The Art of Fusing Fact and Fiction: John Kenny talks to Brian J. Showers
Originally appeared on the Swan River Press website (2012)
Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written short stories, articles and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Ghosts & Scholars, Le Fanu Studies, Wormwood, and Supernatural Tales. His short story collection, The Bleeding Horse (Mercier Press), won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (Nonsuch 2006), and the co-editor of Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu (Hippocampus Press 2011). He currently lives in Dublin, Ireland.
John Kenny: In reading your new collection of linked stories, Old Albert, it’s evident you did an awful lot of research. Did much of this overlap with the research done for your previous books, The Bleeding Horse and Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin?
Brian J. Showers: It’s interesting that you’ve read the book as a collection of stories. You’re definitely not the first to read the book that way. I originally wrote the piece as a novella (or at least as a short story that got way out of hand), and it was really only at the last minute that I divided the piece into chapters. I wonder if how a reader approaches the book—whether as a collection of short stories or as a novella—affects the reading experience. I’m happy enough for people to read it as a collection though.
Most of the Irish and Dublin-based research I’ve done since I moved here has mulched in my brain. So it’s all in there ready to yield. Gothic Dublin was about the larger cityscape, whereas The Bleeding Horse was about Rathmines, a former township and now neighbourhood in south Dublin. Old Albert is even more specific: it’s about the history of a plot of land in Rathmines, so the research naturally became more focused. But, yeah, I found myself building on earlier research. And of course histories are all interlinked anyway—sometimes in odd and curious ways!—so seemingly unrelated facts sometimes provided useful leads in the development of the story.
I suppose ultimately I see Old Albert collected with the Bleeding Horse stories, which are all set in Rathmines, Dublin—it’s formally part of that collection, and geographically fits in right after ‘Father Corrigan’s Diary’.
JK: Well, I read them very much as linked stories forming an arc. What intrigues me most about them is the difficulty in separating fact from fiction; the join is seamless. Do you think there’s an exercise for the reader in doing a little digging of their own into the history of Rathmines and Larkhill in particular? Is it something you would hope to inspire in readers?
BJS: I don’t necessarily want to a reader to figure out where the division is between fact and fiction in this story—that might reduce the story to rationalism. I mean, sure, if a reader has a historical interest in Rathmines already, or develops one after reading Old Albert (or The Bleeding Horse for that matter), by all means, do some historical research. But as far as the story goes, I’d like to think that readers will engage with the mystery—arranging and rearranging the puzzles pieces—instead of trying to figure out how the trick was done.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what attracts me to horror. Supernatural and strange fiction in particular. I think the genre works best when mystery, in its various guises, is preserved at the story’s end. In horror, this means basically not shedding too much light on the monster. I think Stephen King used the “closet door” metaphor in Danse Macabre—you don’t want to open the door too much, otherwise you know the whole of what’s in there. And that means no more shadows. When it comes to supernatural fiction, I believe M.R. James more or less gets it right: “We do not want to see the bones of [an author’s] theory about the supernatural.” In other words, if you explain the whys and wherefores of the weird, you seriously risk dispelling the supernatural elements with rationalism—and the ghost will vanish too. I think, deep down inside, a reader doesn’t want to know how the magician does the trick. Not having that tidy resolution is what makes a supernatural story work.
So I really tried to keep all that in mind with Old Albert. The story is essentially various interconnected incidents in the history of Larkhill House in Rathmines, and the question I hope to inspire, if I’ve done my job, is “What the hell’s going on here?” My goal was to provide the reader with a mystery—a bunch of puzzle pieces. But being a supernatural story, those puzzle pieces don’t necessarily add up to a clear picture in the end. Hell, the pieces might not even be from the same puzzle! That’s the fun bit though, because hopefully the reader will feel actively engaged.
JK: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is the perfect embodiment of his suggestion that readers shouldn’t be able to see the author’s theory of the supernatural. As an exercise in sustained and mounting tension, it’s hard to beat. Would you regard this as a model for writers of the supernatural?
