Sheridan le Fanu

Master of the Macabre

James Lecky

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Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu (1814 – 1873) is one of the pivotal figures in what could loosely be termed as 'Irish Gothic', a writer of macabre tales whose influence can still be felt on modern horror and dark fantasy fiction.

The notion of Gothic fiction as a literary entity sprang to life almost fully formed with the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764 and the new form quickly gained popularity in Britain and Europe with such writers as Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1799) and Matthew Lewis (The Monk, 1796) adding important works to the canon.

Although the appeal of the form had begun to wane by the Victorian era, it still possessed a literary vigour and would blossom intermittently throughout the 19th century. In Ireland, three writers in particular helped to sustain, define and, to an extent, bookend the Victorian Gothic impulse.

The first was Charles Maturin (1782 – 1824) author of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the last, Bram Stoker (1847 – 1912) author of the most famous horror novel of them all, Dracula (1897), and between the two stood Sheridan Le Fanu, important not only in his own right but as an influence on Stoker, on the work of M.R James – arguably the most important writer of ghost stories in English –  on James Joyce, Anne Rice and on a slew of film makers from cinema pioneer Carl Theodore Dreyer to Roger Vadim and Britain's Hammer Films.

Although probably best known in his lifetime as a writer of 'sensational novels' – a flowering of popular literature in the 1860s and 1870s most typified by Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1860) –  it is as a author of macabre and imaginative fiction upon which Le Fanu's modern reputation rests, specifically the collection In A Glass Darkly, first published in 1872. A landmark work in both Victorian literature and the development of horror and dark fantasy as a recognisable literary entity, In A Glass Darkly contains some of Le Fanu's best known, durable and influential work. Purportedly the memoirs/ casebook of the 'occult detective' Dr. Martin Hesselius, who provides a narrative frame linking each of the stories, In A Glass Darkly (its title deliberately misquoted from Cornithians) consists of five lengthy tales: Green Tea, The Familiar, Mr Justice Harbottle, The Room in the Dragon Volant, and the classic vampire story Carmilla.

What separates In A Glass Darkly from earlier Gothic Horror, is the sense of doubt and ambiguity which Le Fanu weaves into his narratives. Previous Gothic Horror had often been crude, piling horror upon horror, with imagery frequently more important that plot, particularly in the short fiction which emerged in its early flowering, and more often than not, supplying a rational explanation for any supernatural occurrence. Ambiguity abounds in Le Fanu's work – the demonic entity of Green Tea may or may not be an hallucination, and the story is one of mental breakdown and addiction as it is of supernatural horror. Similarly, in The Familiar, the situation in which the protagonist Captain Barton finds himself – pursued by a ghostly entity who may simply be a vengeful figure from his past – is one which is open to either rational or supernatural interpretation.

And it is this very ambiguity which keeps Le Fanu's work fresh and relevant when so many of his contemporaries have slipped into obscurity. This psychological approach to horror can be seen in such writers as Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson who would go on to create their own 'paranormal detectives' in John Silence and Carnacki the Ghost Finder respectively and, to stretch a point, the notion of the paranormal detective has found its way into wider culture through the Anita Blake novels of Laurel K Hamilton, the Dresden Files of Jim Butcher and on television with the ground-breaking X-Files.

Born in Dublin in 1814, the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu studied Law at Trinity College but never practised and quickly abandoned a legal career in favour of journalism.   As a conservative Protestant he was opposed to any measures which might loosen the political union between Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and resisted any form of local rule; he also fought against the disestablishment of the Protestant Church. In 1838 he began contributing fiction to The Dublin University Magazine – of which he would eventually become editor and proprietor – including the first of his ghost stories, The Ghost and the Bonesetter, in which a restless phantom demands the service of the titular bonesetter in healing his broken leg so that he may better endure the afterlife. More jocular in tone and traditional in intent that his later work – there is no doubt, for instance, that the ghostly squire is anything other than a damned soul – it nevertheless pointed with assurance to his later and  more mature output.

