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Not to Be Taken at Bed-Time & Other Strange Stories - Review

This fairly new volume from the Swan River Press is a very beautiful book. I need to make that clear from the outset - I have never seen a better-looking small press volume (and I've seen a few in my time, missus). The dustcover design by Megan Kehrli, from artwork by Brian Coldrick, is superb, and perfectly suited to the contents. A ghostly apparition is at the centre, surrounded a rather attractive design of roses and a small bird. The art on the inside cover is equally fine, with its ladder placed at an open window and more beautiful foliage around it.

I mention this because Rosa Mulholland's stories are fine examples of Victorian Romantic fiction in both senses of the term. The original meaning of Romantic was dangerous, Gothic, weird, not quite respectable. By the time Mulholland (1841-1921) started writing for Dickens' famous magazine All the Year Round the sharper edges of Romanticism had been dulled a little, but despite her Victorian sensibility the author still manages to convey a sense of strange in her (mostly) ghostly tales. They are also romantic in the familiar sense, in that most concern love - often unrequited or thwarted, but sometimes fulfilled in a heartwarming way after many trials.

Mulholland also draws strongly on her Irish heritage, and this gives the tales an extra dimension, that of the looming Celtic Twilight. The title story sets the tone and pace with its leisurely account of the Devil's Inn, and its embittered landlord Coll Dhu (Black Coll). Poor old Coll has been diddled out of his inheritance by an Englishman. In a well-constructed plot involving witchcraft, Coll contrives to win over the colonel's daughter, with tragic consequences for all.

It's a mark of a good writer that they can be immersed in the literary culture of their time and yet manage to transcend it, and Mulholland does that with the tales collected here. 'The Ghost at the Rath' has the feel of a full-blooded stage melodrama, complete with a hero called Captain John Thunder (I kid you not). The good captain is treated to a ghostly vision of a great injustice done to a noble family, and manages to right this wrong. Muholland handles a tricky central section - in which Thunder sees past events. This reminded me of Daphne Du Maurier's novel The House on the Strand.

'The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly' is a rather jolly title for a sad tale. An elderly Irish couple lament that passing of their only child, a son who was given to dissolute antics that proved fatal. When a petite Italian girl appears at their house and claims to have been sent my their long-dead son, they are baffled. Then events take a stranger turn as the girl insists on playing the organ that the son once excelled at. It's not clear why this has happened, but the ending is suitably tragic, perhaps hinting at some darker disgrace that could not be stated outright by an author of that time.

'There is something inexplicable in the story, but I tell you exactly as it happened.' So begins 'The Mystery of Ora', in which a penurious young gentleman on a hiking holiday encounters mystery on the Irish coast. This is an interesting treatment of a favourite Victorian theme, that of the beautiful girl held captive by an old rogue of some kind. The hero naturally seeks to help Ora, and in doing so involves himself in a mystery centring on astrology. The description of the observatory on the coast and the gradual revelation of Ora's true plight are cleverly handled, and Mulholland makes an unlikely story compelling. This one sticks in the mind as the work of first-rate imagination.

'A Strange Love Story' is a novella with an interesting take on the theme of the tormented artist. Hilda is a lovely and talented Austrian girl who sacrifices her health to advance the career of her artist husband, Max. Hilda is a classic Mulholland heroine, lively and intelligent, and also possessed of extraordinary will power. The plot bears some resemblance to Poe's 'Morella', and perhaps 'Ligiea', which Mulholland presumably read. The main difference is that, for this author, reincarnation in the name of love is not so much horrific as misguided, an attempt to cheat Providence that is bound to fail.

By contrast, 'The Ghost at Wildwood Chase' is a slight tale with a happy ending. Here again we have an artist, a young Englishman spending some time in the country to ease the symptoms of consumption. When he glimpses a beautiful girl at night he recognises her as the subject of a portrait dating back centuries. Or is he jumping to conclusions? This is Mulholland at her most playful, teasing the reader with a pleasant ghost story that has a rational explanation - more or less.

The final story, 'The Lady Tantivy', does feature a genuine ghost, and one that is rather cheerful with it. The man who encounters her falls in love with the beautiful girl who died many years before he was born. At the end of the story he reveals that he is now nearing the end of his life, and looks forward to seeing her again. It's a very simple tale, elegiac and humane. The impression of Rosa Mulholland that these stories convey is of a pleasant, witty, and extremely skilful author who knew how foolish and wicked people could be, but retained a belief in the power of love and compassion.

Finally, a word about the Introduction. It is by Richard Dalby, which means it gives a detailed and intelligent appreciation of the author and her works. It is sad to think that we will no longer be able to look forward to his contributions to small press volumes. I'm glad that this book is well up to the standard of the many to which Richard contributed.