|THE NEW REVIEW|
Book detail on the Bloomsbury website
‘Winterwood’ is Patrick McCabe’s darkest book to date – and that’s saying something for a man who’s written ‘The Butcher Boy’, ‘Breakfast On Pluto’ (both Booker-nominated, both filmed by Neil Jordan), ‘The Dead School’ and a ream of short stories with titles like ‘The Bursted Priest’ and ‘I Ordained The Devil’.
It’s also his best since ‘The Butcher Boy’, the 1993 classic whose scatological first person narrative welded black midlands humour to lurid comic strips, Irish balladry, Huckleberry Finn and ‘A Clockwork Orange’. That book’s impact was roughly analogous to ‘Trainspotting’ in the UK; it became the dragon any young Irish writer with a taste for the dark stuff had to slay – or at least circumnavigate –before gaining admittance to the literary crypt. If McCabe were any lesser a talent, he might’ve been condemned to spending the rest of his career trying to match it.
But ‘Winterwood’ opens up new territory for the Clones writer. His first book to explore the realm of the uncanny (a latent but never explicit element in his previous works) it tells the story of Redmond Hatch, a journalist and historian who becomes enthralled, obsessed and eventually possessed by the character of Ned ‘Pappie’ Strange, a yarn-spinning, shape-shifting hillbilly fiddler from the west. The insidiously creepy storyline tracks Hatch’s decline from devoted (if deluded) family man to a ghostly semi-alcoholic loner whose mental stability deteriorates even as his fortunes are reversed, and in the process takes the reader into some very murky psychological terrain.
Among other things, ‘Winterwood’ excels at contrasting the neon glare of money-drunk Dublin in the 90s with the neo-medieval geography of the misty Connacht mountains. It investigates the culture clash between the secular urban and the supernatural rural, examines the social exclusion of rogue male parents exiled to hostels, pubs and cab ranks, and trawls the tortured dreamscapes of child molesters and murderers.
Reviewing the novel in The Guardian recently, Irvine Welsh wrote, “McCabe’s sly, good old country boys are scarier than the city hardmen, their homespun joviality often on the edge of lurching into a blood-simple, reductivist cruelty. ‘Winterwood’ is at least as good (and as disturbing) as The Butcher Boy, and probably glows with an even greater social resonance. In charting the journey from the horrible silence of the paedophile priests and rural poverty into an economically booming, multi-ethnic society, McCabe has written a brilliant and disturbing profile of an individual and a place in often violent transition.”
Peter Murphy: I should start by admitting that I felt like taking a bath after reading ‘Winterwood’.
Patrick McCabe: I suppose that’s what your meant to feel – scales on your skin!
The book’s main character undergoes a sort of possession. The act of reading it feels like being possessed. Presumably writing it was the same?
No, funnily enough. It should be like that, and I can understand anyone thinking that. But for me it was such an exercise in style that I was kind of deeply untroubled by it. Now that could mean a couple of things, couldn’t it? (laughs)
How did the character of Ned Strange manifest himself?
When one of the movies came out I was at this party down in Eden I think it was, a lot of mad, conspicuous consumption going on, a lot of wine, a lot of blather. I was getting bored, and I got this really creepy feeling. And I turned to this big plate glass window and I got this image, not an hallucination or anything, but a kind of image of a fuckin’ big hillbilly with a dead child in his arms, like an offering, a sacrificial kind of thing. And it’s best with these things just to leave them alone, but then ‘Old Ned Of The Hill’ came into my mind, that Pogues song, an old Irish folk song, and then the whole notion of sentiment and the menace behind sentiment and the brutality, and I thought, “The language I want for this now is the high gothic sort of style.” Falling into sicknesses and excursions into the realm of the unknown from the borders of mortality. And because I was so comfortable with the language, it didn’t really trouble me at all.
‘Winterwood’ is the first book of yours to deal with the supernatural.
I’d never written a gothic book as far as I was concerned. You know what it’s like; journalists set up an agenda and say, “It’s bog gothic” and me coming back saying, “No, no, it’s Sam Fuller, it’s social fantastic.” But this time around I thought, “Fuck, I feel like telling a real ghost story like you’d hear when you were a kid.” So it was part of all that culture that was in my head, Stoker and all that shit. But I’d never been so brash in my appropriation of that style.
I always got the feeling the ‘bog gothic’ tag was from people picking up on a residual feeling that hung around the books, but was never actually made explicit in them. It was like a mirage.
I think you might be onto something there. I’ve a kind of problem with that, into which ‘Mondo Desperado’ and ‘Emerald Germs’ fell. I said, “These are lovely little coloured balls I’m throwing up in the fuckin’ air here! This is not about ‘The New McCabe’ or the next fuckin’ ploy for the Booker Prize or anything.” These were exercises in style, or an attempt to further the social fantastic carnival-esque reinvention of language. They were also about parodies.
After ‘Mondo Desperado’ and ‘Emerald Germs’, a lot of people were awaiting some sort of major statement. What they got was ‘Call Me The Breeze’, a riotous, purposefully messy book which, as it turned out, got it in the neck from the critics.
