Sunday, October 14, 2012

In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu

It’s October so I thought I’d write a couple of reviews about book collections of ghost stories.  I like to be scared as much as the next person but I don’t find the violence and gore of today’s stories about the occult scary.  They’re just gross.  Also, today everything’s been turned upside down and now “evil is called good”, as is evidenced by the books and movies whose heroes are vampires and witches.

In order to experience genuine horror one has to reach all the way back to the 19th century.  That’s where writers really knew how to write a scary ghost story.  The great thing is that not only were the stories truly scary-as opposed to today’s  predictable butchery- they held deeply psychological messages.  These authors knew how to keep you thinking about their stories for days after you’d finished reading them.

And on top of all that, they were brilliant writers.  There’s a reason why their books are still in print after a hundred years.

Everyone is familiar of course with Mary Shelley’s tragic monster created by Frankenstein as well as Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula.  What many readers may not be familiar with are the stories written by Sheridan Le Fanu.

 Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish author born to a Protestant clergyman, grew up on the supernatural legends of Ireland.  He was especially fascinated with stories that involved encounters with demons and fairies.  Many of these stories were orally transmitted from one generation to another and are unfortunately not written down.  Le Fanu, however, has preserved them in a sense because they served as an inspiration for his own works.  There are many collections of his writings available online.  The book I bought is titled, In a Glass Darkly.

Many of his stories come from a first person’s perspective so the reader is never sure what is real or what is perceptual. Is the man truly being stalked by a demon or is he insane?  Le Fanu explores this theme in many of his stories.  Sometimes it seems there are truly malevolent forces at work.  Other times it appears the person is tormented by their own guilty soul.

In Green Tea, a pastor seeks the help of a doctor because he believes he’s going mad.  There is one scene in particular that is disturbing and I don’t recommend reading the story at night or in the house alone.

The man is sitting in a carriage in the evening and it is dark.  He comes to realize that something is in the carriage with him.  At first he sees just red glowing eyes staring at him.  To get a better look he draws closer to the eyes until he finds himself face to face with a monkey.  He doesn’t understand how the animal came to be in his carriage and pokes him with his cane.  His cane goes through the monkey’s body. The animal is actually a spectre.

No matter where the pastor goes, the monkey is with him.  At first it is silent but eventually begins to speak to him.  It urges the pastor to kill himself.  The rest of the story is extremely suspenseful and it’s ending impossible to predict.  Many of Le Fanu’s writings deal with man trying to fight against evil urges and often losing.

One of the best stories is Carmilla.  This has to be one Le Fanu’s most powerful and horrific tales.  The protagonist is a young girl who begins to fall ill.  As the story continues it becomes apparent that she is being made sick because something is preying on her.  There is one moving scene when the girl’s dead mother communicates with her through an angelic being.

I am going to tell you now of a dream that led immediately to an odd discovery. 

One night...I heard a voice, sweet and tender, and at the same time terrible, which said, “Your mother warns you to beware of the assassin.”  At the same time a light unexpectedly sprang up and I saw Carmilla, standing, near the foot of my bed, in her white night dress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood.”

This is another story that not only holds suspense but fascination because it is not merely a story of “Satan masking as an angel of light” but a study in how humans are deceived by external appearances and our own longings that we allow ourselves to be seduced by evil which can eventually lead to our own demise.

Next week, I’ll review the works of M.R. James who received his inspiration from Le Fanu and is today regarded as the foremost Victorian ghost teller.

or on Kindle for $4.99


Gandergelf said...

I had not heard of Le Fanu until now. I also agree with your assessment of modern horror.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Shaz, I haven't heard from you in a while. Good to hear from you. Le Fanu is very Victorian, but if you don't mind the dated style of writing he's worth reading. Take care!

Eustacia Tan said...

Sounds scary! I'll probably wait for the days to get longer before I pick up the book(;


Sharon Wilfong said...

Eustacia: They are scary! Don't read them at night in a cemetery. :)

Brian Joseph said...

I had never heard of Sheridan Le Fanu. He sounds terrific. These type of scary stories are my favorite. I believe that I will seek him out. Green Tea sounds really terrifying.

While I would argue that there is some modern horror that is absolutely terrifying I totally agree, modern day violence and gore fests are neither scary nor mentally stimulating.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Brian: If you get a chance to read Le Fanu and like him, I would also suggest M.R. James who was inspired by Le Fanu and to the horror story to an even deeper level. Have a good day!