Monday, December 23, 2013

Tis The Season To Be haunted

Here's a list of what I believe are some of the best ghost stories I've come across. I use the term 'ghost story' fairly loosely. Let's say these are stories concerned with visits by, or encounters with, presences who may be considered as from beyond any earthly plot, such as the caller in Joyce Carol Oates' unsettling story. I'm leaving out novels for now, though I was delighted to be invited to write an introduction to a forthcoming special edition of one of the greatest ghost novels I've read, Thomas Tessier's Fog Heart. The best ghost stories may not always be the scariest, but those are the ones I prefer. I also enjoy the occasional merging of ghost and horror story (as in Bowen's 'Demon' or Greene's 'Little Place...'), but I have zero interest in 'splatter' or 'shock' horror; such relish in blood-letting always seems to me to be the equivalent of cheap CGI, i.e. non-special effects.

Please feel free to add, but only stories that scared you shitless (or at least gave you a genuine shiver, the sensation of someone walking over your grave):

Elizabeth Bowen: 'The Demon Lover'
Joyce Carol Oates: 'Where Is Here?'
Ray Bradbury: 'The Emissary'
M.R. James: 'Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad', 'A School Story'
Graham Greene: 'A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road', 'The End of the Party'
Rosemary Timperley: 'Harry'
Stephen King: '1048', 'The Man in the Black Suit', 'Gramma'
Robert Hichens: 'How Love Came to Professor Guildea'
Roddy Doyle: 'The Pram'
A.M. Burrage: 'The Sweeper'
H.G. Wells: 'The Red Room'
L.P. Hartley: 'WS'
Joe Hill: 'Last Breath'

A few of the writers on this list, such as M.R. James or Joyce Carol Oates, have probably written so many good ghost/scary stories that deserve their own lists. And I am certain that I have forgotten many stories by other writers that are perhaps as good as these. I simply put down those I found unforgettable.

A note on how I structured the list: I have placed Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover' at the top of the list because it is marvellous, one of the most beautifully written (and disturbing) stories I've ever read. Oates' is another gem so it comes second, etcetera.

Roald Dahl published what may well be the best anthology of ghost stories a couple of decades ago (I'd love to see a better one), simply called 'Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories'. In his intro he noted that some of the very greatest ghost stories are by women, such as Timperley's 'Harry', which Dahl's book introduced me to. I think every good writer attempts at least one from time to time, and Roddy Doyle's 'The Pram' is an excellent newcomer.

The title of my forthcoming collection (of poetry rather than ghost stories) is 'Haunt'.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Louring storm, Dublin Mts.
Another dream-post. Just wanted to record an odd one I woke from early this morning. A landscape/weather dream.

I was somewhere in a countryside similar to Wicklow. Can't recall who I was with but I noticed, on the slope of a neighboring mountain (like The Sugarloaf), a curious disturbance in a slate-dark raincloud. It was trailing a kind of thin vortex or mini-tornado. As I watched, mesmerised, I gradually became aware that the tornado was spreading, widening, becoming absurdly broad. And it appeared to be approaching.

The rest of the dream is a vague, anxious muddle. I think there was an attempt to escape in a car, which wouldn't start. Also an impression of others fleeing, on possibly blocked roads. Not a fully fledged nightmare, the trappings never quite cohered into that all-engulfing dread that rocks you awake with a dry mouth and hammering heart. But it was real enough while I was in it. And that morphing slaty cloud is with me still. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Happy Birth / Mother's Day Mum

grandmama & wean
I suppose there will come a time in the not too distant future when I will stop posting about my mother. Not yet though, not when her birthday coincides with Mother's Day just over a year since she died.

My wife reminded me, as usual. And it did occur to me that my wife should be included, being a mother. So I sneaked out of the house this morning and dithered in Superquinn (M&S wasn't open yet), feeling like a pathetic twit trying to decide what would be appropriate, thought-wise, price-wise, protocol-wise in general. I hadn't a clue really, so I bought the usual for both of them; that is, a thin but elegant clutch of lilies (5 Stems For The Price of 3) for my wife and and a bunch of yellow-red tulips for mum. My wife had already bought some potted pansies to put on mum's grave a few days before. I thought I might take both these and the tulips to lay on her plot in Deansgrange. But then I thought that the tulips will be nice to have in the house, as a little tribute to mum, and they'll last here for a little while longer out of the forecasted snow.

I ended up driving there in the late afternoon with my cousin Fiachra, whom I had picked up so that he could come back here and do some work on my computer (our docklands project). The cemetery was busy, full of impatient-seeming drivers weaving too quickly in and out of those parked on the double yellow. We found the grave fairly easily. I had a basic idea where it was, just off the path near where the main road takes a slight bend, a tall wall to the right and two statues of the Virgin on the left (mum's near the second, more immaculate one). Fiachra was the one who spotted it first. It's my grandparents' grave, the dark headstone not yet bearing mum's name.

