J. Sheridan Le Fanu's The Familiar: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Ghost Story
M. R. James considered “The Familiar” to be Le Fanu’s greatest ghost story, and incorporated its primary elements thoroughly into his own supernatural tales – today considered amongst the best in the English language: past sins hounding a remorseful wrongdoer; a merciless predator who shifts shapes, fades into crowds, follows closely behind, and tightens his net with increasing violence; an overwhelming sense of loneliness and hopelessness – of being beyond the aid of God; a flight that leaves British soil but proves pointless; an antagonist marked by unsettling weaknesses (in this case, he is a hobbling dwarf); and psychological ambiguity that prevents a straight supernatural reading even though it favors one. For those who read and enjoy “The Familiar,” I recommend the following stories of M. R. James which are (some partly and some almost entirely) beholden to Le Fanu’s text: (in chronological order) “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” “Count Magnus,” “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” “The Stalls of Barchester,” “A School Story,” “Casting the Runes,” “The Residence at Whitminster,” “A Warning to the Curious,” and “The Uncommon Prayer-Book.” Each of these tales deal with an unremitting, unforgiving, unyielding supernatural enemy which reeks vengeance upon a penitent sinner without mercy. Sometimes the victim gets their just deserts; sometimes (“A Warning to the Curious” being the best example) they attract tremendous pity.
In Le Fanu’s original inspiration, both are the case. Captain Barton, like James’ Professor Parkins (“Oh Whistle”), is a confirmed atheist who is so assured of his materialism that he goes to a theologian asking if he can do anything to free himself from supernatural anguish other than pray – an act that his faithless spirit cannot possibly attempt. But unlike Parkins (and more like poor Paxton (“A Warning”)), Barton is not a figure of intellectual hubris or professorial pride; he is an object of deep pathos, a man with a broken heart and a haunted spirit. His atheism (or as Le Fanu calls it, “French principles”) is not caused by intellectual faith, but by existential horror. Barton is terrified by the possibility of a supernatural Creator, and his soul recoils from the possibility that such a Being could be invested in his choices and failures. In one of the most memorable lines of the story, Barton shudders, “I am deeply and horribly convinced: that there does exist beyond this a spiritual world—a system whose workings are generally in mercy hidden from us—a system which may be, and which is sometimes, partially and terribly revealed. I am sure, I know … there is a God—a dreadful God—and that retribution follows guilt.”
His horror at this hidden system almost counterintuitively reflects H. P. Lovecraft’s preamble in “The Call of Cthulhu” where he worries that the sciences might one day stitch together the vague truth of the universe (that it is mindless of humanity; that humankind is unimportant, uninteresting, and effortlessly exterminated in the eyes of the true forces of Nature – the Great Old Ones), plummeting civilization into a new Dark Age. This is virtually the opposite of Le Fanu’s terror: which is more hideous, an indifferent universe, or one that records each sin and crime in minute detail for punishment. 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 Barton is too terrified of the idea of a Creator to acknowledge his existence – because a Creator who holds merciless grudges against sinners is in many ways as terrifying as the idea of a world without reason.
The plot is subtle and almost hypnotically understated: 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. Our beleagured Captain Barton, like Rev. Jennings in “Green Tea,” is deeply traumatized by the guilt that these appearances make, reminding him of his checkered past: the ghost is that of a sailor whose daughter the Captain seduced and ruined, who died as a result of a brutal flogging he was given after confronting his officer on the matter. 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. The haunting begins with the sound of a telltale limp, followed by a visual manifestation of the dead man -- a hobbling dwarf in a fur travelling cap -- stalking the Captain during his nightly walks. Devastated by the thought that he may be doomed to suffer this judgment for the rest of his life, he flees to France only to spot the dwarf in a crowd. Returning to England to die, he hides in his room, filled with terror. His servants are puzzled but fearful nonetheless. When cries ring out from his room -- declaring that the ghost is squatting at the foot of his bed and advancing -- the door is burst open only to reveal an enormous owl hunched over the Captain's corpse. Startled, the creature flies through the door and bursts through a window and into the night... 