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Muckross Abbey and Other Stories

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What a treat. Real, honest to goodness, creepy, spine tingling ghost stories. These days so many "ghost" stories seem to be filled with too many twists and turns or too much blood and gore. The Muckross Abbey collection are simply ghost stories - well told, beautifully crafted, neither too long nor too short. I loved them. One of the really great things about a good ghost story is that you're never sure who is telling it and it caught me out a couple of times.

However I am a total scaredy cat and I actually slept with the light on last night. My house is old and it creaks despite there only being me in it. People have said there's a poltergeist living in one of my bookshelves but he/she only seems to get upset when a particularly bad book gets put there.

But back to this excellent collection of short stories. If you like creepy then you'll love these. Just read them during the day, preferably in bright sunlight.

I received this ARC from Netgalley and am writing this review voluntarily.
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I didn't know what I was expecting going in, but instead of a fully done ghost stories handfed to you, this is overall more of an atmospheric gothic supernatural reads perfect for entering the autumn season. Curl up under your blanket and hear the heavy rain pouring outside with thunders, open this book and read it in peace.

It's not scary at all. Eerie chill perhaps would fit better. The story always cut abruptly in the middle without clear conclusion (something to note if you NEED to understand what's going on in a story, but I personally don't mind it)

but I suppose that's exactly how ghost stories work. You tell a story, and stops in the middle, having no clear answer as to what happens next or if any of it is true. You just drop it and shrugs, letting the listener make what they believe out of it and pour yourself a hot coffee. That's how this book is best read. Felt like someone read you a creepy hanging superstition tales over the fireplace.
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Taking a page out of the old masters’ books, this collection is as haunting and atmospheric in ambiance and as dense in writing style as something M.R. James or someone like that might have written, but (and this is a significant Kardashian-size but) this collection is infinitely more readable.
This reader, at least, gets put to sleep by a lot of old timey genre fiction, these stories were lively enough to stay awake to. Not so much slow as slow-simmering, tale after tale of ghostly goings on, this collection is a perfectly fun way to spend a dark evening or two, especially for genre fans. Specifically, genre fans who like their frights quiet, subtly eerie, and literary.
The only thing here is I’d recommend this collection for dipping in and out instead of reading straight through as I did. The latter method makes some of them appear too similar, blends them together in a way, one ghost after another. But taken individually, they’d likely shine more in their own individual ways.
Overall, a nice read. Thanks Netgalley.
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This is a spooky wreath of stories that capitalize on their modern gothic remit beautifully.  The stories interlink like a well-produced album that flow seamlessly one into the next, echoing themes, tensions, and characters across the slim volume.  Though I put the book down between stories and still thoroughly enjoyed it, it would reward the reader who can get through the ten stories in one sitting.  Perfect for a stormy evening.
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'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.

In fact, the collection’s 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 last story, 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.
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"Muckross Abbey and Other Stories" is a collection of ten ghostly tales by Massachussets-based award-winning author Sabina Murray, hailed by The Washington Post as a pioneer of “ironic Gothic”.

In this volume, the influence of the classic English ghost story comes to the fore. “Harm”, one of the longer pieces here, speaks of the ghost of an American playwright who returns to haunt an Irish artist retreat house where she died. In its final paragraphs, which serve as an epilogue of sorts, the story turns all “meta”, with one of the minor characters ruminating on the nature of ghosts and their tales:

“But in the end, it doesn’t really matter, does it? In another twenty years, we’ll all have forgotten who she was. She’ll just be that lady buried in the wrong place, another ghost wandering about, desperate for someone to supply the narrative"

“I say it had to be love,” said Jennifer... and it was moving, this impossible love of a dead woman, a dead love, a tale of few concrete details, except for its irrepressible woe.

It is an interpretation of “the ghost” which would have been familiar to the classic writers mentioned in the book’s blurb – “Wharton and James, Stoker and Shelley”. In fact, the spectres that haunt Murray’s collection are largely unquiet spirits, whether jealous ghosts returning to seek revenge or simply bodies “buried in the wrong place” coming back to complete unfinished business or simply to bother the living. They also behave in just the way we would expect them to: walking through walls, appearing as vague mists in doorways and mirrors, re-enacting their final moments. It is perhaps to reinforce this “familiarity” that, with a few exceptions, Murray places her stories in the “Old World”: the settings include desolate, foggy Dartmoor (“The Long Story”), rural Oxfordshire (“The Third Boy”) and Ireland (“Muckross Abbey” and the above-mentioned “Harm”).

So what does Murray bring to these stories which goes beyond “pastiche”? First of all, the narratives largely take place in the “here and now”, and feature contemporary individuals with contemporary concerns, who take selfies on their smartphones and watch Netflix on their tvs. This creates an intriguing contrast between a subject-matter based on “tradition”, and the modern-day settings. Secondly, there is, in many of the pieces, a sense of playing around with history of the genre, and “knowing” (ironic?) references to the tropes of the Gothic. For instance, “Remote Control” starts with a honeymooning couple debating whether a movie quote about Monte Carlo is taken from To Catch a Thief or from Rebecca. It is, indeed, from Rebecca and the rest of the story is, actually, a riff on Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel. “Apartment 4D” takes place in a modern-day drab apartment building, but is framed as a tale told around the fire – surprise, surprise – one Christmas Eve.

But, ultimately, the best reason for reading this collection is that the stories are all deliciously creepy, with some of them being genuinely unsettling. My favourites include “Apartment 4D”, which has some shocking twists, and the two related stories, both featuring the same nuns’ school, “The Dead Children” (what an ending!) and “The Flowers, the Birds, the Trees”. Highly recommended.

https://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/2022/08/Muckross-Abbey-and-Other-Stories-by-Sabina-Murray.html
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