14 March, 1913. County Fermanagh, Ireland.
Widow Murphy is scared.
An uninvited something haunts the farm where she, son James, and her five daughters eke out a living. It starts with scratching sounds in the hayloft above the cottage. A rat? It moves closer – knocks in the dead of night on the children’s bedpost. The spooky raps move to the ceiling, become a hammering. An unseen force presses itself against young Nora’s chest. She cries out, the girls flee downstairs to huddle near the fire. In shades of Peter Blatty’s “Exorcist,” the distraught mother summons a priest. Father Smyth hurries over, says Mass to settle down the widow and her neighbors, then forcefully commands it –whatever “it” is – to depart “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!”
As Ray Bradbury famously put it, “Something wicked this way comes.” In Dianne Ascroft’s softly menacing short novel “An Unbidden Visitor,” the wicked turns out to be a classic poltergeist.
I spent three years researching my first book on scientific anomalies, “Best Evidence.” I still recall how surprised I was at the accumulated, credible evidence for “noisy ghosts” (from the German poltergeist). Parapsychologists are split on what a poltergeist is. The late Dr. William Roll leaned towards psychokinesis as an explanation. He noticed how often an emotionally repressed or troubled teen – typically a young girl – appeared to be the focus of the poltergeist events. His hypothesis? Internal rage explodes into physical manifestations (in Ascroft’s novel, young Annie is the focus). More daring researchers cede to Occam ’s razor, accepting discarnates as an equally logical, more intellectually honest, fit for the facts.
Great Britain is famous for its poltergeists. England’s venerable Society for Psychic Research boasts several celebrated, credible investigators – I was particularly impressed by the work of Guy Lyon Playfair, who painstakingly documented the notorious Enfield poltergeist case. Author Ascroft closely bases her own novel on Northern Ireland’s real-life “Cooneen Ghost” case.
In her retelling of the event, Ascroft avoids Hollywood theatrics, focusing primarily on the personal and psychological damage the paranormal encounter wreaks on the family. Friends stop visiting – fearful the creepy phenomenon will follow them home. Whispers and speculations grow. The widow is to blame – her deceased husband Mick is haunting the farm. Daughter Annie’s boyfriend shuns her, scared he’ll “catch her queerness.” Schoolmates accuse another daughter of worshipping the devil. As the widow Murphy plaintively tells Fr. Smyth, “Folks are afraid of us.” Worst of all, they may lose the farm. Neighbors beg off helping them save the potatoes and bring in the hay, leaving only son James to shoulder the work alone – a physically impossible chore. The family is sleepless, exhausted, anxious, increasingly isolated from the community. We see everything through the lens of their personal suffering.
In real-life, the Cooneen story is quite dramatic. Eyewitness accounts describe plates rising off the table, flying across the room and smashing to bits against the wall; a bed levitates several inches off the floor; pots and pans sail through the air; loud groans are heard; mysterious shapes appear and disappear on the wall. Googling the case, I discovered that in 2010 a famous UK psychic, Marion Goodfellow, toured the derelict home as part of a BBC series on “Northern Ireland’s Greatest Haunts.” She came away seriously shaken, calling it the scariest place she ever visited.
In the novel, the Murphys plead with their local bishop to conduct a formal exorcism. If it fails to drive away the entity, they’ll face a terrible choice – hang on, and try to tough it out (James’s wish); or cut their losses and sell the farm before notoriety radically devalues it (Mrs. Murphy’s pick). For just $1, you can buy the e-book and find out what happens next.
Ascroft’s deep understanding and judicious references to Irish culture and language adds texture to the tale. During four centuries of Protestant British occupation and harsh oppression, the Irish clung tenaciously to their land and their religion. Ascroft’s characters rhythm their lives to a Catholic calendar, Lent and Michaelmas; people “dander down” to fields to scythe hay; James goes out “ceilidhing” (partying); widows place bluebells on churchyard graves; “Dad” is “Da.” The evocative book cover is iconic Ireland.
Surprisingly, Ascroft herself is Canadian. She moved to Britain in 1990, settling with her husband on a small farm in Northern Ireland where she’s a member of the Fermanagh Authors Association and regular contributor to the “Fermanagh Miscellany.” Her Kindle books are bargain-priced; her short-story collections enticing; and her fine novel “Hitler and Mars Bars” deserves more attention.