavering belief in the blessings of the modern world ... and of rampant 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.