The Creepily Invasive, Unnervingly Brutal, Twilight Ghost Stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu — Oldstyle Tales’ Macabre Masters
Crepuscular. ADJECTIVE: of, resembling, or relating to twilight; ZOOLOGY: (of an animal) appearing or active in twilight. Synonyms: Half-light, semi-darkness, gloom, dusk, murk, sundown, nightfall, sunset, shadowy.
Uncanny. ADJECTIVE: something which treads the boundary between normal and abnormal, causing anxiety by virtue of its not quite normal character; a humanoid creature or figure which is not quite human; strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way. Synonyms: eerie, unnatural, unearthly, preternatural, supernatural, otherworldly, ghostly, mysterious, strange, unsettling, abnormal, weird, bizarre, surreal, eldritch.
Chiaroscuro. NOUN: pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color; the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art; the interplay or contrast of dissimilar qualities (as of mood or character); the interplay of light and shadow on or as if on a surface; the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow
It is perhaps fitting to ponder these three terms – words which usher images of shadow and soft light, of blurred lines and hazy recognitions – before we begin a discussion of the subject of this book. His writings depict lands, minds, and souls drenched in the murky gleam of twilight – a purgatory where extreme meet and merge into uncanny hybrids. Good and evil. Conscious and unconscious. Light and dark. Love and hate. Life and death. Sex and murder. His world was a crepuscular universe cast in deep shade and obscurity, where the night-things of the borderlands – death, the unconscious, fear – came out of the shadows to reign unopposed. It was a twilit purgatory populated by the crepuscular archetypes of humanity’s deep insecurities and horrors.
His villains were uncanny: marionettes eerily operated by a higher, evil order. They leer unblinkingly, endeavor to hide predatory fangs and outrageous talons, are marked by unsightly blemishes and cadaverous pallor, bloated to absurdity, illuminated by red halos, and frozen in a perpetual rictus that sets them apart from the ordinary pedestrians of the human walk. They are weird, otherworldly, and – in a word – marked as unnatural. The world they prey on is equally uncanny, and the mood of his writing is an uncomfortable blending of realism and fantasy that results in what Hawthorne coyly called the “Romance,” Freud the “Unheimliche.” His imagery is deeply influenced by the dramatic chiaroscuro portraits of Caravaggio, Schalcken, Dore, Goya, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, whose canvases featured grim voids broken intermittently by smears of light, but largely composed of vague twilight: a dusky red face peering out of a black canvas, the only brightness coming from a gleaming candle, its reflection in the glassy eyes, and the flashes of yellow skin where its rays smolder on the lips, cheeks, and eyelids. His universe is painted in just such a rich chiaroscuro, and his name is J. Sheridan Le Fanu.
The man – even outside of the usual romantic legends that become attached to figures in his field – was a walking enigma, remembered by the fittingly sensational sobriquet “The Invisible Prince”: a reference to his reclusion in later life. His politics, philosophies, religion, and aesthetics were blurred richly into seeming contradictions and anachronisms, and it was perhaps this life lived in the margins and borderlands between disparate elements of Victorian life that permitted him to have the powerful grasp of the uncanny which ensured his legacy. He was massively influential to the generation that later processed what has become known as the Golden Age of the English Horror Story – an era that begins with Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – which was influenced by “Green Tea” and “Mr Justice Harbottle,” comes to full steam with Henry James’ Turn of the Screw – which found inspiration in “Ultor de Lacy,” Uncle Silas, Carmilla, and The House by the Churchyard – and Dracula – an amalgam of Carmilla, “Ultor de Lacy,” “Schalken the Painter,” and more – and closes with the supernatural fiction of E. F. Benson, M. R. James, H. R. Wakefield and Oliver Onions – four men who revered Le Fanu and praised him in their writings. Benson, one of Le Fanu’s greatest pupils from the Interwar Era deftly explained the appeal that so many of his contemporaries found in a man who had been all but forgotten to mainstream critics:
[T]here is one author, far too little known by those in search of creepy lore, who seldom fails in his high mission : his name is Sheridan Le Fanu. He produces, page for page, a far higher percentage of terror than the more widely read Edgar Allan Poe, and whether he deals in ghosts direct or in more material horrors, his success in making his readers very uneasy is amazing. Though we may already know the story we select to give us some insupportable moments on a lonely evening, there is a quality about most of his tales which seldom fails to alarm : familiarity with them does not breed comfort. Many ghost stories arc efficacious for a first reading, but few, when we already know the worst that the author has to tell us, preserve untainted the atmosphere of horror as do the tales in In a Glass Darkly. The best of these, “Green Tea,” ” The Familiar,” and ” Mr. Justice Harbottle,” are instinct with an awfulness which custom cannot stale, and this quality is due, as in The Turn of the Screw, to Le Fanu’s admirably artistic methods in setting and narration. They begin quietly enough, the tentacles of terror are applied so softly that the reader hardly notices them till they are sucking the courage from his blood. A darkness gathers, like dusk gently falling, and then something, obscurely stirs in it… This quiet, cumulative method leading up to intolerable terror is characteristic of all Le Fanu’s best work, and it is that which makes him so wholesale a fear-monger. He employs this technique not only in his short stories, but when he is engaged on a full-length novel… his best work is of the first rank, while as a -flesh-creeper he is unrivalled. No one else has so sure a touch in mixing the mysterious atmosphere in which horror -darkly breeds.
