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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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7 Brilliant Irish Horror Writers to Read on St. Patrick's Day

For centuries Ireland has fostered a culture swarming in mystery, magic, and the macabre: it gave us Samhain and jack-o-lanterns, Dracula and Carmilla, headless horsemen and banshees, and a rambling host of masterful literary minds whose supernatural fiction is still celebrated for being wildly imaginative and unsettling. Ireland has arguably contributed more to the Gothic sensibility than almost any other culture.

Writing about one of Ireland's greatest supernatural authors, M. R. James mused “As to his particular power: I think the origin of it is not far to seek. [He] had both French and Irish blood in his veins, and in his works I seem to see both strains coming out, though the Irish predominates.”

James felt that the Emerald Isle's literary tradition was pregnant with vision and imagination – that somehow it exuded a highly-fertile germ of morbid creativity – and I would have to agree. Irish literature abounds with grisly, weird, and uncanny happenings, often marked by dark irony or a savage, unexpected twist. On this St. Patrick's Day, we pause to lift a Guinness to the honor of seven of Ireland's best and brightest.

Éirinn go Brách! Sláinte mhaith!


Among horror circles, Wilde is known chiefly for two things: “The Canterville Ghost” and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both are regularly over-recommended for the wrong reasons, and yet both are well worth the consideration of serious horror aficionados. Wilde was not a body-horrorist; he was an artist specializing in entendre, farce, wit, and highbrow humor. And yet his contributions to the horror genre are supremely eloquent, passing over the maudlin gore of Sweeney Todd for psychological and societal exploration.

His forays into the Gothic are almost always intertwined with a rich blend of potent satire and revolting social criticism: in "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," for instance, an aristocrat takes a palm-reader's prophecy that he will be a murderer so seriously, that he bumbles his way through several hapless attempted homicides before killing the palm-reader in a rage. If you read Wilde, don't expect to shiver until you are far down the well he has dug, but you will shiver from horror – horror of the vanity and selfishness of mankind.


E.F. Bleiler – the chief bibliographer and anthologist of speculative fiction before the ascension of S.T. Joshi – thought that the Victorian age produced only four top-rank supernaturalists. One was a man, three were women, and two were Irish. One was an Irish woman. Charlotte Riddell's own life was something of a horror story; she struggled desperately to support her family by her pen – a burden that weighed desperately on her, as evidenced by the themes which pervade her ghost stories: found money, promised money, the nouveau-riche, and the crippling anxiety of poverty.

Her stories are rich with pathos, desperation, irony, and locomotive plot lines. Unlike many Victorian ghost stories, hers are not plodding, recycled stories of unsurprisingly unearthed crimes, simplistically revenged murders, and petty postmortem appearances: they teem with humanist realism, and are propelled forward by genuine interest and lurking dread.


A clergyman who thrived during the high-watermark of the Gothic era, Maturin is now little remembered except by scholars of the Gothic. His relative, Oscar Wilde, would have been disappointed to know this: as a vacationer in France, he adopted the last name of his ancestor's most popular character – Melmoth the Wanderer. Maturin created quite a splash during his time: his play Bertram was chided by the radical poet Coleridge as evidence of the public's increasing “depravation of … mind,” hinting that the cleric's drama smacked of atheism and degeneracy, ending his career in the Church of Ireland.

His writings are thrillingly Gothic ("Albigenses" is host to werewolves, "Melmoth" follows a Faustian scholar desperately trying to find a loophole out of his pact with Satan, “Leixlip Castle,” set on Hallowe'en, explores the demon lover theme – one which delighted fellow Irishmen Le Fanu, and O'Brien – wherein a woman is abducted by or wed to a spirit which may be a ghost, a demon, or something worse) if not preachy, melodramatic, and sensational. They are, however, in spite of their maudlin prose, guilty pleasures to be enjoyed.

and Bertram


Regular readers and customers know that I have ambiguous feelings about the highly-successful author of Dracula. Much of his work was lifted from earlier writers (Doyle, Le Fanu, Poe, Dunsany, Maupassant), and that which can be called truly original is notoriously melodramatic and campy. Nonetheless, the pantheon of horror will always house the hallowed heads of Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker – Stoker unanimously receiving the chiefdom, and – as Dickens put it – "my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it."

