Muckross Abbey and Other Stories
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“I binge-read this book, savoring the gothic creepiness at the heart of each tale. Packed with compelling, nuanced lives and the deaths that haunt them, each story is a séance—an invitation for unsettled spirits to let their presence be known, ‘desperate for someone to supply the narrative.’ Murray supplies it with great style and an uncanny knowingness, leaving room for our imagination to fill in the suggestive spaces with our own dark dread.”—Mona Awad, author of All’s Well
Sabina Murray has long been celebrated for her mastery of the gothic. Now in Muckross Abbey and Other Stories, she returns to the genre, bringing readers to haunted sites from a West Australian convent school to the moors of England to the shores of Cape Cod in ten strange tales that are layered, meta, and unforgettable.
From a twisted recasting of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, to an actor who dies for his art only to haunt his mother’s house, to the titular “Muckross Abbey,” an Irish chieftain burial site cursed by the specter of a flesh-eating groom—in this collection Murray gives us painters, writers, historians, and nuns all confronting the otherworldly in fantastically creepy ways. With notes of Wharton and James, Stoker and Shelley, now drawn into the present, these macabre stories are sure to captivate and chill.
Release date: March 21, 2023
Publisher: Grove Press
Print pages: 198
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Muckross Abbey and Other Stories
The Long Story
A hiker lost on the moors. A cliché. The farmer had warned him that one got turned around, that he should head back to the village, that despite the bright sun that held when not completely blocked by sudden slabs of gray cloud, rain was a probability in the next couple of hours. Or fog. He’d thought the farmer was taking the piss, entertained by his American accent, his fancy boots, his raincoat made out of astronaut fabric. He’d kept going. And now it was just sheep, who had suddenly all turned in the same direction, presenting him with their backsides. A fox had hurried ahead, glancing over her shoulder with a cautioning look before disappearing into the steep, ascending spine of rock that rose up the sloping grass. The temperature was falling, and around the sun a fuzzy halo announced a change of weather. Fog had begun to form at the border of trees. He was alone and the thought that he’d have to wait out the night filled him with a combination of embarrassment and awe. Why had he not listened? Startled, he heard a cough and, turning quickly, thought he saw a person—a tall figure in a black coat—but this figure, an illusion, was quickly erased by a wall of fog. The man had disappeared into it. “Hello?” he called. “Hello?”
But it was Dartmoor in an obscuring, earthbound cloud, embraced by one of its impenetrable, legendary mists. The rain had started to patter in. He could barely see three feet in front of him now and the only sound was that of a low wind, a sort of breathing, as if the moors were inhaling and exhaling, as if the moors themselves were alive. He felt a panic then. Sound carried strangely in the wet air. He stood still, listening intently. He wondered if he should stay in place, which was infinitely better than falling into some sort of ditch and spraining his ankle or running into a wild animal. The Hound of the Baskervilles came to mind. The situation was ridiculous. He’d felt, as a world traveler, that there was no possible danger to be had in any English-speaking country, particularly England, which appeared to be completely sliced up with highways and overrun with villages, where the trees stood shoulder to shoulder in marked-out woodlands, and the concept of “civilization” seemed to extend to an infinite number of things, weather included. But this was a foul, barbaric weather, a Precambrian mist that seemed to erase all of man’s achievements.
He would turn back in the direction of the farm but was uncertain in which direction that was. He thumbed to the compass on his phone, but there was no signal. A few minutes earlier, there had been a signal. What had blocked it? Pick a direction, he told himself. Pick a direction and begin walking.
A woman’s voice. He froze. Some revenant fear from childhood made him pause. Who would be out in this weather?
It was the woman again.
“Yes?” he responded. There was a brightening off to his right. “Hello! I’m over here!” He heard footsteps, a snapping branch, and began to make his way to the voice and to the light that, as he approached, was concentrating itself into a circle.
The light swung around a few times, then flared into his eyes, and behind it the woman was revealed. She was slight, black haired, middle-aged, and wearing a barn jacket. She gave him a quizzical look. “The American hiker,” she said. She, too, was American, which was disorienting but also a comfort. “Are you lost?”
He fought the urge to say no. He didn’t know why he should trust her. “Yes. I got turned around.”
“Follow me. My house is just over there.” She gestured, swinging the light off to the left.
“How did you find me?” he asked.
“Tom Barker, my neighbor, phoned to say you were headed my way. He worries about people wandering around in the fog. It can be dangerous.” They trudged quickly along. “And I’m Olivia.”
“Paul,” he said.
How she found the path home was a mystery, but she did. She opened a low wooden gate and, after he stepped through, swung it shut. The cottage was low-slung with a thatched roof and two windows that because of the light blazing from within seemed to be staring out at him with yellow eyes. She opened the door and stepped in. “Come in. You must be frozen. And kick off your shoes. This is a shoe-free house.”
He unlaced his boots and removed his coat, which crackled as he hung it on the hook in the hallway.
“Go sit by the stove,” she said, inviting him into the low-ceilinged living room. “I can make tea, but I’m guessing you could use a whiskey.”
“Thanks,” he responded.
She disappeared into the kitchen. The smell of stewing meat hung in the air. He hoped she had enough for two. He looked at the two chairs set by the stove and decided on the red corduroy piece, which looked slightly less comfortable than the brown recliner, which he thought must be his host’s regular chair. He stretched his feet toward the fire and flexed his toes, feeling the burn in his extremities as the chill sl
owly gave over to the warmth emanating from the flaming logs. He heard footsteps upstairs and wondered if that’s where she kept the liquor, but suddenly she was at the threshold.
“Here,” said the woman. She handed him a simple glass with a good portion of whiskey and settled into her chair with a drink of her own.
He took a sip as she sipped hers and they peered across the gulf between their glasses. “So, Paul,” she said, “beyond getting lost on the moor and being rescued, what’s your story?”
“My story?” It wasn’t very interesting. “I’m a doctoral student in geology and my adviser loaned me out to a friend of his in the petroleum business. The company is based in London. I’m not much interested in academia, so I thought I’d look at industry.” He left out the bit about the girlfriend, recently ex, who was interested in academia, in Oxford right now in an apartment that the two had intended to share over the summer. Why was she smiling at him that way? It was making him uncomfortable, as if she were anticipating his saying stupid things and he was fulfilling her expectations. “And what about your story?”
“Mine?” She shot up an eyebrow. “ . . . I’ve been living in this house for five years, and I rather like it.”
“Isn’t it lonely?”
“No.” She grew introspective. “I find it peaceful.”
“There are other peaceful places.” But as he said it, couldn’t think of any. “So why . . . this place?” He was lost and wasn’t sure where he was.
“Ah, short version, I’ve always liked Thomas Hardy.”
“And the long version?”
The woman laughed. She got up from her chair. “Would you like some stew? It’s mutton. That’s what we eat around here. And in the spring, lamb.”
The woman was in the kitchen producing a clatter of bowls and cutlery. He let his eyes wander around the room. There was a landscape, which looked a lot like the surrounding landscape and must have been intended for people who missed the outdoors when they went indoors. She had only one photograph and that was of a young man, around twenty, with thick black hair and an intense gaze. He was probably the woman’s son. There was something disturbing about the photograph, but on closer inspection, he wasn’t sure of the reason: the young man had an ironic expression, but that was expected of people t
hat age. He wondered if he was going to have to spend the night here or if the woman had some other plan for him—a neighbor’s barn perhaps—and how he could broach the topic without seeming to be making assumptions. And then she reappeared with two bowls of stew, each with a big spoon in it.
“Is that your son?” he asked, gesturing to the mantel.
“He has quite a presence.”
“It was often remarked on.”
He was very hungry and took one spoonful of stew and then another. His need to eat had created a silence, and he realized that he was being impolite. “You were going to tell me the long story,” he said.
“The long story?”
“Of how you came to live here.”
“Right,” she said. “Where to start?”
She gave him a long, cold look that took in his face and then slowly dismissed it. “Bennett was an actor.” The wind picked up then, rattling the windows and setting some unseen branch to a rhythmic thumping. “He was preparing for a role.”
He looked questioningly in her direction. She, too, seemed to be wondering about the impact of the son’s acting on the current circumstance.
“I was still teaching, you see, and I came here to complete the final edits on a book.”
“You’re a writer?” he asked.
“An art historian.”
“What was the book about?”
“My book was about the Manila galleons. I was writing on the transfer of aesthetic and medium from Spain to the Philippines to Mexico.”
“This seems like an odd place to write about that topic.”
“I had a grant. My publisher was in Cambridge, and it was a cheap place within striking distance. I was on sabbatical.”
“And you stayed.”
“That’s still the short story.” She smiled. “I thought you wanted the long story.”
Just then, it sounded as if there were someone knocking on the door. He turned to look over his shoulder to the vestibule, but his host seemed disinclined to move. She settled in her chair and took another spoonful of stew.
“You’ve been very generous,” he said. “But I’m worried I’m intruding.”
“Oh no,” the woman responded. “You’re actually stuck here for the night.” "
You don’t mind?”
“No. It doesn’t happen that often. And you seem more pleasingly subdued than some of the other ones.”
“Thanks.” His gratitude was tempered. “It’s a beautiful house.”
“Bennett wasn’t sure about it. He thought it was cliché. The thatched roof. The sheep. It offended his sensibilities. And he thought the English were absurd.”
“All of them?” He laughed.
“Oh yes. Bennett could sense them looking down their noses at him, and he would say, ‘1776.’ Of course, they had no idea what he was talking about.”
“1776? The American Revolution?”
She raised her eyebrows in the affirmative. “He was right, you know. It wasn’t so much nationalism, because he hated America too, but a sort of mild outrage that the English seemed so unaware of a revolution that had formed the collective consciousness of the entire thinking world. Cambodian Socialists think about the American Revolution. Why would the English, who were participants, be so indifferent?”
He hadn’t studied the Revolution since middle school. His memory summoned Paul Revere on his horse. “Your son was studying history?” he said.
“No. As previously mentioned, he was an actor.”
“Yes. You did say that.”
“I was here for a semester. Bennett had originally intended to spend his spring break with his father, but his father—That doesn’t matter. Bennett was preparing for a role and thought that my quiet ways might not intrude on his work. And we were very close, Bennett and I. He found my presence soothing.”
“Did something happen to your son?” he asked.
“Yes.” Her stew was done, and she set the bowl aside. She looked up at the boy’s picture with such longing that Paul felt a wash of panic. “And that is the long story.”
“He was an actor?” he asked, although she’d already said as much twice.
“Bennett was in college. He did acting and playwriting. He was a very talented boy. One of his classmates had written a play that had been selected to be performed and Bennett had landed the lead role. Bennett was also working on a play, set just before the American Revolution. It had to do with the British occupation of Boston. It was called Occupation.”
“Good title,” he said, “and strange subject matter.”
The woman smiled.
“Bennett often took inspiration from history. He thought history was a way to escape writing about his family, which is what most of the other students wrote about. Family dramas were predictable. Bennett said, ‘Not only is every happy family alike, but every unhappy family is also alike. You have the overweening parent, the anxious child, the weird aunt or uncle.’ But he would have been happy to have landed a role in one of those dramas. Instead, his ambitious playwriting friend had composed a piece on authenticity, the authenticity of writing itself.”
Paul nodded along, wondering how this tied in with the woman’s move to England. ...
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