My mother never visited any graves as far as I recall. She didn't put much stock in the death-stuff. What do you say to a grave? Anything I suppose. I stood facing the stone, as many do: solemn rituals under the slab-coloured wintery sky, a cold wind getting into gear. I didn't wait, just picked up the dead carnations and roses we'd left there on her death's anniversary last month, set down the pansies, said happy birthday and headed back to the car.

[photo of mum and the wean taken 2 years ago on her 92nd birthday]

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Dream In Colour

mum_passport_5906 copy
I am reposting this image for a reason.

I had another dream about mum, this morning just before I woke late (having fallen asleep again after being woken earlier by the wean on the rampage).

It was more an image than a narrative. I was looking at a large colour photograph of her (not at all like the one above) sitting asleep in a dressing gown in an armchair, viewed from the side. Her head had fallen back on the headrest. Behind her there was a long bed, and behind this something else, another chair perhaps. The composition was perfectly balanced and very striking, especially since the dominant element was the tall broad wall (with possibly a single unshaded lightbulb burning) that rose to the ceiling above mum, bed, etc. The wall was painted a very strong colour, a kind of turquoise. I remember being surprised that the composition was so good; in fact the photograph was very powerful and haunting. It wasn't taken by me, but, I initially thought, by my uncle Niall.

Was I handed this photograph or did it come in an envelope or just appear before me? I can't remember. I knew what it meant though, or part of the story behind it. Mum had taken part in what I thought of as a 'dream trial' (more correctly sleep experiment). Perhaps this is why I thought Niall (who was a doctor) had taken the photograph. But in the dream I eventually became convinced that he hadn't taken it. Someone else had, a photographer who would have cared about composition, colour, etc.

One of the reasons I think the dream may be of some importance (though only to me of course) is that I am rarely conscious of having dreamed in colour. It probably relates to the image above: my mother with her eyes closed. I even suggested, in that piece, that she looks as if she's having a nice dream. It may also have something to do with my hoping to find some clues as to my natural father's whereabouts. My mother once told me that Niall had hired a private detective and managed to actually trace my father (who was married by that stage). She couldn't offer any details though and when I asked my uncle he said he had no recollection of this, and perhaps she was mistaken. So the information/documentation, like the dream photo, will have to come from another source. Or it may be that the dream is more about simply missing my mother. After all, if she is sleeping she can wake up. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Date

mum_passport_5906 copy
Something inside me must believe in the occult gravity of anniversaries, even if I can't really see how the fact that my mother died exactly one year ago today makes this day any more significant than yesterday or tomorrow. But humans abide by rituals, and I am, in my secular way, as ritualistic as any church-goer.

So driving back from Wexford to Dublin earlier this evening it hit me, surely as a cloudful of rain skittering across the windscreen. Perhaps it was all the stronger because I'd spent the day with my cousins Pat, Dave, Fiachra, Niall and his son; a satisfyingly busy day photographing and bubble-wrapping Pat's paintings (which we had also spent hours doing yesterday) and loading them into a removal van, to be driven to my inlaws' place, where there was a spare stable to store his life's work (approx 500 paintings and drawings) and give his house in Bray some real breathing space. I hadn't had time to dwell on the day that was in it. My wife Sam and I had meant to visit mum's grave that afternoon with some flowers, but this plan had to be abandoned. Sam needed to get her car NCT'd in Dublin so she left before I did. Once on the road I had nothing but my thoughts as a companion.

There is something about that familiar 50 minute drive, alone in the car's hermetic dream-space, the road smoothly swerving or rolling over long straight hills, anthropomorphic ivied tree-silhouettes, evening coming on, the Sugarloaf sailing its dark fin. My mother used to enjoy driving before she gave it up prematurely in her 50s. But it wasn't only that. The anniversary of course is part of it, as is the loss of a routine that had developed over the years when I was caring for mum; whenever I left her for a few hours or (when she was less dependent) overnight, I would call her the moment I arrived and let her know when I was on the way back. Now, the absence of the need to make these calls intensifies a sense of heaviness that is also lightness, a phantom wind-resistance, that is also a kind of parting, in which the passing landscape appears less (or more) real.

All these things are part of it, but the feeling has overtaken me before on this (and sometimes other) longish drives, even when mum was still alive. What else then? What stirring, what embedded pattern, surge, cascade of chemicals setting off memories and half-memories, spirit-stuff, ripples in the neural net? Whatever it was/is, I continue to miss her. I wish I could believe in her continuing, being out there in some quantum time-leased apartment, something more than dispersed carbon, her breath now the wind's fucking poetry.  

I often think of something a friend of mine, Johnny, said to me shortly after mum died: when your parents die you become an orphan. This is I suppose especially true in my case because I never knew my father and was brought up an only child (though I have a wonderful half brother I later met). I've been lucky though, with my mother, my wife, son and some very close friends/relations.

I took the photo above a few years ago, for a disabled driving ID that enabled me to park in wheelchair slots when mum was in the car. She closed her eyes at one point, an involuntarily moment that made her appear youthful: as if she's having a good dream, or someone has told her to close her eyes, make a wish.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


Fun Fair, Dún Laoghaire
"My mind goes round my brain like the earth goes round the sun."