J.S Le Fanu & The Golden Age of the Ghost Story

Extract from new post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

As the nights grow longer and colder and we move inexorably towards Halloween, the readerly mind turns naturally towards the ghost story. And while pumpkins are carved and displayed as an invitation to trick-or-treaters, let us not forget that their original purpose was to ward off the evil spirits that walk on All Saint’s Eve, the same night as the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain. Originally carved from turnips, the tradition of the Halloween Jack O’Lantern began in Ireland as a symbolic representation of a soul in purgatory. According to Irish folklore, the original ‘Jack’ met the Devil on the way home from a night’s drinking and trapped him up a tree by cutting the sigh of the cross into the bark. Before releasing him, Jack strikes a bargain that the Devil will never claim his soul. After a life of debauchery, Jack’s soul is barred from Heaven, but Hell won’t take him either. To make him go away, Satan hurls a burning coal like a publican discouraging a stray dog. Freezing, Jack places the coal in a hastily hollowed-out turnip and fashions a lamp. His lost soul has been wandering Ireland ever since carrying his lantern – lit by the eternal fire of Hell – and looking for a resting place. (The pumpkin was adopted by Irish immigrants to America, being more physically impressive and a lot easier to carve than a turnip.) According to Irish mythology, during Samhain the door to what the Celts called the ‘Otherworld’ swung open, letting supernatural beings and the souls of the dead into the world of men. While ‘Bealtaine’ (May Day) was a summer festival for the living, Samhain was a festival for the dead. It is thus in every way appropriate that the father of the modern ghost story, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, was an Irishman…

If you’ve not read Le Fanu yet, chances are you’ve come across one of the film or television adaptations, especially if you’re of my generation and therefore cut your gothic teeth on Hammer Films and the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas in the 1970s. I got into Le Fanu as a kid having been traumatised by the BBC dramatization of Schalcken the Painter. The vision of the young artist’s first love, Rose, cavorting with the ‘livid and demoniac form of Vanderhausen’ in the catacombs beneath Rotterdam gave me nightmares for weeks. I, of course, immediately searched out the original story, and picked up a second-hand anthology with Peter Cushing on the cover published to promote The Vampire Lovers, the Hammer version of Le Fanu’s vampire story, Carmilla. I was still using this copy at university, which raised a few eyebrows, I can tell you, and Hammer went on to produce their ‘Karnstein Trilogy’, following The Vampire Lovers with Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. Not that these were the first Le Fanu movies; there is also the haunting German Expressionist Vampyr (1932), directed by Carl Dreyer. Who’d have thought lesbian vampires would have had such enduring appeal?

The descendant of a noble Huguenot family, Dubliner J.S. Le Fanu (1814–1873) was in his own time a bestselling author. He was known for his historical, mystery, and sensation fiction (he is credited with inventing the ‘locked-room mystery’ with his story ‘A Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess’ published in 1838, three years before Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’),and above all horror. Described by his friend Alfred Perceval Graves – the father of Robert – as ‘one of the greatest masters of the weird and the terrible’, after his early death at the age of 58, Le Fanu’s reputation was crowded out of Victorian literature by his contemporaries, Dickens, Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, and the Brontës; all of whom he in some form influenced and whose sales he frequently rivalled.

Although called to the bar, Le Fanu chose instead to devote himself to writing, following in the footsteps of his great-uncle, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a precarious profession he later described in his novel All in the Dark:

Literary work, the ambition of so many, not a wise one perhaps for those who have any other path before them, but to which men will devote themselves, as to a perverse marriage, contrary to other men’s warnings, and even to their own legible experiences of life in a dream.

He began contributing articles, ballads, and short stories to the Dublin University Magazine in 1838 including his first supernatural tale, ‘The Ghost and the Bone-Setter’, which is played for laughs, and the chilling ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’, which isn’t. From 1840, he began acquiring financial interests in several Irish newspapers. Le Fanu had been fascinated by folklore and superstition since his childhood, the Irish journalist Samuel Carter Hall writing of him:

I knew the brothers Joseph and William Le Fanu when they were youths at Castle Connell, on the Shannon … They were my guides throughout the beautiful district, and I found them full of anecdote and rich in antiquarian lore, with thorough knowledge of Irish peculiarities.

William became a civil engineer, Joseph never gave up on those ‘Irish peculiarities’, becoming, in the words of E.F. Benson, one of his twentieth century disciples, an ‘unrivalled flesh-creeper’ whose ‘tentacles of terror are applied so softly that the reader hardly notices them till they are sucking the courage from his blood.’

Prior to his marriage to Susanna Bennett in 1843, Le Fanu wrote prolifically for the Irish magazine market, producing a series of gothic, historical and humorous short stories for the Dublin University Magazine later collected as The Purcell Papers. These were written under the framing umbrella of being ‘extracts’ from the ‘MS. Papers of the late Rev. Francis Purcell, of Drumcoolagh’, a fictitious Catholic priest, posthumously collected and edited by an unidentified friend, adding both a sense of authenticity and gothic ambiguity to the narratives. These include the story ‘A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family’ (1839) which shares significant similarities of plot – aristocratic bigamy and the ‘madwoman in the attic’ – with Jane Eyre (1847). The best of the rest of Le Fanu’s early ghost stories were anthologised by M.R. James in Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories in 1923, marking the beginning of a revival of interest in Le Fanu’s supernatural fiction. James’ introduction is expansive, declaring that Le Fanu ‘stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories’, continuing ‘Nobody sets the scene better than he, nobody touches in the effective detail more deftly.’ James chooses twelve tales that are representative of Le Fanu’s art, including haunted houses (‘An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street’); Faustian pacts (‘Sir Dominick’s Bargain’); Irish legends (‘The Child that went with the Fairies’); warnings from Hell (‘The Vision of Tom Chuff’); bitterly contested inheritances (‘Squire Toby’s Will’); portents of doom (‘The White Cat of Drumgunniol’); historical curses (‘Ultor de Lacy’); and terrible, long concealed crimes (‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost’). The dying caste of the Protestant Anglo-Irish – like Le Fanu’s own family line – is a recurring motif, as is the similar decline of the Catholic aristocracy, symbolised by the ruined castles that dot Le Fanu’s textual landscape. There is also a dark sense of humour running through these tales, which sets Le Fanu’s style apart from his contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe. Like James’ own stories, these are presented as first-hand accounts of events occurring in living memory, usually related to, or collected by a gentleman scholar or antiquarian. Elegantly structured, the stories follow James’ prescription for the perfect ghost story:

Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo … Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

James notes that these tales are now ‘forgotten’ and were frequently published anonymously. He therefore concludes with the appeal that, ‘I shall be very grateful to anyone who will notify me of any that he is fortunate enough to find.’ In comparing the style and tone of James’ famous Edwardian ghost stories with those of Le Fanu, it is clear how much of a debt was owed…

To read the full article please click here

Photograph by Wendy Scofield.

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