As Reggie Oliver tells it, a great ghost story is not about the terrible things that the evil spirits do, it is about the psychology of the person being haunted.
Stories of ghosts and spirits can be traced back to the very earliest myths in most ancient cultures, says Oliver, a writer of ghost stories who will deliver a talk examining the history of the genre at the second Dublin Ghost Story Festival this summer.
The people who enjoy supernatural stories the most are those who realise that the world is “stranger than you think”, he says. That includes himself.
“I like ghost stories because it reflects what I feel about the world,” he says. “It’s an unusual place.”
The guest of honour at the festival will be the American writer Joyce Carol Oates, winner of the National Book Award, the O. Henry Award, and the National Humanities Medal (among others), who has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
Oates has written many supernatural tales over the years, including those in the Bram Stoker Award-winning collection The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (2011).
“Joyce Carol Oates is a fairly big name and her accomplishments are staggering,” says Brian Showers of Dublin’s Swan River Press, who is organising the festival.
A Gathering of Like-Minded Folk
“If you look at Irish literary history, you will see there are a remarkable number of writers in the genre,” says Showers. He uses the term “ghost story” broadly to include supernatural and fantastical stories, he says.
There are J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Dorothy Macardle, who wrote ghost stories while imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol, as well as Oscar Wilde, to name a few.
Bram Stoker is arguably the most influential writer to come out of Ireland, says Showers. People all over the world recognise his character Dracula.
Showers organised the first Dublin Ghost Story festival in 2016, along with author John Connolly. It was “an enormous amount of work”, and afterwards, Showers wasn’t sure he could face doing it again, he said.
But ghost stories are Showers’s passion, and after skipping a year, here we are again. This time Connolly had a full schedule, so his Showers’s colleague John Kenny is organising it with him.
“I didn’t want to do it again, unless I had a spectacular guest of honour,” says Showers. He didn’t want to just roll it out annually, he says. He wanted it to be great.
Showers says he has no intention of increasing the size of the festival, despite its popularity in its first year. Its small size is the best things about it, he says. “I just wanted an excuse to have all of these people that I like to read and that I like to hang out with,” he says.
There are talks, readings, tours and other events scheduled, Showers says, but he also wants it to be a social event. So he has built time into the schedule for people to chat and relax. It’s a great opportunity for fans to grab a beer with their beloved authors, he says.
Those who want to go had better act quick, Showers says. The 2016 festival sold out, and although this year’s isn’t on until the end of June, most of the tickets are already gone, he says.
In the Shadow of Le Fanu
Before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, another Dubliner wrote the first vampire story, which examined the sexuality “at the heart of the vampire myth”, says Oliver.
Stoker was “undoubtedly” influenced by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, of Merrion Square, says Oliver.
In novella Carmilla, Le Fanu explored the theme in a subtler way, says Oliver. “There is this immensely powerful sexual content that is acknowledged which makes it somehow more powerful and more dangerous,” he says.
Le Fanu wrote stories that were not simply folkloric, but psychological, Oliver says. “He is celebrated and deservedly so, as the father of the modern ghost story.”
He cites Le Fanu’s short story “Green Tea”. “It’s really about somebody quite innocent being attacked by an evil entity and having his psyche destroyed,” he says.
This theme is central to the modern ghost story, and has been explored by many others since, he says.
Festival goers will get to see Oliver, who is also an actor, perform one of his own short stories as a homage to one of his own favourite writers, M.R. James, who was heavily influenced by Le Fanu, Oliver says.
Oliver wants to explore one of the major themes of James’s work, a common thread in folklore. “Don’t disturb things – or you may find something horrible underneath,” he says.
His tale is set in a cathedral city, and is a story of a “modernising dean of a cathedral who decides to move a tomb”, which he isn’t supposed to move. “Some very unpleasant things start to happen,” he says.
“It’s about this recurring theme that you get in a lot of myths,” Oliver says. Someone arrogant comes along and crosses the line, by disregarding the old traditions or disturbing something that should be left alone.
Like a fairy fort? Yes, exactly, he says.
“It’s part of an innate conservativism of all human beings, and particularly those who have lived in the same place for a long time,” he says. “They build up repertoires of traditions and anyone who comes along and tries to poke about in it, is in danger.”