 Dublin looms large in several of his short stories and particularly so in his 1863 novel The House By The Churchyard, a work which critics cite as providing James Joyce  with at least some of the inspiration for Finnegan's Wake.

Le Fanu's childhood in a strict, almost Calvinist, household, was not, by all accounts, a stable one as his father lurched from one financial crisis to the next, a pattern that Le Fanu himself would repeat in later life.

In 1844 he married Susanna Bennett, with whom he had four children, but financial problems coupled with Susanna's poor mental and physical health made the relationship a difficult one and, upon her death in 1858, Le Fanu became something of a recluse, writing no more fiction for the next three years.  In the last decade of his life, Le Fanu became increasingly isolated from his friends, accepted no callers at his home and acquiring the nickname, “the invisible prince.” According to certain sources, Le Fanu was rarely glimpsed, except “at odd hours of the evening, when he might occasionally be seen stealing, like  the ghost of his former self, between his newspaper office and his home in Merrion Square; sometimes, too, he was to be encountered in an old out-of-the-way bookshop poring over some rare black letter. . .”

1864, however, saw the publication of his most celebrated novel, Uncle Silas a Gothic thriller about an heiress sent to live with an opium-addicted, occult-obsessed relation. Ironically, for a writer so steeped in Dublin and in the Irish storytelling tradition, the story is set in England – at the behest of his editor Richard Bentley who urged him to write 'of an English subject and of modern times' – yet is infused with a particularly Irish sensibility and, although not a novel of the supernatural, with the ambiguity which characterised his best short work.

   In his entry on Le Fanu in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy the noted British critic John Clute has put forward the idea that what lies at the heart of Le Fanu's best work is the notion of 'Protestant Guilt', that of a resented, privileged class, and certainly in many of his stories – Green Tea, The Familiar, Wicked Captain Walshawe of Wauling, The Ghost and the Bonesetter – there is a profound sense of guilt driving the characters, often as a direct result of past misdeeds or indifference.

In Wicked Captain Walshawe of Wauling (1869) for instance, the rakish Captain of the title finds himself cursed after the death of his mistreated wife with his soul trapped inside the wick of an unburned candle and unable to find release from its torment:

“. . . in profile at the bedside, a handsome and elegantly shaped young man, in a bygone military costume, with a small laced, three-cocked hat and plume on his head, but looking like a man going to be hanged – in unspeakable despair. . . The figure now approached the bed, seeming to grow exhausted and malignant as it did so . . . twenty years seemed to have passed in his brief transit to the dressing-table and back again. . . His feet and legs seemed indistinctly to swell, and swathings showed themselves around them, and they grew into something enormous, and the upper figure swayed and shaped itself into corresponding proportions, a great mass of corpulence, with a cadaverous and malignant face, and the furrows of a great old age, and colourless glass eyes . . . the fine regimentals faded away, and a loose, grey, woollen drapery, somehow, was there in its stead and all seemed stained and rotten for swarms of worms seemed creeping in and out. . .”

In The Familiar (1872, but revised from an earlier version entitled The Watcher), Captain Barton finds himself dogged pursed through the streets of Dublin and beyond by a strange dwarfish figure sent to punish him for the death of a young woman years before:

He had proceeded thus some way, when he, on a sudden, heard other footfalls, pattering at a measured pace, and, as it seemed, about two score steps behind him. The suspicion of being dogged is at all times unpleasant: it is, however, especially so in a spot so lonely: and this suspicion became so strong in the mind of Captain Barton, that he abruptly turned about to confront his pursuer, but, though there was quite sufficient moonlight to disclose any object upon the road he had traversed, no form of any kind was visible there. . . he resumed his walk, and before he had proceeded a dozen paces the mysterious footfall was again audible from behind, and this time, as if with the special design of showing that the sounds were not the responses of an echo, the steps sometimes slackened nearly to a halt, and sometimes hurried for six or eight strides to a run, and again abated to a walk. . . In spite of all his scepticism he felt something like a superstitious fear stealing fast upon him, and with these unwonted and uncomfortable sensations he once more turned and pursued his way. There was no repetition of these haunting sounds until he had reached the point where he had last stopped to retrace his steps \ here they were resumed \ and with sudden starts of running which threatened to bring the unseen pursuer up to the alarmed pedestrian.