He was a powerful force of influence on most supernaturalists who wrote during the Late Victorian, Edwardian, and Interwar eras, and while many of his contemporaries – Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc. – have shown signs of aging, Le Fanu’s ghost stories remain among the best and most effective in the language. His use of subtlety and ambiguity presage Henry James’ psychological realism, and his use of existential horror predate Lovecraft and Blackwood by half a century. E. F. Bleiler, the renowned critic, anthologist, and editor, considered him the foremost ghost story writer of the entire century, ranking him alongside Charlotte Riddell, Amelia B. Edwards, and his niece Rhoda Broughton. According Bleiler, none of them begin to approach his ability to craft nuance and psychological terror as well as he does, however. On answering the question of what made him so exceptional in his generation, Bleiler had this to say:
Of all the Victorian authors who wrote ghost stories, only LeFanu [sic] seems to have recognized that there must be an aesthetic of supernatural terror. He obviously thought deeply about the nature of fictional supernaturalism and was aware of the implications that supernaturalism would have for the other dynamics of the story. Most of his fellow authors felt that they had done enough if they declared a house haunted … Le Fanu seems to have been alone in rejecting [Gothic clichés]; to him alone it occurred that the personality of the beholder could be just as important and perhaps just as supernatural as the manifestations themselves. In his best work LeFanu [sic] was primarily a psychologist…
His mode of thought hearkened back to the earlier nineteenth century, where theorists like Schubert and Carus were dividing the mind into conscious and unconscious levels, and seeing in dream, madness, and vision emergences of both a “hidden nightside of nature” and the supernatural… [He] was concerned with the hidden recesses of the psyches of his characters and mapping out the strange areas where the sense of reality can manifest itself to cover equally what is perceived and not perceived. Within his better fiction LeFanu [sic] so blended and intertwined the natural and the supernatural that his work is a fugue of strange states of consciousness, linkages between the outside world and man, and a hidden, often diabolic morality, that will not suffer evil to go unavenged or unbetrayed.
This is what made Le Fanu so unique in his age – so different from Collins and Bulwer-Lytton who saw ghosts as plot agents, adversaries, and obstacles. To Le Fanu they were mirrors, psychological symbols, and avatars of the interior. Rev. Jennings’ demon monkey is not a villain to be defeated, but a mindset to be reckoned with – a manifestation of repressed passions that say far more about Jennings than they do about the monkey. Carmilla appears almost as if summoned to help Laura sort out her burgeoning sexuality and womanhood: not as an opponent, but as a reflection. Judge Harbottle is not haunted so much by the ghosts of his victims as he is by the vision of his own doppelgänger – his brooding Super-Ego – which condemns him internally rather than externally. Like his pupils Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, Le Fanu’s works are far more about blurring and blending reality – about confronting contradictions, acknowledging repressions, and exposing hypocrisies – than restoring order between two well-divided worlds (the natural and supernatural) or ensuring victory of good over evil (this is where Stoker loses steam). Rather, it is the crepuscular landscape of the human soul – the twilight world of shadows that casts reality in a murk of biases, lusts, fears, and denials: in an uncanny chiaroscuro – that gives Le Fanu his frighteningly confrontational universe.
Le Fanu’s life and artistic vision was most deeply influenced by two twin stars that both guided him into their orbits and crushed him with punishing gravity. Fittingly enough for someone whose fiction so frequently presaged the theories of Freud, those two stars were his father and wife. Thomas Le Fanu was a Church of Ireland clergyman who kept his family in poverty (despite their comparative wealth) through poor business decisions and a flaky detachment from physical life. It is perhaps remarkable that despite his full name – Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu – and considering the many versions of this appellation that circulate, Le Fanu neatly evicted his father from his signature, never calling himself J. T. S. Le Fanu or J. Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, but almost surgically banishing the influence of a man whom he frequently viewed as fanatical, judgmental, and cruel. Despite his Anglican employment, Thomas was deeply motivated by Calvinist theology which celebrated predestination: the theory that God had preselected the Elect and the Damned, and that – from the moment of conception – nothing a man could do could prevent him from receiving his preordained destination. Hence a mass murderer and pedophile might have been elected to heaven while a devout widow and philanthropist might awake from death in hell. The only way to know which one you were was to detect your intrinsic motives (did you WANT to do good naturally, or was it an act?).
Ironically, this resulted in chronic hypocrisy among Calvinist circles: in spite of the theory which asserted that it was impossible to detect someone’s predestination, self-conscious Calvinists strove to have their piety noticed by being loudly religious and charitable in public, in hopes that others would suspect them of being among the Elect. Yet in private, it literally did not matter what one did: in public loud prayers and posing ensured their good reputations, but sin in private was utterly excused: the Elect could never sin so much that God damned them, and the Damned could never be good enough to win God’s forgiveness. Also raised Calvinist, Robert Louis Stevenson depicted this brazen hypocrisy in his treatise on the socially-sanctioned dual life, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Le Fanu’s relationship with this stern man was mixed: he digested his library voraciously (until the beloved collection had to be sold to cover his ludicrous debts), a vast bibliography of theology, spiritualism, and philosophy that is depicted in Rev. Jennings’ study in “Green Tea.” But the man was impractical in the extreme, always in debt, and seemingly disinterested in his children, whom he berated and shamed at the slightest displeasure. He died a pauper, leaving his children with few fond memories and vast debts, but his reflection – the stern, penurious mystic out of touch with reality but deeply interwoven into a dark and sinister spiritualism – shows up repeatedly in Le Fanu’s works, while his depressing theology forms the keel of his son’s fictional universe: one driven by a God unimpressed and immune to goodness, but obsessively attentive to every slip up and wrong doing – uninterested in forgiveness but maniacally devoted to punishment.
