The Silence Room
by Sean O'Brien
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
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.
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
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
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