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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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J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street: A Detailed Summary and Literary Analysis

Known by several titles, but largely published under this one, “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” was the first Le Fanu tale that I ever read. Finding it in Oxford’s collection of Victorian ghost stories, I was tremendously struck by how different it was from the moralizing tales that surrounded it. The first book that I ever published through Oldstyle Tales Press was ‘The Best Victorian Ghost Stories,’ and I used this story as the beating heart around which to arrange its partners. The stories I selected needed to approach it in mood and ambiance, though none rivalled it. Ultimately, very few Victorian ghost stories near the insidiousness or the cinematic allure of the tale, which was so strong that Bram Stoker later reworked it into his more famous (though not necessarily better) ghost story, “The Judge’s House” (this, by the way, is not the only time that Stoker pilfered from Le Fanu: Dracula is, of course, largely sampled from “Carmilla” and “Ultor de Lacy,” and it is interesting to note that the two stories he is best known for originate at the heart from his countryman, Le Fanu).

There are few stories from this literary era that I would more delight in reading alone at night during a winter storm than this tale of dead hanging judges shambling from the attic with jumping ropes noosed about their necks, and few stories which better illustrate the almost queasy power of Le Fanu’s fleshy aesthetic. “Aungier Street” (pronounced AIN-jur – rhymes with “danger”) is written like a demonstration of how to design a powerful ghost story – not a literary one, mind you; the story is largely made to entertain, but it curdles with unease and sensuality, beginning with a self-deprecating disclaimer and a thesis on how the best way to ingest a ghost story is to hear it in person, (second best is to read it alone at night after a good conversation about ghosts), and wrapping up with Le Fanu’s chilling instructions to have a good night and “pleasant dreams.” It truly carries the feeling of a story that was written (and effectively so) as a dare or a bet (e,g,, that a materialist friend could read it at night and not have trouble falling asleep). Le Fanu populates his universe with relentlessly violent supernatural avengers, victorious villains, hellish torment of innocent victims, and grisly monstrosities stalking a literary genre chiefly populated by visually unimpressive ghosts. In “Aungier Street,” Le Fanu revisits a favored theme: the sins of the past do not go to the grave with their malefactors – they may linger in the cultural atmosphere for centuries before being exorcised… or overwhelmed by more direful crimes. The ghost that taunts the tenets of Aungier Street does not seek justice or hope to right a wrong; he is a truly nasty villain if ever one lumbered down the attic stairs.

One of my favorites, this story may not be as complex as "Green Tea," or as famous as "Carmilla," but it remains one of the best haunted house stories of the era, and an exemplar of the Victorian ghost story. Two college students rent rooms in a crumbling Jacobean townhouse in Dublin’s Aungier Street. 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.

Le Fanu – who seemed to sense the cycle of history far better than most of his contemporaries -- frequently wondered what evils might lay dormant for generation after generation, drawing lifeblood and vitality from its descendants. The pattern of English atrocities against the Irish was still storied and centuries-old when Le Fanu wrote “Strange Disturbances.” Tellingly, perhaps, the year before he wrote this story, he lost an election to be a Tory MP for critical comments he had made on the callous English response to the Great Potato Famine. Being one of the few Irish conservatives who seemed to equally adore their Britishness and Irishness, Le Fanu was aware that Irish history prickled with revolution and unrest, and that it had been prickling since the English had invaded the island and first began abusing its people. One of the two likeliest models for Judge Horrocks (the other being George Jeffreys, the “Bloody, or Hanging Judge”) is John Toler, “the Irish Hanging Judge,” a man noted for his callousness, his contempt for the Irish, his disregard for public opinion, and his deep indulgence of personal vices (e.g., falling asleep during a trial). Toler and men like him saw the world as orderly, rational, and guided – that progress was incremental, rebellion doomed, and dominion certain.

Le Fanu must have been a conservative out of fear, because he lacked the traditional trust in institutions that Toler had: he viewed the world as chaotic, unwieldly, random, and violent. Order wasn’t to be expected – it was to be desired. Peace didn’t follow punishment – peace was merely the slumber before revolution. Judge Horrocks’ sexual deviancy, delight in suffering, and sadistic personality still present a very real and present danger one century after he throttled himself on his love child’s jump rope. Unlike most Victorian ghosts – Dickens’ for instance – Le Fanu’s is not seeking justice, equilibrium, or vindication; it is not a wronged soul, it is a wronging soul, gleefully collecting the corpses of its roommates and gathering nourishment from their terror – just as much a vampire as Carmilla. Le Fanu seems to warn the victims as much as the villains (who are, after all, ultimately led to self-destruction and doomed to hell) that actions must be taken to punish evil men because they are like a nuclear disaster that only worsens the longer it is untended, and promise to reach far into the future, not ending with death, but ending when their institutions are finally dismantled. In Ireland, the British rule was revolted against and independence finally washed away the infected sores of Toler and Cromwell and redcoat abuses which had been festering in the collective spirit of Ireland for centuries.

For the inhabitants of Aungier Street, cleansing fire alone seems to purify their lecherous ghost. Unjust acts, Le Fanu suggests, can haunt the innocent as well as the guilty, and in a world without definite justice, the supernatural is not always the agent of rectification – it may just as easily perpetuate evil as avenge it. Judge Horrocks found his just desserts while his neck twisted under the barrister, but the society that turned a blind eye to his wickedness continued to suffer long after his physical expiration, generation after generation, for their tolerance. But Le Fanu’s literary universe is a complex and dynamic one, and evil was just as likely to suffer comeuppance as innocence was to endure persecution – nineteen years later Le Fanu wrote something of a prequel to this tale (included later in this volume), a grisly psychological piece called “Mr. Justice Harbottle” about a hanging judge who is relentlessly haunted and hunted by his victims.

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