The second great influence was his wife, a woman who similarly displayed an imprudent obsession with spiritual matters at the cost of her waking life. Unlike Thomas Le Fanu, whose religion was unshakable, Susanna Le Fanu was wracked with a disbelief that terrified her. It was a contradictory credo that contributed to Le Fanu’s artistic obsession with contradictions: the agnostic who is convinced that her lack of faith will send her to hell. She had no doubt in the existence of damnation, it seems, though she frequently questioned the resurrection, salvation, and the existence of God. But the existence of the Inferno never seemed to be a matter of controversy. We find this precise scenario in the case of Captain Barton, whose atheism in no way seems to conflict with his belief in “a terrible God.” He is no more convinced that his atheism is incorrect, or that his fear of damnation is invalidated by his disbelief: he is an atheist, and expects to go to hell. Such was the case of Susanna Le Fanu, though she would not have called herself an atheist. She was just as fanatical as her father-in-law, if not more so, becoming obsessed with religion to such a degree that she earned her husband’s disgust and resentment. Le Fanu was so repelled by her morbid obsession with spirituality, that her death following an episode of mania – one as mysterious as any in his novels – hounded him to his own demise.
Susanna had steadily become a victim of mental illness, growing hysterically terrified by the thought of death and her eternal destination. Famously, in an episode that would be reflected in so many of Le Fanu’s own stories, she awoke to see the vision of her dead father peering at her slyly through the bed curtains, and fearfully asked him his business. The response calls to mind E. F. Benson’s “The Bus Conductor,” for he grinned horribly and informed her that there was space for her in her family crypt. She did not survive very long after this supernatural encounter (one just as vague and possibly psychological as any of Le Fanu’s own ambiguous hauntings), and died under unclear circumstances after a night of terrified ravings. Her death broke Le Fanu’s heart, and he became a hermit from then on out, only leaving the house at intervals (usually to collect books), convinced that his wife could have survived if her husband had been more sympathetic. The doomed innocent lured to her fate as a result of her loved ones’ ignorance and neglect is a regular motif in Le Fanu (Carmilla, Schalken, and Ultor de Lacy are among the most notable examples), and it finds its origin in Susanna Le Fanu – a woman who lived in a Purgatory of her own invention, whose desire for salvation was darkened by her fear of damnation, a lost traveler in a land of twilight, dependent on the fading glow of a world destined to descend into darkness.
Le Fanu frequently strands his characters in a crepuscular landscape which employs his favored chiaroscuro effect: light and shadow are equally enhanced and underscored, drawing attention to their uncomfortable proximity and their diametrically opposed natures, creating a convenient metaphor for good and evil, public and private, conscious and unconscious. His is a world where opposites meet in a borderland where their essential qualities blur and dilute one another until the weakness is so great that a powerful change is exacted: light and dark blend into twilight; good and evil fade into moral ambiguity; heaven and hell blur into purgatory; sinners and saints merge into homeless souls; conscious and unconscious fuse into waking nightmares; the dead and the living merge into the dead man who is animated by lust and the live man who longs for death; city and country crosshatch into suburban landscapes that feel as desolate as settlements on the verge of a forbidding wilderness. His universe is shadowy, but perceptible, lit but ill defined – one which demands that we squint and peer. And what do we see when the murk seems to thin and our sight breaks through the darkness? Horrors that punish our imprudent curiosity.
His fiction, like that of his pupils – the Benson brothers, M. R. and Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, E. Nesbit, Rhoda Broughton (his niece), Algernon Blackwood, W. W. Jacobs, H. R. Wakefield, Ramsey Campbell, Bram Stoker, Oliver Onions, Walter de la Mare, and more – is profoundly subtextual, being more psychological commentary than spooky entertainment, more existentially upsetting than gruesome, and more dedicated to suggesting philosophical terrors – phantoms that torment the mind and soul – than exposing visual horrors which twist the stomach and gullet. His few forays into body horror are typically precise and tidy: a wrenched neck, the sound of flabby, naked feet descending the stairs in an empty house, dark marks on a girl’s throat which suggest the dried blood of a laceration. But when he does choose to pack a punch of grisly imagery, it is powerful and difficult to forget: the ghost of a suicide whose skull cap is a blown open, the flesh charred; the grinning phantom who unwinds his cravat to reveal his throat “cut across like another mouth, wide open, laughing”; or the vampire who returns home from a feeding “in her white nightdress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood.” Le Fanu taught an entire generation of supernaturalists to use restraint and suggestion; but like a good boxer who conserves his energy by sticking to short, intentional, controlled bouts of power, he also knows when to go for a blinding hay bailer – and when he does, it is usually in the form of an image that sticks with you for hours and days.
