Review: Channel the Dark

This is a great anthology that showcases the wide variety of speculative fiction being produced by Irish authors, as well as those from abroad under the wing of Temple Dark Books (which makes them Irish by adoption, surely).

Dystopian-esque SF, various strands of horror and dark fantasy are all on show here. Three stories actually deal with curses, though in such dramatically different ways they show just how varied writing can be (post-apocalyptic in We Do What We Must, urban dark fantasy in Gestalt, smalltown horrors and isolation in Phobia). I seem to like that theme, though I haven’t made use of it in my own writing yet.

There’s also a really unusual and innovative piece about a detective with the sensory powers of a dog, which has a real Gothic/classic lit sort of feel.

Hats off to the editor, Ronald, a formidable SF author in his own right, for his epic poem Fensham’s Wake. Writing poems is beyond my skillset so I’m always impressed by people who can do it, let alone people who can sustain it (thematically as well as content-wise) in a sort of long form.

A bonus is the selection of tasters of Temple Dark’s published novels, along with valuable forewards by the authors which give you a bit of insight into how each extract fits into the whole and also their motivations in writing them. I’ve bought two more Temple Dark novels since, A Land Without Wolves and Hell’s Gulf, and I’m looking forward to starting them.

Review: Glimpses of the Unknown – Lost Ghost Stories

This anthology of previously never anthologised ghost stories is a gem of a find and is the first of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series that I’ve read in full.

There are eighteen stories here from the late 19th century to the 1920s and cover all aspects of ‘horror’, from creeping supernatural to moody atmospheres that unsettle rather than terrify. That’s the joy of the genre, really, in that it can run the gamut without getting tiresome. We have everything from Gothic hauntings to Mesopotamian adventure stories; the editor is right to say that the last one could make a good Indiana Jones movie.

What I found especially interesting is how fresh and contemporary the stories feel. True, some of the settings are of their time, like duels with rapiers and the like or some dubious attitudes by male characters toward women (such as ‘The River’s Edge’ by Mary Schultze), but the actual writing styles are typically engaging and fluid.

As I’ve mentioned the fact that these stories have never been included in a book since their initial publication makes it part archaeological/archival retrieval. There’s a bio and potted history of each writer but some of the authors have no history that can be found, despite the editor’s efforts by going through census and other records to try and match bylines to verifiable historical figures.

There is something well, ghostly, about an author such as Eric Purves (whose story ‘The House of the Black Veil’ is one of the more innovative pieces) now existing solely in reference to the single story he/she/they seem to have published. Ashely in his intro to that story notes that “When John Reed Wade, the editor of Pearson’s Magazine, ran the following story in the May 1929 issue, he announced it as ‘One of the most original mystery stories ever written.” And yet there is no trace of any other Purves work. Was it a pseudonym? We’ll never know.

Not every reader will like every story, which is natural enough in an anthology, but lovers of ghost stories will have plenty to hold their interest here.

David O’Mahony – Irish horror author


David O’Mahony is a writer, historian, and award-winning newspaper designer from Cork, Ireland.

He specialises in speculative and historical fiction, with a penchant for the myriad subgenres of horror. His non-fiction work tends to focus on history. He has been published in Ireland, the US, and India.

Select bylines:

Losing Your Grip – 2RulesofWriting

Out of Time – Spillwords

What Gets Left Behind – Reedsy

You Have to Go Back – Reedsy

A Winter’s Wrath – Christmas of the Dead: Krampus Kountry

When not writing he is assistant editor of the Irish Examiner, where he as picked up numerous awards for eye-catching front pages. One of his efforts, marking the publication of the mother and baby homes report and naming all the children who died at Bessborough mother and baby home, featured on Sky News, BBC, and CNN as well as being raised in parliament as an important historical document.

His front page on the murder of Lyra McKee was named front page of the year in 2019, and his team produced the front page of the year for 2020 as well as having an unprecedented double nomination. The Bessborough page won the award in 2021 and he won the 2023 award for Thank you, Vicky.

