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Shadow Voices: John Connolly builds a monument to the problem child of Irish literature

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Fascinating history: John Connolly. Photo by Mark Condren

Fascinating history: John Connolly. Photo by Mark Condren

Shadow Voices by John Connolly

Shadow Voices by John Connolly

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Fascinating history: John Connolly. Photo by Mark Condren

As a work of scholarship, Shadow Voices — a collection of stories assembled by crime-writing superstar John Connolly — is impeccable. As an act of artistic curation, it’s comprehensive to the point of monumental. As a reading experience, pure and simple, it’s terrific fun.

With the subtitle ‘300 Years of Irish Genre Fiction: A History in Stories’, Connolly sets himself a Herculean task: giving our genre writing its proper due. As Connolly explains: “Genre fiction remains the problem child of Irish literature — too readily dismissed as secondary or incidental.” Distaste for genre, he adds, is “a badge of pride in certain critical quarters”.

Exhibit A, referenced here: Colm Tóibín’s 2019 comments that he “can’t do any genre-fiction books, really. I just get bored with the prose”. (Connolly is too polite to repeat the oft-made point that Tóibín’s biggest success, Brooklyn, is in many ways an old-fashioned romance.)

This, Connolly points out, is despite the fact that Irish writers were pioneers in various strands of genre fiction. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was “the first great fantasy novel in English”. Stoker, Maturin and Le Fanu broke new ground in horror, particularly Gothic.

So in spite of the establishment’s fetishisation of dreary “literary” novels where nothing happens — which are, in their own way, as robotically formulaic as any airport bestseller, without the redeeming quality of an exciting story — Irish authors have always done genre brilliantly, and Irish readers have embraced it.

Women writers have also been disregarded by this vaguely Maoist insistence on a kind of “literary purity”. Romance — in which Irish women have enjoyed globe-conquering success — is sneered at as “chick lit”. Crime — another land in which our female authors have planted their flag — is dismissed as inconsequential pulp.

To restore balance to the Hibernian bibliosphere, Connolly has produced Shadow Voices. And no better man for the job: alongside 20 mega-selling thrillers (with a soupçon of the supernatural), he has written straight horror stories, fantasy and science-fiction series for younger readers, and He: A Novel, a literary reimagining of Stan Laurel’s life.

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Coming in at over a thousand pages, Shadow Voices is a veritable Borgesian “library as universe”, or at least the universe of Irish genre writing: from Swift’s classic satirical essay A Modest Proposal (1729) to contemporary crime and horror stories by the likes of Brian McGilloway and Maura McHugh.

Connolly also cheekily includes one of his own pieces, but we’ll allow it: both for the fantastic title — On The Anatomisation of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier, which sounds like a JG Ballard fever-dream — and as reward for the colossal amount of work he has put into this.

Connolly writes that he is not a fan of anthologies that provide little information on contributors, so each story is accompanied by a lengthy biography. Of themselves, these mini-essays are a fascinating history of Irish life and culture; as accompaniment to the stories, they’re icing on the cake.

Shadow Voices contains some 50 stories across a wide range of genres: broadly speaking, the majority could be categorised as horror (in its multiple sub-genres) or crime/mystery (again, a wild diversity of sub-genres), as well as fantasy, sci-fi/speculative fiction, cod-mythology, weird fiction, romance and satire.

A book like this is probably best dipped into, rather than read through, partly because not everything will or can appeal to the reader. Personal taste is all.

For my part, I enjoyed later pieces more: there’s something about the 18th and 19th century style, its ornateness and prolixity, that grates for some reason. That said, Swift’s “eat your children” spoof declaration remains immortally brilliant, as does Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1887). Gerald Griffin’s The Brown Man (1827) is a disturbing and, quoting Connolly, “nasty” little thing that stays in the mind.

There is also irony in that, for many earlier writers, their biographies are much more engaging than their present-day successors’. Doomed romance, wacky escapades, criminality and early death, blood and lust and madness: many read more like fictional characters than real people. Modern writers’ lives, then, are generally more banal and uninteresting — but their actual writing appeals more to my sensibilities.

A few favourites are Elizabeth Bowen’s chilling Demon Lover (1945), Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest (1914), The Honest Blackmailer (1982) by Patricia Moyes, Cathal Ó Sándair’s quirky Teddy Bear Mystery (1952) and, from 2013, Left for Dead: a sort of prequel in which Jane Casey gives backstory to her great crime-fiction character Maeve Kerrigan.

But this is merely a sample; the book is full of fantastic stories, and would make a fabulous Christmas gift. It’s a beautifully presented hardback with a gorgeous cover.

Inside, it’s a treasure-trove, a literary odyssey — and a magnificent achievement by Connolly. He has done the state, and Irish writing, one hell of a service.

Darragh McManus’s books include ‘The Driving Force’ and ‘Pretend We’re Dead’

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Shadow Voices by John Connolly

Shadow Voices by John Connolly

Shadow Voices by John Connolly

Short stories: Shadow Voices by John Connolly
Hodder & Stoughton, 1,088 pages, hardcover €35; e-book £12.99


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