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The Dark Emerald: Three Women Writers Shaping Ireland’s Modern Horror Fiction

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 | Books

By: Colin McCracken

Horror has always represented the ebb and flow of societal change and reflects the way of the world in a manner that other genres cannot, especially in tackling issues of oppression and hardship. Steeped in religious and patriarchal control for centuries, Ireland has progressed immensely in the last few years regarding both culture and society; the rights of women and the LGBTQI+ community has taken centre stage in the past decade, with Ireland becoming the first state to legalize same sex marriage by popular vote in 2015. An abortion legislation followed in 2018, allowing for safe and legal care to be provided for those in need. A divorce referendum came the following year and, currently, the rights of sex workers and immigrants within the country have become a huge focus. Progress, however, comes at a cost, and the real life horrors left in its wake are now feeding into the output of the nation’s writers.

Rising from the ruckus, a group of young, passionate Irish voices are emerging with fiction that reflects a truly modern Ireland and a renewed slant on genre. Taking influence from the ancient ways (occultism and witchcraft which have shadowed Irish life for millennia), these authors are leading the charge in terms of creativity and innovation, taking an inherently Irish tradition of magical storytelling and drastically modifying it to make it their own in the twenty first century. In effect, they are handing down a message to a new generation of young women; that they have power and voices to be heard.

On such author, Deirdre Sullivan, is a veteran creator of spooky YA fiction, and her work is gaining more appeal and scope with each release. Her latest, Perfectly Preventable Deaths (2019), incorporates the world of witchery and dark magic, as it tells the tale of two girls relocating to a new life with their mother’s new partner in an ancient Irish castle. The themes of teenage displacement sexuality and social adjustment are delicately held and presented alongside the viscera, terror and doom which follows.

Sullivan admits that there’s a darkness underneath the landscape in Ireland, and can recall childhood stories of her family’s harassment from British troops, of disease sweeping the rural West of Ireland coast, and of the hard ways of old, all of which bear influence on her work. “In terms of our collective memory; you don’t have to scratch the surface very deeply to access it.” She recalls “The stories that I liked the most were the ones that scared me, because they felt the most real. I think that there have been far too many things unspoken in Ireland, and it has made the land fat with secrets, which are ready to be mined.”

Also released in summer 2019 was Last Ones Left Alive, a rural, Irish, dystopian zombie parable by Sarah Davis-Goff. In this story, women remain the only hope for the survival of civilization. The book has received near-universal acclaim, adding a fresh take on the survivalist tale while incorporating feminist and LGBTQI+ representation. When Irish production company Treasure Entertainment caught wind of it, they were quick to pick up the movie rights. “What I love about dystopia is the pressure it puts on characters – everything is heightened and harder,” Davis-Goff enthuses, “The relationships people create with each other are more intense, more fraught and more important all at once.”

Author of The Wren Hunt and The Wicker Light (among others), Mary Watson moved from South Africa to Ireland nearly eleven years ago, always aware of the “remarkable sense of story” that could be found there. Her ethereal, affecting novels also incorporate otherworldly, witchcraft and fantasy stories which permeate and linger like smoke. 

“I am preoccupied with a certain kind of Irish experience,” explains Watson, “[Namely,] displacement and assimilation into a new culture, being a [person of colour] in a predominantly white society, questions around belonging and the idea of the ‘outsider’. I write fantasy, so books about secret magical communities and sacrifice and witchy dolls and romance, and these themes might not be entirely obvious but they’re there.”

A broad spectrum of representation binds these authors together, but even though it’s a theme less heard in Irish fiction, it’s also nothing new. “Stories of women and non-binary people are there [in Irish mythology], but they’re not the ones we grow up hearing,” notes Sullivan. “We need all kinds of heroes and all kinds of happy endings. Our diversity keeps life interesting, and is an essential part of a compassionate world.”

Watson agrees, believing in storytelling as a means of rehearsing difficult issues and bringing them out in the open. “There’s validation in recognising ourselves in fictional characters that acknowledge us and our experiences. Stories encourage empathy and understanding by allowing us to explore beyond the boundaries of our normal. All fiction, even an action-packed pirate adventure about an ancient grail stolen by evil orc-like creatures, can be an opportunity for this.”

“Fiction is just one way that we as a nation digest and process often traumatic events” adds Davis-Goff, “Creating a story around something helps make it – not palatable exactly, but more comprehensible.” Addressing intersectionality in her own work, Davis-Goff simply believes that everyone should feel like they can be part of a community. “Having (this diversity) isn’t important just for the LGBTQ+ community but for the straights and the cis too. This world is thankfully diverse and that’s something that should be celebrated rather than feared. Especially now – because it’s been denied, on purpose, for so long. It’s obvious to see how important representation is; recognising yourself and seeing yourself in the art around you is essential.”

Representation within genre is something which Watson feels should span all characters, arcs and narratives. “I am especially interested in books where the main characters are POC or LGBTQ or disabled and are doing the things white/straight/male/able-bodied characters do. Books where the normalness of these identities are embraced, and these characters can just stumble upon a magic portal or accidentally summon a demon and get on with things.” The importance of this is something which personally affected her as a young reader. “Everyone should be able to see themselves in books,” she adds, “I didn’t have this as a young adult and it did make me feel invisible but I was used to it because that’s the way it was.”

Given the recent focus on witchcraft as an emboldening, almost political tool, it seems as if these authors are channelling into an ancient source of strength to offer their readers. “Witchcraft can be wonderfully emboldening.” confirms Watson, “I hope it speaks to a power within the reader. Some people are just deeply drawn to magic.” “The world will try to take power away from young women in a myriad of ways,” warns Sullivan, “I think that power can be very easily stolen or diminished. But that sense of character, or finding a way to be okay with yourself is harder to remove. I want to tell stories about women and girls who matter, and the tools they use to help them navigate a world that will inevitably tell them that they don’t. And if readers find a strength from story, the way I did growing up, that’s them using my book like a tarot card, to divine something deep about themselves and what an honour for my work to be that for anyone.”

The world of genre fiction is often one which offers a bridge into a lifetime passion for literature, for it is a time filled with intrigue and crossroads. There’s something about this period in someone’s life which remains both fascinating and terrifying, which could explain why horror and fantasy elements appeal so much to young adult readers. “I find the young adult years really interesting, it’s a massive transition period, a threshold time,” agrees Watson, “Everything seems so much bigger when we begin to experience the adult world, with adult issues and situations, while so new to it.”

“I think horror fiction in particular provides a safe way to be scared,” adds Sullivan, “Writers like Sarah Langan, Joe Hill, Shirley Jackson, Edith Nesbit, Paul Tremblay and Grady Hendrix have done exciting things, and I love writers like Carmen Maria Machado as well, who play with genre in a really artful way.” Sullivan concludes perfectly: “Genre is a frame and not a cage, I think you need to be free to make your own of it. We need to be able to look at the dark because we’re not always going to be walking in the light.”

The combined message of these authors is echoed by their contemporaries within the field, such as Moïra Fowley-Doyle (All The Bad Apples) and Sarah Maria Griffin (Other Words For Smoke) who are also creating stunning work in similar realms.