Halloween column: The joy of horror

We have been telling stories about the things that terrify us since time immemorial.

We have done it in every medium ever invented, from oral campfire stories to religious illuminated manuscripts to wood etchings to cinema. There is no shortage of examples, and the beauty of horror (let’s just class it all as “horror fiction”) is that it is endlessly adaptable to the circumstances. Like science fiction, it’s a fantastic vehicle for social commentary, because you can make grotesque analogies with reality or real-life behaviours – Jordan Peele did this masterfully in Us and Get Out.

I can’t think of a single genre that’s been more influential on me than horror. It wasn’t just Stephen King, even though he was the first horror writer I was a fan of and for years he was the most numerous author in my own library (eventually match, then eclipsed by Terry Goodkind).

Although I’m also a big fan of science fiction, nothing can come close to horror for me really. The first book I can remember buying with my own money was a hardback Penguin Book of Horror Stories, now out of print, in a shop in Tralee, Co Kerry, which no longer exists (stop calling me old).

Penguin Book of Horror Stories, edited by JA Cuddon

I go back to this maybe every 18 months or so. It holds such a prominent place in my formative years that I’m always convinced one of my favourite stories – about somebody who only discovers they’re living dead at the end when catching sight of themselves in a mirror – is in it, and yet it is not. I’ve never been able to trace the story, and as far as I know it was anonymous. My wife, incidentally, has suggested that it may have been a story I wanted to write but never did… so in all likelihood I will.

I had always aimed to be a fantasy fiction author. I fell head over heels for David and Leigh Eddings’ works while a teenager (the first one part of the Belgariad bought secondhand on a whim… I’ve only recently discovered the darkness in their past, see the comments). I loved, and still love, the world building aspects, the adventure, the ability to break rules with magic. And yet while I wrote the genesis of a couple of novels in my youth, they never completed themselves. I even did a whole preparatory study for a fantasy universe, a la the Eddings’ Rivan Codex, which was a bit of a goldmine in terms of trying to understand how to put something like that together.

As I returned to writing recently, I worked out some fantasy-inspired stories, including one that’s paused in around the 17,000-word mark. But it turns out I have more of a flair for horror, and that I can use that genre to explore everything I have an interest in. A story of mine was recently published on 2RulesofWriting, and explores the idea of a ghost being haunted by himself. Other stories examine being trapped by pain of the past, while others dip back into the fantasy mythos.

The Guardian recently published a piece (and it’s really a rather interesting article) referring to the “horror fiction renaissance”, stating that horror “went away” in the 1990s to be replaced by other genres. Peele is quoted from a book on black horror that he views the genre “as catharsis through entertainment”.

This is actually not a new statement, though it captures the essence of it, and I remember it coming up as a theme in film studies while at university: The idea that a group can, communally, experience intense fear and emotions in a safe space (the cinema) with a defined end. A bit like a rollercoaster, which often is a good analogy for a horror film.

I’m not convinced by the article’s thesis that horror really went away. I’m not saying it’s entirely wrong, but rather that the genre has tended to just been reimagined. It blends easily with dystopian fiction (which itself goes back to Wollstonecraft Shelley’s The Last Man at least), science fiction, thrillers, pastoral scenes, whatever takes your fancy. Perhaps it is better to say that it became less visible, or less to the forefront culturally. Asian cinema has been producing horrors successfully, often remade for Western audiences (eg, Ring, The Grudge), and there is a superb range of anime horrors too.

Certainly, it is cyclical, like pretty much every other genre. Every now and again something comes out that breaks the conventions and establishes a new orthodoxy. Think the 1978 Halloween that more or less created the slasher genre. Think also of the Scream series, which resurrected the slasher genre but in a smart, self-referential sort of way. But while both of those series ended up prolific, they spawned innumerable imitators and the quality became diluted, as it typically does in every cultural mass movement.

