After reading Mia Gallagher’s tarot-inspired novel HellFire, I knew she would be a natural fit for our Black Magic issue. Her piece, a ghost story called “Mermaid,” is an excerpt from an upcoming novel. You can read an excerpt here, or purchase the issue and read the whole thing. Below, she discusses with Ami Tian why she structured her first novel around the tarot and the night a Thing came for her.
Have you had any personal brushes with black magic?
I wouldn’t say I’ve had personal brushes with black magic, but I have been interested in the esoteric side of things since I was a kid. Growing up in Ireland I couldn’t avoid the influence of ghost stories, tales of banshees and fairies (who are more like the malevolent fairies of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell than the Tinkerbell variety)… and of course vampires, who had their origins in Mittle-European folk tales but were brought to Western European and American fame through the writings of Bram Stoker and Sheridan le Fanu, two Irish writers.
I love dreams, the complex yet logical workings of the unconscious — and the idea, as Hamlet puts it, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. Once you get into physics and the weird world of subatomic particles, the universes of rational thought and superstitious belief don’t seem hugely apart to me. I think things, people and places can be cursed; but I believe that curses rumble up from our own unconscious minds, they are influenced by things we half-hear or half-remember and can be derived from internalised guilt — more so than the supernatural powers of other people.
Are you superstitious at all?
For a while I was very invested in astrology as a way of guiding my actions. I still think it’s a wonderful system for creating meaning and drawing patterns out of conscious and unconscious human behaviour but I guess my life has been so chaotic in recent years that I’ve learnt to just go with things as they happen. I think human beings are addicted to finding patterns and meaning (or maybe that’s just me!) in what is ultimately an uncontrollable universe. Superstitions, like any belief system, give people the sense that there is something they can control. I think that as I’ve got older I’m learning (a little) to relinquish control. At this stage superstitions or any meaning-creating system seem lovely and interesting to me, something to explore rather than something to depend on.
Could you tell me a little about the influence of tarot in your previous novel, HellFire? How did its inclusion in the story come about?
First off a big thank you to wonderful writer and performer Peter Sheridan (brother of film director Jim) for giving me my first tarot pack when I was 14, as a prop my tarot-playing character used in a play called Flowers in the Rain. I fell in love with the imagery; Peter gave me a (used) Rider-Waite pack and I soon started reading the cards for myself and others. I did that sporadically in my teens and early twenties and got quite good at it. By which I mean that I learnt to pick up on cues that people I read for would give me, through body language or a sense that yes, I was on to something, or no, that particular interpretation wasn’t resonating with them. I also had cards read by some very gifted readers, notably Jaya, a former Sannyassin (follower of Osho Rajneesh) that I met in Dublin in 1990. In 1988 I first used the tarot in my writing, as a framing device in short film I’d made with fellow student for my final year project in university, and was amazed at how the images could relate so strongly to deep psychological states.
For me tarot is another system of meaning-formation, like psychoanalysis or deep counselling. I see it as something that attributes meaning to unconscious choices (the selection of cards) in order to make sense of issues in people’s lives and perhaps find ways through those issues. I believe a lot of its value lies in how the person reading responds to how the images chosen resonate with the person having the reading. In that way, I think any guidance offered through “the cards” is dependent more on the skill and experience and intuition of the person reading, rather than any supernatural value or agency of the cards themselves. However, I do think the imagery is powerful in that it conjures up psychological associations with deep and sometimes taboo human experience. In this way it works on the mind, body and nervous system of the person having the reading, in turn suggesting responses for the person giving the reading — creating a feedback loop if you like. The predictive element is, I believe, ultimately common sense: “If you keep going the way you’re going, it’s likely xyz will happen.”
When I began to develop HellFire out of its original form as a monologue, it seemed obvious to me that Rose, Lucy’s ma, would be a tarot reader. It was a character decision and went with the sense I had of her personality. In some ways, Rose “fakes” tarot reading — this is certainly how Lucy sees it; Rose doesn’t have genuine second sight — unlike her mother, Lucy’s granny, and Lucy herself, who can “see” into the future. But Rose also has a lot of emotional intelligence and can read people’s behaviour and body language. Being venal herself, she understands the motives that drive people to do not so honourable things.
