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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 Ultor de Lacy: A Detailed Summary and Literary Analysis

In my estimation, “Ultor De Lacy” is one of the finest, most enigmatic, and most terrifying of Le Fanu’s short fiction, standing comfortably alongside “Schalken the Painter” and “Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street.” It is with sadness, then, that in my research I noted that it accrued very little critical attention indeed (outside of a fine essay by Ann Cahill).

The reason is a puzzle, for of Le Fanu’s Faustian stories (Sir Robert Ardagh, Ultor De Lacy, The Haunted Baronet, The Dead Sexton, etc.), “Ultor De Lacy” has one of the most effective uses of terror, one of the least plodding, most engaging plots (all of his Faustian stories seem to drag in the third act), and without a doubt the most insidious, nauseating villain in the form of the leering, sensual ghost of Roderic O’Donnell.


This specter is remarkable for his vampiric appearance, and for a claret-mark (deep red birthmark) that stains much of his face. It is like a blood stain that points to the guilt of the De Lacy family – guilt purchased in an act of betrayal during the Battle of Kinsale (“the ultimate battle in England’s conquest of Gaelic Ireland”).


The entire story is redolent with betrayals, treasons, and rebellion which underscore its theme of treachery: the original Walter De Lacy betrays his country by being loyal to his queen; later the Whigs commit treason against the Stuarts in the Glorious Revolution, dethroning them and bringing in the Dutch King William – an act of betrayal opposed by the De Lacy’s, but since they were on the losing side, they became the traitors.

Later still, when the Hanoverians took the throne, Ultor De Lacy remained loyal to the Stuarts in the 1745 uprising, but because the invasion failed, his loyalty was once more seen as treason, and he was stripped of what little his family had in the world.


As we will later discuss, the pro-British, Protestant Le Fanu would see much of his own loyalties/betrayals in the woes of the Jacobites, and this story may have more to do with his anxieties as a loyal Briton/treacherous Irishman than making a mere bogey tale.

I will give you one more piece of information that may help steer you in interpreting this thick parable: the word “ultor” is not a common name – it sounds like the character’s great grandfather’s name, Walter (pronounced OOL-tur, or AWL-tur), but it is Latin for “Avenger”– Ultor is to restore, or avenge, the family fortunes.


After reading this story, that may seem odd considering the course of the plot, but Ultor and his name have the greatest significance in this story of elaborate, excessive revenge which shows no mercy, takes no quarter, and – in Le Fanu’s heartless universe – is entirely justified, and utterly unchallenged.



The author relates how – as a child growing up in Ireland – he consumed a regular diet of supernatural tales and atmospheric locales. One, however, stood out to him. It was set at a lonely, ruined castle overlooking the heavily-wooded glen of Cappercullen – in the Slieve-Felim Mountains where the counties of Limerick and Tipperary meet. The rugged citadel is remote – located many miles away from any village – and has been spared from demolition and salvaging because of its awkward location.


The ruin was the hereditary seat of the extinct house of De Lacy, the last patriarch died without an heir in the 18th century. When he was a child, his dying father – an exiled Jacobite officer living in France – made him promise to wait to marry until he turned thirty – to prevent him from being distracted from managing the family financial and business responsibilities – and then went on to show him a terrifying portrait of a strange man – a portrait which both his father and the family priest insist that he memorize despite the fact that “the child [turned from it] with shrieks.”

Before dying, his father deposited the portrait (along with a document explaining its provenance) “in the hands of the priest, in trust, till his boy, Ultor, should have attained an age to understand their value, and to keep them securely.”


Young Ultor was cared for by the priest, and when he came of age, returned to Ireland to claim his estate. Since he hadn’t been a Jacobite rebel, he had no trouble reclaiming the estate at Cappercullen, and kept his word to his father: marrying just past thirty years old to a woman who withered away in the “isolation and gloom” of her husband’s lonely territory, dying young, but not before giving birth to two beautiful daughters.    



During the 1745 Jacobite uprising, Ultor de Lacy couldn’t resist his hereditary rebelliousness: he joined the Scots and became one of the few Irishmen who was charged with treason for participating in their insurrection. He fled Ireland for France, leaving his two beautiful daughters alone at his isolated manor, unsure of his fate. Eventually, the Crown seized his lands and funds, forcing his daughters to abandon their castle and lay off their staff, although the dismal little Cappercullen estate remained unused, abandoned, and unwanted.  