Ever the walking contradiction, Le Fanu’s fiction is largely defined by clashes and blurrings between diametrically opposed elements: light/dark, life/death, conscious/unconscious, good/evil, public/private, heaven/hell, God/Satan. His universe is a great Purgatory – a no-man’s land claimed by warring factions but dominated by no single force. The same could be said about his own biography. He was an urban, Anglo-Irish, Conservative, Protestant who sympathized with and romanticized the rural, Celtic-Irish, Finnian, Catholics, instilled from an early ages with equal doses of fanatical Calvinist, fashionable Anglican, and superstitious Catholic theologies, and driven by a deep patriotism for his liege – the British Crown – his homeland – Ireland – and his community – the hybrid Anglo-Irish. Le Fanu frequently set his fiction in bygone eras (principally the Late Jacobean and Early Georgian periods) which (like M. R. James’ nostalgic Georgian settings) seem to both repel and attract the author.
He seems to find an allure in the era when men wore periwigs and embroidered banyans, swaddled their throats in voluminous cravats, and met in chaotic Enlightenment coffee houses rather than tidy Victorian tea rooms. He is drawn to the order of the feudal countryside which was becoming extinct around him – replaced by industrial centers and manufacturing hubs. And yet he was repulsed by its cronyism, corruption, and lawlessness, detecting the same culprits in that time plying the same trades in his own, now sanctioned by society and the law where they had formerly been protected by the perhaps less revolting powers of the privileged aristocracy. In the place of violent squires, sadistic hanging judges, sinister earls, murderous rakes, and decadent countesses he saw selfish men of business driven by materialism rather than the more romantic motives of power and fame. The Great Famine was brought on not by Le Fanu’s fantastic villains of the past – his almost lovably wicked gentry (one can sometimes picture Vincent Price in a cravat sneering at a trembling Irish milkmaid locked in a Radcliffean abbey) – but by disinterested politicians, greedy capitalists, and a self-absorbed middle class. It lacked drama, it lacked motive, it lacked panache, villainy, romance, or power. It was a tragedy of inattention and Dickensian ignorance, and it drove Le Fanu to despair.
Le Fanu’s reputation waned in the thirty years following his death as his particular brand of blustery, dark romanticism went out of fashion in favor of domestic, erudite realism, but his cause was championed by two of the era’s most noteworthy supernaturalists – and men who shared a surname, though no relation – the transatlantic master of the psychological ghost story, Henry James, and the recognized dean of the English ghost story, M. R. James. Their contemporary, E. F. Benson, famously compared Le Fanu’s supernatural oeuvre to Henry James’ deeply opaque, proto-Freudian ghost stories. James was unquestionably influenced by Le Fanu when he penned his own spook tales: “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Real Right Thing,” “The Ghostly Rental,” “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” “The Way it Came,” and so on – stories that are energized by their lack of certainty: are the ghosts real, imagined, hallucinated, invented, purely literary, or – horror of horrors – a combination of the previous? Like Le Fanu, Henry James’ supernatural tales highlight terror over horror, suggestion over revelation, ambiguity over certainty. James’ protagonists are also haunted by their past sins (“The Ghostly Rental,” “Sir Edmund Orme,” “The Jolly Corner,” etc.) and hounded by apparitions which represent their moral failures. While not nearly as gushing as M. R. James, the American realist was known to delight in Le Fanu’s novels – though perhaps as a guilty pleasure – mulling gleefully over the prospect of spending a dark night curled up with the “customary novel of Mr Le Fanu for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight.”
For his part, M. R. James was single handedly responsible for preserving Le Fanu’s legacy as a ghost story writer: he was known as a sort of melodramatic Gothic mystery writer in the vein of Gaston Leroux, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories, and the sensational thrillers of Bulwer-Lytton and Wilkie Collins, and his forays into supernatural fiction (other than “Carmilla” and “Green Tea” – though both were objectionably amoral and hence more renowned as morbid curiosities than good art) were all but forgotten. James, who adored his short fiction, was bothered by the lack of in-print anthologies of his idol’s works, and edited together Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery – the work which resurrected Le Fanu’s reputation when it was published in 1923. In his typically vague-yet-authoritative way, James described what, in his opinion, gave Le Fanu a unique edge:
As to his peculiar power: I think the origin of it is not far to seek. Le Fanu had both French and Irish blood in his veins, and in his works I seem to see both strains coming out, though the Irish predominates. The indefinable melancholy which the air of Ireland and its colouring inspire – a melancholy which inspires many Irish writers – is caught by Le Fanu and fixed in words with an almost complete success. He dwells very fondly and very frequently on sunset scenes over a horizon of dark hanging woods, on moonlight shining on a winding river with wooded banks, on a heavily-timbered park, a black tarn in a lonely glen, an old air heard in the distance at night, a ruined chapel or manor-house, a torchlight funeral in a gloomy church. Pictures like these strike his fancy and he makes them stand out for his readers. They have been made commonplace enough by worse writers; but we indeed have [bad] pictures of ruined castles on the Rhine or Melrose Abbey by moonlight, yet it is possible to have good pictures of these subjects, and most likely had there been no good pictures of them there would have been no bad ones. I think Le Fanu’s are good pictures, and I am certain they have inspired a great many that are not good.
