Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (August 28, 1814 – February 7, 1873) was an Irish writer of Gothic tales and mystery novels. He was the premier ghost story writer of the nineteenth century and had a seminal influence on the development of this genre in the Victorian era.
Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin into a literary family of Huguenot origins. Both his grandmother, Alice Sheridan Le Fanu and great uncle, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, were playwrights. His niece, Rhoda Broughton, would become a very successful novelist.
Le Fanu studied law at Trinity College in Dublin, where he was elected Auditor of the College Historical Society. He was called the bar in 1839, but he never practised and soon abandoned law for journalism. In 1838 he began contributing stories to the Dublin University Magazine including his first ghost story entitled "A Strange event in the life of Schalken the Painter" (1839). He became owner of several newspapers from 1840 including the Dublin Evening Mail and the Warder. In 1847 Le Fanu supported John Mitchell and Thomas Meagher in their campaign against the indifference of the Government to the Irish Famine. His support cost him the nomination as Tory MP for County Carlow in 1852. His personal life also became difficult at this time as his wife Susanna suffered from increasing neurotic symptoms. She died in 1858 in unclear circumstances and anguished excerpts from Le Fanu's diaries suggest that he felt guilt as well as loss. However it was only after her death that, becoming something of a recluse, he devoted himself full time to writing. In 1861 he became the editor and proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine and he began exploiting double exposure: serializing in the Dublin University Magazine and then revising for the English market . The House by the Churchyard and Wylder's Hand were both published in this way. After the lukewarm reviews of the former novel, set in the Phoenix Park area of Dublin, Le Fanu signed a contract with Richard Bentley, his London publisher, which specified his novels be 'the story of an English subject and of modern times', a step Bentley thought necessary in order to break into the mainland audience. Le Fanu succeded in this aim in 1864, with the publication of Uncle Silas which he set in Derbyshire. He died in his native Dublin on February 7, 1873. Today there is a road in Ballyfermot in south-west Dublin named after him.
Le Fanu worked in many genres but remains best known for his mystery and horror fiction. He was a meticulous craftsman, with a penchant for frequently reworking plots and ideas from his earlier writing in subsequent pieces of writing (many of his novels are expansions and refinements of earlier short stories). He specialised in tone and effect rather than "shock horror", often following a mystery format. Key to his style was the avoidance of overt supernatural effects: in most of his major works, the supernatural is strongly implied but a possible "natural" explanation is left (barely) open. (For instance, the demonic monkey in "Green Tea" could be a delusion of the story's protagonist, who is the only person to see it; in "The Familiar", Captain Barton's death seems to be of supernatural causes, but is not actually witnessed, and the ghostly owl may just be a real bird.) This approach has proven important for later horror writers and also for other media (it is surely an antecedent to the film producer Val Lewton's principle of indirect horror). Though other writers have since chosen blunter approaches to supernatural fiction, Le Fanu's best tales, such as the vampire novella Carmilla, remain some of the most chilling examples of the genre. Considering the influence of his work – including his enormous influence on the 20th century's most important ghost story writer, M.R. James – it is surprising that Le Fanu is not better appreciated.
His earliest twelve short stories, written between 1838 and 1840 purported to be the literary remains of an 18th century Catholic priest called Father Purcell. They were published in the Dublin University Magazine and were later collected as The Purcell Papers (1880). They are mostly set in Ireland and include some classic stories of gothic horror featuring gloomy castles, supernatural visitations from beyond the grave, madness and suicide. They include some widely anthologised pieces:
- "The Ghost and the Bonesetter" (1838), his first published story, in a jocular vein.
- "The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh" (1838).
- "The Last Heir of Castle Connor" (1838).
- "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" (1839), a disturbing story of a revenant who comes from beyond the grave to claim a bride: the old folkloric motif of the Demon lover.
- "Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess" (1839): an early version of his later novel Uncle Silas.
- "A Chapter in the History of the Tyrone Family" (1839), which may have influenced Charlotte Brontė's Jane Eyre.
Some of these stories, including a revised version of "Schalken" were reprinted in Le Fanu's first collection of short stories: the very rare Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851).
Le Fanu's first novels were historical, in the mode of Sir Walter Scott, though with an Irish background:
- The Cock and Anchor (1845).
- Torlogh O'Brien (1847).
- The House by the Churchyard (1863), was the last of Le Fanu's novels to be set in the past and, as mentioned above, the last with an Irish setting. It is noteworthy that, here, Le Fanu's historical mode is blended with his later Gothic mode, influenced by his reading of the classic writers of that genre such as Anne Radcliffe. This novel was later an important source for Joyce's Finnegans Wake and is based in Chapelizod in Dublin where Le Fanu lived for some time.
His best-known works, still widely read today, are:
- Uncle Silas (1864), a macabre mystery novel and classic of gothic horror, which has been adapted as a terrifying film. It is a much extended adaptation of his earlier short story "Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess", with the locale switched from Ireland to England.
- In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of five short stories in the horror and mystery genres, presented as the posthumous papers of the psychic investigator Dr Hesselius:
- "Green Tea"
- "The Familiar"
- "Mr Justice Harbottle" (perhaps better known in its earlier, very different version, "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street")
- "The Room in the Dragon Volant", not a ghost story but a notable mystery story that includes the theme of premature burial
- "Carmilla", a compelling tale of a lesbian vampire, set in darkest central Europe. This story was to greatly influence Bram Stoker in the writing of Dracula. It also served as the basis for several films including Hammer's The Vampire Lovers; Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932) also shares some plot elements with it, and has reportedly inspired the film.
Other fiction by Le Fanu includes:
- Wylder's Hand (1864).
- Guy Deverell (1865).
- Haunted Lives (1868).
- The Wyvern Mystery (1869).
- The Rose and the Key (1871), which describes the horrors of the private lunatic asylum; a classic gothic trope.
- Chronicles of Golden Friars (1871), a collection of short stories. This is a fabulously rare book of which there are said to be less than a dozen volumes in existence.
- The Watcher and Other Weird Stories (1894), another collection of short stories, published posthumously.
- Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (1923), uncollected short stories gathered from their original magazine publications and edited by M.R. James:
- "Madam Crowl's Ghost"
- "Squire Toby's Will"
- "Dickon the Devil"
- "The Child that went with the Fairies"
- "The White Cat of Drumgunniol"
- "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street"
- "Ghost Stories of Chapelizod"
- "Wicked Captain Walshawe, of Wauling"
- "Sir Dominick's Bargain"
- "Ultor de Lacy"
- "The Vision of Tom Chuff"
- "Stories of Lough Guir"
The publication of this book led to the revival in interest in Le Fanu, which has continued to this day.
There is an extensive critical analysis of Le Fanu's work in Jack Sullivan's book Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story From Le Fanu to Blackwood (1978) and a biography Sheridan Le Fanu (third edition 1997) by W. J. Mc Cormack. Le Fanu, his works, and his family background are explored in Gavin Selerie's mixed prose/verse text Le Fanu's Ghost (2006).
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