A few years later, the local children were at first terrified when they saw the desolate building with “light streaming redly from the narrow window … across the glen, already dim in the shadows of the deepening night,” and by the sight of two ghostly maidens standing at the turret window in their white dresses, imagining them to be phantoms or fairies.

It was the De Lacy sisters who had quietly returned, in these less political times, to find refuge in one of the towers at Cappercullen – one which was precariously perched on the edge of a cliff while the rest of the castle remained shut up and falling into ruin. Sustained by a small stipend from their mother’s inheritance, they were just barely able to stave off complete poverty, but still languished in threadbare obscurity.  


Like Rapunzel, they lived in the top room of the tower, isolated and hidden from sight, attended by two Jacobite servants – an old man and an old woman. The elder of the two, Alice, was brunette, serious, and stoic, experiencing her exile like a cloistered nun. The younger, Una, was blonde, fanciful, and romantic, imagining herself as a fairy princess in a nursey tale.


As the politics of the day cooled down, the government became less invested in punishing Jacobites, and while de Lacy knew that he couldn’t openly return to Ireland, his daughters were largely safe from harassment as long as they stayed quiet and removed from society – a task made all the easier by the haunted reputation of their castle, which was only ever visited by a Jacobite-allied priest who secretly came to occasionally hold Mass with the inmates at night.


This priest – friend though he was to the family – was the first to sense supernatural activity at their house in the form of sinister visions of a dead man’s face, antagonistic confusion which causes him to become inexplicably lost on the familiar property, and warped impressions of reality, such as mistaking the castle for a cloud. As a result, he refuses to visit after nightfall, and – not wanting to be caught going there by the authorities – his Masses largely cease, and the girls were deprived of his spiritual direction.



Soon after his ministering slowed to a halt, the male servant, Laurence, began noticing strange sights. It began with a sinister, red light coming from the crumbling bell tower – a closed-off, ruined turret that overlooked the one which the girls inhabited – which looked like a lamp moving back and forth. The inmates are terrified that they are being monitored by the government, but Laurence takes it to be worse than that: it is a sign that Ultor has died overseas and is now watching over his daughters.

And yet, after several appearances, he begins to suspect a natural source and agrees to investigate the phenomenon, so he mounts the spiral staircase with a brace of pistols, but the “ill-omened glare” fades teasingly seconds before he can come face to face with it.


He recalls that the bell tower was the site where “the De Lacys of those evil days used to sit in feudal judgment upon captive adversaries” whom they were known to torture and hang from its battlements, and decides that catching the perpetrator is “a hopeless business.”

Indeed, the light continues to gleam from the ruined tower and becomes part of their daily life, and a romantic joke to Una. But the joke is short-lived, because the female servant, Peggy, soon reports a haunting of her own: she has seen a “thin-faced man, with an ugly red mark all over the side of his cheek, looking out the same window, just at sunset.”


Not long after, Laurence sees him, too, with his legs crossed, leaning on his elbows at the tower window, his face twisted in a “sickly sneer.” Horrified, he fires two pistols at the figure, just as Ultor De Lacy – concealed in a cloak – comes up behind him.

Doubly startled, Laurence points out the creepy eavesdropper, but his figure “somehow dissolved and broke up without receding.” He also notes that the yellow and red ivy, lichen patches, and white masonry of the bell tower wall seem to create the illusion of the stranger’s face.


Now that the master had returned – with a handsome, French Army captain, no less – the inmates’ focus shifts to one of merriment. De Lacy reveals to Alice that the King of France has helped him by arranging a marriage between Una and the young officer (a poor but landed nobleman) since the elder sister plans to join a French convent once Una is taken care of. However, he asks her to keep it a secret, so that headstrong Una can have the illusion of falling in love.


That evening, Alice and her father tour the castle grounds, discussing politics and wishful hopes for their future, when they see the man with the red birthmark coming towards them. He is dressed in antiquated Spanish fashions – a dingy doublet, plumed hat, and laced cloak – and wordlessly walks past them, although: “as he strode past, he touched his cap with his thin, discolored fingers, and an ugly side glance.”