But how does he contrive to inspire horror? It is partly, I think, owing to the very skilful use of a crescendo, so to speak. The gradual removal of one safeguard after another, the victim’s dim forebodings of what is to happen gradually growing clearer; these are the processes which generally increase the strain of excitement. “The Familiar” and the concluding chapters of Uncle Silas are the best specimens of this. And again the unexplained hints which are dropped are of the most telling kind. The reader is never allowed to know the full theory which underlies any of his ghost stories, but this Le Fanu has in common with many inferior artists. Only you feel that he has a complete explanation to give if he would only vouchsafe it.
As to how Le Fanu influenced James, it is almost too profoundly to set down in writing. There are the settings, the cadence of the plot, the Freudian subtexts, the twilit rendezvous between disparate elements, eras, and cultures, the countryside horrors, the malicious, predatory phantoms, the affinity for the 18th century, the focus on moral corruption, the contrast between the feudal past and the industrial present, an emphasis on folklore and dialect, and much more.
Le Fanu’s influence on the English ghost story has been so seismic that his role in shaping the golden age of Late Victorian and Edwardian horror – the realm of Machen and Blackwood, Onions and Hodgson, James and James, Benson and Stoker, Stevenson and Bierce – literally cannot be overemphasized. What sets Le Fanu apart from the majority of his peers is a threefold combination of unique qualities: his dedication to a sometimes bawdy, always palpable realism, his aversion to moral fables and cautionary tales, and his creation of a distinct universe populated by corruptive, malevolent, and misanthropic supernatural powers hellbent on foiling every plan of mankind (whether it be noble or perverse). Le Fanu’s tales are draped in the moonlight and shadows of romanticism, but his tone is reporterly, his observations detached, his commentary straight-forward and more often than not bereft of sympathy or compassion. His fiction is not at all like that of the 18th century Gothicists who reveled in sentimentality and affectations, or even his contemporaries who used specters to vindicate the innocent, punish the evil, and illumine truth. In Le Fanu’s universe a ghost is far more likely to corrupt the innocent, punish the well-meaning, and obscure truth.
His world, deeply shaped by his Calvinist and Conservative cultural milieu, was one darkened by threatening shadows – one which bred mysteries and adversaries in the empty spaces between the puny patches of light cast by science, faith, or civilization. In his vision of the universe – not unlike Lovecraft’s – we were spared by our ignorance and protected by our lack of cultivation: rural peasants fare far better in his stories than educated urbanites or ambitious aristocrats, and those paupers living in the near-feudal conditions of the Irish countryside – as miserable as they may be – are protected from spectral interference not by a watchful God or a Wordsworthian purity-of-spirit, but by their own stupidity and a lack of hubris. The few peasants who are punished in Le Fanu’s universe are those who break free – if ever so little – from their expectations and attain the hubris of ambition: prideful Laura Silver Bell, exceptional little Billy who “went with the fairies,” a number of alcoholic sextons who ventured greedy bargains with Satan, and bedeviled Dickon who had the temerity to defy the wishes of a long-dead squire (just to name a few). Those who suffer most are those who were foolish enough to raise their profile and attract the humiliating agents of Le Fanu’s universe – ghosts, demons, and goblins whose mission it is to crush the human spirit and prevent any from challenging the submissive cynicism of their culture.
Like the Malebranche devils who soar above Dante’s Eight Circle of hell, (whose job it is to guard the lake of boiling pitch and to shove down the head of any corrupt politicians who have the gall to surface and seek respite from their pain), the agents of Le Fanu’s fiction have no regard for specifics, make no exceptions for pathos, and have little concern for the results of their punishments: to them this is just a job; they are merely bailiffs to some Great Dark Power, executing a sentence like a game warden who casually shoots a barking dog whose noise has disturbed his master’s reading. Sometimes these agents are literal ghosts: the spirits of vengeful human beings bent on punishing the living (“Ultor de Lacy,” “Squire Toby’s Will”) or lingering spirits who are forces of corruption and misery, tormenting innocent strangers and spreading a contagion of hopeless terror (“Aungier Street,” “Ghost of a Hand”). Sometimes they are demonic handlers carrying out an infernal commission (“Sir Dominick,” “Robert Ardagh”), sometimes they are monomaniacal supernatural entities who roam the world with a mission of self-pleasure that usually ends in the corruption or death of a harmless stranger (“Schalken,” “Carmilla”). Frequently they are parasitic fairies or ghosts who act on human beings no differently than cancer or tuberculosis or flus: attaching themselves to a life source, draining it for sustenance, then moving on to a new victim with all the maliciousness of a tapeworm (“Laura Silver Bell,” “Child … Fairies”). Other times they are incredibly subtle psychological manifestations of the unconscious, written with all the ambiguity, elegance, and restraint of Henry James – specters who may just as easily be products of a troubled mind as denizens of hell (“Green Tea,” “The Familiar”).
