The Silence Room
 by Sean O'Brien

Comma Press
First Collection

"Because when it comes, the action will not be a matter of words and pages and references and revision and the drainpipe-grey bureaucracy of knowledge, but something more urgent and physical. What that day is here we shall do no more reading. This is the contract between watcher and watched. It is the iron law of the story."

Reviewed by Aiden O'Reilly

These fifteen stories revolve around minor poets, libraries, and eerie happenings. When the urban background intrudes, as it occasionally does, the location is recognisably northern England. O'Brien has the knack of swooping from literary allusiveness to the language of the gutter. His characters will debate post-modernism and then go for a scotch in some dockers' pub. His rich style is at its best in Tabs, a tale of male companionship and the abolition of smoking in libraries.
Our conversation was simple, repetitive and – to me – intensely pleasurable. It took in Wallace Stevens, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, modernism and the sea. Harry, I recognise now, said very little. He would launch a sentence, a quotation, an allusion, down the slipway of the evening and watch as it drifted from view.
In other stories he draws on classic gothic horror and ghost stories. There are shades of Edgar Allan Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu. The title story, and name of the collection, perhaps draws its influence from the story The Lost Room by his namesake, Fitz James O'Brien.

Perhaps the most perfectly realised piece is The Cricket Match at Green Lock. It is set in middle England at the height of Englishness: some time between the wars. A minor village cricket team travels by branch line (such as no longer exist) to play a fixture. There is nobody to welcome them, and they spend some time locating the cricket field. Their opponents are eerily stoic and silent. The match is interrupted by a sudden flash of lightning and a downpour. In a visionary scene where the visiting team scrabble to safety through the mud, slipping and calling to each other, the reader suddenly understands a deeper layer of horror: the generation which lost their lives in the trenches of the first world war. The story is both a dirge to the young men of the village who lost their lives and to a lost sense of rural England.

Silvie: A Romance is about a young poet who still believes in the power of words, the beautiful and exotic Sylvie from Paris, and her older friend, the sophisticated Dax. Dax's relationship with Sylvie is frustratingly ambiguous to the poet. "He is very protective. Like a brother to me," says Sylvie. "Most brothers don't feel their sisters up," replies the poet drily.

The story then takes a supernatural turn as Dax is revealed to be a vampire. Post-modern critic as vampire – it's a brilliant conceit. But the story trails off into an extended tableau scene. It is as though the writer is content to draw on the conventions of horror stories, but doesn't commit himself. This applies to some other of the stories too. O'Brien likes to spice his stories with elements of the horror ghost story genre, but with no expectation that the reader will experience real unease.

My favourite in this collection is however the very realistic Once Again Assembled Here. A young(ish) man with failed academic ambitions returns to his home town to teach at his old school. He tells everyone it is just a temporary position. Over the course of a weekend he makes contact with old flames and revisits old haunts. There are lost ambitions, spurned fidelities, and working class anti-intellectualism in this tale. The horror of being back in the place you thought you'd escaped needs no boost from the supernatural. The grime of 1970s working class England penetrates to a couple of other stories too, but none so much as in this.

The collection is a mixed bag then, with a couple of pure genre stories, several that play with the gothic horror story, and three purely realistic ones.

Though his name indicates an Irish origin, O'Brien's stories are firmly rooted in England. It's not quite modern England either. O'Brien creates a fictional landscape of his own, peopled by eccentric men, fading beauties, and literary theorists, with alway the possibility of a twist towards darkest horror or the intrusion of the profane.

Aiden O'Reilly graduated in mathematics and spent seven years in Germany and Poland. His work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Prairie Schooner, The Sunday Tribune, and The Dublin Review among others. In November 2008 he won the McLaverty Award.
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Sean O'Brien has published five award-winning collections of poems, most recently the Forward Prize winning Downriver. His essays have been collected in The Deregulated Muse and he has translated Aristophanes' The Birds and most recently Zamyatin’s We for radio. He is a regular writer for The Sunday Times and the TLS whilst making occasional contributions to The Guardian.