Shadow Voices: 300 Years of Irish Genre Fiction

Written by John Connolly

Review written by John Parker

John Parker is a Graduate-qualified English/Spanish Teacher, owner and director of CHAT ENGLISH, an English Language Centre in Avilés on the north coast of Spain . A voracious reader, he has particularly loved horror fiction for many years.

Shadow Voices: 300 Years of Irish Genre Fiction
Hodder and Stoughton
RRP: £25
Released: October 28 2021

John Connolly is a name that strikes a chord with many of the readers of Shots. Every year we anxiously await the publication of the next Charlie Parker novel, a habit that for some has lasted twenty years. But it is not only Charlie Parker that occupies Connolly’s professional life. He has often written outside the crime genre.  In fact, just under five years ago, his novel “he”, which reimagines the life of Stan Laurel, was published by Hodder to great acclaim, winning a prize at the Irish Book Awards, 2017. We reviewed it HERE and spoke about it to John HERE.

So, what is Shadow Voices?

The Product

Shadow Voices. 300 Years of Irish Genre Fiction: A History in Stories, to give it its full title, weighs in at just over 3 and a half pounds measures two and a half inches from dust cover to dust cover and contains 1,078 pages. Daunting to say the least. The dust jacket is suitably lurid with a vampire bat on the front cover and Cthulhu-like tentacles on the back.  We are promised thieves, vampires, gangsters, detectives and more within its covers. For me and, I suspect, for many of you that is an irresistible offer. As a gift, the book contains a jet-black envelope (“an envelope of ephemera”) within which we find six postcards of book covers and magazines. They are delightful to say the least. However, only the first 1,000 copies contain the envelope. There was also a splendid tote bag along with the book and envelope.

The Stories

More than sixty Irish authors spanning 300 years are represented in the volume. The earliest story is from 1729 and the latest from 2019. Some names will be familiar to even the most casual reader, while many more will be completely new for the majority of readers. The book contains Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest which is probably the most well-known addition to the volume and a fine story it is. Oscar Wilde’s witty short story Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime: A Study of Duty is another. Jonathan Swift’s satirical A Modest Proposal, in which a monstrous proposal made by the ruling class narrator as to how to solve the problem of poverty in Ireland might well shock the reader, leads us off. Other famous and familiar names include James Joyce, C.S. Lewis, Bob Shaw, a certain John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Liz Nugent and, well, the list goes on. 

But what of the names most of us have never heard of? Anna Maria Hall, Mary Helena Fortune, Patrick Pearse and the rest?  Fortunately, the majority of the stories will keep the reader more than entertained. Some, though, may be put off by the older stories. Just as many of today’s generation baulk at the idea of watching any film in black and white, so too, I fear , will many frown upon the idea of reading anything written before the 20th century or, indeed, pre-World War 2. But take as an example, William Maginn’s The Man in the Bell from 1821. What a terrific piece of writing about an unfortunate soul who finds himself trapped beneath a tolling bell with no apparent hope of rescue. Well-worth a read and only about 5 pages long. Or The Brown Man by Gerard Griffin, “a peculiar, nasty little story” as Connolly writes in his notes on the author. And very unsettling it is too.

Shots magazine is dedicated to crime fiction and there are plenty of stories from this genre to read, should any die-hard crime fan resolutely refuse to read any other kind of fiction. One story of particular interest is The Teddy Bear Mystery by Cathal Ó Sándair, a charming tale featuring the wonderfully named detective Réics Carló. It is translated from the original Irish and published in English here for the first time.

To be honest, not every story in the book is to my liking. For example, William Carleton’s Frank Martin and the Fairies is one that left me cold as well as a few others. But it would be miraculous if I had liked them all. There will be many readers delighted by Frank Martin’s tale., that’s for sure. Overall, there are more than enough stories to excite and stimulate the imagination.

The Editor

Connolly has taken on a mammoth task here and his style of editing is to be applauded. He speaks of his dislike for anthologies that present their stories with little or no biographical information about the authors presented within. Consequently, there is a potted history of each author, both informative and anecdotal. The details behind the writers of the stories are fascinating in general. And, it has to be said, some of the details contained in some of these biographies are as bizarre as some of the stories. Read the introduction to Maria Edgeworth’s The False Key where Connolly relates the disturbing social experiment of the author’s father Richard Edgeworth or read the aforementioned introduction to The Man In The Bell by William Maginn who had “the tongue of an adder and the heart of a lamb”.

In his introduction, John talks about what genre really means  and pays particular attention to why women’s writing is ignored and dismissed when clearly their contribution is integral to genre literature.  

Connolly has produced a volume that is not simply an anthology of fiction but also a scholarly work that should be found in all libraries in both the reading and the reference sections.    There are some 380 footnotes and a lengthy bibliography. But don’t let the footnotes put you off. Many contain extra information that adds to one’s enjoyment. What was H.P. Lovecraft’s opinion of Adolf Hitler?  How did Dorothy L. Sayers refer to Sexton Blake? There are many fascinating nuggets of information to be read.    

A few years ago, I interviewed John in Avilés at the Celsius 232 convention. We spoke of our love for Stephen King and particularly his book Danse Macabre where he writes about the various influences on his writing and important genre texts of the 19th and 20th centuries. I told John it would be great if he did his own version of that book. While this is not that book, it is something akin to it and Connolly’s take on things literary are always illuminating and of interest, just as King’s were in his book.

You should all give this fine volume a try.  

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