Overall, Le Fanu’s fiction seeks to unsettle and discombobulate those who are spiritually comfortable: those assured of divine protection, those secure in their moral blamelessness, those convinced of their eternal destination. Not even atheists are allowed to be at peace: unlike Lovecraft who viewed godlessness as the ultimate terror (“how small humans would feel if they only knew how unimportant they are!”), Le Fanu located the deeper horror in an overly watchful Divine Order which swatted and punished with severity. Some people comfort others with the certainty that the good we do in the world matters; others comfort those who are in existential crises with the certainty that nothing we do matters. Le Fanu divests both theories of their comfort by proclaiming that it is the bad we do which ultimately matters: goodness is never rewarded in his stories, and wickedness is monitored to the point of lawyerly obsession (in “The Sexton’s Adventure” a purely rhetorical comment – “divil carry me if I drink a drop” – is attended to with absurd seriousness, resulting in a horrifying bout of temptations, all designed to get the sexton to break his “contract” with his wife and shuttle his soul to hell). For Lovecraft, the terror lurks in the possibility that mankind is meaningless and unimportant. In our postmodern culture there is almost a cozy snuggliness (one against which some atheists stroke up protectively or curl onto comfortingly) about this idea: “pah! It doesn’t matter what you do; YOLO. Live fast die young, etc. da capo.” Le Fanu would concur (though not with Lovecraft) because it is the idea of a policing deity who puts the greatest interest in your flaws and stumblings which terrifies him.
And yet, Lovecraft and Le Fanu are absolutely in synch with their basic theses: humanity is ignorant of the greater systems that exist beyond our ken, which hum and move and operate independent of our actions, and of which we understand only the slightest bit, but were we ever to have a fuller view of the reality beyond our own little world, it would shatter our minds. That is why the atheistic Captain Barton in “The Familiar” is too terrified of the idea of a Creator to acknowledge his existence – because a Creator who holds merciless grudges against sinners is as terrifying to an atheist as the idea of a world without reason is to a religious person. Barton’s staggering credo is perhaps one of the most definitive lines in all of Le Fanu’s corpus: “there is a God—a dreadful God—and that retribution follows guilt. In ways, the most mysterious and stupendous; by agencies, the most inexplicable and terrific; there is a spiritual system—great Heavens, how frightfully I have been convinced!—a system malignant, and inexorable, and omnipotent, under whose persecutions I am, and have been, suffering the torments of the damned!—yes, sir—yes—the fires and frenzy of hell!”
Le Fanu’s horror fiction can be catalogued into many different subgenres: demon lovers; spectral tormentors; vengeful ghosts; parasitic vampires; haunted houses; Faustian bargains; Irish folklore (cautionary tales woven into the less morally reliable Lefanuvian universe); stories of pathos told to travelers a la the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (e.g. “Dickon” and “Sir Dominick”); and anthologies of urban legends (“Lough Guir,” “Chapelizod,” “Tiled House,” etc.). In this book I have divided them into two sections: Ghost Stories (Ghosts, Goblins, and Haunted Houses) and Weird Fiction (Vampires, Devils, and Doppelgängers). Of course there is frequent overlap (“Carmilla,” “Squire Toby’s Will,” “The Ghost of a Hand,” and others could easily belong to either class), but there are some qualifiers that help to distinguish between these two breeds: the ghost stories all involve the return of a dead person’s spirit to make an impression on the world of the living. The haunting is usually straight forward (it is the image of the dead person; no peculiar manifestations), and usually is dedicated to the disruption of a single person (“Sexton,” “Familiar”), or building (“Tiled House,” “Authentic Narrative”), or piece of land (“Dickon,” “Lough Guir”), or even an object (“Wicked Captain Walshawe”).
In each case, a spirit is separated from its body and clings possessively to one of these people, properties, or items, exerting their will on the living and forcing others to acknowledge them (and more importantly, what they represent: typically universal sinful urges that the Victorian gentry considered themselves to be removed from by virtue of upbringing). These ghosts teach us that human beings are corrupt to the core, petty and merciless, and devoid of grace – masquerading monsters, whose exterior lives may be genteel and refined, but whose hearts are vile shadowlands darkened with repressed appetites and hidden agendas. Madam Crowl is a child murderess who starved her adopted son like a caged rat for money. The eponymous rum-head in “The Drunkard’s Dream” goes to hell and escapes on parole under the condition that he not drink again. He returns to his loving family and is changed; but his vice proves too great, and he is marched back to damnation. “Squire Toby’s Will” follows the most pathetically petty family imaginable (the story itself is an allegory of the Seven Deadly Sins, which are represented in the behavior of the envious, violent, lustful, prideful, gluttonous, slothful, greedy trio), who rob one another and justify their cruelty through “rights” and the “law.” These are stories which examine the ghosts of human nature – particularly the ghosts of the rural, feudal, violent past which Le Fanu knew to lurk under the urban, industrial, socialite exteriors of Victorian Britons.
