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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 Savage, Unnervingly Intimate Ghost Stories

CREPUSCULAR (Adj.) : of, resembling, or relating to twilight; (of an animal) appearing or active in twilight. Synonyms: Half-light, semi-darkness, gloom, dusk, murk, sundown, nightfall, sunset, shadowy.

UNCANNY (Adj.) : 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 (N.) : 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,