Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Menacing McCabe

Hello and Goodbye by Patrick McCabe
(Quercus) Pp. 272

The two stories, Hello Mr Bones and Goodbye Mr Rat, share many similar themes and horror tropes. They can be read in either order and they meet in the middle, both literally and metaphorically.  Hello Mr Bones concerns a man who was abused as a boy and later becomes a Christian Brother, only to still be haunted by the undead spirit of his former tormentor. In Goodbye Mr Rat a woman takes the ashes of a man back to his hometown in Ireland to be met by a very unwelcoming committee who cannot forgive his perceived deception and execute their revenge on the hapless woman.

The tales are both narrated by the unhappy dead, who are pursuing and tormenting the living; they have selective, ‘convenient amnesia’ and are highly unreliable. Religion, priests and angels also feature prominently – these are Irish tales, after all. Naturally where there are angels, there is evil and abuse. In Goodbye Mr Rat, Beni Banikin is raised Amish; her mother warns her, “Beware of rogue angels”, and then she meets Gabriel King, former IRA soldier. But although they are heavy on religion, the stories are light on faith: bad things happen to good people for no reason. People act ‘out of character’ and are ‘influenced’ by an evil presence.

Childhood innocence is destroyed through physical abuse, and the perversion of innocent pop culture references. The image of the evil clown and the malignant puppet is equated with the torture of children and Ian Brady. From Sooty and Sweep to Toy Story, the puppets are pulled by strings of malevolence. In a nightmare relating to previous traumatic event, Beni sees grimacing figures as though in masks, “As the commedia dell’arte pictures began to form.”

Shannon Valentine escapes Ireland to live in Manchester in Hello Mr Bones, where he works as a teacher and tries to rebuild his life. Gabriel King heads to America where he lives until dying of prostate cancer in Goodbye Mr Rat. But one can never leave the past behind. Gabriel is warned that ‘A frightful fiend doth close behind him tread’. Poetry from Coleridge, Milton, and particularly Yeats runs through both narratives. 

In mid-life, Yeats became obsessed with Japanese Noh, a form of theatre which utilises a dialogic process between reality and illusion, the living and the dead, artifice and nature, and he adopted this style to reinterpret Celtic myths and ancient symbols. After her mentor explains how, “Noh plays often focus on ghosts seeking release from passionate sins or errors of judgement committed when living”, Beni writes a successful drama based on Yeats’ Noh plays.

The masks of Noh theatre are a recurring theme, and the sense of paranoia is pervasively chilling. Gabriel writes, “There indeed can be few sensations to compare with that of being watched.” Beni is watched by the people inside her head and those who break into her room; Valentine Shannon is watched by Balthazar Bowen, both when he was alive and now he is dead. Balthazar killed himself after Shannon informed on him, Gabriel turned informant, and there is a terror in coming forward and telling the truth.

McCabe is certainly macabre. These tales are as psychologically disturbing as his novel, Winterwood. It seems that he has an extremely bleak outlook on life, so it is calculated and creepy when he expresses, “What a magnificent place, I really have to say, this wondrous world in which we all wander.”

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