Cast a Cold Eye | Alan Ryan | Tor Books | 1984 | 350 pages
Small, isolated communities always seem to harbor terrible secrets, and the western Irish village of Doolin is no exception. American writer Jack Quinlan travels to Doolin for background research on the Irish Famine for an upcoming historical novel, but soon discovers the tragic victims of the past are hauntingly present in the lives of the villagers.
The barren, windswept coast of Ireland provides an evocative setting for a chilling ghost story, as Jack experiences visitations of mournful, skeletal figures on the roads and in the countryside around his cottage and the village. Grainne Clarkin, a bookstore clerk he met in a brief stopover in Dublin, occasionally comes to visit him for weekends in Doolin, providing a native Irish romantic interest for Jack that occasionally verges on fetishistic.
“He studied her face, her dark eyes, her perfect white skin, her black hair, her fragile build combined with a full ripe body.”
The ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they subplot is finally consummated on a stone slab outdoors during a ferocious rainstorm in an overblown climax that would seem more in keeping with a lurid romance novel. Meanwhile, a group of village old-timers engage in cryptic blood rituals after suffering a few deaths from their ranks, the splattering of the bottled blood around their gravesites echoing the splashing of Grainne’s virginal blood on the rain-soaked ground.
Jack’s ghostly encounters are genuinely creepy; skeletal men by the side of the road, emaciated children crying out to their separated mothers, and ethereal tunes following him across the barrens. Cold to the touch, but seemingly corporeal, these spirits ultimately vanish, leaving Jack to question his own sanity. Protective of Grainne, he reaches out to the local priest for help, but to little avail.
Jack ruminates on the perception of Ireland through the lens of outsiders, particularly those like himself who reach back to their familial homeland in order to find some connection with their lost ancestry. The novel itself is steeped in an emphatic Irishness, although perhaps also filtered through the perspective of an outsider. The breadth of history is argued to be a constant, living presence in the lives of the Doolin villagers, but the Famine in particular serves mostly as a shallow context, a convenient reference point for a group of specters, however effective.
Doolin does, of course, harbor a dark secret, but Cast a Cold Eye refreshingly avoids sending its outsider protagonist down the fatal Wicker Man path. The villagers are just as terrified as Jack Quinlan, and although perhaps suspicious of his motives and Dublin girlfriend, ultimately accept him into their fold.
All events converge and resolve in a satisfactory way, generally avoiding easy genre pitfalls and potential clichés as the days reach toward the quintessential horror boilerplate–-the showdown on All Hallow’s Eve.