Then there are the tales of weird fiction, some of which are ghost stories, all of which are a little atypical and unique. Most of these stories involve possession – literal possession, as in slavery – and the demands of a supernatural entity which hopes to absorb and command the life of a living person. These stories include Faustian pacts and encounters with Satanic forces as well as vampires (defined here as an undead entity which seeks out, peruses, claims ownership over, and drains power and life from a human being) – other than “Carmilla” there are vampires in “Ultor de Lacy” (an equal partner with Carmilla in influencing Dracula), “Child who went with the Fairies,” “Laura Silver Bell,” “Schalken the Painter.” These vampires can also be termed – more accurately, too – demon lovers. Demon lovers are supernatural entities – some are ghosts, some goblins, some demons, some elves, some fairies, some are vampires, and some are Satan himself – who pursue and woo (or otherwise – in fact more frequently – abduct) a beautiful woman after which they spirit them away into the Night-World, never to be heard from again.
These are cautionary tales told as a reminder to young women that silver-tongued strangers who beckon them into the forest or outside of the village for a romp in the hay might not have their best interests in mind. This trope has been popular in almost every strain of European folklore, and was made mainstream by German Romantics like Bürger (“Lenore”) and Goethe (“The Erlking”) before it worked its way into English and Irish mainstream fiction. Charles Dickens’ “To Be Read at Dusk,” Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Demon of the Gibbet,” and E. F. Benson’s “The Face” are two of the best examples of this supernatural genre. Le Fanu’s own niece, Rhoda Broughton, wrote a disturbing take on the legend which easily suggests a kinship to “Schalken the Painter” called “The Man with the Nose” about a young woman’s recurring nightmare of a predestined, supernatural abductor. For Le Fanu who adored the concept of innocence being irrevocably corrupted (or otherwise sullied, broken, or crushed), the trope occurred over and over again in this fiction: “Schalken” is his most sympathetic take, with Rose – probably his most likeable and pathetic character ever written – falling victim to the forces of paternalism and greed, while “Ultor” and “Laura Silver Bell” feature vain coquettes being lured away by grisly seducers masquerading as dashing bravos.
“The Child who Went with the Fairies” takes on Goethe’s similarly pedophilic-themed “Erlking” (a poem about a man riding home on a dark night with his young son; the boy complains that the Elf King is chasing them and promising him comfort and treats and trinkets, but is too afraid to accept the offer; the father begins to worry as the boy grows hysterical, but ultimately takes interest too late: the child is dead (and hence spirited away to be the Elf King’s plaything) when they arrive home) by spinning it with Irish legends of the fairies and a heavy dose of Anglo-Irish political allegory. Also written in the style of Goethe (or more accurately, Christopher Marlowe) are the Faustian tales which follow an aristocrat hard on his luck who makes a pact with the Dark Forces only to bridle when his debt is called forward. An ancient story that has been used by everyone from Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne to Mikhail Bulgakov and Robert Johnson, Le Fanu dips liberally into centuries of folklore to make acerbic social commentaries and lament the political corruption of the Anglo-Irish middle class which he saw as having a deleterious effect on Ireland.
We find these stories in “Robert Ardagh,” “Sir Dominick,” and “The Dead Sexton” (not printed in this collection). Then there are the similarly vampiric phantoms that haunt grown men in their nightmares – less for sexual reasons (typically) and more as extensions of their own violently guilty Super-Egos. “Aungier Street” is haunted by floating portraits, bloated, humanoid rats, and the sound of flabby, naked feet climbing down the attic stairs – less a typical ghost than the more conventional phantoms in the first half – while drinking copious amounts of additive-ridden, sleep-robbing “Green Tea” causes a respectable parson to envision his hateful alter-ego in the form of a sadistic monkey, and the hanging-judge “Mr Justice Harbottle” is hauled to an infernal court where he is put on trial by a massive doppelgänger under the shadow of a gargantuan gallows littered with the corpses of his victims.
One of Le Fanu’s greatest legacies is one which still sours many scholars: his influence on the horror fiction of Bram Stoker. The dominance of Dracula as a primary text in the field of horror fiction is still something of a sore point to many Lefanuvians who note that the novel lacks the grace, subtlety, power, and uncanniness of its source material, the novella “Carmilla” and the short stories “Ultor de Lacy,” “Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street,” and “Schalken the Painter,” and that Stoker – a relatively weak writer with a handful of successes and a flair for purple langue and maddening characters – should remain heralded as one of the holy trinity of horror fiction (alongside Mary Shelly and R. L. Stevenson) is a source of irritation to Le Fanu’s supporters. Dracula most certainly owes its plot, details, and dynamics to Le Fanu – and not merely to “Carmilla.” In the notes for “Ultor de Lacy” I draw parallels to the two sisters and Stoker’s Lucy and Mina, the use of sleep walking, and the method of regular nocturnal seduction.
Harker’s relationship to Dracula shares characteristics with that between the resident of “Aungier Street” and the murderous ghost who haunts his bedroom, and the character of Vanderhausen is Draculean in too many ways to detail in the space allotted here. This is to say nothing of Stoker’s use of “Aungier Street” and “Mr Justice Harbottle” in his only other masterpiece, “The Judge’s House” (the title is even directly lifted from chapter two of “Harbottle”), not to mention parallels between his gory tale of feline vengeance, “The Squaw,” and Le Fanu’s folk story, “The White Cat of Drumgunniol.” And yet Le Fanu owes a debt to preserving his memory and keeping him – or rather, “Carmilla” – in print as “the man whose lesbian vampire inspired Dracula.” Carmilla herself is a drastically fuller fleshed, more complex character than the rather flat-if-charismatic Count. Carmilla’s motives are vague, her intentions suspicious yet conflicted, and her origins tragic and endowed with as much pathos as Dracula’s are with repulsion.