Stoker's Count cannot, however, be discredited for his father's faults. The lord vampire has almost single-handedly shaped and defined a creative industry which has welcomed the works of Stephen King, Anne Rice, Joss Whedon, Alan Ball, and even Stephanie Meyer. His short fiction is also worthy of mention. They revel in his flair for the macabre and the gruesome, hardly flinching from the gore which would eventually dominate the industry, and are redolent with psychological terror and unease. Although they often drift far into left field, they make this up with Stoker's chilling mastery of atmosphere, suspense, and psychology, and demonstrate how a theater manager could become the doyen of the horror genre quite literally overnight.


While Stoker can claim King and Rice as his literary progeny, Dunsany has the pleasure of counting H.P. Lovecraft, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Robert E. Howard as his most successful proteges. Although this Irish baron also worked in the classic ghost story in the vein of M. R. James and Charles Dickens (see: “Ghosts,” “The Highwayman”), his writings more typically indulged in the weird and fantastical. They dabbled in what would later be called the "sword and sorcery" genre, combining elements of various Euro-Arabic-Egyto-Asian mythologies to create a strange and hostile realm which vaguely resembled earth (even sometimes suggesting that it in was somehow present-day earth).

Thick with beautiful, King James Version-inspired language, reading Dunsany is truly like sitting at a campfire in the Iron Age and being told tales of realms haunted by evil and magic. His stories certainly inspired the realms of Conan the Barbarian, the Cthulhu Mythos, Narnia, and Middle Earth, and while more fleeting, episodic, and parable-like than their epic offspring, the tales of Dunsany have an intoxicating quality that at once marvels and disturbs.


Often erroneously classified as American, this tragically underrated son of Erie was astronomically gifted in his vision and taste for fantasy. After imigrating to the United States, O'Brien spent little less than a decade producing chilling, disquieting fiction before being killed in the American Civil War. Saved from obscurity by loyal fans, his genius still founders under the forceful prominence of Poe and Lovecraft. His stories recommend themselves simply by basic description alone: an evil genius plans to sell toys possessed by homicidal spirits to the children of New York at Christmastime; in a darkened alley, a man is informed that his apartment building is home to orgiastic cannibals from a separate dimension; a small boy falls in love with a grave; an invisible beast falls from space into a man's bed, is captured, and unceremoniously starved; a Poe-esque maniac kills his roommate in his quest to create a microscope which allows him to view a woman who lives in a drop of water.

They are sometimes horrifying, sometimes mystifying, sometimes exciting, and always mysterious. Dripping with existential chaos, cosmic ambivalence, urban malaise, and bitter cynicism, O'Brien's tales profoundly influenced Guy de Maupassant (“The Horla,” etc., etc.), and undeniably impacted Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft (“The Damned Thing,” “Call of Cthulhu,” etc. etc.).


Rightfully selected by M. R. James, E. F. Bleiler, and others as the chief practitioner of the ghost story during the Victorian Age, Le Fanu (described in our opening paragraph) seeped the mystery and fatefulness that Irish mythology so exemplifies. His victims of the supernatural are often villains being revisited by unrelenting and unmerciful phantoms (“Familiar,” “Harbottle,” “Baronet,” “Squire Toby”), but they are sometimes hapless innocents drawn into the obliterating influence of a destructive entity (“Schalken,” “Green Tea,” “Carmilla,” “Aungier Street”).

His universe is uncommonly (for his era) hostile, impatient, deaf to entreaty, and slimy with chilling detail. There is something tremendously creepy about the behavior of his ghosts – their comfort around their hauntees. They lounge in pajamas, walk on naked, flabby feet, and smile knowingly when discovered in a supposedly locked bedroom.

Unlike the typical Victorian phantom, they are not vaporish forces for good; they are horrifically physical forces for human will: the will to avenge, the will to dominate, the will to destroy. They operate, seemingly, outside of a Christian universe, and while some (Carmilla, etc.) respond to the machinations of devout human beings, most unleash their will without possibility of being stopped or appealed to. M. R. James' tales often smack strongly of Le Fanu (“Barchester Cathedral,” “School Story,” “Wailing Well,” “Residence at Whitminster,” etc.), and their influence carries on in his popularity.

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