Andrew Burnet meets Joe Donnelly, a Sunday Mail journalist turned supernatural thriller
\‘v'hile free-lance journalists spend their days off worrying about having days off. staffjournalists can use their free time more constructively. .loe Donnelly. a reporter for twenty years. half of them on the Sunday Mail. is a good example. For six months of Mondays. with the wife at work and the kids at school. he sat at his typewriter and wrote fiction. The result. his first novel. is Bane a supernatural thriller set near his home in Dumharton and partly drawn from (‘eltic mythology.
‘My interest in (‘eltic mythology started when I was a kid.‘ he explains. ‘and in an ancient. deserted stable block where we used to play. I found a book about (‘eltic legends — I was young enough to think it was about football. I took it home and there were all these legends I’d never heard of. I was absolutely fascinated. and I‘ve been fascinated ever since.
"The original concept for Bane was a nightmare about a place I used to play as a youngster. I woke up and I couldn't get back to sleep. because I still had the shakes. so to calm my nerves I wrote it down. I forgot about it for three weeks. and when I found it again the dream came back quite shatteringly. and I eventually
got the idea it might be the basis for a story.‘
The plot centres around a monster. Cu Saeng. which was raised by iron age Scots to help them repel invaders. but could not afterwards be quelled. and was therefore imprisoned within Ardhmor Rock. fenced in by four symbolic walls. From time to time. the walls have been breached. allowing Cu Saeng to spread bloodthirsty mayhem in the neighbouring town ofArden. Events reach a climax when good confronts
evil in an attempt to overthrow the monster forever. Bane's central character. Nicky Ryan. is drawn into the epic conﬂict when he reluctantly recognizes his essential role in it. Ryan is introduced to the reader as a journalist who. like Donnelly. is trying to write his first novel. This. however. is dismissed by Donnelly as ‘laziness'. a background he didn‘t need to research. Ryan. he confesses. is the person he would like to be. The locale and some of the other characters are also drawn from
personal experience. including a senior newspaperman. Jimmy Allison. whose name and nature are both very close to reality.
Ryan’s reporting career also supplied much of the raw material for the book's extensive complement ofgory incidents. Ile cites the example of a petrol tanker colliding with a gas pipe. and the attendant death and destruction. which appears in the novel and is based on his first ever newspaper story. in the Dumburton ( 'ounty Reporter. But one particularly excruciating scene. involving death by hot wax. was based on a nastily memorable incident from Donnelly's pre-journalistic life. when he was badly scalded with custard and spent some time in hospital.
An avid enthusiast for horror books and films (his favourite being Spielberg‘s Poltergeist). Donnelly is out to give a gripping. escapist read. though he admits that some political content — on the subject of nuclear bases in the west of Scotland — has crept in.
‘I read horror stories.‘ he says. ‘and they scare the hell out of me and 1 love it. It's a nice vicarious thrill. and — this is going to sound pompous— it‘s not really as horrifying as seeing the depravation in Blackhill or Priesthill or Carnwadric. I like the little thrill of it. but nobody really believes in vampires. I think Bane’s quite a nice little fantasy.‘
With a paperback edition of Bane due out next year. and a second Celtic myth thriller Stone nearing completion. Donnelly‘s Monday afternoons seem set to be busy for a while yet. ‘I suppose.‘ he confides. modestly enough. ‘I would like to put Scotland on the horror map.’ (Andrew Burnet)
Bane Joe Donnelly ( Barrie & Jenkins £12. 95)
RECEIVED AND UNDERSTDDD?
The Message to the Planet Iris Murdoch (Chatto £13.95) This is Murdoch‘s twenty-fourth novel and yet another densely populated. part phantasmagorical. a super-elongated. knotted. high-strung joke. Does the 'message' of the title truly exist'.’ (‘an it really be possessed by Marcus Vallar. the chameleon enigma at the novel‘s heart‘.’ Is the story's structure strong enough to take the weight of a plot which is both kitsch and sinking in the wake of Murdochian sensationalism worthy ofheadlines in the tabloid papers of namesake Rupert‘.’
It boils down to this: Alfred Luddens seeks Marcus Vallar who seems to have the power to metamorphose and to resurrect the dead. Ilerne and Sheerwatcr. Ludden's friends. raise a sceptical eyebrow. Luddens is also emotionally tied to Vallar’s
daughter. But Sheerwater‘s bonds and emotional investments are riding on a strange ménage a trois which rouses his wife to showers of well-aimed Vesuvian venom.
It‘s full ofpseudo-religious magic. as Vallar‘s quest for ‘pure cognition’ beyond philosophy. art and language becomes white-hot. as he finally does himself to a crisp — a mean performance ofpure codology by both subject and author. But where‘s the message to the planet? It‘s simply this: if you‘ve bought the story. weirds and all. then my friend. you‘ve probably bought the book! (Tom Adair)
FAT AND SKINNY
The Bellarosa Connection Saul Bellow (Penguin £3.50) The second Bellovian novella of the year also arrives on bookstands in original paperback format. Like a miniature. all the ingredients are there. only painted in with a smaller brush and a finer eye. The picky details and the narrative concentration are overwhelmed. as is the narrator. by
the huge. colourful. monstrous bulk of Sorella. The narrator. a practitioner in the art of memory. finds he has to change the size of his descriptive brush when he talks of Sorella. giant ofJewish mamas.
Ostensibly it is Sorella‘s husband. Harry Fonstein. to whom the story belongs. He is a Jewish refugee. rescued from Nazi Europe by a quirky Broadway producer. Billy Rose. Fonstein makes good in the US. but has a driving ambition to thank his saviour who refuses to see him. In the folds ofSorella's cascades of fat. our narrator paints in his own explanations and perceptions. offering an expose of memory. It is supposedly a conscious one. but it is nonetheless invaded by the narrator's unexpressed and unfulfilled desires.
The nature ofJewishness. of being an American and of age and youth all squeeze into this thin. yet well-padded volume. The neat. tidy novella is somehow like a clean. trimmed fingernail — expertly executed and a little lifeless. (Kristina Woolnough)
ENGLAND, HER ENGLAND
A Natural Curiosity Margaret Drabble (Viking£12.95) In the lineage of George Elliot. Margaret Drabble has said: ‘I'd like to think I write books which might contribute to a way ofseeing British society.‘ It's an aspiration amply fulfilled by A Natural Curiosity. her companion-cum-sequel to The Radiant Way. With some of the same cast it explores an England socially contoured by the market forces of Thatcher‘s decade. and is shrewdly mapped through the lives ofits principals: Alix. the teacher of delinquents; Liz. the psychotherapist and Esther. who forsakes home for Italy and a career in Renaissance art.
A smog ofpessimism pervades the complicated narrative. Charles— Liz‘s ex-husband — invests in a bankrupt second marriage while his business too goes down the tubes. Liz‘s brother-in-law. Cliff. commits suicide. Alix meanwhile pursues Paul Whitmore. the convicted murderer ofone of her friends,
76 The List 27 October — 9 November 1989