One of the most important but least recognized or appreciated subtexts of Le Fanu’s oeuvre is his powerful and sometimes deeply bitter use of political satire. His supernatural fiction is frequently engineered to lampoon, critique, or indict the volatile relationship between the British Crown and her Irish subjects – and more specifically the relationship between the urban, Protestant, middle class Anglo-Irish and the rural, Catholic, lower class Celtic-Irish. Some of this is casually subtextual: “Carmilla’s” Styria may be interpreted – with its disparity between a poor, rural, superstitious, Catholic peasantry and a comfortable, urbanized, well-educated, Protestant gentry – as an encoded analog for Ireland; Wicked Captain Walshawe is an English rogue and poseur who tricks his way into seducing and ruining both the spiritual and financial legacy of a pious Irishwoman – a tidy analogy for the perceived chicanery that led to the unbalanced union between Britain and Ireland; “The Child that Went with the Fairies” – a healthy, shining, idealized Irish boy (who goes alternatively by the English diminutive Billy and the Irish pet name Liam, both short for William, the name of one of the most controversial English kings in Irish history) is lured to starvation and slavery by the cheap presents of a beautiful fairy queen (Victoria?) accompanied by a ghoulish black woman (the specter of colonization?) in what many see as a parable for Ireland’s treatment as an occupied colony, the abduction of her most promising sons (into the army, navy, colonial services, prisons, and more), and the horrors of the Great Famine; and I personally interpret “Squire Toby’s Will” – a story about a father’s lopsided will and the sibling rivalry that leads a family to damnation – as being a full-fledged political allegory for the dysfunctional relationship between the bullying, favortist British Crown (Squire Toby), the unfairly favored Anglo-Irish Protestants (Handsome Charlie), and the disenfranchised Celtic-Irish Catholics (Scroope). Other stories are far more overt with their symbolism: “Robert Ardagh,” “Child that Went…,” “Ultor de Lacy,” “Sir Dominick,” and “Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” reference Irish Jacobitism, the Williamite Rebellion, and the ravages of the so-called “Potato” Famine, bringing the clash between Catholic Ireland and Protestant Britain into the mechanics of the plot.
Le Fanu’s stories of the past frequently center around this trinity of Irish tragedies – three recurring nightmares of British history which continual reappear in his fiction: the brutal Williamite Rebellion following the Great Revolution of 1688 (that saw William III and Queen Mary dethrone her father, James II); the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745 which are more associated with Scotland, but which led to the exodus of many Irish aristocrats and Catholic Tories to France, leaving a vacuum soon occupied by negligent English landlords; and the Great Famine – a controlled genocide which traumatized Le Fanu and shook his faith in a variety of beloved institutions. By and large Le Fanu was always poised for a moment of philosophical catastrophe, because he was himself a political anachronism – an old-fashioned Tory who believed in the social contract between the peasantry and the gentry – who adored the rural aristocracy, had deep faith in the noblesse oblige, and identified with old families who had lost their lands, there money, and their staff, but clung to their titles and loyal servants with a sort of childlike naïveté that believed unshakably in the sanctity of social quality. To Le Fanu, the classist hubris of the pauper aristocrats of rural Ireland was preferable to the materialistic greed of the nouveau riche, and he seems to have believed that the feudal order of pre-industrial Ireland – where the peasants feared but respected their masters and the gentry despised but patronized their serfs – was preferable to a money-grubbing, English middle class that had no protective instinct towards the starving hoards in the Irish countryside.
Le Fanu’s crepuscular universe is ultimately one which both mourns and reviles the past, one which both resents and clings to the future, and one which unwaveringly dreads the future. It is a universe cast in deep shadow, lit faintly by the few pockets of light that humanity has been capable of engineering: science, religion, love, comfort, technology, art, friendship, civilization. But these are mere guttering candles causing more confusion with their fluttering illumination, not flaring lighthouses promising security. There are times when Le Fanu suggests that it might be better to snuff the lights and banish the twilight murk in favor of dead night – better to live a hopeless life devoid of refuge or reference points than one dimly illuminated by false fires and vanishing will-o-the-wisps.
His dark world is haunted by the ghosts of the past – a magnetic force that prevents the present from breaking free and becoming the future, a power that ensures the execution of predestination and prevents the operations of free will. Le Fanu’s cosmos is the one envisioned by his father – bleak, unforgiving, and unyieldingly merciless – and his wife – unknowable, predatory, and cruel – and it is shaped by their respective struggles: his father’s detachment from reality, surrender to fate, and gleeful anticipation of a Judgement Day, and his wife’s wavering faith in God, unswerving belief in Damnation, and helpless terror of death. In some ways, these obsessions worked their way into Le Fanu’s own perception of humanity, and he adopted their cynicism and insecurities – bitter fears which choked is later years and breathed imagination into his art. These values bristle with contradiction and anxiety, and such a worldview would gladly welcome in the uncanny phantoms which stalk his benighted universe.
You can find out annotated and illustrated edition of Le Fanu’s best ghost stories and weird fiction HERE!