Resurrecting the literary ghost story

The guiding spirit behind this week’s inaugural Dublin Ghost Story Festival explains why there is no better place for such an unearthly venture

“Perhaps other souls than human are born into the world, and clothed in human flesh.” – Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

A couple years back I bumped into crime-writer John Connolly on Dame Street. We’d both just come out of the IFI where we had seen Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau, one of the great genre films that never was. A documentary about a filmmaker with a grand vision – and how it turned into an epic catastrophe.

I’d obviously not taken the hint, because when I saw John there at the crosswalk I blurted out, “What do you think about doing a ghost story festival here in Dublin?”

John didn’t hesitate: “It’s a great idea.”


Had he given pause, things might have been different. One of us might have recognised the suggestion for being the herculean task that it was: organising an entire weekend-long festival (and without funding) to celebrate a literary genre about which we are both passionate. But looking back at that chance meeting, I realise John was completely right. A ghost story festival is a great idea, and being in Dublin we are perfectly situated for it.

The literary ghost story has deep roots in in this country, and Dublin itself is densely packed with authors of a more shadowy nature. Look no further than Clontarf-born Bram Stoker, whose Dracula is possibly the most recognisable character in all of literature. But there are others too, and lots of them.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, an author whose technique was much admired by MR James, wrote his tales of vampires and sinister monkeys from his home on Merrion Square. Dorothy Macardle penned the ghost stories in her first collection Earth-Bound while imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol. Head over to York Street where Charles Maturin wrote his novel of satanic longevity, Melmoth the Wanderer – a favourite of Oscar Wilde, himself no stranger to supernatural musings. On Leeson Street you’ll find the childhood home of Lafcadio Hearn, where he suffered nightmares that would later inform his writings on America, the Caribbean and Japan. And on Herbert Place, overlooking the Grand Canal, you’ll find a plaque denoting the birthplace of Elizabeth Bowen, a writer who fully recognised that ghost stories are “oblique and subtle, perfectly calculated to get the modern person under their skin”.

And so, with the spectral history of the city behind us, we felt we had our mandate for the Dublin Ghost Story Festival. But in addition to celebrating past masters, such as Edith Wharton or Shirley Jackson, we also wanted to showcase – through panels, interviews, discussions, readings and a one-man play on opening night – those who are currently working in the genre.

Despite its gothic castle and clanking-chain origins, the ghost story in all its guises continues to evolve and we wanted our programme to reflect that. At the festival will be David Mitchell, whose recent novel Slade House is an update of the classic haunted house theme. And if you’re looking for a book to really chill your blood, try something by our guest of honour, Adam Nevill; I’d recommend Apartment 16 or The Ritual – novels that bring right up to date the sensibilities of MR James and Algernon Blackwood. We’re also happy to have as a guest the American-born (and one-time Dublin resident) Lynda E Rucker, whose second collection of uncanny tales, You’ll Know When You Get There, will be launched at the festival. Rucker recently won the Shirley Jackson Award for best short story.

There’s a thriving community of independent publishers specialising in uncanny literature too, and you’ll find a selection of their books in the festival dealers’ room. North Yorkshire’s Tartarus Press produce exquisitely designed volumes, and had recent success with Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, a bleak and haunting novel that rightfully picked up the Costa Book Award for best first novel. A little closer to home is Dublin’s Swan River Press, the only publishing house in Ireland dedicated to literature of the gothic, fantastic and supernatural. Their anthology series Uncertainties, also launching at the festival, features contemporary stories of the uncanny by a host of international authors – and with an introduction by our own John Connolly. I admit a soft spot for Swan River as it is my own publishing house; as I said, I have a passion for this stuff.

It’s probably safe to say that everyone attending the Dublin Ghost Story Festival counts those moments of a pleasing terror as one of life’s finer delights. But what makes for a good tale of the supernatural and how do ghost stories differ from the often grislier iterations of horror? Do tales of spooks and spectres, of existential dread and of something amiss, function differently from stories of shambling zombies and chainsaw-wielding maniacs? With so many connoisseurs of the uncanny in attendance, there’s no reason why we can’t indulge ourselves and explore some of these questions.

Most importantly we hope that this weekend will be a social one. There are many people attending who are involved with various aspects of the ghost story genre. Not only will writers attend the festival, but also artists and illustrators, film directors and script writers, editors, publishers, academics and critics, booksellers and collectors – each one of them bringing something different to the supernatural genre. Our hope is that attendees will meet new friends, discover authors they’ve never heard of, and share with each other fresh ideas on one of the oldest forms of storytelling.

That day when John said “It’s a great idea”, I think we both rolled up our sleeves and started to organise the best event we could. There was a lot of heavy lifting, but we’ve had support and enthusiasm from across the globe. The Dublin Ghost Story Festival will be the first of its kind in Ireland, with attendees coming from as far away Norway, Canada and Australia, and we hope you’ll join us too. This isn’t a horror convention – you’ll find no zombies and chainsaws here; instead the Dublin Ghost Story Festival is a celebration of the centuries-old art of the uncanny chill.