The second thing that appealed to me about introducing the tarot in HellFire, especially the Rider-Waite version (which is the pack Rose and later Lucy use), is that it’s based on a Baroque/Jacobean construct of the world. I’ve to thank an early mentor for pointing this out to me. By Baroque/Jacobean I mean the idea of a Justice that’s inescapable, a Wheel of Fortune that swings through highs and lows, a Devil who represents the basest and most venal aspects of human behaviour. Lucy’s world to me is a Jacobean world; it is about money and power, corruption and the stresses on people trying to find their own moral compasses within that context. Although Lucy’s world has a fierce logic of its own — in a way it is also about the crazed rationalism of capitalism as expressed through the drugs trade — it is not about liberty, equality and fraternity. It is about feudal law and dog eat dog. In that way I think it is more closely tied into the world of Buck Whaley (the semi-mythical figure who Dubliners link to “their” and Lucy’s HellFire Club in the Wicklow mountains) than might first appear. Whaley lived on the cusp of the Enlightenment — he died in 1800; this was a time when a religious/superstitious world view (that Baroque/Jacobean outlook) was about to be supplanted by a rational world view of Newtonian science.
I also love the richness of the tarot imagery — the coins, the cups, the wands, the swords; the medieval and Jacobean influences offered me an opportunity not just for character development, or as a way to link Lucy’s world to Buck Whaley’s Georgian Dublin, but to bring out the grandeur and depth in Lucy’s experience, even within all the poverty and degradation she experiences. Fundamentally I believe every human being is extraordinarily rich and complex; but we get very limited views of people who live in disadvantage. They tend to be portrayed as victims or “scumbags”; one is equally as offensive as the other. But every human being is capable of imagination, vision and compassion.
The thing is, once as a writer you make a choice to include a certain element in a story, you’re obligated to follow its logic. Once I chose to include the tarot, it took over. I don’t mean this in a spooky way; but I’d chosen this device as a character thing and then I found I had to use it properly otherwise I would run the risk of it becoming “so-what”-ish and arbitrary. So Nayler, Lucy’s antagonist, becomes obsessed with the tarot as a way of achieving control over his sometimes awful existence. The creatures/characters in the novel become at times almost like the archetypes in the Major Arcana and in the Court Cards: Nayler is the Knight of Swords, Lucy herself the Page, a prostitute becomes The World, Rose herself the Queen of Cups (she’s addicted both to alcohol and to sex as a way of feeling alive and valued).
The tarot is a force in the novel, not necessarily because it represents a supernatural agency, but in how it is used by the characters to visualise, drive and justify their desires and the sometimes savage actions they take to fulfil those desires. Also its imagery suggested key moments for me, especially the deaths — one death which lies at the heart of the novel is based on a tarot image which suggests utter desolation, but also surrender. That image came to me very early on in the process of developing the novel and because I went with it, I think it formed and influenced how the novel emerged. It asked questions: why is this death presented in this way? can other deaths be linked to other tarot images? etc.
Also, I have to ask — why is the piece called “Mermaid?”
The piece in Spolia is extracted from a novel-in-progress, from an early chapter called “Mermaid” so that’s the simple answer! Georgie is a 7-year old child and is the protagonist of this chapter and two later chapters in the novel. The three chapters where Georgie is the protagonist are each titled after a fantasy creature which she in some oblique way identifies with. At the outset, Georgie is obsessed with mermaids for reasons which I won’t go into as they don’t come into the extract that’s in Black Magic. Enough to say that in an earlier part of the chapter, she draws “mermaids” – though they’re clearly not recognisable as such. Later she becomes fascinated (and repelled) by a book on Greek mythology so her second chapter is called “Chimaera.”
But now that you ask me this I find I’m quite interested in finding connections within the extract in Black Magic. Mermaids are quasi amphibious creatures — they live in the sea but they can breathe oxygen. They are half fish, half mammal. I guess readers, if they wish, can see the mermaid that Georgie is in the Black Magic piece as a creature living in two worlds, poised between innocence and experience — some of which will be unsettling and influence the whole of her adult life. She is also poised between the two worlds of fantasy and reality. I think 7 is an amazing age; it’s been called the “age of reason,” and I think the cortex goes through a massive growth shift at this point. But it’s also the age that I think really shapes us into the adults we will become.
On a political level, this part of the novel is set in County Down in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is an amphibious creature — is it Irish? Is it British? Is it its own national/ethnic/sectarian identity? Nationhood is itself an amphibious concept… What is nationhood? Is it genetics/ethnicity? Place of birth? Language? The God you believe in? Judith, the antagonist in the Black Magic piece, is a Northern Irish Protestant, originally of Scots planter descent. So in a way she too is a mermaid. And Georgie’s national identity is mermaidish — her dad is from the Republic of Ireland, her mum is the child of a Northern Irish Protestant and Northern Irish Catholic marriage.
