The Black Dreams:
Strange Stories from Northern Ireland
Ed. Reggie Chamberlain-King
by Sarah Johnson
Strange is an appropriate word to describe the stories in The Black Dreams: Strange Stories from Northern Ireland and it’s a word that the editor of the collection – Reggie Chamberlain-King – has thought long about. In his Introduction, Chamberlain-King writes in detail about Northern Ireland’s literary history, rejecting terms such as ‘ghost story’, ‘fairy tale’ and ‘weird’ to describe The Black Dreams. Eventually he settles on a definition of strange as ‘stories of in between states, of unstable realities, of the unreliability of our understanding’, a description which admirably suits these tales. I enjoyed reading the Introduction to this collection, learning much about the genre and place. The stories are thought-provoking, engaging, and incredibly dreamlike, teetering in the liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, ready to plunge the reader into one or the other with a slight nudge of the elbow.
Like dreams, the extraordinary and everyday intertwine throughout. In ‘Original Features’ by Jo Baker, a door in the dream of wife and mother Róisín intrudes on her domestic reality. Its presence shifts, appearing and disappearing as she has children, moves house, and gets old. She does not open it as it ‘squirms and shifts’ into the world, because ‘you don’t know what might come seething out’, and I’m reminded of the nightmare monsters of the subconscious. This juxtaposition of the mundane with the imagined creates an incongruity, a surreal world in which children disappear and doors to other realities open if only we have the wit to see them. ‘The Leaving Place’ by Jan Carson tells of a family trip with the familiar back-seat bickering of fractious children, and a father desperate to create the illusion of a perfect family. In a forest clearing next to a car park, he finds the perfect place for his dying wife. The story is poignant, magical and ominous.
All the stories in The Black Dreams create a strong sense of place. The bungalow by the sea where Aunt Sheila lives in ‘A Loss’, by Bernie McGill, is a place of secrets and memories that plague the protagonist until the events of his childhood piece together to tell a tragic story. He concludes that the city where he has no history, and can ‘walk the streets in peace’, is preferable to the detritus of experience that forms the haunting memories of home. It is a sad story told well, with the narrator concluding:
‘And I marvel, not for the first time, at the secrets people keep, for themselves, and for others, at the sadnesses that betray them, and at the small quiet lives that they continue to live out until the end of their days.’
In ‘The Woman Who Let Go’ by Moyra Donaldson, an artist discarding her past finds solace in the forest that surrounds her home in Clandeboye Demesne in County Down. As she explores the area she develops ‘a symbiosis with the earth, with the history of the earth. That I was part of too. Nothing is separate.’ As if facilitated by the trees, history intrudes upon the present, and the dead return, not to haunt the living but to participate in life. There is a strong sense of spirit of place in this story, of the land and its history. It’s not necessary to know much of Northern Ireland to enjoy these stories, but I did find myself looking up locations from time to time out of curiosity.
Neither is it necessary to know the history of politics and religion in Northern Ireland, but both are woven into the background of the stories. In ‘Now and then Some Washes Up’ by Carlo Gébler, the past literally surfaces from the depths of Lough Coin, disturbing the retirement of Peter and Mary. There is reference to a Twelfth bonfire in ‘The Wink and a Gun’ by John Patrick Higgins, a story I found particularly unsettling due to an act of casual cruelty by children. A visit by a paramilitary group concludes ‘The Tempering’ by Michelle Gallen, although I found the most shocking moment in this story to be the drowning of a litter of puppies, ordered by the narrator’s changeling Father. Most fascinating was ‘Redland’ by Aislínn Clarke. This explores a sense of place (and its disruption) through the experiences of the unnamed protagonist who increasingly sees simulacra in the people and landscapes around her, prompted by a book of photographs she buys in a charity shop. They represent a British Military training ground, a construction of battlegrounds that soldiers can expect to encounter during conflicts. And yes – I looked it up – the book actually exists.
The Black Dreams: Strange Stories from Northern Ireland is full of such detail drawn from the culture and history of Northern Ireland. I greatly enjoyed these stories, which I found to be subtly unsettling. As a reader, I felt I was on a journey exploring what lies beneath the landscape and people.
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