The ability to self publish, and publish digitally first, has definitely allowed a flowering of newer subgenres in the last few years, and from a more diverse range of backgrounds, and there’s even a dedicated Irish publisher of science fiction and horror, Temple Dark Books. The vibrancy of #bookstagram and #booktok are also allowing new reads to get out in front of eyeballs faster than usual, even if it’s possible to drown in the sheer amount social media content (but it’s not just book-related). I follow a couple of horror-focused accounts on Instagram and I could easily (and gleefully) bankrupt myself buying up their recommendations.

Who knows what the future will hold? More cycles of innovation and stagnation, no doubt, but there will be constant innovation bubbling along in the background. I look forward to doing a better job of keeping in touch with it.

Happy Halloween!

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: An appreciation

Rothwell, Richard; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; National Portrait Gallery, London;

Mary Shelley, or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, aka Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, will forever be among the stars in my library simply through the writing of Frankenstein, one of the first science fiction novels and the themes of which I’m going to explore a bit here.

Bear in mind that she was 19 when she began writing it, and that it was published in 1818 when she was 21. While she is certainly respected, I, like this Guardian writer a few years ago, don’t feel she gets the level of respect she deserves. While responses were generally positive, one editor in the 1880s wrote in the preface – the preface! – that the book represents “the first of a class of fiction – not of a very high order” that was also explored by Poe (who, like Mary Shelley, used electricity and the galvanic battery as a plot device).

What had I accomplished by the age of 19? Certainly not pioneering a genre, although she wrote other novels and works which are also very good but which I’ve only come to recently, most notably the novella Matilda which her father, the perpetually in debt political radical William Godwin, refused to publish in his lifetime because it deals with incestuous love of a father for his daughter. She also wrote a post-apocalyptic novel called The Last Man where humanity has been wiped out by a virus, but I haven’t been able to get a copy of that yet.

There are several editions of Frankenstein, with the 1818 one closer to her original vision and the 1831 one influenced by the death of Percy Shelley and of her own children. I have both, but anything referenced here comes from the 1818 version which I have as a Norton Critical Edition.

I’m going to assume you know the general plotline, but here it is in summary all the same: Man learns science, creates monster, monster exacts extensive revenge, nobody survives. That’s a grossly simplified summary, true, but “and then they all died” seems to be a common enough solution to 18th and 19th-century novels.

The creature, referred to in the text as a daemon, is really an extended metaphor for the thin line between civility and brutality, and most importantly what can happen when the marginalised and powerless are oppressed savagely and given no chance for justice.

This theme of power and oppression, of gentry and those without property or means, is a major theme in the works of her father and mother. Godwin’s Caleb Williams, for example, is a novel that explores the crushing use of power and prison in a rigidly class-based society. Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, drew on her own life in two novellas that pick up on the general theme, Mary and Maria: The Wrongs of Woman, with the latter (and Godwin himself) influenced by how power can become misused by those who previously didn’t have it. Both were writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which Wollstonecraft had seen.

Frankenstein is an allegory of what happens when a cruel, harsh world tramples on innocence of the Other – much as Victor makes the creature physically, the world makes him morally (initially he thinks that just be engaging in conversation he can overcome any revulsion). Unable to make a real connection with humans, and seeing his creator experience some real happiness and family life having spurned him, the creature kills Victor’s baby brother, and having had his pleas for a mate ultimately rejected he kills Victor’s best friend and later his new bride. He tells Victor that he often experienced regret at what he had done, but he was given no kindness or affection that might have tempered his rage, or what he calls “eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind”.

“You are my creator but I am your monster.” There is a parallel here with Lucifer in Paradise Lost, a parallel the creature acknowledges himself several times: “Many times I considered Satan the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors [a family living in a house he was hiding next to], the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”

And yet the creature, Victor tells us, was designed to be beautiful. His skin barely contains his muscles, and he has long, lustrous hair that would not be out of place in a gentleman of the time. This is typically lost in any adaptation of the text as a film or otherwise, where the creature is generally made an obvious monster.

Victor, so engrossed in assembling and bringing life to his creation, only recoils from it once it comes to life (in a deliberately vague process because this narrative is told from Victor’s perspective and he doesn’t want people to follow his research). His reaction is so overblown and visceral that it’s an early example of what we would now call the Uncanny Valley, which is the theory that the closer something non-human gets to looking human the greater our instinctive hatred/disgust/fear (delete as applicable).

