O God, says Hamlet to his treacherous school buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Do other animals dream? I don’t know. But we do. We dream at night and in daytime; of good things and bad. Our dreams are ferocious, consuming, titillating, arousing. Terrifying. Sticks to beat ourselves with or opiate promises to dull the pain of the present. Some of us put our dreams into words or sounds or pictures or movements and the rest of the world calls this art. There is art which is realistic and representational. It feels familiar. Hah, we say: there’s the world as I know it. And then there’s the other kind. Strange, new, startling-yet familiar too, as known to us as our own guts.
Francis Bacon prized sensation: if his work didn’t affect the viewer’s nervous system, he didn’t think it was any good. There is a horrific quality, I think, to his paintings. They affect me the way works of the frightening and the fantastical have affected me since I was a child. That weird 1920s black-and-white movie I glimpsed on the telly, where a body got stretched so thin it became a worm; Maupassant’s Le Horla (read, bad idea, at age 9); Heathcliff’s Cathy tapping the midnight window of Wuthering Heights; Barney’s legs sliced through, bone and all, by a spinning wire in RTÉ’s Strumpet City; and, most recently, Jeff Vandermeer’s strange, creepily urgent sci-fi novel Annihilation.
Every one of us has a lexicon of horror, a set of touchstones we use to measure and contain our fear. In editing this issue, while being informed by my own lexicon, I’ve also had the privilege of being flooded by the fear-vocabulary of hundreds of other people. I’ve met their werewolves, vampires, witches and ghosts; their self-obsessed weirdos; their nightmarish holding rooms. I’ve encountered their clawed metamorphs and creepy haunted houses. Seen blood flow, skin pierced, soft openings brutalised. I’ve heard bones and hearts break, tasted human flesh, been buried alive. And the loneliness – oh my god, I’ve felt the loneliness.
This issue began as an idea. A collection of dark fairy tales, inspired by Deirdre Gleeson’s deeply disturbing vampire/banshee horror, Daragh Maguire and the Black Blood, in the 2008 Stinging Fly anthology, Let’s Be Alone Together. It was the story I would have loved to write and I couldn’t help wondering if there were more of these beauties lurking around in the Irish subconscious. As the conversations with Declan Meade and the Fly team unfolded, the creature started to shift shape. Why restrict it to Irish writers writing about Irish themes? Why just stories? Why not make it a special issue, featuring poetry and essays too? As for focus, fairy tales would be great, but what about the Gothic? Or body horror? Or – ooh, a ghost story or two? Declan came up with a working title – Fear & Fantasy. Perfect. And with fantasy, open season started. Because, of course, there was all that other stuff I’ve hoarded on my shelves since I first entered Narnia. High-fantasy, sci-fi, surrealism…
Sean O’Reilly has spoken of how a journal issue, like any piece of work, doesn’t know what it is when it starts off. I had assumed editing would be straightforward – you picks the ones you like, throw a couple of punctuation suggs to the writers, and hey presto. Last winter, the submissions started slouching towards us. In April, I began reading-all 250-plus stories and around 60 poems that Eabhan had expertly winnowed out for me. I want you to pick ones you love, I’d emailed her. But also the ones that make you feel horrible.
From the start the stories had me in reading heaven. Each brushed off the theme in some way, and many were underscored by a joyous, affectionate nod towards the genre/s. I scribbled a terse note on every cover page, nearly all some variant of ‘liked this!’, ‘ooh!’ or ‘euwww-fab.’ Some were simply ‘I LOVE this’.
Straightforward? How wrong my initial assumption was. I was finding it really hard to say No. So I colour-coded the stories into eight shades of Yes gradating all the way down to Possibly(?). Still hundreds in the pile. Utilising a more rational approach, I grouped them into sub-genre: magic, faerie, vampires, sci-fi, surrealist, body horror, myth, solipsism, apocalypse, nihilism and – my favourite – monsters & metamorphs.
Rationality, ultimately, wasn't much help. As the essayists in this issue persuasively argue, works of horror and fantasy are stabs at a particular type of meaning-making. Trying to plumb the depths of what makes me – or you – or us – afraid and put a strange new shape on it. When the shape created by the writer bumps into what's hiding in the reader's basement, meaning happens. In the end, I chose the stories that, when I'd read them or thought about them afterwards, I loved the most. The ones I'd scribbled on with those capital letters, underlined three times. The ones that wouldn't leave me alone. The poems I selected later, to cluster around the prose like small dark gems. How funny, that in an issue dedicated to fear, it was love which was my magnet – triangulated by the sense that I needed to select pieces I hadn't seen before, pieces that felt to me truly strange, or weird, or even just odd. Rilke wrote beautifully about dragons and princesses: how the things that most terrify us are the things we need to pay most attention to. Jung spoke about the shadow: the dark shape lurking in our psyche that embodies all the stuff we don't think we are. The 39 pieces of writing featured here are the ones which speak most to my shadow, which bring my dragon out from hiding so he can show me my sad, soft-bellied princess.
You will notice that most of them are written in the first person, that they’re set in the present or a recentish past or a kind of future. That none of them are what you’d call pure genre: horror or sci-fi or surrealism or supernatural, but each has echoes of these forms somewhere in their mix. In his last editorial, Thomas Morris talked about repetition and resonance, and I can’t help that my fears follow grooves. You’ll spot a lot of monsters and shape-shifters, an unsettling amount of female victims, a few dead babies, and Wolves, of course (I’ve a thing for Wolves). The original kernel, dark fairy-tales, have made their way in too. Look closely and you’ll find Goldilocks, twisted Cinderellas, a Troll, Bluebeard, a witch or two, several warped FrankenJekyllstein wizards, and Pinocchio. Then there are the scary fairy-tales of our own age-radiation poisoning, rising sea-levels, Aids, genetic modification, fundamentalist religion, nationalism gone mad, cancer. And the twin pulses of that sad princess’s beating heart: isolation and depression.
Bacon would approve, I think. Every piece in this issue – and here I include Siobhán McGibbon’s creepy visual delicacies and (fangirl moment) Gary Coyle’s iconic cover art – has made me feel something. Repulsion, pity, exhilaration. Humour. That nasty sensation on the back of my neck that tells me I’m in the presence of a real Monster. I’ve been startled and moved, sometimes to tears. I’ve wanted to stop reading while compelled to keep going. I’ve been uplifted, not just by the glorious writing of these abundantly talented contributors, but by the tiny, luminous grains of transcendence – hope? – they offer from the darkness. Enjoy the dreaming. Seek out those shadows. And may your dragons ever rise to meet you.
The Fear & Fantasy issue of The Stinging Fly, Issue 35 Volume Two Winter 2016-17, guest edited by Mia Gallagher, is out now, priced €10/£8.
Mia Gallagher is the author of two acclaimed novels: HellFire (Penguin Ireland, 2006), which received the Irish Tatler Literature Award in 2007, and Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016). Her short fiction has been published internationally and she has received several literature bursaries from the Arts Council. Fear & Fantasy is her editorial debut