A ghost story on shifting builder’s sand
Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan, with its echoes of Poe and MR James, is a strange and unsettling but compelling tale
Nothing on Earth: a post-ghost estate story starting with its own Poe-esque rapping on a door one hot August evening. Photograph: Eric Luke
I like Mark Gatiss a lot. If you’re as old as I am he probably popped up first in your pop culture consciousness as one of the guys from The League Of Gentlemen along with the brilliant Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton (who, by the by, are writing and starring in one of the best things on TV at the moment – Inside Number 9). Chances are, though, that you’ll know Gatiss more recently from being the co-creator of Sherlock; he’s the actor who plays Mycroft Holmes too. Every time I see him on TV it’s a mark of something being interesting, worthwhile, watchable. Every now and then I learn something new when I see him.
A couple of years back he did a few fantastic, passionate documentaries for BBC Four on one of his specialist subjects – horror. There were a couple on British and European horror cinema (seek them out if you can: I developed an interest in Mario Bava movies afterwards), but the one that stayed with me long afterwards and opened a previously unknown door to me was his one on the now sadly side-lined early 20th-century ghost story master MR James.
So much fiction these days is far too solid and literal. Rarely enough do I find something this special full of shifting sands underfoot, uncertain realities and, ultimately, a story that even refuses to tell you what it is
James was a medievalist, antiquarian and eventual provost of King’s College Cambridge who, far more famously, created gorgeously solid, slow moving and creepy stories like The Tractate Middoth, The Mezzotint and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. He wrote frequently of the atmospheric and ethereal and the otherworldly, a few set near architectural digs and half-ruined buildings. “Ghost” stories that were rarely of the openly supernatural, more of the strange and the gently unsettling. You can see why resonant alarm bells went off then when I read Nothing On Earth.
Irish writing in recent years is full of stories of contemporary rural failure and pain, there are families in quiet crisis everywhere, the consequences of boom and bust are being told all around us and, as a grouping of writing, it’s not short of stories in which a priest takes a significant role. Nothing On Earth ticks all those boxes, but ghost stories? We’re a little shy of those, and, to me at least, that’s one of the more interesting of the many possible readings of Conor O’Callaghan’s wonderful many-faceted gem of a first novel.
Turn it one way and it’s a disturbing story of a young girl who, literally, flings herself at the front door of a priest after the bizarre disappearances of family in the show house of a ghost estate one summer. Turn it another and it’s a priest’s justification of his role in a very public scandal full of events that he may or may not have had a hand in, details that may or may not be true and that probably has a very unreliable narrator at the heart.
But my favourite facet, and maybe because it rang a distant bell somewhere in the dusty pile of MR James stories stashed in my head, is the one that allows you to read it as a post-ghost estate story starting with its own Poe-esque rapping on a door one hot August evening. There are missing family members, a lot of noises in the night, words appearing on windows in the dust. It was made all the more interesting for me because it happens nowhere near the damp, dreary Edwardian coastal towns, fusty libraries or quiet country houses of James – the exact opposite in fact.
“The road home was hot and depopulated, as if the whole world was observing a siesta. The only noise was the gravel beneath their sandals. That and the grating scream of steel being cut in the distance.”
This is Ireland. Abandoned, uncared for, depopulated and full of chancers, where stories like this sometimes fall through the cracks.
So much fiction I end up reading these days is far too solid and literal. Rarely enough do I find something this special full of shifting sands underfoot, uncertain realities, malleable facts and, ultimately, a story that even refuses to tell you what it is.
When I finished Nothing On Earth I wasn’t altogether sure what I had witnessed, or not, in the story that I’d read. Was I being told the truth about an innocent man trying to help a young girl who threw herself on his doorstep in the strangest of family circumstances? Was there a far greater story of parochial scandal in which we were only seeing the perpetrator of a crime attempting to justify his actions and the truth is never really ours? (At the very beginning of the story he says “If I am honest, I would say that I already felt guilty. Why? I had done nothing. I had done nothing apart from let the girl in, call the law and wait. I hadn’t laid a finger on her.”)
Were we ultimately being told the wanderings of a sick or lost mind with a thin hold on reality? Or, was it all a form of ghost story one unseasonably hot, dusty and empty Irish summer in the scattered wake of the Celtic Tiger?
That’s the true beauty of Conor O’Callaghan’s hypnotic novel for me – it’s a Chinese puzzle box and yet short, readable and something that I’ve seen being loved by people who might balk at the “complexities” of some literary fiction. For all those things, it needs to be applauded. Loudly.
Eileen Battersby interviews Conor O’Callaghan at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square on Wednesday, April 26th, at 7.30pm. It will be available as a podcast on April 30th. He will be appearing in conversation with AL Kennedy at cfúirt literary festival in Galway on Friday, April 28th at 6.30pm.
Nothing on Earth is available in paperback (Black Swan Ireland, £7.99)