Comin' up on St. Paddy's Day, I started looking around for a good ol' Irish ghost story. I then remembered my self-inflicted promise to read Alan Ryan's complete oeuvre, and, voilà!
Cast A Cold Eye was written at the height of Ryan's horror spirit in 1984. He published for another four years, then dropped into obscurity along with the popularity of silver-foil wrapper paperbacks. He was not heard from again until the second decade of the 21st century. Unfortunately, his comeback was merely a tickle of his fine vintage suspense and meticulous focus on atmosphere and characterization, because he passed along in 2011 of pancreatic cancer. Two novels from his glory days are reviewed here and here. And more from his gloriest days here and here.
As you can probably guess, I kinda like this writer.
Now this excursion into the supernatural is not your splatterfest of screamed phrasing and autopsy-fixated gore slammings. Yeah, it's skimming along the cliché borderlines: Ireland is cold, wet, windy; Catholic priests are needed "seanachies"(p.119) in isolated villages; sheep are always covered in mud; a good writer needs isolation to create masterpieces; happiness is loving a girl whose family owns a book store; ghosts are real, just tricky to experience. But, there's also a huge anti-cliché element, which, like my copy of this book as annotated from the author says, "a horror novel in which nobody dies!"(1)
Jack Quinlan is a successful American writer who decides to explore the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852(2) for an upcoming novel. Loaded with research material and bounding energy, he embarks on three months of basic-level living in a stone cottage overlooking the ocean in the remote western coast of Ireland. He's near the village of Doolin, which fights off dismal primitiveness with 3 pubs celebrating Guinness stout and fiddle, bodhran, and uillean pipes music. It is just the kind of community center a newbie needs to tackle for acceptance and local knowledge. Besides, the provincial priest and the most influential man in the village, Father Malcolm Henning, holds court in Nolan's. Jack wants to "get it right" because here, "a land as ancient as Ireland, history was only yesterday and the distant past breathed fresh and sharp and painful in living memory"(p.22).
Predictively, what Jack gets is a lot of dull stares, evasive clack followed by unintelligible gaelic, and an invitation of buy the bar some rounds. However, Father Henning is surprisingly congenial, lining up a cleaning lady and cook for Jack's accommodations—and maybe to spy on him a wee bit, too.
Jack bounds around the countryside in his rental car soaking up atmosphere, giving author Ryan the opportunity to embellish the read with his wonderfully-descriptive prose. Winds from the Atlantic are "savage raiders making a flying foray" off the "green and seething sea . . . flecked with white foam like the writhing lips of a monster." Puddles are "slate-gray . . . reflecting only the lowering weight of steely clouds above." The landscape is wet and barren and eerily compelling, yet beyond its "howling outrage"(p.159) of wind, rain, rock, and inclement cold, it feels alive with fermented presence and a foreboding of dark secrets. Then Jack runs into one of those chilling teasers.
He was lying on the ground when Jack found him. And gone when he looked away. Nights later, he meets another apparition outside his cottage with even more longing horror.
Everyone in the hamlet knows what's going on, and, understandably, they won't talk to Jack about it. But once Father Henning gives his blessing—"God save all here"—they look at him with different eyes, and for a different standing in the village.
Jack, however, has different plans. He's met a girl when first arriving in Dublin in route to Doolin. Grainne Clarkin works in her parent's bookstore. She's a college graduate; an accomplishment apparently rare for a dark-haired, beautiful and loyal, young and full-blooded Irish lass. There are no freckles on Grainne's stereotype here: close your eyes, sway to Pan's pipes, smell the clover in the mist, and meet any laddie's dream girl. She's tough, but from the back seat; she's devoted and tenacious as a sheep dog; she'll blow the plaque right out of your tubes and drop a hot meal on the table before you. To have Grainne say to you, mo ghrá thú, well, Jack's certainly got a shamrock in his pocket.
Then there's the other side of the groat. All Hallow's Eve. The protocol. The ritual. The miracle fulfilled. A melding—for such a short time—of empyreal perception for a deeper mix. It is a sublime bonding of the sensual and the transcendental, revealing another layer of assiduous fidelity to line their "weathered faces [that] were as much a part of the brooding, ever-present landscape as the rocks and the hills and the cliffs of the shore"(p.177). It is a duty that is welcomed because it attends to the immutability of lives to life, touching the humanity of us all.
As always with author Ryan, atmosphere is brought to the forefront with his thunderous prose and compulsive style. In this tale with its elemental setting, meager and severe lifestyle, and substratal relationships, life appears simple and harsh. But author Ryan lets you in on a little secret: there is an indemnity—acheived through ritual and devotion—that enriches and de-fangs the ultimate fear and puzzlement of mankind.
Cast A Cold Eye is ultimately a gentle, fulfilling read, attesting to the hallowed covenants of a people. In this Age of Money(3), it is essential to have such an alternative.