Gilbert, Stephen, 1912-2010

Alternative names
Birth 1912-07-22
Death 2010-06-23

Biographical notes:

The novelist Stephen Gilbert (1912- 2010) was born in Newcastle, County Down in July 1912. His father was William Gilbert, a Belfast seed and tea merchant. His upbringing was thoroughly middle class, and the young Gilbert was sent away to boarding schools in England and Scotland. Although he concealed a dislike of the private school experience, it was here that his budding literary talents were first made manifest. Gilbert, occasionally helped by school friends, produced The Broadcaster, a handwritten and illustrated digest of stories, news and essays which he would post to relatives back home. After finishing his education he worked as a reporter on the Northern Whig between 1931 and 1934, when he joined his father in the family associated business of Samuel McCausland Ltd. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War Gilbert joined the 3rd Ulster Searchlight Regiment serving as a gunner. He saw action in the British Expeditionary Force retreat to Dunkirk and in 1940 he was awarded the Military Medal. He was commissioned as an officer in 1941, and was moved around many barracks in England. Soon after, he was released from service to return to the McCausland's agricultural business.

Gilbert married in the mid 1940s and set up home in a farmhouse in Gilnahirk, dividing his time between business and farming. In the 1960s he was also active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, acting as secretary to the Northern Ireland branch for two years and helping organize marches and demonstrations in support of the movement. At the time Gilbert felt that 'what was the good of all the writers, all human achievement, if there was going to be no audience'. Whilst Reid used his writing as a retreat into an Edenic dreamscape or imagined past, Gilbert feared that a horrific future would rend apart all art and civilisation. His writing incorporated the shock of the new but did not retreat from it. Themes of horror, and corruption of the natural order, seeped through his work. Although his first novel The Landslide (1943) was a wonder story of a lighter hue, conflict between past and present, and the antagonistic nature of modern humanity were nevertheless strong elements. His other novels were darker fantasies; Monkeyface (1948) told the story of an intelligent ape exploited by its human masters, whilst The Burnaby Experiments (1952) dealt with quasi scientific and occult researches ending in death and possession. Whilst in 1960 Gilbert felt that he 'may be finished as a writer' his most successful piece was yet to come. Ratman's Notebooks (1968) is a horror concerning an emotionally deadened, but embittered, youth who trains rats to attack and kill his enemies - the pied piper thus becomes a sociopath, one who would fit into the world of A Clockwork Orange. The book was twice made into the film Willard, and the book was reissued under the same title. It has also been translated into German, Italian, Dutch and Japanese.

Gilbert also wrote Bombardier (1944), which the playwright John Boyd considered one of the best written novels of the Second World War, and which was based on Gilbert's experiences in the British Expeditionary Force.

From the guide to the Stephen Gilbert Collection, 1915-1974, (Queen's University Belfast)


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  • Northern Ireland (as recorded)
  • Ireland (as recorded)