The Curmudgeon


Friday, February 24, 2006

J Sheridan Le Fanu

A digression by the International Rooksbyist puts me in mind of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, to whose ghost stories I shall soon, once again, have to return.

I first heard of Le Fanu because someone mentioned him on the radio. I don't know what the context was (it's possible they were trying to revive the novels, which seems to happen every now and then), but I was inspired to pick up a second-hand Sphere paperback called unimaginatively The Best Horror Stories. Besides the usual foreword by someone I had never heard of (one Alexis Lykiard), it contained four stories, all by Le Fanu; and I quickly found that the title was no overstatement.

The first story in the book, and presumably the first Le Fanu I ever read, was "Schalken the Painter", which purports to recount the circumstances which led to the composition of a particular "remarkable work of Schalken's". As a young man, the painter is apprenticed to the successful Gerard Douw, and is in love with Douw's niece and ward Rose Velderkaust; however, there appears one Mynheer Vanderhausen, whose flesh is of a "bluish leaden hue", whose eyes hold "a certain indefinable quality of insanity" and who has "something indescribably odd, even horrible, about all his motions ... it was as if the limbs were guided and directed by a spirit unused to the management of bodily machinery". He also does not ever remove his gloves. But this slightly eccentric suitor has lots of gold, so of course Douw sells him his niece in marriage. When Rose reappears, desperate, pleading starvation and begging not to be left alone for a moment, she is of course left alone, and her conjugal relations are resumed upon a more permanent basis. The story ends with a dream, or vision, in which Schalken is led by an archly smiling Rose into "what appeared to be an old-fashioned Dutch apartment, such as the pictures of Gerard Douw have served to immortalise" wherein he sees, seated bolt upright in the four-poster bed, "the livid and demoniac form of Vanderhausen". Schalken is found "lying in a cell of considerable size, which had not been disturbed for a long time, and he had fallen beside a large coffin, which was supported upon small pillars, a security against the attacks of vermin." The story's final paragraph refers again to Schalken's painting, "which is valuable as exhibiting not only the peculiarities which have made Schalken's pictures sought after, but even more so as presenting a portrait of his early love, Rose Velderkaust, whose mysterious fate must always remain a matter of speculation."

The story remains one of the most horrible things I have ever read; and none the less so for Le Fanu's elegance of diction and subtlety of touch. It offers no explanations, no exorcism, no punishment for the venal guardian, no redemption for the innocent Rose, no moral order whatever. Le Fanu died in 1873, and "Schalken the Painter" is not a late story; what the mid-Victorians must have thought of it, I cannot imagine.

The second story in the book was "Green Tea", one of Le Fanu's most famous works, and one of several stories featuring the physician and metaphysical pontificator, Dr Martin Hesselius. A harmless little clergyman, Mr Jennings, is persecuted by a demonic creature in the form of a small black monkey with glowing red eyes, which torments him by squatting on his bible during sermons, shrieking blasphemies when he tries to pray, and tempting him to commit evil acts (a temptation Jennings resists, with scant reward from heaven). The apparent cause of this persecution is nothing more than green tea, which Jennings had been in the habit of consuming while at work on a book. Hesselius, like Rose Velderkaust's menfolk, manages to be unavailable when needed the most, and Jennings is driven to suicide. The story ends with Hesselius' smug pronouncement that "if the patient do not array himself on the side of the disease, his cure is certain." Similarly, the hounded protagonist of the third story, "The Familiar", at one point seeks solace from his doctor, only to be advised that his digestion is at fault. When he consults a clergyman, the result is even worse: "My dear sir, this is fancy; you are your own tormentor." The idea of a vicar who doesn't believe in the supernatural has since been used by Kingsley Amis in The Green Man, as an instance of what Amis apparently thought of as penetrating social satire; but Le Fanu is uninterested either in comic relief or in scoring cheap points. His best stories are unmitigated nightmares, which grow more frightening the more one thinks about them. In "Mr Justice Harbottle", a vile hanging judge is horribly made away with by his victims; but since his victims are apparently damned, alternating between indescribable gloom and fiendish, mirthless laughter, they can hardly be considered agents of a virtuous divinity.

During his lifetime Le Fanu was famous less for his ghost stories than for his popular novels of mystery and suspense, some of which, as I have said, are periodically resurrected. Many years ago I read one called Guy Deverell, about a mysterious avenger who appears, after many years, in order to destroy a landowner who has wronged him: a plot device similar to some of the ghost stories, but in this case used towards a happy ending rather than a catastrophic one. Even today, some of the best horror writers, who have few scruples about ending short stories in devastating fashion, often seem reluctant to do the same in their novels; perhaps it is harder to destroy one's characters after three hundred pages than it is after twenty or thirty.

The most famous of Le Fanu's novels, which has never needed resurrection, is Uncle Silas, a superb though non-supernatural late Gothic whose young narrator, Maud Ruthyn, is made ward of her father's brother as a gesture of trust; Silas has an evil reputation, and Maud's father wishes to give him the opportunity of proving his innocence. Besides Le Fanu's atmospheric but intensely readable writing and a page-turning plot, Uncle Silas also boasts characters like Maud's kindly elder cousin, Monica Knollys; the feeble yet sinister Silas himself; and the best ever evil governess, Madame de la Rougierre.

Le Fanu was born in 1814 and lived in Dublin. After the untimely death of his wife in 1858 he became a recluse, writing at night between two and four, fuelled by strong tea; the bulk of his ghost stories date from this period. His greatest collection, In a Glass Darkly, which includes "Green Tea", "The Familiar", "Mr Justice Harbottle" and Carmilla, was published in the year before he died. Supposedly he suffered a recurring nightmare in which he was trapped beneath a collapsing house; when he was found dead of a heart attack, his doctor observed, "So the house has fallen at last."

The last of the four Best Horror Stories was the novella Carmilla, with which I am not nearly familiar enough. Although surprisingly explicit in its lesbian overtones, Carmilla is a far subtler and more sophisticated story of vampirism than Bram Stoker's epic of sanguinary sentimentality. It is also a bleaker one. Dracula and his victim, Lucy Westenra, are both seen to be at peace when they die; in Carmilla it is noted that "the vampire, on its expulsion from its amphibious existence, is projected into a far more horrible life". The ending, too, is far more delicate and poetically ambiguous than Stoker's emphatic epilogue, in which the forces of virtue all marry happily and settle down to breed. "It was long before the terror of events subsided," writes Laura, Carmilla's erstwhile friend and victim, "and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations - sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door."


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