BJS: Funny you should choose that as an example—I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with James’s book. I’ve only read it one and a half times, and mean to give it another go… eventually. I won’t deny that it’s a great story—I particularly love the open-ended framing device, which James suspiciously doesn’t return to at the end of the story—but there’s something about James’s prose that I just don’t get on with. I suspect this is entirely my fault because I know it’s a great story. My chosen way to engage with The Turn of the Screw is through Jack Clayton’s brilliant film The Innocents. But yeah, James’s ambiguity is a good, and even classic, example of not spelling out what’s really going on. Another way is to present the reader with a bunch of tenuously linked mysteries. A good example of this is William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, one of my all time favourite novels. That book’s got so many bizarre elements piled one on top of the other that it’s hard to say what it all means. But when you get to the last page, you know it means something.
JK: A good example of that is the ‘Thin and Brittle Bones’ segment of Old Albert, where the evidence of the grisly murders doesn’t quite stack up against the police’s official declaration of what happened. This gives rise to speculation on the reader’s part as to alternative scenarios.
BJS: Yeah, I really love that too. It’s that sense of ambiguity that I think is what makes for the best strange tales. Haziness, uncertainty, doubt. I tried to evoke these feelings as best I could in that chapter—and of course throughout Old Albert. I’m glad to hear it worked for you. M.R. James called it a “loophole”—I think when he was referring to Le Fanu’s stories. Basically, you give enough information to almost add up to a rational explanation. Lucy M. Boston had a great phrase in her volume of recollections Memory in a House that comes to mind: “small cracks in our outer shell of reason let in very cold air.”
JK: ‘This Terrible, This Unnatural Crime’, essentially a digression from the main arc of the story, is, though, a quirky demonstration of your idea that histories are all interlinked, sometimes in odd and curious ways.
BJS: It was a fortuitous and unexpected chapter. The “Ireland’s Eye Murder” is a case that crops up in pretty much every book on Irish crime. Very briefly, husband and wife, William and Sarah Kirwan, were picnicking one September in 1852 on Ireland’s Eye—an island in Howth harbour inhabited only by colonies of cormorants and guillemots. Apparently, William went off to sketch, and while he was away his wife drowned—at least that’s what the coroners originally concluded. It emerged later that William had been living a double life and had several children with a woman in another part of the city. Of course people started asking questions. Well, Sarah’s body was exhumed, re-examined, and this time traces of “violent acts” were found: scratches, contusions, etc. I can’t imagine how these were overlooked the first time around, but in any case William was eventually arrested and tried for the murder of his wife. A fascinating trial ensued and it both captivated and polarised Dubliners. Some shouted for William Kirwan to be hanged, others wrote pamphlets in his defence. Near as I can tell, the facts didn’t add up to any single explanation. In court William was defended by Isaac Butt, who went on to become a celebrated politician. He was also a close friend of Le Fanu, and of course Le Fanu features earlier in the book…
Dublin was a small place in the nineteenth century, a complex and tightly knit society, so I think it was in the nature of that society to have so many interlinkings. At times I didn’t even have to do much inventing: themes that I was exploring anyway just seemed to be there, waiting to connect with my story. Both The Bleeding Horse and Old Albert are about these links. And not just how history interlinks with itself, but also how it attaches itself inextricably to place, and also how it reaches forward to link with the present.
JK: Supernatural tales and the macabre seem to have greater ties to literary tradition than more mainstream horror fiction. Is this just because it’s an older form of the horror genre? Are literary sensibilities still an integral part of the supernatural tale today? Would you even put mainstream horror and supernatural fiction under the same umbrella?
BJS: All horror—simply by virtue of being an established genre—has ties to literary fiction. By “literary” I probably mean authors that are today considered to be any combination of popular (e.g. Lovecraft), revered (e.g. Aickman), or classic (e.g. M.R. James)—all ways in which an author’s work can be termed influential. Something like that anyway! And it always seems to be a preoccupation of genres: to define and redefine themselves against what has come before or what is currently popular. Not to mention that aligning oneself with a tradition ostensibly lends legitimacy. It’s nothing new, though. Even Le Fanu did it. His novels were branded “sensationalist” by contemporary critics, which was one of the most dismissive accusations one could level at a novel in the 1860s. So he wrote a preface to Uncle Silas in which he aligns himself with the literary tradition of Sir Walter Scott’s more respectable “grand romances”. It doesn’t really change the novel one bit though, does it? It’d be a little like Stephen King writing a preface to ’Salem’s Lot explaining why the novel should be shelved with Literary Fiction as opposed to Horror at your local Waterstones. Perhaps a pointless exercise, but fair enough, I suppose—there is some pretty deplorable stuff in the Horror section at Waterstones!
