Wednesday, 29 September 2021

The Fatal Move & Other Stories (Swan River Press 2021)

The six stories in this slim volume comprise the entire fictional output of Conall Cearnach, the pen-name of F. W. O’Connell. In an excellent introduction, Reggie Chamberlain-King describes the author as 'a peculiar Protestant divine, linguist and Irish language scholar, oddball essayist, and early national broadcaster.' O'Connell was a prolific translator and his deep knowledge of various literary traditions informed his fiction, or at least some of it. 

All these stories were written during the traumatic period of Irish partition in 1921. As such they can be read both as entertaining weird tales and attempts to come to terms with contemporary anxieties in a creative way. Writing as therapy, if you like.

The title story harks back to the contes cruel of the 19th century, with its tale of two obsessive chess players who are rivals for the love of the same woman. One contrives a terrible variant on the royal game that will eliminate one of the rivals. 

'The Vengeance of the Dead' is a solid excursion into more conventional territory, with again the theme of vicious rivalry proving fatal. The story, for me, is badly marred by the author's attempt to reproduce an Indian accent on the page, which has a distinct whiff of Peter Sellers about it. The central idea is good, though, and the ending works nicely enough.

'The Fiend That Walks Behind' uses the same Coleridge quote that appears in 'Casting the Runes', and also features a learned gentleman who becomes obsessed with a supernatural pursuer. However, the treatment is very different to M.R. James tale, with more emphasis on psychology. #

Slightly more playful is 'The Homing Bone', in which an anatomist commits what he thinks of as a venal sin, but finds that some spirits are very jealous of their mortal remains. This one comes close to E.F. Benson in its depiction of a solitary individual who finds himself the focus of unwanted paranormal attention. 

'Professor Danvers' Disappearance' returns to the world eastern mysticism with the tale of an academic who immerses himself in Indian religion, then vanishes after receiving a death threat couched in supernatural terms. An alternative explanation is suggested, however, in a manner that reminded me of some of Chesterton's more restrained efforts. 

The final story, 'The Rejuvenation of Ivan Smithovich', is a short squib about a refugee for a Soviet-controlled England where Russian has replaced English. The light tone and slightly absurd premise - a Cockney driven bonkers by monkey glands - is balanced by a reference to British attempts to suppress the Irish language. What goes around, the author seems to suggest, might well come around. 

The book also contains some essays which show the breadth of Cearnachs's learning and his considerable wit. Overall, this slight book has much to recommend it to the aficionado of weird fiction, and illuminates some of the more obscure byways of Irish literature. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"a Soviet-controlled England where Russian has replaced English."

This was probably inspired by Patrick Pearse's fantasy of a future where "English ... was now only spoken by a few peasants in Somersetshire [through] the conquest of England by the Russian republic and the splitting up of the British Empire into independent kingdoms and republics [which] soon destroyed the commercial value of English. It had never been a valuable language in intellectual terms."

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