SHADOWPLAY: a fantastic novel

SHADOWPLAY is a fantastic tale based on real people and historical events.

It satisfies three of my criteria for a fantastic tale—it’s imaginative in its evocation of life and love, outstanding in my reading experience, and exotic in its depiction theatrical life in late 19th-century London—and one additional criterion that I’ll come top presently.

Two of its real people were famous 19th century actors—Henry Irving and Ellen Terry—now largely forgotten by all save students of the theater. Irving was the most celebrated actor of his time and the first actor ever to be knighted (by Queen Victoria). Terry, also famous, was the most beloved and highest paid actor of her day, who became a Dame of the Realm in her latter years. The third—and principal—character was largely unknown in his lifetime and is now quite famous as the creator and author of Dracula—Bram Stoker—who managed Henry Irving’s theater company and career, and died penniless.

The narrative unfolds as the elderly Ellen Terry reviews and relives Stoker’s diaries, journals, and letters as she prepares her own memoir. Stoker is our eyes and ears on the life and times of these three friends, with Terry’s intermittent narrative providing counterpoint and an external perspective on Stokers’ difficult life.

Much of the text traces the slow evolution of Stoker’s Dracula. Readers and viewers of the Dracula tale will recognize many character and place names from Stoker’s famous work in these pages, though without any explicit connections. They are all grist for Stoker’s imagination as he slowly births his masterpiece.

This was London blanketed with industrial “black fog,” living in terror of “the Ripper”. This was theater illuminated in gas lamplight, with elaborate sets and mechanical effects. These were actors and theater folk living perpetually at the edge of their means for love of their crafts, their children, and each other.

Joseph O’Connor immerses readers in that world, in the lives of those people, and especially in the heart and mind of Bram Stoker, tortured by unfulfilled desire for literary success, by love and hate for his difficult tempestuous employer Henry Irving, and by unfulfilled love for Ellen Terry. Time, place, and people come alive in our imagination through elegant and evocative prose.

I already mentioned imaginative, outstanding, and exotic as fantastic qualities of this story. It has one additional aspect of the fantastic—it’s fanciful— a ghost story—or at least there is a ghost in the story. The storied Lyceum Theatre in London, refurbished by Irving (and Stoker) to house his theater company was haunted—by the spirit of a young girl named Mina—another famous name from Dracula—its courageous heroine. Glimpsed by many over the years, she watches over Stoker as he labors on his novel in a forgotten attic high under the theater’s eaves. I have read many ghost tales and have never read a more imaginative description of subtle manifestation of spirit in the world or the world as experienced by a disembodied spirit. You can feel Bram Stoker unconsciously immersed in that spirit as he writes.

If you love historical fiction, the theater, love stories about complex beautifully written characters and their interwoven lives, the work of Bram Stoker—or the insinuation of a subtle ghost story into a larger work, then you may want to check out SHADOWPLAY.

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