The reaction is not limited to Victor. Every time the creature encounters humans on his travels (he considers humans a different species to himself) he gets the same reaction: Fear, horror, violence, even being shot after rescuing a child from drowning. The creature frequently criticises the actions of humanity. He refers to the “barbarity” of mankind, and the “barbarous” nature of the villagers who expel him with violence.

The visible difference between the creature and humans is emphasised later in the text when his skin is described as being like that of a mummy, but it’s also described as yellow, so despite Victor’s best efforts he obviously stands out compared to the other inhabitants of Switzerland and Germany, even without factoring in his great height.

Unless told otherwise, I’d like to think of the creature as looking like a buff, hairy version of this

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel [Lucifer], whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed,” the creature tells Victor.

And later, he says: “Everywhere I see bliss, from which I am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.” He shows some instinctive understanding of human emotions, such as when he realises that taking food from a homestead is harming its inhabitants (he does not understand speech at this stage).

The creature here is a commentary on human nature and the affect of external factors on one’s attitude and behaviour. He says he is “not even of the same nature as man”, and “Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?”

The creature’s language about himself is full of pathos but is designed to heighten the sense of him as an Other, outside human society. He describes himself as deformed, as wretched, as loathsome. “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?” he asks his creator. Ultimately Victor starts describing himself in similar terms: “I, a miserable wretch, haunted by a curse that shut up every avenue to enjoyment”.

Fun fact: While it’s often said that Frankenstein is the creator and not the creature, the creature refers to Victor as “my father” which technically makes him a Frankenstein as well.

There is a naivete about the creature which Victor eventually realises. Having murdered several members of Victor’s family, the creature demands he be made a female counterpart, saying they will disappear into the rainforest and live together without harming anybody else. It does not occur to him, though it does to Victor, that the female counterpart may want nothing to do with him, although Victor goes off on a wild fear tangent of wondering if “she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate” and the two of them give rise to “a race of devils” opposed to mankind.

Overall the book is a brilliant example of not really science gone amok but the cautionary moral of “just because we can do a thing does not mean that we should do a thing”. While the idea of monsters and mad scientists is what cemented it in the popular imagination, the book itself deals with much bigger themes concerning power, class, and the outcomes of oppression. Quite the feat for a teenager.

Column: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

As those who follow me on Twitter may know, for the past year or so I have set myself an annual reading challenge. This was originally an attempt to read 20 pages every day, but it sort of morphed into trying to read the equivalent of 20 pages a day over the course of a year, which works out at 7,300. Last year I managed to beat it, this year I’m slightly behind schedule. Such is life.

That preamble out of the way, I want to talk a bit about dystopias. Specifically Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of the greatest works of science fiction. It seems apt that a book about a society that burns books floated into my reading at a time when there is a serious threat to books in parts of America.

I have always loved dystopic fiction, perhaps ultimately because it forces us to confront wholescale world changes and how we cope with them. I like apocalyptic movies as well, so it’s clearly a genre I find appealing (I wrote about medieval ideas of the apocalypse too, but they’re quite different). This is a classic work, extremely short but essential reading.

In the book, a fireman (who burns books), Guy Montag, starts to come to the realisation that the extreme censorship and what he does for a living is wrong, and that there are other ways of living. Ultimately he decides to spend his days preserving books. That is a very simple summary of a book that has plenty of nuances, but it does the trick.

Ray Bradbury‘s style and the liveliness of the prose – and perhaps that much of the then fantastical technology such as immersive television experiences is not that far ahead of us now – make it easy to forget that the book was written in the early 1950s, when there were book burnings in America, and that one of his concerns is effectively the dumbing down of a population by the growth of television. But he wrote amid real fears about nuclear war – Hiroshima and Nagasaki being recent memories – anti-communist paranoia in America, and mass purges of intelligentsia and dissidents in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Importantly, while it feels like a prophetic text, he himself would say it was about what might happen as opposed to what will happen. At its heart the book asks the question ‘what if people didn’t like books?’ and follows it through to its most extreme end to explore the sort of world that might result.