What’s the most terrifying ghost story or legend you remember hearing (or maybe telling) as a child?
The most terrifying ghost story was one I read. I was maybe 8 or 9. It was about a guy who goes into a house where he’s visiting and everything seems okay. But at night he realises that some Thing is living in the mirror over his sink and is trying to suck him through the reflection. I can’t remember how it ends; maybe he goes mad. What I can remember is that I had eaten flaked almonds the day I read the story and we were over in the house of a friend of my mum’s. The story itself didn’t bother me when I was reading it — it was a beautiful sunny day, why would I be bothered? But that night I went home and went to bed. I couldn’t get to sleep and about 20 minutes in, I got the feeling that some Thing was living in the mirror across the room from my bed. I remember digging my ear into my pillow and pulling the duvet up over my head, ramming my shoulder into my other ear so I wouldn’t hear the Thing if it tried to suck me in. I had my eyes shut but the most important thing was that I wouldn’t hear it. I got a horrible scratching sound like static in my ear. I was so tense that night it was a miracle I slept. Even though the mirror has gone from that room and it’s years since it’s been a bedroom, I still think sometimes that the Thing is still there, scratching behind the plasterwork. I also hated the smell of nuts, especially almonds, for years afterwards, couldn’t help associating them with that fear. So that’s a pretty direct link to Georgie’s experience.
Could you tell me more about the novel you’re working on? What inspired you to write it?
It’s quite a complex piece structurally in that it is made up of four interlocking strands which connect through shared characters but in rather oblique ways, so I find it hard to sum up in a sentence. It’s not high concept, as they say in Hollywood. I think maybe the cleanest way to describe it is as a story about two families — whose paths cross through experiences of loss and displacement — underscored with some strong otherworldly elements. There is a sense of ghost story to it and magical (totemic) objects feature quite heavily. These connect the characters but also repel them from each other. There are a few “Lost Homelands” in the novel. Some are literal geographic homelands — Northern Ireland, as mentioned earlier, but also German Bohemia (more familiar to people as the Sudetenland, now part of the Czech Republic). Other lost homelands are more notional; idealised versions of things the characters hold precious but don’t realise they do — childhood, family, political certainty, ancestral history, innocence, physicality, love, marital happiness — and which during the course of the novel they are forced to relinquish. Limbo — the homeland for “lost souls,” where unblessed souls (in this novel, ghosts or near-ghosts) are stuck in — is quite central. Memory is also a theme; as I write this I wonder if maybe the ultimate lost homeland is the memories you can no longer access.
Ironically what inspired me to write it is an idea which now belongs in another novel! I had a situation I thought would be interesting, but found I got really into the backstory of the characters. About two years into developing the work, I decided to separate out the original situation which I’d wanted to explore and the backstory and put them into different novels. The backstory led to the main dynamics and action of the longest strand of the current novel, which centres on the tricky experiences of Georgie and the key people in her life between 1974 (when “Mermaid” is set) and 1977.
My grandmother was German (but not Bohemian) so I had been interested for a while in exploring through my writing something around German history. I knew I wanted a character who had grown up in the UK, said she was Czech but was in fact German. I’d read about the Sudetenland in school but hadn’t really considered it as an angle — I assumed I couldn’t make the UK connection work. About ten months into the research I met an academic in London who told me there had been a migration of 1000 Bohemian German women to Britain after WWII and that, as they say, was that. I sometimes wonder if I’d heard that information before I began work on the novel but had somehow “forgotten’ it?
In the meantime lots of other stuff inspired me, including the London bombings of 2005, news coverage of the “War on Terror,” issues around identity formation and expression — especially problematic or amphibious identities — and the questionable legacy of the 1960s and 1970s radical left. Approaching middle age, illness and mortality have also become interesting subjects for me. I am a sucker for Gothic fiction so was very open to the elements — the totemic objects, a Baroque-type Wunderkammer and the ideas of ghosts and hauntings — which I hope in places lend it a creepy/fantastic edge. Ultimately, though, it’s the characters, their needs, fears and desires, that inspire me most — once I find the right way into them.
Image by Angelo Caroselli, “La Negromante”