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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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12 Best Ghost Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu (Not Including Carmilla or Green Tea)

J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Victorian master of shadowy terrors, is the undisputed prince of ghost story writers. While M. R. James may be their king, even Monty paid homage to his Irish inspiration, reviving Le Fanu’s reputation (by reprinting his stories in a 1923 anthology), and modelling many (if not most) of his more famous tales off of Le Fanu’s pattern. His ghost stories were chilling, and his ghosts were terrifyingly original – invasive, intrusive, aggressive: they left their spaces and turned the mortal world into a shadowy, liminal territory. These are not ghosts who appear before your eyes like images from a projector, reenact an evil deed, then fade to black: they stand by your bed and take hold of your foot while gazing lustfully into your eyes. They are carnal, carnivorous, and conspicuous. They reach out of the past and thrust your head under the current of time.

Le Fanu’s most famous ghost stories – if such they should be called – are “Carmilla” (a tale of a seductive female vampire who preys on young women) and “Green Tea” (wherein a reclusive, fusty minister is haunted by a demonic black monkey: the specter of deviancy and debauchery). Today I’d like to look at twelve of Le Fanu’s lesser known ghost stories which every connoisseur of the genre should take some time to read by the light of a single lamp in a dark room (Le Fanu’s ghostly tales always have a murky, chiaroscuro effect to them, so there’s no better way to read them!).


Le Fanu’s fiction is loaded with instances of abductions, kidnappings, and disappearances: it’s a recurring motif that causes his works to resonate with a sense of inevitable doom. One of the creepiest of these stories – and the most underrated – is “Laura Silver Bell,” which follows the seduction of a young woman by a shapeshifting fairy or demon. An orphan who has yet to be baptized, the beautiful girl is the awe of her tiny Irish village, and the envy of her peers, yet she longs for more. This taste for adventure is satisfied when she falls in love with a handsome nobleman she spies one night in the countryside. She determines to run away with her bonnie cavalier, but one of her friends is shocked to see her stealing away toward the fairy land with a raggedy, swarthy, glowering scarecrow of an apparition. Her brief return to the mortal world – impregnated with a devil spawn – is even more disturbing.


M. R. James based several of his stories on “Dickon the Devil” which warns ambitious newcomers not to screw around with ancient landmarks. After the death of a cruel landowner, his heirs decide to rearrange his properties to their advantage, but against his wishes. The spirit of the squire – recognizable by his deformed, en-talloned finger on one hand – returns to punish the farmhands who are carrying out these orders, and one of the men – a likeable sod guilty only of carrying out the heirs’ orders – is struck mad for life. He spends the rest of his days howling and roaming frantically about the property: a living landmark and a chilling warning against interfering with tradition.


Ever hear of a haunted candle? In this lovely-named story (say it out loud and revel in the alliteration) – a brilliant allegory of Anglo-Irish relations – an English soldier of fortune seduces and ruins an Irish nun (or possibly a witch) whom he marries for her money. After she dies her sisters (other witch-nuns) return to speed her damned soul out of purgatory, but he interrupts their candlelit ceremony, banishing them from his house and her soul to hell. The sisters put a curse on him, consigning his soul to the one of the candles, trapping it therein until it is burned out. Decades after his gruesome death, the new owner of his somber house is experiencing a fitful night of sleeplessness. He decides to light a candle, and unwittingly welcomes a guest into his bedroom.


One of Le Fanu’s most horribly underrated stories, “Ultor de Lacy” has much of the groundwork of “Dracula” laid out in it: two beautiful sisters (of the Mina and Lucy type) inhabit a dilapidated tower where their father – a Jacobite who has been banished from Ireland – secretly hides them during his exile. Attended to by a faithful servant, they lead a rather Rapunzel-like existence of boredom and wistfulness, but all of this is interrupted by the appearance of an apparition in a Spanish cloak with a revolting birthmark on one cheek. The older sister begins sleepwalking, disappearing for hours at night, and having conversations in her sleep. She drifts further and further away from her devoted sibling, who vainly tries to discover her sister’s secret. One night, the girl disappears for ever – like Laura Silver Bell – spirited away by a vampiric ghost whose identity is no surprise to the father who had been trying to protect his daughters from a family curse. Read on to learn just who the ghost was!