Yeah, I thought it was very, very unfair, I thought it was really fuckin’ lousy actually, trigger happy. Unfortunately the world we’re in…for example, everybody I’ve spoken to has been talking about this amazing Irvine Welsh review and how great it is. But similarly, when ‘Call Me The Breeze’ came out, the book was destroyed six weeks before it was published. Completely destroyed. And any journalist I came up to said, “It looks bad doesn’t it?” Well, what can I do then? ’Cos the more you protest the worse it gets, and then you seem curmudgeonly. I mean, there was never any question of changing my style or anything, but I thought I’d draw a bit of a breather and get into a settled position whereby nobody bothered me so I could write. Really all that concerns me about reviews is, “Will this damage the sales of my book?” ’Cos there’s not an awful lot reviewers are gonna teach me. I mean, they don’t spend as long worrying about it as I do. I carry this shit around me all day, every day, and have done for years! (laughs)
Music is integral to all your books. It’s not referenced in the story, but the first tune that came to mind when I read ‘Winterwood’ was ‘Mad Pat’ by Horslips. That song tapped into the archetype of a sinister travelling musician, storyteller and trickster in a way that Jethro Tull couldn’t.
They couldn’t do it in the same way, you’re absolutely right. They aped it or they mimicked it but they didn’t get it. But there were people before Horslips, like German Clock Winder, the Clancys would have got it. ‘Weela Weela Waile’ particularly – “There was an old woman who lived in the woods…She stuck the knife in the baby’s heart”, the woods, all that stuff. It’s in American deep south literature: once the fiddler comes around, shit is going to happen!
Have you ever seen Warren Ellis from the Dirty Three play?
Sure I was on fuckin’ stage with him! He was spitting at me all night, and I said, “If you fuckin’ spit at me one more time, ya cunt ya…” He says, “I’m sorry.” I was sitting on the corner of the stage down at this mad wacko place, Liss Ard. I was just fed up with me trousers covered in spits! He was brilliant, though. It’s that kind of fiddle playing, there’s no doubt about it.
Ned is almost like a Connacht version of an Appalachian mountain man. He loves country and western songs and cowboy novels. It’s interesting that so many practitioners of American gothic had Irish names: Faulkner, McCullers, O’ Connor, even David Lynch. Reading the book, I was reminded of Leland Palmer being possessed by by Killer Bob in ‘Twin Peaks’, and the critics complaints that all this supernatural stuff got him off the hook, rendered him unaccountable for his actions.
I suppose the liberal rational agenda is always there, you must have social consequences for all these things and never allow for the irrational and inexplicable. But there’s almost a cover on this one in that, is he having hallucinations at all or is it in fact an exculpation of sorts? I mean, I leave that wide open. But ultimately I think it’s moral in the sense that the guy ends in hell whether you like it or not, he’s in the embrace of the devil, he’s punished for eternity. All these things have been around, you go back to the old songs and you’ll get all that stuff. Even ‘The Man From God Knows Where’ for example, that was going through my head. What is he? Who is he? In that case it was political, but supposing he wasn’t? Supposing he was a rapist? All that swirly kind of rural stuff.
Do you know the Hank Williams song ‘Ramblin’ Man’?
I do yeah. That’s Luke The Drifter isn’t it?
I always heard it as a serial killer song, whether Hank intended it that way or not.
Well, whether he knew or he didn’t, he was still writing in the tradition of some unease, of something pursuing you. There’s a lot of Hank Williams in ‘Winterwood’. (Indicates the cover of the book). That robin is from ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. “Did you ever see a robin weep when the leaves begin to die.”One of the debates I would have with Gavin (Friday) and various other people was, “What are you always running off to fuckin’ Weimar for?” It’s fine to have Brel, but it’s interesting that Dylan came here, and said it in ‘Chronicles’, that he found such profound myth-making depth in these songs that he just couldn’t get over it. I dealt with it a little bit in ‘The Butcher Boy’, but not as much as in this one; the whole epochal nature of those songs was what was driving me. But an awful lot of that penumbral kind of Irish…popular songs more than folk. Digging out Harry Smith is all very well, but there’s so many ordinary songs that people sing without thinking, they take on a resonance because you remember them from weddings and funerals and people whistling them.
I’m surprised there’s not more Irish writers working in this terrain of creepy old folk songs and ghost stories. Off the top of my head, there’s only really Conor McPherson and Mike McCormack.
Why do you think that is? It’s wide open. Maybe people don’t know them. Was there some break somewhere along the way? You know them, you’re 13 years younger than me, so there’s no excuse for anybody your age not knowing them. I supose it’s just going through this weird period of consumer-blasted amnesia. Maybe there’s so many other things for people to do now, they just don’t read as much. (When I was young) there was so little else. A big fuckin’ top coat, freezing to death, you’d kick in for two weeks, brilliant, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, a big fuckin’ boner on ya! But those two guys, you’re absolutely right. Conor definitely understood the whole thing, and he didn’t copy it from me, that was all his own work, that vampire stuff, the drink, and you can see he wasn’t afraid. He was fuckin’ prepared to go right in. He certainly would’ve been into that ‘Monkey’s Paw’ kinda stuff. Just brilliant storytelling, which recent folk memory was full of.
