It is 1958, Laika the space dog is up and away in Sputnik, Busby's Babes are preparing for take-off in Munich and mysterious developments are afoot in the small Irish border town of Cullymore. The townsfolk's good cheer is showing cracks. Geraldine "Golly" Murray is seized by spasms of homicidal hatred for Blossom Foster, the bank manager's elegant wife. Nearby, the food blender in the Cullymore Café has run eerily amok. Local priest Father Hand, meanwhile, is obsessed with making his Easter play a triumph, consumed all the while by envy of the showbusiness exploits of a celebrity priest from County Mayo – despite no obvious personal connection between them. And over by the lake lurks the disgraced schoolteacher James A Reilly with a Lee Enfield rifle in hand and murder in mind.
Cullymore is under threat from a diabolical entity which is also our narrator. It torments the townsfolk with evil glee, filling their heads with unsettling notions and throwing their darkest fantasies back at them in terrifying visions. The victims become so disoriented they fear they've been transported to a notorious land known only from hearsay, where everything familiar is suddenly strange, including lifelong friends and neighbours. This desolate place for broken minds is called the Stray Sod Country.
McCabe has pioneered his own literary genre, sometimes given the tongue-in-cheek label of "Bog Gothic"; provincial Ireland gone horribly wrong is his home turf. But his career takes unpredictable turns. The heights he reached early on with The Butcher Boy, Breakfast on Pluto and The Dead School gave way to several less acutely voiced works. There followed a tremendous recovery with Winterwood, his chilling 2006 masterpiece, and expectations have been high for its successors, two novels set in Cullymore of which this is the second (the first was the The Holy City).
Regrettably, neither has reached Winterwood's consummate pitch of dark intensity. In The Stray Sod Country, McCabe's tragi-comic milieu of sickly-sweet soap opera is supremely well realised and his narrator's unctuous malevolence can be deeply disturbing. Yet the townsfolk's purgatorial stasis is in plain sight from early on, making the narrative's development sluggish and weakening its climax. McCabe continues to demonstrate a commendable determination to take his outstanding talent in new directions, but The Stray Sod Country must stand as an accomplished experiment which does not rank with his finest writing.