The Irish Gothic – Uncle Silas, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dracula

irish gothic Well it’s Saint Patrick’s day on Tuesday, and what better way to celebrate Irishness than to review some classic Gothic Literature from the Emerald Isle. I won’t go into too much detail as all three of these novels are absolute classics, and I expect anyone who is following this blog to have read them all.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Dell – 1978

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Dorian looking a bit scaldy.

This novel is great. It’s been a long time since I read it though. Either way, I won’t hear a word said against our Oscar. It’s a pity he didn’t write more novels. 7.5/10

Uncle Silas – Sheridan Le Fanu
Oxford – 1981
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Howiye Maud?

This is one of my favourite books of all time. It’s standard Gothic fare really; a young girl loses her parent and she has to go live in creepy uncle’s house. The chapter in which Maud, the protagonist, encounters her repulsive governess for the first time had me shitting in my britches. The way that creepy bitch comes down the hill is absolutely CHILLING.

My edition of the novel is nicely annotated, and there is one note that I found particularly amusing. “414 a clumsy old press: in Ireland and Scotland, press = cupboard” Visiting my in-laws would be so much easier if I could get that printed on a t-shirt.

Anyways, this book is magnificent. If you like Jane Eyre or The Mysteries of Udolpho, then this is the book for you. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, then sorry, but we can’t be friends.

Dracula – Bram Stoker
Penguin – 1994
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Nice ‘tache Drac. (Sweet diddys too!)

Well, this is obviously one of the greatest novels ever written. This was also one of the first books that I read after graduating from university. I had just spent four years reading books that had been selected by other people, and to have the freedom to choose a book according to my own tastes was tremendous. I remember actually looking forward to going to bed at night, just so I could get stuck into this absolute masterpiece.

I’ve always had an interest in ghosts and monsters: I grew up watching Ghostbusters and reading Goosebumps, and I’ve always preferred horror films to any other genre. I was expecting to enjoy this book, but I was not expecting to be frightened. Well, I was; there are parts of this book that are damned scary. There’s nothing in here that I hadn’t seen in a hundred movies; but reading Dracula, I realized that all of those movies had used this book as a template to produce their scares. I was spooked good and proper when the lads start to go missing on the boat as the count is lurking in the shadows. Pure deadly.

There’s also some weird sexiness to this novel. That’s not just something that Hollywood added to make the film versions more successful. There’s a lot of heaving breasts in here. Mina and Lucy sound like absolute babes. The count is a kinky one too, check this out:
With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.
Dracula! She’s a married woman, ye dirty bowsy!!! And you’d think he’d be satisfied with those lovely vampire wenches he keeps in his castle. I’ll tell ye now, if I was a single man I’d have no bleedin’ bother lettin’ them have a little suck, wha?

Anyways, I’ll give this a perfect 10/10. If you haven’t read this book, you have no reason to be wasting your time reading this blog.

There are other fantastic works of Gothic fiction to have emerged from Ireland. Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer might seem like a glaring omission from this post, but I have a plan to review that later on in conjunction with another book. I’m also planning to review more of Le Fanu’s works in the near future.

I think it’s rather interesting to note that all three of the authors reviewed in this post were Dublin protestants. (Maturin, who was incidentally Oscar Wilde’s great-uncle, was also a Church of Ireland clergyman.) These three books were also written within 50 years of each other. You’d wonder what the Church of Ireland were putting in their non-transubstantial eucharist to get their congregation to be such creeps. I’ve read that Dracula represents Stoker’s alienation from the largely Catholic Ireland, but I reckon it was just dodgy proddy communion wafers.

These books are all savage. Fuck going to the parade this St. Patrick’s day; read one of these smashers instead.

Irish Witchcraft and Demonology – St. John D. Seymour

Dorset – 1992
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I love books about witchcraft and demonology. I also love books from/about Ireland. I’m sure you can imagine my excitement on finding this little beauty. I actually read the book online, but managed to pick up a copy online for a reasonable price.

