A haunted feeling in today’s Ireland
PATRICK McCABE long has been recognized as a stunningly audacious and accomplished writer.
His disturbing but brilliant new novel, “Winterwood,” benefits from both those qualities and something more: McCabe’s ambition to extend Irish literature’s deep Gothic tradition into a completely contemporary context. His successful realization of that aim makes this book a bleak and haunting little masterpiece.
Readers familiar with McCabe’s earlier novels know that no writer in contemporary fiction can contrive quite so enthralling an antihero -- most memorably Francie Brady, the psychotic young slaughterhouse worker who is the first-person narrator of “The Butcher Boy” (1992), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and adapted for film by Neil Jordan. In “Winterwood,” McCabe has, in essence, bifurcated Francie.
Redmond Hatch is a moderately successful Dublin journalist, assigned by his newspaper to return to his native village, the mountain hamlet of Slievenageeha, to report on the vanishing local traditions. There he falls under the sway of a mysterious and sinister fiddler and storyteller, Ned Strange. The residents of a new suburbia extending its reach into the valley of Slievenageeha see Ned as a colorful local character and eagerly send their children to his Saturday morning ceilidhs (traditional Gaelic dances). Redmond, however, joins Ned in his cabin for nightlong drinking binges, and soon a darkness crowds out the charm. Ned may or may not have murdered his unfaithful wife, who may or may not have been Redmond’s mother. Little by little, the secrets of a claustrophobic Irish mountain valley dribble out, including Redmond’s dim but horrific memories of what may have been his mistreatment at the hands of a beloved uncle.
Meanwhile, Redmond’s marriage dissolves over his wife’s infidelity, and he is bitterly separated from Imogen, the young daughter he loves. When Ned commits suicide after being arrested and imprisoned for molesting a young boy, Redmond’s life falls to pieces. Alone and out of work, he assumes a new identity, reinvents himself as an admired documentary filmmaker, but then begins to fall to pieces again, in the face of what may be madness ... or possession by the horrific Ned’s ghost.
In hands less skilled than McCabe’s, this would be melodrama or -- at best -- absurdity. But he is a masterful writer and he has fashioned a mesmerizing parable out of an improbable fiction.
Over the years, various critics have referred to McCabe’s novels as “Bog Gothic.” It’s a sly appellation on a couple of counts: It refers to the author’s origins in soggy, rocky County Monaghan, and it also evokes his communal origins, since “bog” and “Catholic” are interchangeable in Irish Protestant invective.
Up until now, though, genuine Gothic literature has been, in fact, a Protestant affair.
Colm Toibin has noted that the “Irish tradition of Gothic fiction, which includes Maturin, Le Fanu, Stoker and leads on to Yeats and certain elements in the work of Elizabeth Bowen,” reflects what Ireland’s leading contemporary historian, Roy Foster, calls “Protestant Magic.”
As British literary critic Terry Eagleton argues, “The fact that Anglo-Irish writers ... should have exhibited such fascination with madness and the occult, terror and the supernatural, is in one sense surprising. They belonged, after all, to a notoriously hard-headed social class which habitually chided the Catholic masses for their infantile superstition. But Protestant Gothic might be dubbed the political unconscious of Anglo-Irish society, the place where its fears and fantasies most definitely emerge.... And if Irish Gothic is a specifically Protestant phenomenon, it is because nothing lent itself more to the genre than the decaying gentry in their crumbling houses, isolated and sinisterly eccentric, haunted by the sins of the past. Gothic carries with it a freight of guilt and self-torment, and these are arguably more Protestant than Catholic obsessions.”
In fact, psychoanalytically inclined commentators have situated the inspiration for the vampires of Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker in the Protestant Ascendancy’s guilty subconscious. (In other words, colonialism equals blood sucking.... Works for me.)
For appreciators of the Irish Gothic tradition, though, that interpretation poses a problem: Contemporary Ireland is now one of Europe’s most prosperous and dynamic societies, and its Protestant Ascendancy no longer exists. Moreover, the new Ireland, widely known as the “Celtic Tiger,” is now, by nearly every measure, a post-Catholic culture.
How, in other words, do you contrive a Gothic literature with neither guilt nor God?
As McCabe explained in a recent interview, he set out to do just that: “I’d never written a Gothic book as far as I was concerned,” he said. He had always resisted labeling his work Bog Gothic, because his influences, he felt, were elsewhere and cinematic rather than literary: “It’s Sam Fuller; it’s social fantastic. But this time around I thought ... I feel like telling a real ghost story, like you’d hear when you were a kid. So it was part of all that culture that was in my head, Stoker and all that.... “
According to McCabe, he’d been thinking through “Winterwood” when the inspiration for the horrifically compelling Ned came to him at a friend’s wine-soaked party. He “turned to this big plate glass window and I got this image, not a hallucination or anything, but a kind of image of a ... big hillbilly with a dead child in his arms, like an offering, a sacrificial kind of thing. And it’s best with these things just to leave them alone, but then ‘Old Ned of the Hill’ came into my mind, that Pogues song, an old Irish folk song, and then the whole notion of sentiment and the menace behind sentiment and the brutality, and I thought, the language I want for this now is the high Gothic sort of style -- falling into sicknesses and excursions into the realm of the unknown from the borders of mortality.”
The result is not simply a disturbing work of fiction but the reanimation of the Gothic impulse in a way that speaks directly to our time and situation. In place of the old tensions, McCabe has set a new dichotomy between an authentic tradition, with all its dark and bloody failings, and a modernity whose directing impulse is ambition and acquisition. In his particular context, he has set the old Ireland against the new, but because this is art of the real sort, the lesson is easily portable.
Patrick McCabe is a remarkably brave and original writer, and in “Winterwood” he has achieved a remarkably original and deeply unsettling novel.