I’ve been following author Billy O’Callaghan’s career with rapt enthusiasm, since I fortuitously came across him last year on LinkedIn. That he is Irish caught my attention, and as I delved further, I discovered he is the author of three short story collections, all of which I’ve read, all of which, to me, are in their own league and genre of what can only be classified as literary excellence. And so it was that I awaited the release of The Dead House, O’Callaghan’s first novel, and subsequently tore through it in three sittings. It’s the type of book you can’t put down, yet when you do, it stays with you.
In a first person voice unlike any other I’ve ever come across, O’Callaghan gifts us with a story that unfolds in just the way you’d want to hear it by the fireside: it is confessional, it is insightful, it is no-nonsense and direct, yet wields evocative words slipped in so seamlessly that the reader is pulled into the fantastic story in cresting waves that move the story forward while explaining the inner workings of the narrator’s vantage point. The reader understands the narrator, art dealer Michael Simmons, right out of the gate. He lays his cards on the table with no apology as he tells about his client, young, vulnerable, and frail painter, Maggie Turner, with whom he cultivates a mentor-like relationship verging on that of siblings, as he guides her career. That Michael is devoted to Maggie’s overall well-being helps us understand his acceptance of her capricious tendencies, and so it is that when Maggie decides to move from London to an isolated, desolate seaside location on Ireland’s rugged west coast, Michael has reservations, yet chalks them up to her artistic temperament needing artistic space.
The Dead House’s story is centered on one fateful night, during a weekend house party at Maggie’s renovated, pre-famine Irish cottage that involves a small group of friends, a bottle of whiskey, and a Ouija board. Everything careens in spine-tingling plausibility from there, in a dynamic that begins in seemingly harmless fun, yet quickly turns off-kilter with unintended consequences that sneak up over the readers shoulder with such disturbance that this book is best not read at night. And yet I’d be hard-pressed to label The Dead House a ghost story; though it is that, it is more. It is a treatise on friendship, a look at the ambiguity of new love, a tip-of-the-hat to Ireland’s storied past, and a lyrical love song to the unfathomable beauty of Ireland’s haunted, windswept terrain.
Let me now confess something I’ve never done before, after reading the last line of this book: I went back to the first page and began again. The reason I did this is because I was nowhere near ready or willing to let the narrator’s voice go; I was too invested, I was too concerned, and the fact that the story is so suspenseful that I read it with white-knuckled urgency made me fully aware, even as I read, that I simply had to go back and revisit its artful language. I’ll site an example of O’Callaghan’s genius with language here: “Another Sunday. Christ, the fools that time can make of us.” But I’m gushing. Because O’Callaghan deserves it.
All praise The Dead House. Do yourself a favor and get ahold of this book. It will be available in America come spring of 2018, but, if you’re American, you can do as I did and order online through O’Brien Press.
Claire Fullerton is the author of Dancing to an Irish Reel and A Portal in Time https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=claire+fullerton