This edition is lovely. It’s a nice hardback, with lovely typeset and a very interesting cover. The image on the cover is from a painting by Richard Dadd called “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke”. It’s not particularly Irish or witchy, but it’s cool all the same. Look it up on google there and have a gander. I really like it.

The contents of this book are pretty good too. Unlike a lot of European countries, Ireland never really had much of a problem with witches. It’s hard to know whether that was due to the fact that’s it’s an island and hence relatively isolated, or whether it was because the country had enough problems with the bleedin’ Brits during the witchcraze and didn’t have time to be getting upset over such silly nonsense. It could also be that the deeply superstitious Irish peasantry had been holding on to some ancient pagan traditions, and had never come to see witchcraft as an inherently negative thing. It was very probably due to these and a combination of other reasons that Ireland wasn’t much affected by the witchcraze of the middle ages.

Some parts in this book are great. I really liked the part on Alice Kyteler. TG4 did a great documentary on her that’s up on youtube. The house she lived in is now an inn, and I swear that the next time I’m in Ireland, I’m going to try to pay it a visit.

There’s a few aul stories in here about fairies and lads cheating the divil and that kind of craic. I enjoy reading that stuff immensely, but this might not be the book for you if you’re looking for pure, nasty witchcraft. That said, there are some grim incidents recounted in here. There’s one story about a woman who goes mad and kills her elderly neighbour:

One of the witnesses deposed that he met the accused on the road on the morning of the murder. She had a statue in her hand, and repeated three times: “I have the old witch killed: I got power from the Blessed Virgin to kill her. She came to me at 3 o’clock yesterday, and told me to kill her, or I would be plagued with rats and mice.”

The most chilling thing about that story is that it’s actually from 1911.

Overall, this is an enjoyable little book. A lot of it’s taken up with folktales that seem unlikely to have had any basis in truth, but there are a few sinister and curious accounts of what were doubtlessly real events. Seymour isn’t out to scare anyone and definitely comes across as critical of the witch craze. (Montague Summers, he is not.) Irish Witchcraft and Demonology is a decent attempt to compile the history of witchcraft in an almost witch-less country. It’s short, interesting and definitely worth a read. 8/10

Getting back to the cover illustration, check this lad out!paddy
Howiye Paddy!

Blasphemers and Blackguards, Do What You Will (A History of Anti-Morality), and The Hellfire Club

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The Hellfire Club on top of Montpelier Hill.

In Dublin, the phrase ‘Hellfire Club’ is almost exclusively used to refer to the ruins of the hunting lodge on top of Montpelier Hill. Families walk up to these ruins on Sunday evenings after dinner, and everybody knows the legend of the Devil appearing there during a card game:

Some lads were up at the lodge, gettin’ locked, shaggin’ tarts and playin’ cards. One of of the lads drops his cards on the ground. He stoops over to pick them up and notices that the lad beside him has hooves for feet. He stands back up and the other lad (Satan) disappears in a flash of smoke.

That story scared the shit out of me when I was little. I had visited the lodge when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until 2 years ago that I got to go back.

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A view from inside.

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The lodge was built over a pre-historic passage tomb.

Anyways, the original ‘Hellfire club’ was actually a group of 18th century English politicians. It was probably little more than an excuse to get drunk and talk lewdly, but it has literally become the stuff of legends. Several other clubs, including the one that met on top Montpelier hill,  have inadvertently assumed the Hellfire moniker, and these groups are the subjects of the three books I am reviewing.

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Blasphemers and Blackguards (The Irish Hellfire Clubs) – David Ryan
Merrion – 2012

This book gives an account of the several different organizations that were founded by wealthy rakes in Ireland during the 18th century. The clubs consisted of upper-class individuals who were able to use their place in society to get away with murder. The Irish clubs don’t seem to have been involved in much satanism, but it’s not hard to see how a group of licentious and wealthy individuals of Protestant descendency could gain a diabolical reputation in a country that was mostly populated by poor Catholics. Besides, the crimes that some of these groups committed were far more reprehensible than the boudoir blasphemy of the real Hellfire Club.

