The Hell Fire Club: the perfect setting for a great horror story
Jonathan Barry on his lifelong love of Gothic horror and his journey from illustrator to author
Jonathan Barry, right, at the main window in the central tower of the Hell Fire Club in May, addressing a protest of 500 people over plans for a visitors’ centre
People often ask me how I made the transition from a book illustrator to an author and whether my experience as an illustrator of classic horror novels helpmed me in the writing and creation of my own gothic tale? The answer to the latter is, of course, yes, while the response to the former requires a little more explanation.
Ever since my childhood I have sustained a lifelong love affair with books, having been blessed to have grown up in a home filled with volumes from floor to ceiling. It is fair to say that books are my greatest passion, and as a teenager I discovered the delights of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla, two stories which had a profound effect upon my imagination. Other masters of the macabre came to my attention, including Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce. By the time I was 20 I had read most of the world’s best tales of terror.
Therefore, it seemed only natural when I decided to become a professional book illustrator that my interests should gravitate towards specialising in illustrating many of the world’s most famous Gothic horror novels. As luck would have it – this is exactly how it transpired. During my career my artwork has appeared in omore than 70 books, fronting bestselling editions of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Wuthering Heights, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Each one of these projects was an opportunity for me to study in detail the style and writing techniques of these exemplary authors. Consequently, I developed an even deeper appreciation for the subtleties involved in developing a truly memorable supernatural story. This resulted in my setting up a Gothic literary book club in 1999, where once a month my friends and I would read a famous classic horror story, and discuss its merits over a coffee and a fruit scone. Almost twenty years on, our club is still meeting with the same relish and enthusiasm, despite having exhausted most of the best reading material.
As a boy scout I had often visited the Hell Fire Club in the Dublin Mountains, half terrified by the famous hunting lodge with its gaping black windows
It was also in 1999 that I began to harbour ambitions to pen my own tale of the uncanny. Having read and illustrated so many of the great Victorian and Edwardian horror writers, I felt I was in a strong position to draw on that well of knowledge and experience. I determined then that I would try to pay homage to those fine stories, and I would write my novel in a style that was in keeping with the period from 1885 to 1915. But what would I write about?
As a boy scout I had often visited the Hell Fire Club in the Dublin Mountains, camping out on Montpelier Hill, half terrified by the famous hunting lodge with its gaping black windows. Like all curious children I learnt of its dark past, and heard about the legends of this infamous club of corrupt dandies, who were said to have met in this building, indulging themselves in gaming, vice and lascivious practices. This fascination stayed with me into my adulthood, until in the spring of 2000 I climbed up to The Hell Fire Club and spent several days there taking many photographs and measuring the dimensions of the building.
I was immediately struck with the idea that it was a fabulous location for the setting of a great horror story. The site was perfect; isolated, windswept, threatening, eerie and stamped in the lore of devil worship. As I paced around the barren interior of the structure it was easy to imagine extraordinary and sinister events taking place within its walls, and I jotted down these ideas in a notebook.
I spent the rest of that year researching everything to do with Ireland in 1741 (the year in which I would set my story), and I passed many months in Collins Barracks Museum. I wanted authenticity of detail in my work so that the reader would feel that they were actually back in 1741 and living my adventure. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula he spent many years studying the geography, history, folklore and superstitions of Transylvania, which is why the opening chapters of his masterpiece ring so true for the reader. I wished to achieve a similar effect with my book.
During 2001 I started to sketch out the first few chapters of my story, writing in the third person singular. But by 2002 I realised that this approach was not working, as I felt that the narrative did not have a single clear voice. So I had to begin all over again, and in 2003 I started to re-write the story in the first person singular, and this time it worked. My narrator and hero Daniel Parsons had found his lungs, and his solid, sensible, strong character allowed me the perfect vehicle to tell my adventure.
From the inception of the novel, I was determined that The Hell Fire Club would only act as a backdrop for my tale – it would not be the story. The location for the action on Montpelier Hill would be only that – a location.
My main focus and thrust was to try and give avid fans of the Gothic literary genre a chance to travel back in time, where for several hours at least they could lose themselves in a dark world of fear, intrigue, suspense and horror. I wished to do for the Dublin Mountains what Bram Stoker had achieved for the Carpathian Mountains – make them famous as a location for a tale of terror that would be appreciated by readers worldwide. My other ambition was to pay homage in my narrative to all the great masters of supernatural fiction, by nodding here and there to their enormous influence in the annals of writing.
Some readers are curious to know how I settled on the title of The Devil’s Hoof: A Gothic Tale for my book? The answer is straightforward enough. The Dublin and Wicklow mountains are well known for their locations named after The Evil One, including the Devil’s Glen and the Devil’s Ladder. Such marvellous evocative appellations (with somewhat sinister undertones) helped me to decide that the word “Devil” must certainly appear on the front cover. And when hoof marks are found close to the lacerated corpses in my tale – then the title became clearer. The appendage of A Gothic Tale was to make sure that readers understood it was a fictional horror novel, and not a book on Satanism.
It took me more than 10 years to write the novel, and a further year to complete the front cover illustration, along with design, editing and textual layout. MR James once said that the best chilling stories always contain the elements of what he described as “a pleasing terror”. I hope in some small measure that The Devil’s Hoof achieves that effect, and perhaps one day it will find its own cosy corner on the bookshelves of discerning lovers of weird and wonderful tales.
The Devil’s Hoof: A Gothic Tale by Jonathan Barry will be launched at Hodges Figgis book store, Dawson Street, Dublin, on Wednesday, October 25th, at 6pm