De Lacy is horrified by the encounter, chasing after him with his sword to no avail. He confesses that – although he doesn’t know the man personally, he knows who he is, and curses the priest for having ceased his visits which have deprived them of the Sacraments.

He raves that they must find a way for the girls to make their Confessions and to receive the Eucharist as soon as possible, and – in the meantime – begs Alice to pray fervently for protection, and gives her an amulet with a consecrated Host to wear at night. Desperate tears run down his face as he moans “the curse has fallen, indeed, on me and mine.”



In the meantime, the girlish Una – assumed to be safe due to her growing attachment to the officer – “began to lose spirit and to grow pale. Her fun and frolic were quite gone.” She began to prefer solitude to singing and was “strangely reserved and cold.” Alice assumes that she – in one of her serious moods – has offended her gregarious sister, but over time begins to worry for her sanity:


“Once or twice, when her sister urged her with tears and entreaties to disclose the secret of her changed spirits and demeanour, she seemed to listen with a sort of silent wonder and suspicion, and then she looked for a moment full upon her, and seemed on the very point of revealing all. But the earnest dilated gaze stole downward to the floor, and subsided into an odd wily smile, and she began to whisper to herself, and the smile and the whisper were both a mystery to Alice.”


One night, as they lay in bed in their tower grotto, Una says – “as if speaking to herself [as an] odd smile stole over her face like a gleam of moonlight” – “’Tis my last night in this room – I shall sleep no more with Alice.” Alice is distraught by this strange pronouncement, especially when Una explains that she simply must leave, otherwise she will have to die:


"Die, Una darling!--what can you mean?"


"Yes, sweet Alice, die, indeed. We must all die some time, you know, or—or undergo a change; and my time is near—very near—unless I sleep apart from you."


"Indeed, Una, sweetheart, I think you are ill, but not near death."


"Una knows what you think, wise Alice—but she's not mad—on the contrary, she's wiser than other folks."


"She's sadder and stranger too," said Alice, tenderly.


"Knowledge is sorrow," answered Una, and she looked across the room through her golden hair which she was combing—and through the window, beyond which lay the tops of the great trees, and the still foliage of the glen in the misty moonlight.


Una goes onto insist that she will move her quarters to an adjacent antechamber which is separated from Alice by two massive oak doors. In the morning, “the change was made, and the girls for the first time since childhood lay in separate chambers.” That evening, Alice suffers a terrible nightmare of the man with the birthmark on his face, and when she awakens, she thinks she can hear a deep, male voice singing – “like the melody of a man whiling away the hours over his work” – in the glen below the cliff.

More worrisome, still, she thinks she can overhear Una singing in harmony with the strange voice in the next room. Going to her window, she peers out at Una’s window and sees her silhouetted against it by the red flicker of a candle.


On another evening, Alice is terrified by the sound of Una clearly conversing with a low-voiced man long after bedtime, with no apparent attempt on their part to avoid being overheard. Alice knocks at the door, which is opened by Una – holding a candle and wearing a nightgown – who coldly invites her to come inside. The room is small and sparsely furnished, with no hiding places and no man in sight.


Eventually, Ultor returns again, concerned by his correspondence with Alice. He has warned her not to share any of these scandalous details with the servants, and brings the news that Una can be married to the young Frenchman in a matter of weeks.

But this news doesn’t dampen Una’s mysterious courtship: two nights later, Alice overhears the voices again, and this time – after confirming that Una is again at her window with a candle – looks down into the glen beneath the cliff, where she sees the shadow of what seems to be the man in 16th century Spanish garb:

“there were the cap and mantle, the rapier, the long thin limbs and sinister angularity. It was so thrown obliquely that the hands reach to the window-sill, and the feet stretched and stretched, longer and longer … and disappeared into the general darkness.”


With her sense of dreams and reality severely distorted – unsure of her own sanity and what threats are being posed to whom – she buries her head under the pillow and falls asleep praying.



The next day De Lacey announces that the priest is on his way to serve them with Confession and the Eucharist, but it is not to be: that evening, Una tearfully looks over at Alice with love, and they embrace, as if for the last time. Alice thinks that her sister has returned to her, but Una suddenly looks up at the window – attentively, as if listening to a command – then:

“she smiled a strange pleased smile, and then the smile slowly faded away, leaving that sly suspicious light behind it which somehow scared her sister with an uncertain sense of danger.”