This book is fairly academic: it’s properly researched and sourced, and I never felt like the author was bullshitting. Ryan gives a trustworthy account of the facts about these clubs, while also delineating and discussing the folklore that has developed around the Hellfire legend. I’m from Dublin and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this account of the city’s shadiest secret. 7.5/10

The Hellfire Club – Daniel P. Mannix
New English Library – 1970

This book focuses on the The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe. While the Friars were not the original Hellfire Club, they were definitely the most infamous. This book is full of tales of blasphemy, debauchery and political upheaval. Even the less lurid parts of the book are fairly interesting. John Wilkes comes across as a particularly interesting character.

The big problem with this book is that it’s not properly sourced.  Many of the events herein are undoubtedly based in fact, but there are episodes in this book that seem to be taken straight out of works of fiction. One such episode, which involves a baboon dressed as Satan, is almost definitely based on a scene from Charles Johnstone’s novel, Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea. Chrysal was a satirical novel published between 1760 and 1765 that poked fun at the political leaders of the time. The novel is narrated by a golden coin that at one stage enters into the pocket of a Hellfire monk. Somehow, the experiences of this imaginary golden coin managed to transmigrate themselves into facts in Mannix’s supposedly historical account of the Club.

That being said, the subtitle of this book is “Orgies were their pleasure, politics their passtime”, and I wasn’t particularly surprised or disappointed to find that this book is a tad sensational. I’m giving it a 6.5/10 for its entertainment value.

Do What You Will (A History of Anti-Morality) – Geoffrey Ashe
W.H. Allen – 1974
This book has sections on Rabelais, John Dee, the Marquis De Sade and Aleister Crowley, but it’s really about the Hellfire Club.  Dashwood’s club is again the focus, but this time the author is reasonable in his assertions. Ashe presents very similar information to Mannix, but he does so in a far less credulous manner. This book is definitely worth reading if you want a legitimate account of the Monks of Medenham.

The subtitle of this book is ‘A History of Anti-Morality’, but more than half of the book’s chapters are on the Hellfire Clubs.  I obviously find the clubs fascinating, and I understand that their members played an important role in the politics of the 18th century, but I’m not convinced that they are the single most important anti-morality movement in the history of the world. I’m certain that I’m not the only person to notice this as recent editions of this book have actually been renamed ‘The Hellfire Clubs’. Basically, Ashe has arbitrarily chosen several groups and individuals, and assigned them an inordinate amount of moral accountability. It’s not that any of the material here is irrelevant, it’s the fact that so much has been left out. Compiling a history of anti-morality would be an outrageously difficult and lengthy procedure, and ultimately Ashe has failed in this task.

I was very interested to read a book that had consecutive chapters on the Hellfire Clubs and the Marquis De Sade. There are many parallels with Hellfire legends and the events in De Sade’s fiction. I have often wondered if the Divine Marquis had heard tales about the Brotherhood of Wycombe and taken inspiration from them. Think about it; he was a nobleman and a libertine, writing only a few years after the dissolution of Dashwood’s posse. I find it hard to believe that he had never heard of the friars taking young harlots into the sacrilegious abbey at Medenham or the Hellfire caves at Wycombe. I’ve done a little research to verify this link but I haven’t found anything to substantiate it. If anyone has any suggestions on where to look, I would love to hear from you!

Anyways, although I think that this book falls short on what it sets out to do, I did enjoy reading it. The stuff in here isn’t bad; there’s just not enough of it. That being said, there is an abundant amount of information on the Hellfire Clubs in here, and I would urge anyone who has any interest in this topic to get their hands on this one. I’m going to give this one a 6.5/10.

BONUS REVIEW
Secret Societies – Nick Harding
Chartwell Books Inc. – 2006
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I’m not hugely interested in most secret societies. I inadvertently bought a copy of this book as part of a collection on satanism.  It’s quite short and quite shit. It provides a little information on about 20 different secret societies, but doesn’t go into detail on any of them. I don’t really know why a person would buy a book like this. I suppose it would be quite good if you were taking a long flight and you needed something to halfheartedly glance at now and then. I am reviewing it as part of this post as it contains a section on Dashwood’s Hellfire Club. Let’s just give it a 4/10 and leave it at that.