Friday, March 16, 2018

FFB: Cast a Cold Eye - Alan Ryan

In honor of St. Patrick's Day tomorrow here's an eerie Irish ghost novel.

THE STORY: Jack Quinlan has travelled form the USA to small village of Doolin in western Ireland so that he can research the Irish potato famine for his new book. He plans to spend three months. But within days of settling in he begins to see visions of the past. One in particular --a thin, gaunt girl dressed in tattered clothes -- appears more and more frequently. Even manifesting when he travels to Galway for a getaway. Unsure if he has immersed himself too far in his research and allowing his imagination to run wild or if he is actually in the company of ghosts Jack reluctantly reaches out to Father Henning, the local priest. But he gets little help and some strange warnings. Meanwhile, a group of older men in Doolin are keeping their eyes on Jack for their own secret purposes that have their roots in ancient ceremonies.

THE CHARACTERS: While the story of Cast a Cold Eye (1984) is primarily focused on Jack it is the Irish villagers who give the book its life. Jack meets a young woman Grainne who works in a bookstore and a love relationship slowly develops. Mrs. Mullen is Jack's housekeeper who comes with the cottage rental as part of a package deal. She is also the link to the strange ritual the old men are preparing. The group of old men provide most of the eeriness to the book with so much mystery surrounding their brief meetings and ambiguous conversations. What exactly is going on in Doolin? What do they want of Jack? And will the seemingly kindly Father Henning prove to be less of a holy man than Jack thinks he is?

Jack is something of a frustrating character. Like many of these writer characters in books of the supernatural he is determined to go it alone. He is reluctant to confide in anyone for fear of what they will think of him. The writer and his ego come into play a lot here and often its tiresome. It should be obvious that something is not at all right in the village of Doolin. Many of the townspeople are well aware of the ghostly figures that appear around the perimeter of the village. Instead of relying on his innate inquisitiveness (he is researching a book after all) Jack keeps his thoughts to himself and only too late turns to Father Henning who, of course, is not too forthcoming with answers or explanations. Supposedly this is a tactic to add mystery and suspense, but this approach tends to work against the book.

INNOVATIONS: Ryan's novel belongs to the pagan ritual type of supernatural horror that seemed to explode onto the popular fiction scene back in the 1970s. Cast a Cold Eye (1984) with its overpowering religious motifs, secret ceremonies and blood sacrifices comes a decade after better known books with similar themes like Harvest Home and the cult movie The Wicker Man. I couldn't help but think of the whole lot of them and probably spent too much time trying to outguess Alan Ryan and what he had in store for Jack in the final pages.

The book is strong on atmosphere. Ryan does a fine job of evoking both the beauty of the barren Irish countryside as well as the an unsettling creepiness as we follow the story of a man out of his element. The people of Doolin are not typically sinister as one might find in pulpier versions of this kind of story. Rather, they are genuinely friendly and yet simultaneously distant, holding back a bit, harboring secrets in a tacit way that causes concern. The church scenes reveal a lot about the people of Doolin. These portions of the novel are depicted with great reverence and solemnity and one gets the feeling that the only time the people of Doolin ever feel safe and secure are within the walls of the Church while reciting their Catholic prayers. There is ample mystery here -- both theological and other worldly.

When the finale comes, however, the mystery remains and little is really explained. A strange ceremony does indeed take place. It's disturbing, not really as eerie or gory as Ryan probably intends it to be, and yet the reader hasn't much of a clue what it all means or why it is happening.

The biggest mystery left unexplained -- one that seems the biggest cheat of all -- is why we never get to see or read about the Irish famine. Jack comes to the country to do research on this and we never actually see him do any of that. So much lost opportunity for some rich detail and lore on this important part of Irish history. We are meant to associate the famine with the army of emaciated ghosts, I guess. But it's all as hazy of the foggy Irish bogs Jack strolls through.

THINGS I LEARNED: Irish writers don't pay taxes. I thought this was a joke in a brief dialogue exchange between Jack and Father Henning. Then I had to find out if it was true. Sure enough, it is. Well, it's slightly true. They do pay taxes, but the law is an exemption for a certain type of income. From an Irish history website: "Between 1969 and 2010, Ireland allowed writers and other artists who actually lived in Ireland to exempt all of their royalty income from taxation." The regulation was altered in 1997 in order to redefine what constituted residency and outline the rules related to advance royalty payments. From what I gather this law is still in place. As of January 2015 the maximum exemption allowed for all royalties earned is €50,000.

THE AUTHOR: Alan Ryan was born and raised in New York. He spent his early years as an English teacher at Cardinal Spellman High School in Bronx. Ryan's writing career began with literary criticism, then book reviewing, and later as an editor. He wrote several short stories and a handful of novels during the 1980s. Valancourt Books says at that time "Ryan was hailed as one of the bright new lights in the horror field." His other horror novels include The Kill (1982) and Dead White (1983). His short fiction was collected in Quadriphobia and The Bones Wizard. As an anthologist Ryan served as editor and contributor to Night Visions I (1984), Halloween Horrors (1986), Vampires (1987) and Haunting Women (1988). Alan Ryan eventually moved to Brazil where he resided for the latter portion of his life. He died in Rio de Janeiro in 2011.

EASY TO FIND? There are multiple copies of various paperback editions available, both US and UK, in the used book market. The majority of those copies are extremely affordable. Readers who want a new edition can choose from hardcover, paperback or digital all from the masterful Valancourt Books. Cast a Cold Eye was reprinted by this fine publisher in 2016.


  1. Begorrah! Thanks for the warning.

  2. Almost tempted - my family comes from exactly a small village in the West of Ireland, with Galway the big city. Of course not at all sinister or dubious, a lovely place. But it might be interesting to see how he captured the atmosphere of the place.

  3. Today I looked for the first time at the right hand column of your site.
    So the "people with discerning taste" are your followers!
    Pretty egotistic,eh!

    1. I'm so touched that you've been scrutinizing the blog and took the time to let me know in such a polite and kind way. Love ya!