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Supernatural Tales, Autumn 2007
Reviewed by David Longhorn
Its not often that a reviewer gets to describe a two-volume work as titchy. The Swan River Press specialises in producing very, very small booklets. That said, size isn't everything. The mini-booklets are nifty items, and illustrated to boot. And there's something oddly pleasurable about reading (in decent sized print) a story that's as spatially compact as it is short in narrative terms.
No. 70 Merrion Square is a fairly traditional ghost story with a neat twist. The eponymous address was once occupied by none other then Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, of 'Carmilla' fame. Yes, the Invisible Prince of the Dublin literary world resided there, and shows some resentment when a potential usurper takes over. The author Andrew Hampton is described as 'this millenium's master of the macabre', and 'Ireland's answer to Ramsey Campbell'. But, having scored a big hit with his first book, our writer suffers from the classic second book syndrome.
I must admit this second book blockage was one of the less convincing aspects of the story. I know its true--sometimes. But it has been used as a plot device rather a lot. Still, let us pass along and examine the nature of the haunting. For haunting there must be, this being a ghost story.
There are some nice touches, including a variant on the haunted picture:
"McCormack drew closer to the print, looking into the depth of the house's humourless, inky windows. As he did so, a tiny, plump face, white and pale, pressed against the window from the inside."Overall, this is a workmanlike and enjoyable read, especially if one is curled up in bed on a winter's night. Shadows dance on the wall, creaks emanate from the old house, and can that be hail rattling on the pane? Brian J. Showers is to be congratulated for keeping a candle lit in that window, to welcome home the traditional tale of supernatural unease. While not overtly horrific, the chills in No. 70 Merrion Square are sufficient to deter the most optimistic estate agent.
Le Fanu Studies, May 2007
Reviewed by Gary W. Crawford
This tiny two volume set of chapbooks with the single ghost story No. 70 Merrion Square serves as a companion to Showers's tour of Gothic Dublin. It is a delightful present day ghost story that is a tribute to Le Fanu. Character names—one McCormack after premier Le Fanu scholar W. J. McCormack—and titles of current popular ghost story collections—Reggie Oliver’s The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini—give a delightful humorous irony to the tale. And Showers’s plot is quite good; it echoes the flavor of so many of Le Fanu’s stories; it is well-written and atmospheric.
Brian J. Showers, an American who lives in Dublin, Ireland, is a new figure in the presses of modern-day ghost stories. One can sense his enthusiasm and intelligence and humor in everything he writes. I won’t give away the plot of the story, but it is highly recommended to anyone interested in Le Fanu or the ghost story in general.
The Harrow, May 2007
Reviewed by Dru Pagliassotti
Brian Showers' limited-edition chapbooks, with their hand-sewn covers, ribbon bookmarks, and black-and-white illustrations by Duane Spurlock, are delightful collector's items for ghost-story fans with an interest in supporting the very small press. Take small literally, by the way: his chapbooks run four by three inches.
No. 70 Merrion Square has been published in two volumes and is told in a classic supernatural-tales style. Psychologist Dr. Sean McCormack is visiting his old friend in Dublin, Andrew Hampton, "this millennium's master of the macabre," who fears he's going mad. His address, 70 Merrion Square, once belonged to the Victorian ghost-story writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and Hampton's first book after purchasing the house was a commercial flop. Since then, he has failed to write another book.
Is Hampton going mad, and can McCormack help him? Set on a rainy night shortly before Christmas in an old haunted mansion, No. 70 Merrion Square has all the trappings of a memorable ghost story and is enhanced by Spurlock's atmospheric drawings. Part 1 sets up the story's background and introduces the reader to the strange events at the address, while Part 2 relates Hampton's side of the story in first person and follows McCormack as he seeks to solve the mystery behind his friend's troubles.
Clearly informed by the research behind Showers' nonfiction book, Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin, No. 70 Merrion Square melds the modern with the gothic and provides Dublin with yet another ghost story to add to its rich heritage.
Peter Bell, 2007
Anyone familiar with Brian J. Showers' supernatural stories, presented in the delightful miniature chapbooks of Swan River Press, so tastefully illustrated by Duane Spurlock and Meggan Kehrli, will not be disappointed by his latest publication: No. 70 Merrion Square. Aficionados will recognise the address of the Dublin house where the great Sheridan Le Fanu wrote some of his finest tales and spent the last lonely decades of his life. Showers has cleverly engaged with the motif of Le Fanu by writing a story in which the protagonist, a horror author seeking renewed inspiration, settles in the house and encounters troubling experiences. Working closely within established genre conventions--haunted house, ghostly possession, numinous dreams, the angry dead, the inspiration and alienation of the artist, and the borderland between insanity and the supernatural-Showers has written a superb tribute to Victorian Gothic set within 21st Century Dublin. Few modern writers can be as versed in the supernatural heritage of that atmospheric city, with it strange mix of glitzy economic miracle and elegantly sombre past, as Brian J. Showers--as evidenced in his superb recent book of walking tours around Gothic Dublin.
In his new story, past and present meet with an eerie verisimilitude: from the opening scene, in which Dr Séan McCormack--the rationalist en route to Merrion Square to sort out demented writer-friend, Andrew Hampton--crawls through the Dublin rain and traffic, regaled by the authentic accents of the frustrated taxi driver, complaining of road works on the N4 between Chapelizod and Leixlip; to the Hampton's wryly ironic observation, in a climactic scene at Mount Jerome, regarding an improbably located café above the cemetery office: 'Who drank coffee in a cemetery?' One of the story's finest aspects is the way in which the uncanny, claustrophobic interior of the old, multi-floored Georgian town house--devoid of electric light because the bill has not been paid!--is so well drawn, and made to work as the essential dynamic of the narrative; to read the tale is to inhabit the weird ambience of this doom-laden mansion, evoking in its atmosphere, an echo not only of Le Fanu's own macabre tales, but that great classic of the haunted house story: 'The Beckoning Fair One' by Oliver Onions. Moreover, the technique--which M.R. James himself learned from Le Fanu--of the obliquely, yet hideously, presented horror, is effectively mastered in the descriptions of the supernatural manifestations, culminating in the ultimate revelation of the phantom; and here one thinks also of another terrifying Gothic tale: Perceval Landon's 'Thurnley Abbey'. None of this is to suggest that Showers' new tale is derivative: on the contrary, rather that his immersion in the genre, together with his authentically realised Dublin setting, serve as a natural catalyst for the writing of an original ghost story. Inter-textual references, to classic and contemporary supernatural writers, constantly inform the narrative, making it great fun for the connoisseur; and it is threaded with a vein of wry humour, tastefully and effectively juxtaposed against the horror, never an easy task. Throughout, the narrative displays the author's lucid prose style and easy pace, a hallmark of all his previous work: in a phrase, Showers is a damned good story-teller, as well as a master of atmosphere and a shrewdly informed practitioner of the ghostly tale.
With No. 70 Merrion Square, Brian Showers has written something that is not simply a tribute to Le Fanu, but also a tale, it could be imagined, of which the Master himself would have approved--at least one hopes so, otherwise he might find himself rather in the uncomfortable position of the hapless Andrew Hampton! Thirteen macabre illustrations by Duane Spurlock add the perfect touch.
Reviews re-printed with permission from the authors.
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