Lost in a reverie, Alice begins singing “Siuil a Run” – the famous Irish ballad told from the perspective of a woman longing for her soldier-lover who has gone to battle.


Later that night, Alice wakes up to see Una standing over her with a knowing, sinister grin – unaware that Alice is awake – reaches under her pillow, as if stuffing something under it, walks over to the fireplace, retrives a piece of chalk, and seems to slip it into a sallow, thin hand which reaches out to her through the door. She then smiles over her shoulder and walks toward the doorway.


Alarmed, Alice runs after her, but finds her sister asleep in bed, but then – a second time – she is woken by the sight of her sister looking down on her, this time dressed in a cloak and hood, wearing travelling shoes, and clutching a pack. She gives Alice a parting smile, unbelievably “soulless and terrible,” and turns for the door. Before sunrise thinks she hears a knock at her door followed by soft laughter.


In the morning, of course, Una is gone, and the headboard of her bed is inscribed – with the chalk she stole from Alice’s room – with the words: “ULTOR DE LACY, ULTOR O’DONNELL.” Under Alice’s pillow they find Una’s purse with the words “UNA’S LOVE” embroidered on it.

De Lacy rages with blasphemies at the tardy priest whom he accuses of failing his duty to guard his daughter’s soul, but it is too late: Una is only seen in fleeting visions, but never in body. Sometimes she is glimpses combing her hair in the window of the bell tower. She is at first frightened when she realizes that she is being watched by humans, but then smiles “her slanting, cunning smile” and disappears. In the present day, only her melancholy singing voice is occasionally heard singing an Irish ballad about a faithless lover or a hapless lass who has been spirited away by the forces of darkness.   


After Ultor’s death, Alice – who entered a convent in Dublin and shared this sad story with a friend of the narrator – inherited his effects, among which was a startling portrait of the thin, sallow man with the birthmark on his face. Along with it was a parchment which told his tale. In December of 1601, Walter De Lacy of Cappercullen successfully led government forces against Spanish regulars and Irish rebels at the end of the Nine Years’ War (aka Tyrone’s Rebellion), likely the Battle of Kinsale. He imprisoned many captives in his dungeon, including his cousin, Roderic O’Donnell, who passionately begged De Lacy for his life, offering to pay a massive ransom. De Lacy, however – a zealous loyalist – was unmoved, and hanged his cousin for treason from the bell tower.


Before his execution, Roderic swore to devote his afterlife to ruining the De Lacy family happiness. His ghost, the parchment says, was often seen afterwards, and the portrait has been traditionally shown to all the De Lacy children to warn them from “being misled by him unawares.” His ultimate mission, it warns, is to end the De Lacy bloodline – a mission which he has seemingly achieved.   



“Ultor de Lacy” blends elements from several of Le Fanu’s most sinister tales – especially “Schalken,” “Laura Silver Bell,” “Child/Fairies,” “Aungier Street,” and “Carmilla,” and the skin-crawling means by which this ghost exacts his generations-long plan for revenge has been an unmistakable influence on some of English literature’s most sinister interpretations of the Demon Lover trope. It was certainly influenced by Charles Dicken’s wonderfully Lefanuvian masterwork “To Be Read at Dusk,” wherein a bride has recurring dreams of a mustachioed villain, is hushed by her husband, is terrified when her husband befriends the sinister Signor Dellombra (“Lord of Shadows” in Italian), is further dismissed, and is ultimately last seen pale and distressed in a coach with Dellombra, who spirits her away.


 Although it is little remembered today, “Ultor De Lacy” has had a storied influence on countless horror stories and authors, and three masterpieces in particular. Firstly, a decade after its publication, Le Fanu’s talented niece, Rhoda Broughton – who, although she only penned ten tales, took after her uncle, becoming  one of the Victorians’ best supernaturalists – used “Ultor De Lacy”’s basic premise in “The Man With the Nose,” a story very similar to Dickens’, but with a grotesque nose (rather than a dark mustache, or a claret mark) being the distinguishing feature. Secondly, it was a crucial influence on one of E. F. Benson’s most potent and terrifying stories – “The Face” – where a girl has had recurring dreams since childhood (also like Laura in “Carmilla”) of being chased through a ruined landscape by a red-haired rapist, later recognizes the man’s face in an old portrait, and ultimately opens the door to the three-hundred-years-dead visage. And thirdly – and most interesting of all – is its profound influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.



