In a glass darkly by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872

My reading of ghost stories and the horror genre in general has been negligible- Frankenstein, Dracula, a few stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens and the odd Steven King novel is about it. So it was on no more than a whim that I bought In a glass darkly in a second-hand bookshop, and no surprise I let it languish on my TBR pile for so long after that. Finally though, on a cold dark night last week, I started to read it and am now glad I did.

It contains five stories, purportedly drawn from the papers of the late Dr Martin Hesselius by his unnamed medical secretary to “amuse or horrify a lay reader with an interest quite different from the peculiar one which it may possess for an expert.” (and reminding me of the yet to be created Holmes and Watson).

The first -and in my opinion weakest- story in the collection is Green Tea. It tells the story of the Rev. Mr Jennings, who consults Dr Hesselius about a malignant companion visible only to himself. I was gripped by this atmospheric spooky story but was left unimpressed by the doctor’s weak explanation at the end. (Le Fanu may have done this deliberately though to make the reader feel there are stranger things in heaven and Earth than dreamt of in Hesslius’s philosophy.)

Fortunately, the next two tales of supernatural visitation are better resolved and so feel more complete.

The Familiar begins with the Dublin homecoming of Captain Barton, who was an intelligent and agreeable companion when he pleased it, though generally reserved, and occasionally even moody. In society however, he deported himself as a man of the world, and a gentleman. He had not contracted any of the noisy brusqueness sometimes acquired at sea; on the contrary his manners were remarkably easy, quiet and even polished.” In short, a man even Sir Walter Elliot, baronet might approve of.

All of which begins to change when walking home one night well after midnight, he hears the footsteps of someone dogging him, and despite repeatedly turning round, fails to see anyone there. It is no wonder that “In spite of all his scepticism, he felt something like a superstitious fear stealing fast upon him.” As Le Fanu points out, So little a matter, after all, is sufficient to upset the pride of scepticism and vindicate the old simple laws of nature within us.” Soon enough, these footsteps often accompany him and his persecution escalates to threatening letters and the regular apparition of a man from his mysterious past which he could not or dared not disclose”. What else happens and why will remain unknown, unless you read the story.

Justice Harbottle relates some particulars about the closing years of the life of Mr. Justice Harbottle, one of the judges of the Court of Common Pleas.” The Judge is a particularly unpleasant specimenloud, harsh, sarcastic and with the reputation of being about the wickedest man in England.” This reputation is explained by the fact he is a hanging judge, who seriously thinks:

“Did he not, as a lawyer, know, that to bring a man from his shop to his dock, the chances must be at least ninety-nine out of a hundred that he is guilty. A weak man like his learned brother Withershins was not a judge to keep the high-roads safe, and make crime tremble. Old Judge Harbottle was the man to make the evil-disposed quiver, and to refresh the world with showers of blood, and thus save the innocent, to the refrain of the ancient saw he loved to quote-

Foolish pity

Ruins a city.”

An opinion he may regret when an otherworldly court charges him with one of his many injustices.

My favorite stories in the collection are long enough to be called novellas.

The Room in the Dragon Volant features an old man reminiscing about his youth, when as a rich twenty-three year old Englishman he traveled to France in the wake of Waterloo. The people he meets and is befriended by provide him with “an early and terrible lesson in the ways of sin.” I don’t want to spoil it by giving more details, but enjoyed and admire how skilfully Le Fanu increases the tension and hints but doesn’t give away the climax. In fact, here I think he beats even Edgar Allen Poe at his own game.

Carmilla is a suspenseful vampire story complete with lesbian undertones (and obviously a great influence on Le Fanu’s contemporary Bram Stoker). At its end, the reader can only agree with the narrator that:

“It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; 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.”

Once I started this collection of Gothic tales, I couldn’t stop. I recommend it to everyone and will certainly be reading more of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I’ll also be interested to see how the stories of his influential admirer M. R. James compare- I have an OUP edition of Casting the runes and other ghost stories now moved to my first TBR pile in readiness.

12 thoughts on “In a glass darkly by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872

  1. Those stories look like fun, and perfect for a cold, wintery night. I liked the quote about the hanging judge and am a bit intrigued by Carmilla’s ambiguous alternations.

  2. This sounds very, very interesting. I read Carmilla some years ago and I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve been meaning to read more Sheridan Le Fanu ever since.

  3. This looks great for winter and rainy days. I have never read any Sheridan LeFanu and must keep a note of this. I like your quote about meeting people, who provide an early and terrible lesson in the way of sin…. really intriguing! Must read that.

  4. I *love* this book! In fact, I should dig it out for a re-read. For more good old ghost stories, I recommend one by ME Braddon called At Chrighton Abbey.

  5. Yes this is fun, you all should read or re-read it! I didn’t know Mary Elizabeth Braddon had written ghost stories, but will look out for them.

  6. I can’t remember where now but another blogger got me interested in LeFanu and then I forgot to try and bookmooch a copy. These sound like fun for stormy nights and I will put them on my list.

  7. I have a volume of LeFanu and have read some or all of it. It is interesting how the old scary stories are considerably more frightening than the current horror genre produces.

    I save my horror and vampire stories for the Halloween period. Have you read any Susan Hill? Some of hers are quite eerie.

  8. I haven’t read anything by Susan Hill, but have seen her reviewed on many book blogs. Do you have any favourites?

  9. Sheridan Le Fanu is wonderful, only M R James beats him, but you know I love this stuff! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. His novel Uncle Silas is one of my favourite books, it slowly builds up the suspense to an ending where I think I must have held my breath for about ten pages, it was so tense!

  10. The first Susan Hill I read was the creepiest – The Woman In Black. It reminded me a bit of the Turn of the Screw. Very good reading for a dark October night. It is only novella length so a very fast read. The Man in the Mask was almost as good but the plot was similar and you know how that goes.

  11. I have wanted to read this one, as well! In college I did a (very) tiny bit of research on the Gothic novel and found that one element that led to its popularity was a fascination with the more or less newly-developed concept of mental illness. It was a frightening thing, and reports of mental illness were published as entertaining curiosities, and eventually works emerged that were novelizations of a chronicle of mental illness, claiming to be a doctor following a patient or something similar. This leads to madness in popular works like Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Jane Eyre. That’s one take, anyway

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