I know what you mean, though, and I do agree. But I think it’s more about good and bad writing. There are plenty of writers out there who claim kinship with the literary, myself included, but some seem to miss the point entirely. Just because you name check an eldritch tome, commandeer a monster that’s a squishy mass of tentacles, and have a narrator that ends up stark raving mad at the end doesn’t necessarily make your story Lovecraftian. It might be, on the surface, but if it’s out of tune with Lovecraft’s philosophy of the cosmic—which is really what the tentacles are all about—then it’s simply a misunderstanding of what makes Lovecraft’s stories work. Likewise, an oblique and impenetrable ending doesn’t necessarily make your writing Aickmanesque. There’s more to it than that.
I’m probably starting to ramble, but yeah, I’d put supernatural horror and “mainstream” horror (which I define as less subtle in both means and ends) under the same umbrella. Both can claim common kinship with Dracula, which was as bloody… and speaking of precedent for gore, there’s always Lewis’s The Monk. It just seems that overt and hard horror are more popular than supernatural horror at the moment, so there’s naturally more bad writing of that ilk. But there are plenty of bad ghost stories out there too!
Personally speaking, I connect more to supernatural horror than I do to the more overt sorts of horror. Which is, I suspect, why I don’t particularly enjoy the serial killer subgenre. But that’s just my own preference. I’m biased.
JK: Which authors have influenced or inspired you as a writer?
BJS: John Bellairs’s The House with the Clock in its Walls is an early childhood favourite that I re-read on occasion with as much joy. Although I’d always loved monsters, robots, ghosts, and dinosaurs, that may be the book that hooked me on horror. The protagonist is a young boy who has lost his parents in a car accident, so he’s shipped off to Michigan to live in an old rambling mansion with his eccentric uncle, who turns out to be a magician. I think the book captures that sense of the nervousness of moving to a new place, and also that feeling of wonder and discovery once you get there. Also there’s Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which has fantastically disturbing illustrations by Stephen Gammell, all wispy and tendrilly, and at times downright surreal. The House with the Clock in its Walls has illustrations by Edward Gorey; the images from both these books stick with me as much as the stories do.
JK: And what or who inspired you when it came to the writing of Old Albert?
BJS: Old Albert takes some inspiration from Le Fanu, who of course makes a small cameo in the story. And, conceited as this may sound, it takes some sort of cue from The Bleeding Horse, which is to say Old Albert is a progression of the ideas and narrative styles I was exploring in that collection. When I was working on Old Albert, I was very much aware of what I’d done already. I don’t think it would have been written the same way had The Bleeding Horse not preceded it.
But I’d say the rest comes from historical and cultural sources, like Deirdre Kelly’s wonderful book Four Roads to Dublin, which is kind of a street by street history of Rathmines, Ranelagh and a few other adjacent neighbourhoods. It’s essential reading for anyone living in this area because it adds so much texture to this singular part of Dublin. I also love the old Irish guidebooks, like A History of the County of Dublin (1902-1920) by Francis Elrington Ball and The Neighbourhood of Dublin: Its Topography, Antiquities and Historical Associations (1912) by Weston St. John Joyce. These guys have such great names too, don’t they?
JK: Were you aware of any of these books and/or writers before you came to live in Dublin? And what drew you to live in Dublin in the first place?
BJS: Ireland never held any particular sway over my life. It was never a point of innate fascination like it seems to be for so many. And I don’t even have so much as a drop of Irish blood in my veins (though I do now hold an Irish passport). My grasp of Irish history was, and still is to some extent, rudimentary. I’d read Stoker, Le Fanu, Lord Dunsany, Wilde—but for some reason they were never unified in my mind as authors sharing a common heritage.
I’d visited Dublin in July 1999 and liked it well enough that I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a nicely sized city, though to this day I can’t say for certain what attracted me to it. I moved here in September of 2000, so just over a year after my first visit. I had to finish up my undergrad, and then it took me a few months to save up money for the move. I originally settled in Rathmines and, aside from a year long stint in Stockholm, have remained here ever since. Despite my occasional gripes about the oddities of life, I do like it here.
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