Shadow Voices: A Review by T.S. McNeil

asperitas dark clouds in gloomy sky

When most think of great literary nations, Ireland is likely not the first place that comes to mind, literal statues of writers in Dublin notwithstanding. Despite some high profile, and somewhat overrated works of impenetrable literary fiction by James Joyce, and what is thought to be the first instance of vampire fiction – but isn’t The Vampyre written 80 years earlier – courtesy of Bram Stoker, the Irish literary tradition has been either ignored, or tied up so closely with England as to be indistinguishable. The latter tending to happen even with the likes of Oscar Wild, despite the infamous dandy being born in Dublin and going to Trinity college. Taking the slight no longer, Irish mystery author John Connolly has turned scholar, coming out with the weighty historical/literary tome Shadow Voices 300 Years of Irish Genre Fiction: A History in Stories

Thick enough to stun a burglar, Shadow Voices is a hybrid of a literary history and a story compilation coming in at 1,045 pages, but for good reason. Unlike similar works that are either group biographies that include excerpts of the works in question, or a collection of some of the featured authors’ shorter works, Connolly does both. Each chapter marked by the title of the work, followed by the author name and the publication year, before going into a lengthy piece of biographical narrative. Running a good three to five pages,  the write ups give author’s background and the context of the work before going into the story.

A common practice in similar 19th century anthologies such as the 20-volume Masterpieces of the World’s Literature from 1899, such completionism  is rarer in the 21st century, not least because of the weaponization of copyright.  A major advantage Connolly had in compiling the book is was that every author featured is long dead, their work in the public domain. Not that it matters all that much, Shadow Voices more of an exercise in revelation of a largely forgotten past. 

Something else making Shadow Voices stand out, aside from the room it takes up on the bookshelf, making the wood buckle slightly, is the focus on genre fiction. While the definition is somewhat stretched to include the likes of Jonathan Swift, it is still something of an oddity to have such a serious, scholarly work dedicated to what was long considered a lower form of literature. Something the cover, based on a Victorian era theatrical poster, more than plays into. A list under the lengthy title, flanking an illustration of a bat, promises THIEVES! LOVERS! SPECTRES! DETECTIVES! FAIRIES! and other such wonderful things. 

Featuring heavy hitters such as Wilde, Swift, Stoker and Yeats, the majority of the contents list features names either overshadowed by the fame of the big five, such as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, or forgotten by the public altogether, such as the criminally underrated Maria Edgeworth. Despite the time periods involved – few of them really ‘woman-friendly’ – Connelly manages to get close to something like gender equity, 35 of the authors featured being men and 27 clearly women, while a further three have gender-neutral initials. A common practice for woman authors in the periods covered, and still also used today,  potentially putting the man-woman ratio as high as 35:30. 

Born in the far north, T.S. McNeil was attending art galleries before he could walk. Earning concurrent degrees in Art History and Political Science, he has written on Arts and Culture both in print and online since 2002, starting while still in college. He lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog, and firmly believes that Marie-Gabrielle Capet was criminally underrated.

%d bloggers like this: