The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville Review

Those who believe that the short story is dead and/or irrelevant, and those who don’t see the value in publishing stories in e-zines that pay very little, if at all, to a circulation that is in all likelihood no more than a thousand would be well served to pay attention to the rise of Stuart Neville, because there are lessons to be learned there. Stuart Neville’s story in Thuglit was read by agent Nat Sobel, who signed him and sold his manuscript. Do people read the ‘zines? Yes. Do we know who is reading them? No, it could be anyone. And the more subtle of the lessons is that you never know who is checking you out online

Crime fiction is filled to the brim with characters who are haunted by their demons and the ghosts of their past. Crime fiction is also filled with the coping strategies in which these characters try to deal with them. At the top of that admittedly not too long list is self-medication. In other words drinking to forget. One of the prime things that Stuart Neville does in The Ghosts of Belfast is approach this device from a different direction, which enhances all of its features. Simply put, he literalizes the metaphor. The ghosts of Fegan’s past aren’t his conscience clanking away at Jacob Marley’s chain, with such a dismal and appalling noise, demanding to be heard, never to be forgotten, nor are they figments of his imagination; they are instead very much real. They haunt, they scream, they demand their pound of flesh as vengeance. By being willing to take a peek into the fantastic, Stuart Neville has created a powerful, haunting, and moving engine that drives this story.

Otto von Bismarck famously said that “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” This sentiment infuses the political parts of Ghosts. The men who Fegan is after are intrinsically threaded into the tapestry of the post-Troubles country. They won ugly and came through in positions of influence and power. But they do not want to be reminded of or confronted with their recent past and the actions of their ascendancy, which Fegan’s mission forces into their faces. Fegan becomes dangerous to everyone and a threat to everything.

One image that floated, unbidden, to my mind while reading The Ghosts of Belfast was of a movie I haven’t seen in years, the western Shane. Fegan, and others like him in the novel, remind me in some ways of Shane the character. They are figures who were necessary to traverse and then eventually tame a wild land, and though they were necessary in that land’s formation and progression, they were not civilized enough to live, exist, or thrive in the finished product afterwards and so must be left behind.

To continue my western characters’ comparisons just a little further, how about viewing Fegan through the lens of another character who lived past his usefulness in a civilized world, William Munny from Unforgiven. Like Munny, Fegan is a killer of women and children. And like Munny, Fegan is a character stripped of all of the stylized glamour that often dresses up those who kill. He is a killer, who has done it before, a lot, and won’t hesitate to do it again. These men are more rare than we might think. In a civilized world, were people rely on the law to solve problems rather then settling it themselves, when all machismo and bluster is brushed aside, there aren’t many who will pull the trigger. This is a knowledge that we all have inside us: what our limits are; how far we will go and whether we posess the capability of crossing that line, and so we recognize those who have crossed that line. The men who can cross that line aren’t braggarts and don’t swagger, and they are the most deadly of them all, but the cost is a part of their soul and humanity. Their reputation is their Mark of Cain. We see the Mark that they carry around, and we fear and respect it all the while keeping them at a distance from us. And so, in many ways, Fegan, as a representative from the past that no one wants to acknowledge any longer, and as one cast out of society by the acts that he has committed, bearing that Mark of Cain, is also a ghost. A ghost to those around him, for they don’t want to see him, instead choosing to only see the acts he has committed and the past that he represents.

Young men and older boys swelled the mob. Fegan knew the cops would hold back, hoping the drama would fizzle out. Most times it would, leaving nothing more than a blackened mess for the road sweepers to clean up in the morning. Not tonight, though. Fegan could feel it like thunder in the air. The atmosphere crackled with it.

He looked up at the sky. Things had developed too quickly to get a helicopter in the air. In the old days, the Brits would have scrambled two or three of them from their bases in Holywood or Lisburn, and would’ve had the area covered in minutes. They’d be out for the funeral tomorrow, hovering high above the crowds, but the sky stayed clear this evening.

A boy, red-haired and wiry, twelve at most, pulled a lump of burning wood from the mound. He half ran, half hopped six paces and hurled the blackened timber with every bit of his strength. It clattered to the ground, throwing red sparks, midway between the smoldering mound and the waiting policemen. The other boys gave a triumphant cheer.

“For fuck’s sake,” Caffola said. “Hey!”

He waited for a moment then shouted again. “Hey! You!”

The red-haired boy turned.

“Yeah, you,” Caffola called. “C’mere!”

The boy approached slowly.

“What are you at?” Caffola asked. “Are you supid?”

“No,” the boy said.

“Well, for fuck’s sake quit acting like it. Cover your face with something so the cameras don’t get you.”

“Okay,” the boy said. He pulled a wrinkled handkerchief from his pocket and returned to his comrades at the burning mound, tying the square of soiled material into a mask over his nose and mouth.

“Kids know nothing these days.” Caffola shook his head.

One of the book’s other, more subtle themes is present in the above-quoted riot scene, a scene that is on the short side but has a lot packed into it and stands as one of the more memorable scenes in a book filled with plenty of great ones. If we have a bloody past and a tense present, what will the future be like and, perhaps more importantly, in whose hands will it be? This small scene lays bare the question of the future with an economy of words because it forces a comparison between the boys in the riot, children living in troubled times who have grown up far too fast but are ultimately products of the past, and Ellen the little child who comes to love and trust Fegan. Her innocence is not yet corrupted, and she has no idea whatsoever of what surrounds her. Which child, the one who acts improperly during a street riot or the one looking for someone’s finger to hold, appearing pages apart and never in the same scene, represents the future?

The Ghosts of Belfast is many things:  It’s a ghost story, a love story, a crime story, a political story, and a story of redemption. One of the main questions asked by the book is, “Is there a point on the path of a man’s life where the hard scrabbled crawl to redemption is no longer possible?” Fegan has a Troubles-size hole in his heart, mind, body, soul and spirit. Can the hole be filled or is the damage too great? Is his quest for redemption a futile one and a failure from the start? The answer, as in life, isn’t an easy one or a neat one, but it is a provoking one.

One of the benchmarks that I use for books that I read is my desire to re-read the story. More so then any other novel I read this year, I want to read The Ghosts of Belfast again; in fact, I wanted to start reading it again the moment that I finished it. That’s the highest praise that I can give to any story.

DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING SECTION UNLESS YOU’VE READ THE BOOK

For the many facets of the brightly shining diamond that is The Ghosts of Belfast, there is at least one that possibly has a minor flaw affecting the clarity–the ending. The ghosts are clear as to the path that Fegan must travel–he must kill the engineers of their deaths. What becomes apparent very early on is that, as the actual instrument of their deaths, Fegan, too, must die. This is a knowledge that the readers HAVE to carry with them as they read about Fegan’s journey, and because his eventual suicide carries with it the weight of Fate, the result is that the entire story carries with it the weight of true tragedy. Fegan, too, understands what it means to step on that path when he sets out to aid the ghosts and does so with a resigned finality. Can you see where I’m going with this? Fegan’s fate is sidestepped at the end, and the final ghost grants him a reprieve, allowing him to live on. To be clear–this is a minor flaw that doesn’t denigrate the masterpiece that Neville has written–but I think it deserves to be talked about and debated by those who have read the book, and so I bring it up now. The ending of the book is absolutely NOT some tacked-on happy ending and is filled with its own kind of gravity and solemnity. The gods reached down and granted Fegan, briefly, the gift of sight in a dark place; he saw hope and love and trust, then had it snatched away before he could hold on to anything other then the memory that what he saw would be lost forever. On top of that, he is cast forever from his homeland.

  • originally published 10/5/2009

Brian loves both kinds of books — fiction and non-fiction. He is an all around book john and reviewing roustabout.