A similar sense of 'Protestant guilt' runs through the classic Green Tea where the Reverend Jennings, finds his existence dogged by a malignant creature – "a small monkey, perfectly black. . . with a character of malignity - unfathomable malignity. . . I saw the monkey, with that stooping gait, on all fours, walking or creeping, close beside me, on top of the wall. I stopped, looking at it with a feeling of loathing and horror." Years of torment follow: the black monkey disrupts his sleep, interrupts his sermons, snarls blasphemies as he kneels at prayer. When Jennings seeks the help of Dr Hesselius, the animal is enraged by the interference and intensifies its campaign of terror, ultimately forcing the cleric into suicide: ". . .  He had cut his throat with his razor. It was a frightful gash. The two men had laid him on the bed, and composed his limbs. It had happened, as the immense pool of blood on the floor declared, at some distance between the bed and the window."

The other stories contained in In A Glass Darkly, Mr Justice Harbottle and The Room in the Dragon Volant, although prototypical mystery stories rather than tales of horror, carry the same sense of foreboding, of an unseen world, just beyond our ken.

And then there is the final tale in the collection, Carmilla, probably Le Fanu's best known and certainly most influential work. Brooding, atmospheric and sexually charged, Carmilla effectively lays the ground rules for much of the vampire themed fiction that followed both in print and on film, particularly in its use of the Mittlel Europa setting so beloved of both Universal Studios and Hammer Films. From the outset, Carmilla shows itself firmly in the Gothic tradition ("In Styria, we, though by no means magnificent people, inhabit a castle, or schloss.... Nothing can be more picturesque or solitary.") although its lean narrative and relatively short length helps it to avoid some of the greater excesses of Gothic fiction. In the story of a predatory female vampire, the Carmilla of the title, Le Fanu's novella explores both the attraction and loneliness of evil, a theme that would be picked up by Stoker, and, similarly, the metaphor of vampirism as forbidden sexuality.

'She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, "Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness..." And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.... From these foolish embraces, which were not of very frequent occurrence, I must allow, I used to wish to extricate myself; but my energies seemed to fail me.'

It is hard to overstate the importance of Carmilla, both in its own right and as an influence on later Gothic and horror fiction, and in particular upon Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. It's easy to see a blueprint for Professor Van Helsing in Le Fanu's Dr  Hesselius and Baron Vordenburg (the story's vampire hunter character) similarly the portrayal of Dracula's 'brides' in the early part of the novel and of Lucy Westenra after her vampiric transformation into the Bloofer Lady echo the description of Carmilla:

She was slender, and wonderfully graceful. Except that her movements were languid--very languid. . . Her complexion was rich and brilliant; her features were small and beautifully formed; her eyes large, dark, and lustrous; her hair was quite wonderful . . . There was a coldness, it seemed to me, beyond her years, in her smiling melancholy. . .

Carmilla, of course, was also a direct influence on the character of Dracula himself and much of what we think of as vampire lore appears in Le Fanu's work, not least of all the sheer magnetism and sexuality of the vampire. But while both stories mine a rich vein of  repression and desire, Stoker is much more coy than Le Fanu who's use of sexual themes and imagery is central and crucial to Carmilla.

It is this imagery – specifically that of the predatory female – which has attracted film-makers to Carmilla time after time, most notably Carl Theodore Dreyer's pioneering horror Vampyre (1932), Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses  (1961),  Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness (1971)  and Hammer Films' so-called Karnstein Trilogy, The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust For A Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971), although with the exception of The Vampire Lovers, none of these films are a direct adaptation of Le Fanu's original.

Although his output of macabre fiction was relatively small (perhaps some two dozen or so stories) with Green Tea, The Familiar, Carmilla and such other tales as Schalken the Painter (1839), Wicked Captain Walshawe (1899) and the Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand (1864), Sheridan Le Fanu created an enduring body of work which M.R James  described as "inspiring a mysterious terror better than any other writer."