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October 25, 2013 6:16 pm
Hello Mr Bones/Goodbye Mr Rat, by Patrick McCabe, Quercus, RRP£16.99, 141/131 pages
Every year as darkness closes in, heaps of spooky books are published in time for Halloween. The Irish novelist Patrick McCabe offers us Hello Mr Bones and Goodbye Mr Rat, interlinked novellas described as “like MR James took a dread wrong turning on an Irish country road.”
For a publisher to want to harness the spirit of that greatest of ghost-story writers is understandable but it’s an unusual claim to make for the inventive author of Breakfast on Pluto and many other zany, freewheeling fictions. James’s stories are presented in a dry-as-dust fashion, his protagonists antiquarians, scholars and churchmen, making the irruption of the irrational into the narrative all the more terrifying. In contrast, McCabe’s world is already so fragmented and chaotic that the acceptance of, say, the malign influence of a toy skeleton on the lives of adults is not hard for his readers to swallow.
There is a faint link with James, however, and it comes via Coleridge. In both novellas, McCabe quotes from “The Ancient Mariner” – “A frightful fiend doth close behind him tread” – just as James does in his story “Casting The Runes”. Fittingly, both novellas also involve treachery, pursuit and retribution.
Our two narrators are both dead. In Hello Mr Bones, Balthazar Bowen, scion of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, has drowned himself after being accused of abuse by a young boy called Valentine Shannon. Years later, after Val has entered and left the priesthood, Balthazar exacts revenge. Threaded through the story are mysterious characters whose names – Boan, Bohan, Bonio the clown – hint at supernatural action.
Gabriel King in Goodbye Mr Rat narrates from a copper cylinder: he is nothing but ashes, having died of prostate cancer. Gabriel was an apostate IRA man, a former hunger striker so revolted by one atrocity that he fled. Being dead, he must watch helplessly as his writer friend Beni Banikin falls in with the former paramilitaries when she returns Gabriel’s ashes to his home town.
Classic horror tropes – arachnophobia, coulrophobia (a fear of clowns), masks, puppets – recur alongside erudite references. Beni is inspired to write a play by the man Gabriel calls Mr Double-You-Bee, WB Yeats. Milton is mentioned, as is the poet John Berryman, whose Dream Songs feature a sinister voice, Mr Bones.
McCabe piles on the backstory to the point of strain. Take Beni: she’s not just an American feminist playwright, but a mentally unstable lesbian rape victim who was brought up in an Amish community. The characters move about in time and memory so much that parts of the story are confusing. Perhaps McCabe is making a point about the interchangeability of Irish and American culture but I found myself on more than one occasion thinking, where are we now?
Taken together, though, the novellas intertwine in fascinating ways, echoing and reflecting each other. If MR James wins in the jump-out-of-your-seat factor, McCabe, with his unflinching gaze on Ireland’s still-festering recent history, summons up horrors that are not quite so easy to dismiss.
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