Frequently excerpted from “The House by the Churchyard,” this chapter can be read alone as the story of an old maid relating grisly legends of the house next door to her youthful mistress. The so-called Tiled House has long been haunted by several deadly ghosts, namely a sensual earl who committed suicide and has a penchant for frightening women to death. In the most notable episode, he manifests in a girl’s bedroom, seductively wearing nothing but a dressing gown, scarf, and nightcap. He mumbles something to her in a garbled voice, then – grinning – pulls away the cravat to reveal “his throat … cut across like another mouth, wide and laughing at her.” Brrrr… In the other, more famous episode, a fat, pudgy male hand haunts a family who lives there – at the window, in the kitchen, on the table, beside a sleeping child. A symbol of the aristocracy’s depraved sense of hedonistic entitlement, the hand is later connected to the lecherous earl when the grown child remembers the fat man in a dressing gown staring evilly down into his crib.


Yet another chilling tale of abduction, this one is another of Le Fanu’s parables of Anglo-Irish tensions. A widow woman is constantly terrified that something will happen to her children and is beside herself when her children come running home in a white fear, reporting that her youngest – the beautiful Liam – has disappeared. His siblings report that they were loitering near a known fairy mound when a handsome coach pulled up beside them. Driven my demonic dwarves, it contained a beautiful, regal looking woman with a cruel smile, and a leering servant with an insane expression. Offering Liam an apple, she lures him into the carriage and drives away. Liam is seen again from time to time, always in graduating states of agony and starvation, but never speaking, only sighing, until he is seen no more. Many view this as a metaphor for the fate of promising Irish youths who accepted the Queen’s shilling (joined the military) never to be seen again.


A deliciously nightmarish story inspired by William Hogarth’s macabre engravings, “Mr Justice Harbottle” is the tale of a corrupt hanging judge (modelled in part on Judge Jeffreys) who hangs one man too many – namely his mistress’s husband – and finds himself kidnapped by ghosts, hauled under a gigantic gallows, and tried by a jury of his victims in hell. What’s more, his judge – a symbol of his bloated ego – is a gigantic version of himself. Sentenced to hang on a particular date, he awakens from having red hot chains riveted on his feet to find it was all a dream: the nightmare occurred when he nodded off on his way to the opera, and the heated chains are just a gout flare up. But he has his doubts, and the powerful ending will require you to decide for yourself: was the trial supernatural or psychological?


One of Le Fanu’s creepier ghost stories might also be an allegory for the dysfunctional relationship between England and her warring sons: the poor, native, Catholic Irish and the bourgeois, transplanted, Protestant Anglo-Irish (like Le Fanu and his family). A brutal, thuggish drunk – the eponymous Squire Toby – dies leaving a lopsided will that favors his handsome, athletic younger son (Charlie) over his swarthy, misshapen older son (Scroope). Banishing his brother from the failing estate, Charlie is quickly disabled in a hunting accident, beginning a string of misfortunes. Things only get worse when he adopts a feral dog who has an uncanny resemblance to his father (to the chagrin of his superstitious manservant), and discovers a hidden will that would give Scroope his fair share of the inheritance. At first frightened into re-enfranchising Scroope by the dog’s humanlike behavior, Charlie recants his benevolence and waits for Scroope to die of his poverty. And then the real hauntings begin. M. R. James retooled this tale of hidden wills and sadistic ghosts into one of his most chilling stories, “The Tractate Middoth.”


