Rosa Mulholland (1841–1921) was a well-to-do Anglo-Irish writer who published numerous novels, short stories, and poems during a high-profile career that lasted six decades.
Famous and bestselling for much of her lifetime, during which she was repeatedly published by an admiring Charles Dickens, Mulholland sank into a deep obscurity soon after her death. Perhaps this is chiefly because the quintessentially Victorian style, tone, and themes of her work no longer appealed to generations of literary readers who by the 1920s and ’30s were much more interested in hard-boiled detective fiction, social realism, experimental modernism, and futuristic science fiction than in the late, misty Gothic and ghost of the fin de siècle.
Not to Be Taken at Bedtime: and Other Strange Stories collects seven of Mulhollhand’s known “strange tales” for a new era, and fans of contemporary weird fiction and new Gothic will find it a worthwhile read, if a rare and expensive one as it comes in a limited hardback run of 300 copies costing €35 each.
Such an out-of-reach-for-most cover price may well be apt to Mulholland, who was a member of and wrote for the upper and middle classes of the then United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. The great anxiety of this class had to do with property, with whether they could cling on to their holdings in the face of their own characteristic weaknesses – infidelity, addiction, gambling, insanity – and against the incessantly upheaving agitation of the unpropertied.
This was acutely so in 19th- and early 20th-century Ireland, where Land League agitation, alongside more radical groupings such as the assassinating secret society the Whiteboys, were a permanently terrifying existential threat to the occupiers of Big Houses and to the entire way of life of the occupying aristocracy.
Living in a constant dread of annihilation from within and from below had a traumatic effect on the imagination and fantasy worlds of the 19th-century land barons and their extensive families, filling their dreams and reveries with vampires, demons, revenants, “hystericals” and nervous breakdowns, haunted mansions, cursed fields, peasant hexers, murdering servants, possessed butlers and so on. Out of such aestheticised political dreads were the genres of the Gothic, ghost, and fantasy stories fed and sustained throughout the period in question.
Not to Be Taken at Bedtime contains stories of varying lengths that amount to a classic illustration of the above, written in ornate and anxiety-soaked prose that mostly glitters but occasionally lapses into meaningless abstraction and over-description – not unusual in Victorian prose of any non-realist genre.
The title story concerns a dispute between one Colonel Blake and one Coll Dhu over a Connemara mansion lost on the gambling table by the latter’s to the former’s father a generation earlier. Coll Dhu enlists the aid of an elderly peasant witch to help him win over Colonel Blake’s daughter, Evleen, by way of a love spell – and thus through her inheritance win back the mansion for himself. It all goes horribly wrong and Coll Dhu and Evleen Blake end up tumbling off a cliff – and so the Big House remains, at the cost of his daughter, in Colonel Blake’s possession.
Doomed and demented young women feature in nearly every story. In “The Lady Tantivy”, a mysterious young woman returns to life after a century to help resolve a family-splitting property dispute. Meanwhile, in “The Ghost of the Rath”, the most memorably weird of all the stories, the spirit of the interloping, inheritance-stealing, child-murdering Lady Thunder is the haunter.
In “The Haunted Organ of Hurly Burly”, another mysterious young woman turns up, and, under the phantom promptings of the long-dead eldest son, she threatens to make this Big House uninhabitable. She dies horribly too, of course.
It is hard to resist seeing these ever-present ill-fated young heiresses as chiefly representing the sacrifice of innocence involved in holding onto large-scale property in a deeply unequal society. The landed gentry may or may not have seen themselves the way they depicted themselves – as elegant, beautiful, honourable and above all reasonable people looking after their lieges and bringing Christian progress to God’s earth.
However, the reality of their ruthless power ran the gamut from epidemic landlord rape of female servants to regular genocides and massacres at home and abroad. Horror and monsters fascinated the upper classes of the time because they themselves were horrible monsters.
In books full of cruelty and dreadful events written by Mulholland and score upon score of similar writers, the rulers of the world could look in the mirror and admire their own sicknesses and savageries without admitting or even realising that this was a large part of what they were doing.
Not to Be Taken at Bedtime is a welcome and well-packaged relic of the literary conventions of a bygone time and will be of interest to collectors and genre or period enthusiasts.
Although a couple of Mulholland’s well-told tales can already be found at gutenberg.org, hopefully many more will become freely available online over time. A skilled filmmaker could make several of these stories into very enjoyable short period-horror movies, and that is perhaps the best that could be done with them at this stage.
(Previously published by The Dublin Inquirer.