In a Glass Darkly by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872

It’s been a dog’s age since I blogged up anything for Project: Monster.  But isn’t that the nature of the beast when dealing with the things that go bump in the night?  They lie quietly in wait until they’ve been forgotten, and then they sneak up and pounce.

In a Glass Darkly is a celebrated collection of five stories published: three shorter tales followed by two longer novellas.  The title is a deliberate misquote from a passage in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:12.  The five tales are loosely connected by a narrative framework, part of the psychological case studies of Dr. Martin Hesselius, the precursor to the more famous and (and more heroically active) Dr. Abraham Van Helsing.  If you’re not already familiar with this connection, yes, you read that correctly.  Read on, and the connection will be made abundantly clear.

As is customary for me for an anthology collection, I’ll offer up a quick synopsis of all five stories with a small review.

“Green Tea”

Reverend Robert Lysander Jennings, an English clergyman, is being followed by a demon that takes the form of a ghostly monkey.  It’s invisible to everyone else, of course, and systematically destroys Jennings’ life by invading his mind and twisting everything.  Hesselius is writing to a Dutch colleague about the victim’s condition, the creature’s methods, and his belief that green tea was the catalyst by which the victim’s inner eye was unlocked, opening the way to the demonic hauntings.

As someone who enjoys a quality green tea when not otherwise nursing a big mug of coffee, I find the premise of this to be… unlikely at best.  Ok, it’s outright screwball.  Let’s call it for what it is, shall we?  But this is 19th century Gothic / late Romantic era literature, and all bets are off in terms of plausibility.  The choice is yours if you accept it as a conceit or not.  If you can get past the setup, the writing style makes the rest of the story work in spite of itself.  The demon monkey creature alone makes this story worth it.  If you turn off your brain and let the elegance of the prose sweep over you, it’s an excellent beginning to this collection.  The writing style has a lot in common with Edgar Allan Poe.  To put this into perspective, the classic ghost story formula had already been run into the ground by this time.  This was the story that shook things up a bit and breathed something new into the subgenre, which is why the late Victorian era is known for ghost stories.  In its day, it was quite popular, enough so to encourage mimics.

“The Familiar”

This is a reworking of the short story “The Watcher.”  A sea captain, Barton, residing in Dublin, is being watched by a strange little person who resembles someone from his past.  The captain hears accusing voices, and eventually his fears take the menacing shape of an owl once owned by his fianceé.

Again, the entire reason to read this is Le Fanu’s writing style.  The man has some seriously elegant chops for one who writes horror.  But then, that’s sort of the hallmark of the Romantic era that I miss from modern writers.  It’s like after Lovecraft, it sort of goes downhill.  Aside from the wonderful prose and the intensity of character, the story itself is largely forgettable, made more so by the stronger entries in this anthology.  Still, well worth the read.

“Mr. Justice Harbottle”

Another revised story, this one a later version of “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungler Street.”  Elijah Harbottle is a cruel judge in the Court of Common Please.  He finds himself under attack by vengeful spirits, ultimately condemned to death by a doppelganger in a horrifying dream.  The tale is related through letters from an elderly friend.

It’s nigh impossible to have any kind of sympathy for Harbottle.  And really, that’s the point.  The character is most likely modeled after the infamous “hanging judge,” George Jeffreys, a specter of history who very likely served as the prototype for a great many cruel lords and barons in Le Fanu’s own time.  In the hands of a lesser writer, this might have degenerated into bad comedy or schlock horror.  But atmosphere is everything, and Le Fanu plays it straight as ever.  For me, it’s potentially the weakest link in the entire collection, and it’s still a most solid read, made that much better when you know the history that influenced it.

“The Room in Le Dragon Volant

A young English nobleman, Richard Beckett, tours France in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo.  His infatuation with a beautiful French Countess drags him into a sinister web in a city that’s no stranger to violence and subterfuge, and where no one is whom they appear.  No sign of the supernatural here or is needed, but there are more touches worthy of Poe, and the tension is cranked to 11 by the end of it.

As a Gothic mystery slathered in post-Revolution heroic romance, this little novella reads at times more like a historical spy thriller and hits on all points.  Well-plotted, exquisitely written, and… it’s been completely overrun by the popularity of the story that follows.  I see all the reasons why, but honestly, I think this may be my new favorite of Le Fanu’s stories.  I’ll know for certain over the long haul, but for now I’m just kicking myself.  I really should have picked this up years ago, back when I first learned “Carmilla” was part of this larger anthology.  At the same, though, I think this is one that maybe I appreciate more now precisely because of all the things I’ve learned about over the years that intersect and underpin the story.  It’s told so well, you can practically taste the café noir.  As a bonus that plays right into my heart, one might easily see where Gaston Leroux acquired some subtle background influences here and there for The Phantom of the Opera.  The City of Light casts a great many shadows.

“Carmilla”

Unquestioningly the most famous story Le Fanu ever wrote, which is odd when you know that this particular dip into Gothic horror a la Horace Walpole was completely out of character for him.  This is the tale of a lesbian vampire in an age when both ideas were shocking.  The threat of the vampire was very real to some people in that age, and for those who knew better, vampirism was overtly used as a subtext for sexual violation.  This is where that idea begins.  “Carmilla” set into motion virtually every trope in popular vampire fiction known today, which in turn heavily influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  I think we all know how that turned out, thanks to the budding film industry in the years following Stoker’s death.

Of these five stories, “Carmilla” is the only one I’d read previously, and I’ve read it many, many times since I was a kid.  It’s one of those tales I keep coming back to because it seems to evolve as I’ve grown older.  I consider it to be one of the very best vampire stories ever told.  Of course, if a story’s success can be numbered by its influences and knock-offs, then “Carmilla” may very well be in a class of it’s own, having done for Gothic horror, and especially for the vampire subgenre, what Tolkien’s The Hobbit did for modern fantasy.

Four of the five stories in this anthology were written in the year of publication, 1872, after years of bereavement, living a reclusive and nocturnal existence and earning the nickname “The Invisible Prince.”  He would die only one year later with this collection serving as his most lasting legacy.  It’s like the more you know, the more resonance the tales have.  But at the same time, each of these stories stands on its own, each worthy of those who appreciate the kinds of tales best told by candlelight.

One thought on “In a Glass Darkly by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872

  1. Pingback: Vampyr, 1932 | Knight of Angels

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