Michael Scott’s somewhat misleadingly-titled Irish Ghosts and Hauntings (London: Time Warner Books, 1994) is not at all–and simultaneously, is exactly–what I expected.
The book is a collection of short stories, most of which center on specific supernatural figures from Irish tradition, such as the merrow, or else on broader supernatural motifs like haunted houses or visits from the recently deceased. The stories are written in a very contemporary style, which is interesting in that it presents a considerable contrast with the traditional stories on which they’re based. Some of the earlier tales, which deal with events in Ireland’s ancient past, read very much like the historical fiction of Bernard Cornwell (whose awesome The Winter King is a stylized retelling of the Arthur legend).
I was initially surprised that the book is fiction. The title, to my mind, implies a tale collection, an anthology of narratives either culled from an archive or collected from (probably rural) Irish people. Once I knew what I was dealing with, I adjusted my expectations accordingly, at which point the book started to seem much more familiar. It clearly embodies the author’s deep interest and pride in Irish legendary material, taking a matter-of-fact approach to the reality of Irish supernatural tradition that I find at turns enjoyable and annoying. His stance is very similar to many popular treatments of legendary material: the old stories contain truth that humans in all eras would do well to recognize. This is a lynchpin of modern supernatural horror, and it seems to resonate with popular thinking about folklore in general.
As a reader and student of Irish folklore, I find this kind of claim variously trite or exciting, depending on the skill with which the author articulates it. Fortunately, Scott is a gifted enough writer that his stories are, for the most part, satisfying, despite their somewhat smug use of the source material. There are exceptions, though, as with the last story, “The Hitch-hiker,” which is an Irish-ized retelling of the well-known contemporary legend, “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” This tale is sappy enough in its “original” versions, and Scott’s treatment doesn’t do much to make it less saccharine.
My favorite tale of the bunch, and one of the few that could properly be thought of as horror (in that it’s among the only frightening stories presented, if only mildly so) is “The Most Haunted House in Ireland.” The story, which has virtually no dialogue, is about a house occupied by a number of occupants over a very long period, all of whom meet untimely deaths. It’s a Lovecraftian exploration of place in which, as in Lovecraft’s own works, humans become somewhat incidental to the potently wrong space that serves as the setting.
A particularly effective aspect of the story is the absence of any explanation. The narrator makes it clear that while people attribute the tragedies to supernatural forces, there is never any manifestation of them, save the demise of the house’s occupants: “If any ghosts walked its halls, they gave no sign. The graveyard was quiet, ferns growing up to caress the faces of the gravestones. No more peaceful scene could be imagined” (194). While the villagers speculate as to the reasons for the house’s terrible reputation, no evidence is ever presented.
I haven’t read any of Mr. Scott’s other works, but I like his style, and the creative use of folklore sources is a big draw. Irish Ghosts and Hauntings is a solid, if highly romanticized, introduction to some of the major figures from Irish traditional narrative, and it has a few chilling moments to boot. More importantly, from my perspective, Scott’s attitude toward Irish folklore mirrors my own feelings on the subject back when I first discovered it and was so impressed by its power and the eerily beautiful quality of many of its chief figures. 85/100.