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:
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:
His best-known works, still widely read today, are:
Other fiction by Le Fanu includes:
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).