In­trigu­ing and un­set­tling sto­ries

The Dogs of Inishere

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Eib­hear Wal­she

By Alan­nah Hop­kin Dalkey Ar­chive, ¤16

The pro­tag­o­nist of Star Qual­ity, one of the strong­est sto­ries in this new col­lec­tion, is Kurt Karls­son, a re­tired Hol­ly­wood star liv­ing in ru­ral Ire­land. He is renowned for a clas­sic movie, The Fall of the House of Usher, and is de­scribed in these terms: “The world’s most hand­some man, they called him back in the for­ties, when he gave such a su­perb per­for­mance as the dy­ing aes­thete, Rod­er­ick Usher.” This ref­er­ence to a canon­i­cal Gothic text is not ac­ci­den­tal, as these ap­par­ently nat­u­ral­is­tic sto­ries have a linked pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the un­canny or the in­ex­pli­ca­ble.

The best of these sto­ries have a twist into the un­known, an un­ex­pected lurch from the ra­tio­nal into the am­biva­lent, and the one or two sto­ries that were less suc­cess­ful for me were those with­out this faint, al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble sug­ges­tion of the Gothic. As an­other char­ac­ter tells us, “I like the feel­ing, a sen­sa­tion that I call a slip­page, when some part of your be­ing slips into an­other time, joins the ghosts of an­other age, then slips back into this world, mildly dis­ori­en­tated and per­haps a lit­tle wiser.”

Alan­nah Hop­kin has pub­lished two nov­els; this is her first short-story col­lec­tion, which in­cludes pub­lished and un­pub­lished writ­ings from 1983 to now. The set­tings vary – a Catholic board­ing school, bo­hemian Lon­don, a town in Tip­per­ary, iso­lated is­lands off the coast of Ire­land – but what links these de­cep­tively art­less sto­ries is the hint of un­set­tling pos­si­bil­i­ties. In many of the sto­ries, there are in­ti­ma­tions of un­know­able worlds rear­ing up un­ex­pect­edly, dis­turb­ing the placid sur­face of ev­ery­day life.

The col­lec­tion is short, but even that brevity fo­cuses the reader on the qui­etly un­set­tling at­mos­phere of these imag­ined lives. El­iz­a­beth Bowen once wrote that “the short story re­volves around one cri­sis only – one might call it, al­most, a cri­sis in it­self. There (ide­ally) ought to be noth­ing in such a story which can weaken, de­tract from, or blur the central, sin­gle ef­fect”.

Mo­ment of cri­sis

This sin­gle ef­fect, this mo­ment of cri­sis, is seen clearly in the ti­tle story. Here, the fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, a pho­tog­ra­pher vis­it­ing the is­land of Inishere, finds her­self in what seems to be the be­gin­nings of a new re­la­tion­ship. This bur­geon­ing re­la­tion­ship is put in doubt by the fi­nal para­graph. “Later that day, as Michael and Katy were car­ry­ing their bags from the B and B to the pier they saw the ter­rier at the en­trance to the Cortina field, stuck im­mo­bile to the spaniel. The sheep dog, the grov­eller and the dachs­hund were watch­ing pa­tiently, wait­ing their turn.”

The un­canny makes a more di­rect ap­pear­ance in an ex­cel­lent story, Twen­tyquids worth, with the phe­nom­e­non of a liv­ing ap­pari­tion. Here, sad news of the death of a for­mer lover, a poet, re­minds the central char­ac­ter of an in­ci­dent many years be- fore, in the late 1970s, when her love af­fair be­gan. The woman, a writer her­self, had moved from Lon­don to a bor­rowed house in Ire­land, only to dis­cover that the house is be­lieved to be haunted. Alone on the first night, wait­ing for her poet lover to join her, she ex­pe­ri­ences a kind of erotic vis­i­ta­tion, some­thing made chillingly real when he fi­nally joins her days later.

Al­ways, the ra­tio­nal is some­where to the mar­gins of these sto­ries, as with Strangers, an­other is­land story. The fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, again a pho­tog­ra­pher, vis­its an iso­lated west Cork is­land and meets a young girl, Melinda, liv­ing in the only in­hab­ited house there with her grand­fa­ther. Melinda is anx­ious to bring the pho­tog­ra­pher to meet her “friends”, Rachel and Au­drey. These turn out to be two up­right stone fig­ures jut­ting up against the rock face on the strand, some­how made in to the like­ness of stat­ues by the work­ings of the sea and the wind. The nar­ra­tor takes pho­to­graphs of the stone fig­ures but only when she prints them does she dis­cover that “Au­drey and Rachel re­ally did look like ema­ci­ated old women”.

Even­tu­ally, the flight of Melinda and her grand­fa­ther from the is­land and the dis­cov­ery of the sin­is­ter re­al­ity be­hind their lives all serve to un­der­line the un­set­tling un­der­tone of the story. In all, an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion, the clear, con­fi­dent style al­low­ing each central cri­sis to be re­vealed with re­ward­ing clar­ity and di­rect­ness.

Eib­hear Wal­she lec­tures in the school of English at UCC. His novel The Di­ary of Mary Travers was pub­lished by Somerville Press in 2014

The col­lec­tion is short, but even that brevity fo­cuses the reader on the qui­etly un­set­tling at­mos­phere of these imag­ined lives

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AIR CORPS

In The Dogs of Inishere, the set­tings vary be­tween ur­ban and iso­lated.

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