When M. R. James revived Le Fanu’s ghost stories by anthologizing some of his best stories, James chose “Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery” for the title. The titular story is heavily reminiscent of his bone-chilling “Lost Hearts”: a young girl is sent to work with her aunt, a housekeeper at a gothic manor in the North Country. The master – a la “The Turn of the Screw” – is absent, but his grisly, bedridden, a living phantasm, remains. Constantly dressed up, bejeweled, and made up, the decaying old woman is just as terrifying as any ghost with sharpened talons, pointed teeth, and ghastly make up, threatening to gouge out her eyes. After peaking through the bed curtains, the girl never again enters the old lady’s room (despite the oh-so comforting leather straitjacket on the wall), and is relieved when the crone dies. That night, the taloned apparition of Madame Crowl slithers into her room and gestures menacingly at a secret compartment. When the heir returns he has the door pried open and – what is that exactly: the skeleton of a monkey? No it isn’t, and when the reader learns the identity of the withered corpse, we learn why exactly it is that Madame Crowl needs a straitjacket.


One of my favorites, this story was almost plagiaristically reworked into Bram Stoker’s famous horror story, “The Judge’s House.” Two college students rent rooms in a crumbling Jacobean townhouse in Dublin’s Aungier Street (rhymes with “danger” and “ranger”). The house was once owned by a Judge-Jeffreys-esque hanging judge who famously hanged himself with his illegitimate daughter’s jump rope, and has a bad reputation. Both men are plagued by nightmares, though both stay quiet about their experiences: one has visions of the judge’s portrait floating in front of his bedroom window, while the other sees the man himself glowering over him with a noose. The second man begins secretly sleeping outside before taking a short holiday to recover from shock. The first man, now alone, hears flabby footsteps descending from the attic, sees the apparition of a giant, demonic rat, and senses the hovering presence of the bloated, grimacing judge. His roommate returns just in time to warn him, but – as their maid tells them – previous tenants have been far less fortunate.


Probably James’ favorite Le Fanu story, “The Familiar” – like the rest of Le Fanu’s work – has the inverse of Lovecraft’s cosmic philosophy, but it is just as terrifying: unlike Lovecraft who found horror in the idea that nothing humanity does is noticed or matters, Le Fanu imagined a world where even the smallest of actions are subject to supernatural surveillance and merciless punishment. An atheist ship captain starts to doubt his sanity when he finds himself stalked by a goblin who bears an uncanny resemblance to an old acquaintance from the Navy – a dead acquaintance. Captain Barton, like Rev. Jennings in “Green Tea,” is deeply traumatized by the guilt that these appearances make, reminding him of his checkered past. James modelled “A Warning to the Curious,” “Count Magnus,” and “Casting the Runes” on the mounting climax which follows Barton as he is chased across northwest Europe, culminating with a deathbed confrontation with a gigantic, spectral owl. Are the Captain’s terrors the product of a haunted life or a haunted mind? A ghost-taunted universe or a ghost-taunted spirit? The reader is allowed to make the final judgment.


The only one of Le Fanu’s short stories to have been adapted to film – not counting his three or four adapted novels – “Schalken the Painter” is easily one of Le Fanu’s most haunting masterpieces – one which will linger in your mind for days. The story of Godfried Schalken – a historical Dutch painter who specialized in eerie, eroticized portraits by candlelight – and the supernatural abduction of his (fictional) girlfriend, Rose, who is hastily espoused to a strange nobleman who pays her guardian a handsome dowry for her hand – and her soul. Both Schalken and the guardian (the historical painter Gerard Douw) are stupefied by the amount of the money, which blinds their reason to the disturbing nature of the match: the suitor claims to have seen Rose at a church (he resembles a painted statue that horrified her there) and demands to marry her without her consent, and his corpselike features (unblinking, fanged, blue-skinned, and rigid, with an insane expression, he looks like a cross between a hanged corpse and a Biblical demon) inspire little trust. This – like “Laura Silver Bell” and “Child that went with the Fairies” – is a tragic abduction story: Rose and her husband disappear on the road to his “house,” and when she reappears months later – starved, ravished, and ghostly – she has all the appearance of a victim of sexual abuse. Waiting for a clergyman at Douw’s house, she is suddenly locked alone in a dark room, and is spirited away for good. Years later Schalken will visit the church where the demonic statue frightened Rose, and absentmindedly wander into the basement where the corpses are buried. What Schalken sees down there – an unforgettable tableau of disturbing eroticism and implied necrophilia – is one of the most disturbing scenes in Victorian literature.

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