Gareth Hanrahan is garnering quite a reputation as a fantasy author. He tells Ed Power how some of his novels’ settings are inspired by old Cork.
Sauron's dark fortress in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is said to have been inspired by a 16th century tower close to the author’s childhood homein Birmingham.
George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones is partly a retelling of the dynastic skulduggery of the War of the Roses, which Martin read about growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey.
For rising fantasy author Gareth Hanrahan some of his biggest ideas likewise came from close at hand.
“A lot of the locations in my novels are inspired by places in Cork. And some of the history,” he says.
“Cork is an odd city. To say it’s a mess is the wrong word. The centre is relatively modern because of the burning of the city.
"But there are chunks of Victorian places right next to them. And next to them, brand new office blocks.”
The Irish book world is dominated by mainstream literary fiction — “crit lit” as writer China Miéville has described it.
Yet the chattering classes of Irish letters tend to ignore the endless expanse of genre fiction.
This is a parallel universe in which Hanrahan is regarded as an up-and-comer on the back of two breathtaking fantasy novels, 2018’s The Gutter Prayer and newly-published sequel The Shadow Saint.
Both are rip-roaring romps (a third instalment is due in 2021).
They are populated with compelling and idiosyncratic heroes, such as a thief suffering from a degenerative disease that’s slowly turning him into a living statue.
And there are grotesque monsters including the ghoulish Tallowmen: living candles that hunt their prey remorselessly.
The real star of the books though is the setting of Guerdon.
As Hanrahan intimates, the city is constructed out of dream-like fragments of the author’s native Cork (interwoven with elements of London, Edinburgh and HP Lovecraft).
There are winks towards Cork’s past as a trading centre and its present as a pharmaceuticals hub (the alchemic arts have a long history in Guerdon).
There are geographical parallels too. Guerdon is a higgledy-piggledy neverland that has metastasised around a harbour with a star-shaped island (it isn’t named Spike Island but it might as well be).
Recently, Hanrahan received an email from a reader who believed he had solved the puzzle of The Gutter Prayer half way through: it was, among other things, a gothic re-imagining of Cork.
“He said, ‘Everyone is going up hills. It’s really like Cork’. To say it is based on Cork is an exaggeration.
"But when you’re trying to find things to hang ideas on — you look around and grab from anywhere.”
Novels are a new frontier for Hanrahan who, since graduating from UCC with a degree in computer science, has becoming a leading writer in the table-top gaming industry, of which Dungeons And Dragons is the best known example.
In fantasy, science and fiction and horror gaming, Hanrahan, who grew up in Douglas and is currently based in Turner’s Cross, is a bit of a star.
Ask your average table-top gamer to nominate their favourite designer and his is one of the names that will trip off their tongue.
Hanrahan has written extensively for some of the most popular role-playing titles.
You’ll see Hanrahan’s name on rulebooks and adventure scenarios for games such as Traveller, Trail of Cthulhu, Paranoia and Warhammer Fantasy.
Hanrahan is a big name game designer, but has lived quietly in Cork his entire life, attending school at Chríost Rí and Douglas Community School.
“My original plan was to get a proper job in computers and do a bit of writing in the side,” says Hanrahan who started working with games publishers as a member of UCC’s Warps role-playing and wargaming society.
Hanrahan wrote tournament adventures for UCC’s Warpcon convention and found he had a talent for it.
His first published piece was a scenario for Blue Planet: nothing to do with David Attenborough but rather a swashbuckling blend of Jacques Cousteau, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld and William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
“I got a job in computers and wasn’t very good at it. The company downsized. I had three months cash left and thought, ‘I’ll try freelancing — see how long it lasts’.”
He was immediately successful and soon in high demand.
Today, married and with three young children, he writes for Pelgrane Press, acclaimed publisher of titles such as Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents (and which, a bit surreally, is run out of Bantry in West Cork).
But, with his novels having done well, fiction takes up more and more of his time.
“Because I was making money from [writing role playing games] writing novels was taking money away from myself.
"Eventually I thought I’d give another shot. I got an agent and the book sold, which was surprising.”
Fantasy is in a fascinating place at the moment. It was for decades looked down on as the bastion for geeks.
But everyone is a geek nowadays and the genre has exploded. There is feminist fantasy, fantasy that draws on non-Western cultures, LGBT fantasy.
The New Yorker recently profiled fantasy and science fiction author NK Jemisin.
Your trendy book club is probably considering reading something by Jeff Van der Meer. All has changed utterly.
Hanrahan is very much part of this new wave in so far as his work exists outside the cliches established by Lord of the Rings.
The Shadow Saint has no dwarves or elves; the line between good and evil is not cleanly drawn (not that it really was with Tolkien either but, such, alas is the perception).
On the other hand, he isn’t pretending to have turned fantasy on its head.
“I didn’t set out to be ground-breaking,” he says. “In some ways I use tropes, but very seriously.
Like many afficionados he is quietly astonished at how popular Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy more generally have become.
Hanrahan remembers the bad old days when tabletop gaming was scorned as a social crutch for 40 Year-Old Virgin types.
But with pop culture juggernauts such as Stranger Things giving Dungeons and Dragons its blessing, perceptions have shifted.
“Dungeons and Dragons is doing well and if D&D does well everyone does well. It’s not just Stranger Things.
"You have things like [popular web-series] Critical Role. And there are Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. Orbit [Hanrahan’s publisher] has just sold a huge amount of the Witcher novels [following the Netflix adaptation].”
Gaming’s influence is everywhere he feels.
Hit points, difficulty levels, the use of experience points to boost attributes — all are hardwired into, in particular, video games.
And all ultimately flow from Dungeons and Dragons and its co-creator Gary Gygax.
“Gary Gygax has in some ways defined the 21st century,” says Hanrahan. “We’ve had the gamification of things.
"Everything these days has experience points and levels. The geeks have taken over the world.”
The Shadow Saint is published by Orbit. Gareth Hanrahan will be signing the book at Waterstones Cork, from 3pm to 5pm Saturday February 1.