Review: ‘Muckross Abbey and Other Stories’ by Sabina Murray

Muckross Abbey and Other Stories

Muckross Abbey and Other Stories serves as a probe into Murray’s distinctive style, dubbed “ironic gothic” by The Washington Post. Made up of ten distinct ghost stories, the collection swerves from Rebecca-esque gothic to intellectual polemics. In doing so, it grounds its narratives in the metaphysical; often seemingly for the sake of continuity.

Henry James, known for his prominent ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898), which hems the realm of spirits with horror — and which is, coincidentally, referenced in Murray’s collection — believed that ghosts had to be portrayed as either wrathful or sinister. “Friendly apparitions,” he stated, “belonged in fairy tales.”

While Murray’s ghosts are far from convivial, they embrace their inherent menace only periodically. And so, the awful thrill we get from sinking into a state of hysteria doesn’t seem to be this collection’s intent. Nor does it have to be. 

The Long Story, which serves as the gateway to Muckross Abbey and Other Stories, adjusts the angle of our expectations in the gentlest way possible. With the central narrative related to us by one of the characters, a state of passivity is established; one, which relatively bombastic orations attempt to intimidate at every turn, “I will cough up myself, man destroying himself. I will cough up man.”*

In fact, Mucross Abbey and Other Stories’ tendency to operate within the parameters of a second-hand narrative can be detected early on. With the protagonist either reciting the order of events, or lending an ear to a tale that hardly ever places him at its focal point, a certain remoteness is sustained, both bodily and emotive.

The story’s ethereal element appears duly anguished, but succeeds only in stirring the protagonist’s curiosity. His stake in the ghost’s narrative, or even in the moment and place cocooning it, is wholly non-existent. To an extent, this estrangement fits the benchmarks of a classic ghost story. 

Put simply, the protagonist needs to appear bland and naive enough to dilate the spectra of a ghostly presence. This particular character, however, is a wanderer, a passing figure, no more tangible to us than the haunted figure he encounters. What the story does express is the collection’s ongoing exchange with the transcendental. It’s no surprise, then, that every narrative seems purposefully incomplete, not to say inconsequential.

The titular story, Muckross Abbey, is decidedly more propulsive. And yet, as our amiable protagonist slowly unspools the narrative, we’re delegated to the periphery once again. It’s not until the exasperation has passed that we weigh our exile against its implications. After all, at the root of every account rests an abysmal thought, the silence of which speaks to life, mainly its futility. 

With the arrival of The Dead Children, we begin to grasp just how entrenched these notions are in the rallying call of a seance. A mere memory can tug on the cord keeping despair at hand. The loss of a child, a recurring theme, inspires the sturdiest grip yet.

And so, reminiscent of The Twilight Zone (1959–1964), the tale takes on a distinctly eerie air. Like most stories in the collection, it does so through incremental changes in temperature, so that the serene impression made at the start is invariably left disfigured by the end. In this case, quite literally.

No story performs this defacement as skillfully as Apartment 4D, which proves to be both unsettling and morbid in its tracing of the impenetrable barriers of a child’s psyche. With the protagonist placed in direct relation to the threat, occupying a flat in the same block as her cagey neighbors, the story instantly offers a more stirring bite. 

Unfortunately, with no emotion to be gleaned from the story’s conclusion, we’re once again left untethered to the page. Like its precursors and select few successors, the story fails to make much of a mark on our sensibilities. Remote Control, Harm, and The Flowers, The Birds, The Trees attempt to unlace this pattern. And, to some degree, they succeed.

As the complexity of interrelational dynamics moves to the fore of the narrative, continuing its orbit around a palpable source of menace, we’re thrown into a state of heightened animation. The setting appears bleak and foreboding, the characters are as nefarious as the ghosts swarming their consciousness. More crucially, the central themes gain density, cajoling us into a sentimental reading of their narrative bodies.

Deceit, infidelity, volatile links to time, and a childhood friendship gone awry are all lured into the same hold, destined to endure its relentless twisting. The final story in Mucross Abbey and Other Stories, in particular, proves delectably macabre, leaving us well and truly heartbroken. And with prose that delights in the elusiveness of its many incarnations, a plaintive aura is left to transcend the white page that keeps rewriting itself under Murray’s exploratory gaze.

* Quotes taken from an advance review copy are subject to change, and may appear in an altogether different form upon the book’s publication.

Publication date: March 21, 2023 (Grove Press)


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