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 Familiar” has consistently been ranked among Le Fanu’s best and most influential stories, alongside “Schalken the Painter,” “Squire Toby’s Will,” “Carmilla,” and “Green Tea.” While it lacks some of his more grisly imagery (Vanderhausen’s dead face, Carmilla’s nightshirt stained with blood toes to chin, Judge Horrock’s wrenched throat and flabby step, Harbottle’s glowering doppelgänger, etc.), it compensates for horror with terror – so much is left to conjecture and imagination. Delicate suggestion reigns over overt portrayal, much in the same manner as the best works of two of the writers who were most influenced by Le Fanu: Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body-Snatchers” and “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Both men took Le Fanu with the utmost seriousness, James (like his unrelated counterpart, M. R. James) took Le Fanu’s books to bed with him when he desired a good chill, and Stevenson packed them in his luggage during his voyages to the Pacific. There is little question that The Watcher’s insidious and predatory nature, psychological ambiguity, and powerful effect on his victim impacted the way that these two men wrote bogey tales. Stevenson’s stories owed a tremendous debt to this folksy psychology – in “The Merry Men,” “Thrawn Janet,” “Olalla,” “The Waif Woman,” “Markheim,” “The Bottle Imp,” “The Body-Snatchers,” and “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” we witness a very similar scenario: a character is torn between two impulses – that to do good and that to indulge in bad – they are drawn away from society, religion, and friends, relying instead upon their own weak willpower to navigate moral decisions; soon thereafter, they are confronted with a terrible choice – a moment of moral crisis – and fail; thinking that they are now simply above mankind, they are confronted with a hideous apparition (an undead sailor, a hanged zombie-witch, a sensual vampire, a resurrected hag, a devilish doppelganger, a captive djinn, and a simian double respectively), which in most cases may or may not be supernatural (“The Bottle Imp” is pretty straight forward, but “The Merry Men,” “Olalla,” “Markheim,” “The Body-Snatchers,” and even “Jekyll and Hyde” may be examples of a psychological haunting rather than a spiritual one). The result is one of three possibilities: a moral failure (death and damnation), a moral victory (confession and confrontation), or a moral retreat (fear and flight). All three possibilities seem to emanate from Captain Barton’s struggle with The Watcher: he seems to do each of them at various points, culminating in a flight which leads to confrontation which leads to death.
Similarly, Henry James’ supernatural tales (less famous than Stevenson’s, though perhaps more literary) 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. In “The Ghostly Rental” it is first the “ghost” of a wronged daughter appearing to her cruel father (actually her in disguise), then it is the ghost of the wronged father appearing (possibly genuinely) to the guilty daughter; in “Sir Edmund Orme” the spirit of a suicidal suitor haunts a society woman, reminding her to prevent her coquettish daughter from breaking men’s hearts; in “The Jolly Corner,” a disfigured doppelganger – the spirit of whom the protagonist would have become had he made different life choices – lurks in the dark corners of his childhood home. Like Jekyll’s Hyde (and indeed many of Stevenson’s other characters) and like the Governess’ ghosts in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” The Watcher has a very ambiguous character – one that may be more a part of himself than an external persecutor. Almost all of the appearances could be explained away. Some are admittedly very coincidental, but none are definitive. The power of suggestion, pranks, mass hysteria, and wish-fulfillment could rationalize most of The Watcher’s manifestations, and the incident of the owl could be merely that – an owl that got loose. Le Fanu carefully bolsters the supernatural explanation, giving it supremacy, but allows us to wonder: what if Barton is his own Watcher? Could Barton be tormented by his “good conscience” that The Watcher refers to in his second note? The first of these notes is both a warning and a threat – why?
There are several theories as to why the sender passed this note to Barton, the most sensational being the argument that Barton himself wrote the letter in a fugue state (a temporary lapse into a different persona) wherein he disguised his handwriting and was guided by his Super-Ego. The Super-Ego – the executive function of self-regulation; the internal parent/judge/pastor/policeman/authority – is not given to self-destruct, but to guide the persona to confronting justice, so if Barton’s Super-Ego wrote the letter, it has a stake in preserving and protecting him (hence the warning), but can only do so if he makes amends for his sins, and if he refuses, it may result in guilt-driven acts of self-violence (hence the threat). The second letter certainly points to such a reading: “You may as well think, Captain Barton, to escape from your own shadow as from me; do what you may, I will see you as often as I please, and you shall see me, for I do not want to hide myself, as you fancy. Do not let it trouble your rest, Captain Barton; for, with a good conscience, what need you fear from the eye of ‘The Watcher?’” Like the Super-Ego driven Jekyll, who contained an Id-driven Hyde, might not Barton – driven by his neutral ego, formerly driven by his Id – harbor an alter-ego who is driven by a vindictive Super-Ego? I am not making the argument that The Watcher IS Barton, but that The Watcher COULD be Barton – that we each have a Watcher inside of us, a part of ourselves that disapproves of our appetites and condemns our wrongdoings, and what should we do if that alter-ego went rogue and plotted our punishment? It is a hideous possibly to ponder – one that I personally shudder at.
You can find the original story HERE!
And you can find our annotated and illustrated edition of Le Fanu's best ghost stories HERE!