The most intriguing, and alarming, thing about Fahrenheit 451 is that the book-burning mandate didn’t come from the government or some autocracy. Rather, it grew organically because people felt they’d be better off. Montag is told, “Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” That said, because this is relayed to the reader through dialogue it’s entirely possible that this is a story which was fed out as propaganda in favour of the changes, because it’s made obvious that the government is making what it deems best use of the situation.

News, for instance, is heavily sanitised at a time of nuclear war when bombers regularly fly over the homes of Montag and other characters. In fact the reader could ask if indeed cities across the United States (it’s only confirmed to by the US late on in the book) have been bombed already, given that it’s not clear if these are bombers returning from attacks or if they are attackers. Men are called up to the army, but none of their wives are particularly worried – they tell each other that it’s other women’s husbands who get killed.

Dissent exists, but it’s crushed. This dissent can be passive, such as through the mere existence of Montag’s neighbour Clarisse’s mere existence. She, free thinking and from a family that spends considerable time talking and interacting with one another as opposed to just existing, is in all her actions and force of personality the rank opposite of the sterile world that has been created, and while Montag is later told she was killed by a speeding car there is a strong inference that she was in fact killed by his captain. Thinking for oneself is a de facto crime.

The effects of not thinking for oneself are made clear by how Montag’s memory is in many cases weak: For instance, it is only toward the end of the novel that he can remember where he met his wife, and when he asks her this question earlier in the text she cannot remember either (though she places little importance on this).

Interestingly, there is the strong inference that people, at some level, realise that this is not how things need to be. Montag’s wife, who liberally takes sleeping pills, overdoses and he has to call medics to pump her stomach. The medics say they have multiple cases of this every night, suggesting that subconsciously even people who won’t question their reality openly are looking for an escape (a very final escape, but one all the same).

Sport, in this world, is the opiate of the masses (keep people occupied and makes them too tired to think really). But the key point about knowledge, and this is something I had in the back of my head when writing about the edits to Roald Dahl’s books (a decision now partially reversed), is that we need some sort of challenge if we are to evolve as individuals. As we are told in Fahrenheit 451: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

This is not a new concept. In the sixth century, Gildas, who was a crusty old monk writing in post-Roman Britain, referred to how words, in his case vicious criticisms of power and hypocrisy, could be “darts” that lead to healing. He was writing about religious reform, but the point about using words to get under somebody’s skin (or simply into their heads) is the same.

This is Gildas. He is definitely judging you

It was, I’m sure, some subconscious filing quirk that had me put Fahrenheit 451 on top of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) on the shelves, given that my copies are not the same size (one of my usual filing systems). Both grim dystopias but in very different ways, with Orwell’s book putting more emphasis on the use of state surveillance and the abuse of overwhelming power, exemplified in particular by the re-editing of newspapers to match whatever current politics exists: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

I will explore dystopian fiction more in the coming weeks and months as I shake this website into shape.

Editing Roald Dahl’s books is wrong

To say the decision by Puffin Books to edit Roald Dahl’s books is perplexing to say the least. The intention is to make the language more inclusive, and to remove or replace more problematic words. As an intention this is actually meant well, but in practice it makes little sense. Some changes are baffling. Making the Oompa-Loompas gender neutral is one, because it’s completely unnecessary (how was their previous description problematic?).

Now, let’s be clear: Language matters and inclusive language matters a great deal. When I was writing up the Irish Examiner style guide, which dictates what terms and linguistic styles we use, I made a point that we should not refer to people who have a condition in such a way that that condition defines them. So, somebody with diabetes as opposed to diabetic. As a father whose son was diagnosed with autism in the years after writing up that document, I am more acutely aware of the need for such language when you do not have the issue referred to yourself.

But I digress slightly.

