Ginger Nuts of Horror
My childhood fear is simply, of home. It’s an odd one, I’ll grant you.
Home is meant to be the place we go to in order to feel safe. To feel ‘at home’ somewhere is a synonym for feeling secure, rested, at ease. But not for me.
I grew up in an old house on the edge of bogland, a beautiful and isolated place. All around me were fields, trees, weeping willows. It was too far to walk anywhere, so once you were there, there was no means of escape. It was fine during the day, especially if it was summer and I could roam around, or even in winter if I had a book to escape into. But at night the real terrors came.
I was a very anxious child. And a morbid one. I suffered from years of vivid, technicolour nightmares. I dreamt of funerals, of being chased by shadowy figures, of scenes of blood and torture from local stained glass windows. It didn’t help that I knew our house was over two hundred and fifty years old and built on an old graveyard. It didn’t help that there was still the custom of waking the dead in their homes, meaning that I saw my first dead body in a parlour before the age of ten. It didn’t help that at home folklore was taken as seriously as Catholicism. My grandmother would talk composedly of hearing the banshee. My aunt had seen a ghost, not once, but several times.
And I think you know, it might be an Irish thing, that acute anxiety that surrounds home. For nearly two hundred years, home was a place of dispossession, eviction, transience. Today Irish people are obsessed with owning homes, a legacy of colonial centuries where security of tenure was impossible. We see this reflected in contemporary Irish creative work, the sinister homes of Patrick McCabe’s novels, the reimagined, disturbing sculptures of Alice Maher and Dorothy Cross. We see it in our customs and traditions that survive, houses laden with a mix of pagan and Catholic icons from horseshoes to St. Benedict medals to Sacred Heart images to ward off evil, fire, transgression. In folklore, home is ultimately a vulnerable place, open to attack; a notion that still survives strongly.
And so, night after night, I learned the painful truth, that home could be a place where you were alone with your greatest fears. During the endless nights I would sit up, watching the old wardrobe in my room, which was inclined to creak open in a manner both sudden and alarming. What I didn’t realise then is that while the home forms our first experience of a safety perimeter it’s also the space within which we have our earliest experiences of discomfort, fear, anger and discord. During the day the home perimeter was fixed, but at night the spaces within it were more difficult to define. Every night as the light dimmed, home changed from familiar to unfamiliar; rooms seemed larger and darker, corridors were endless. And this is where my anxiety bloomed.
Instead of sleeping I’d read. Firstly, I read fairytales, but they didn’t help. In these cautionary tales children are stolen, cursed, betrayed by their families. That was too close to home. So I started reading horror. My parents were exasperated, pointing out over and over that what I read was giving me nightmares. I knew better. I knew that while ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ terrified me, it was an external locus of terror. I fell in love with the dreamy, escapist aesthetic of horror. It had no bearing on my real life; its fears were confined to the covers of my books. The real terrors – that my father would crash the car, that the house would catch on fire, that I’d see a ghost sitting in the corner of my room – these were the ones that couldn’t be appeased.
Years later, I was to discover books that mapped this domestic Gothic world for me; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Serena Mackesy’s Hold My Hand, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. They all spoke to me, with their haunted interiors, their protagonists plagued by strange dreams, odd noises, and manifestations that couldn’t be explained.
Looking back, I feel a genuine stir of compassion. I could cry for that anxious child I was; haunted by fears, afraid of ghosts, never at home, perpetually ill-at-ease. But I realise now that this discomfort fuels my writing. As one of my favourite artists, Aideen Barry puts it: ‘I think one of the things that enables me to make work, is that I am never at ease, I never feel I am at home and I am rarely comfortable where I am. This causes me to constantly question why that is, why do I not belong and how can I address these feelings’ (Gilsdorf 2011: 1). And that, at least partly, is what my reissued collection, The Unheimlich Manoeuvre, is about. It’s also, of course, based on Freud’s essay, The Uncanny, of 1919, where Freud puts the idea of the haunted house at the centre of the concept of the uncanny, homes haunted not only by spectres, but memories, secrets and anxieties that recur repeatedly.
For me this fear of home, this fear set in home, has never really gone away. The most unsettling things I can imagine aren’t improbable and far away. They’re not set in space, nor in ancient history. They’re right here, at home.
The sound that might be a footstep outside my bedroom door. The strange creaks of subsidence in the middle of the night. The possibility that someone – or something – might be here.
Close to me.
In my home.