While we largely understand that Stoker borrowed ponderously from “Carmilla” to formulate Dracula (and retooled “Aungier Street” into “The Judge’s House”), any reader of the great vampire novel will have noticed something familiar in the hide-and-seek relationship between the bright-and-gay Una and the tried-and-true Alice: it is unmistakably like that between Lucy and Mina respectively – the pleas of the concerned virgin for the imperiled libertine to disclose her secret; the nightly ramblings with a never-seen suitor; the curious innuendos, alarming references to death, and hypnotic surrender to an outside power; the profoundly Draculean reference to Una’s preference of birds who chose only to sing at night over those who twitter in the sun; the rapidly tightening coils as Una seems to be pulled further, and further away from her friends, family, and duties; he rejection of a casual, aristocratic fiancé (the French noble vs. Arthur, Lord Goldalming) in favor of a supernatural seducer; the color of the two women’s hair (Lucy’s is blonde, Mina’s brunette); and so many more similarities.


O’Donnell’s ghost is tremendously vampiric as well, sometimes in manners which recall Dracula himself: he brazenly appears in public at daytime, shocking the only man (De Lacy) who recognizes him; he is kept off (momentarily) by the religious rites of an old man (the priest vs. Van Helsing) who ultimately fails because of his inattention; he is courtly but vulgar; his motivation is revenge and conquest, unlike most ghosts who desire justice or affirmation; he is a warrior who was betrayed into the hands of his enemies by a kinsman (Vlad III was betrayed by his brother, Radu); he has telekinetic powers (deflecting the pistol shot by a yard) and power to change shape (into ivy and lichen); and he is less of a specter and more of a goblin or fairy – a corporeal visitant who claims his victim, spiriting her away into his tower, rather than a spook who merely frightens someone to death.



Now onto a more detailed look at the story itself – apart from its relationship to the works of Stoker, Dickens, Broughton, or Benson. It is easily one of Le Fanu’s most cruel (the victim is the high-spirited daughter of his enemy’s great-great grandfather), and seems to be hinting at Le Fanu’s own concerns for his legacy as a man filled with “great zeal for his queen” – a Protestant and a Tory who had sided with the British government during the Great Famine and clung to unpopular (and potentially treasonous) politics which many of his countrymen – his national kinsmen – may have considered a betrayal in their time of great need.


Le Fanu may have been wondering how far down the line his family might be cursed by his romantic fidelity to Queen and Church – a fidelity which (like that of the Jacobites to the Stuart line), might one day become itself an ironic treason. The great sin of Walter de Lacy is his rejection of a kinsman in need – one who should have been protected and spared according to the rules of chivalry and Irish codes of hospitality. For this, his line is marked for extinction, and his house is cursed with political misfortune.


The vampiric/demonic ghost of Roderic O’Donnell is held at bay by the Mass, but when his molestation of the priest prevents him from servicing the little family who are ironically guests in his supernatural territory (his ghost haunting, as it does, the tower whence he was hanged), he is free to lure Una into an incestuous and unnatural union – blighting and extinguishing the family line in an act of blasphemy.



This story – chronicling as it does a series of two-sided loyalties and treasons – culminates in Una’s treason of her family, her virtue, and her virginity. As Ann Cahill notes, “Part of the horror for Alice and her father is not just that they lose [Una] to O'Donnell but that she is secretive, sly and gone of her own will – although Ultor believes her to be enchanted and has a ‘solemn exorcism’ performed to get her back”. However, this does not work. There is a strong sense in the story that Una leaves of her own volition. 


She says at one point to her concerned sister “Knowledge is sorrow.” “Knowledge,” of course, is a common Victorian euphemism for “carnal knowledge” – Una held the key to the family’s survival in her sexual union with the French noble, but instead gives herself over to the family’s greatest enemy, taking her fertility, her womb, and her sexual appetite with her to O’Donnell’s supernatural lair. Ultimately, when the avenger O’Donnell has Una betray her father – wrting on the headboard “ULTOR DE LACY, ULTOR O’DONNELL,” it is a clear message: “The Avenger of the De Lacy’s has been bested – by the Avenger of the O’Donnells.”



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