It’s probably more widespread in Irish film these days: ‘Dead Meat’ and ‘Isolation’ and ‘Middletown’.
Well, a lot of writers are urban. It’s more social realists. But Neil (Jordan) is very into it.
How was it revisiting ‘Breakfast On Pluto’ ten years after?
Like anything we’ve ever done, Neil does most of the architecture, he’s made so many movies, he knows instinctively what you shoot and what will work. I wouldn’t change a word of the book, it’s completely and utterly done, not a word I could add or take away that would improve it, and I know that for a fact ’cos I spent so long on it. But that’s not true of a movie script, you’re always adding to it right up to the end, actors and designers bring so much to it. Gavin Friday for example, the invention of Billy Hatchet, that’s him, he came up with all that. It’s almost 30% of the movie. I spoke to him a little bit about it, but he instinctively understood the character. And Bryan Ferry was like the Big Bad Wolf, all these figures had archetypes from folk tales. The only thing that worked against it was the link with ‘The Crying Game’, which was unfortunate. Imagine if ‘The Crying Game’ had never been made; it would’ve been startlingly original. But I thought Neil did a great job on it. I see the two movies together as one really. Flip a coin, either side is ‘Breakfast On Pluto’ or ‘The Butcher Boy’. But that’s it now, I can’t imagine there being anymore movies.
One of the most vivid passages in ‘Winterwood’ describes young revellers in Temple Bar. They’re shorn of religion and history, yet they still look as if their trying to purge themselves of ugly spirits by pouring booze down their throats. The suggestion is that secular society is not immune to its demons either.
I remember when I went back to Clones from Sligo, there was a big moon out, it looked like there had been an invasion of vampires, people lying on the street whacked out on something. Between 16 and 20 I’d say, these bodies lying around, hundreds of them. Like there’d been a neutron bomb. I don’t know what they were whacked out on, god knows, sulphates or…I don’t know anything about drugs, nor don’t want to know, but something was goin’ on. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ Almighty! Fuck!’ And then they were all gone the next day. This lemming-like indulgence.
It’s a sort of death wish.
Definitely a deathwish thing going on. These were 17-year-olds, the prime of their lives. Recently in Monaghan these four kids, 15 or 16-year-olds playing chicken or whatever, smashed two cars into one another and they’re all dead now. But there was a young priest – who you would listen to, ’cos anybody who becomes a priest now has to have balls – made an impassioned plea from the altar, and he was saying, “Why am I burying more young people than older people? Why do they not know? They’re just completely an utterly without moorings. And this is criminal.” It’s a very big debate and a very complex issue, but the very fact that he issued this crie de couer from the altar… why isn’t the bishop saying that? Why is it left to a young priest on his own to respond to four dead kids in this mangled wreck, probably closed caskets they were so unrecognisable. If the church had any sense it would now be bearing witness in a really, really passionate way, saying, “What is happening here? This is a crisis of awesome proportions.” It’d be interesting if some kid picked up on that. What is their demon? Cos I’m too old to know what the nature of that demon might be. But it’s wide open for some 17-year-old to write about. What is the new demon? It’s a shapeshifter, it’s come in a different form now. But it’s definitely there.
Reproduced with permission
One of Ireland’s foremost music and pop culture writers, Peter Murphy (b. 1968, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford) got a taste for journalism at the age of 17 when he won first place in an EU sponsored competition for young essayists. After ten days of being wined, dined and chauffeured around Europe on someone else’s tab, the only proviso being that he file a report at the end of it, he figured this was the way to live. But first, he had to get the rock ‘n’ roll bug out of his system, and spent most of the next decade playing drums with a succession of bands. He quit music to become a journalist in 1996, quickly establishing himself as a senior contributor to Hot Press. Since then he has written over 30 cover stories for the magazine, accumulating a portfolio of interviews that includes Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Willie Nelson, Radiohead, Public Enemy, Shane MacGowan, George Clinton, Sonic Youth, Television, Henry Rollins, PJ Harvey, Richard Hell, David Johansen, Warren Zevon, Wim Wenders, Iain Banks, Will Self, William Gibson, Billy Bob Thornton, FW De Klerk and many others. His work has also appeared in the Bloodaxe Books anthology Dublines, the Sunday Independent (Ireland) plus international publications such as Rolling Stone (Australia) and Request (US). Miscellaneous assignments include writing the programme notes for jazz legend Miles Davis’ art exhibition hosted by the Davis Gallery in Dublin (2000), collaborations with cult author JT LeRoy for the American magazine Razor (2002), and co-producing Revelations, a two-hour radio documentary about The Frames (2003). He is frequently employed as a rent-a-mouth by the BBC and Irish national radio and television, is a contributor to the online archive Rocksbackpages.com and more recently gave a talk entitled Nocturnal Emissions at the ReJoyce symposium in the National College of Ireland, tracing the influence of James Joyce’s writings on Irish music. He has also been invited to contribute an essay to the liner notes of the 2004 remastered edition of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, and is currently writing his first novel.
Interviewed by Peter Murphy
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