I don’t agree with the claims from some critics that the Dahl edits are “woke” or for “snowflakes”. The changes, some of which are highlighted here, are meant well. I see the point of the publisher and recognise that it worked with a group that focuses on inclusivity. But my first reaction to the Roald Dahl news was that it was absurd. These are books, not instruction manuals. Indeed, the French publisher is not going to follow suit. Works of fiction are, by their very nature, works of art and just as importantly works of their time. You don’t have to agree with what’s in them, and you certainly don’t have to agree with how the author expresses themself. Words carry an abundance of  meaning and nuance and it is impossible to avoid something objectionable to someone being written somewhere by any author.

My second reaction was more a question. Where does it end? One only has to look at the campaigns by conservatives in parts of the United States to restrict – sorry, vet – what’s available in school libraries, and in particular the targeting of texts with some LGBT content, to say that censorship on a wide scale has the potential for a very bleak future indeed. We as a species are already grappling with the seemingly endless tide of conspiracy theory and misinformation (as opposed to mistaken interpretation, which is different even though it can also be damaging). Do we really need to hide ideas instead of engage with them?

And logically, where would it end? How far back do you go in terms of sanitising? All of medieval literature would be in the bin, if that’s the case. I did a PhD on it, trust me. Most works considered “classics” would face redaction, some more extensively than others. The Bible endorses genocide and murder in some parts. Heart of Darkness is explicitly racist. Nietzsche is a misogynist. There is a short Marvel series where Captain America – Captain America! Supposedly all that’s good! – expresses disquiet about working with the X Men because “they’re not like us” (and X Men as a whole is a way of challenging racism and all its forms). Perhaps we should pay more attention to how adaptations take the essence of a story without the racism (eg, Apocalypse Now, the Chris Evans version of Captain America).

Decades ago, the Cork Examiner would have referred to women with jobs somewhat patronisingly as “girls” (eg, shop girls). I don’t propose to go back into the archives and change those. It makes me feel a bit too much like Winston Smith from 1984:Disney has taken to adding notes to some of its films, such as the original Jungle Book, to say they reflected older views which were wrong (and certainly the song at the end, where the girl dreams of a future “cooking in the home”, is extremely dated and I have repeatedly said this to my children, who love the rest of the film). I think this is reasonable enough, because it leaves the actual film intact as it was. And it’s a chance to explain to children what is or isn’t appropriate to say.

Some of Dahl’s phraseology is dated, and has been for years. He made antisemitic comments in real life. His work can be cruel toward overweight people – think Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where his weight is equated to his character as a human being. But then David Walliams is equally antagonistic when it comes to people’s differences, and I haven’t seen any campaigns to edit back his work, though the Telegraph claims it could happen. Elsewhere Dahl’s narrator betrays a certain patriarchal approach to the place of women and girls, like in Esio Trot, though some of it is kind of excused by the way he frames the narrator’s voice.

That voice in Matilda for example is very clearly somebody addressing the reader directly (including the interjection, during an extended riff on how it would be delightful to write caustic reviews of awful students, “but enough of that, we have to get on”). That somebody is not necessarily Roald Dahl, though on balance of probability it is. However, if you’re reading the book aloud to a child then that, in effect, makes you the narrator. It’s supposed to. They’re written as you would tell a story to a child, not just as a child would read them. And the way he plays with language and creates words in the BFG is masterful.

I have read a good number of the books to my sons, and we have listened to them in audiobook as well. I read some of them as a child in the early 1990s (or thereabouts) and at this remove can’t recall word for word any of them, let alone say a particular phrase influenced my thinking. What I can certainly say though, and it was only apparent while reading Matilda to my son, that Matilda instilled in my a lifelong hatred of bullying (and fascism) and an appreciation for kindred spirit bookworms (as I was at Matilda’s age and well beyond), as well as a warm affinity for teachers.

My approach, any time I came across something that I felt was wrong, was to simply tell the boys “you shouldn’t say stuff like this” or words of that ilk. They are not cruel and they understand this. But they do love the stories. And going back in to change the language changes those stories to some extent, and that is wrong.