Friday, May 16, 2014
Endure or Avoid
Mid-to-late 19th-century Irish Protestant writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu is really the second giant with a career output mostly in what we'd now call horror, dark fantasy, and the supernatural (or even Weird) fiction, after Edgar Allan Poe. It's a testament to his skill and vision that this is a fantastic collection, even though it omits the two horror stories he's best-known and most-anthologized for, the seminal vampire novella "Camilla" and the psychological chiller "Green Tea."
Dracula's Bram Stoker clearly knew Le Fanu's work, as Dracula borrows mightily from "Camilla" (which remains a far superior story) and from Le Fanu's recurring occult investigator Dr. Martin Hesselius, the latter in the person of Professor Van Helsing.
The stories collected here span the 1840's, 50's, and 60's, but for all their period-appropriate language and narrative approach, they are nonetheless imaginatively modern on the topic of ghosts. Le Fanu's ghosts seem to obey certain nebulous rules, even as to who they can or cannot appear to. They are not, however, easy to get rid of. Mid-19th-century Great Britain may have been a more Christian place than it is today, but there are no exorcisms here, and no deus ex machina endings. Ghosts are things to be either endured or avoided.
The Fairie also appear in some stories, most strikingly in "The Child That Went with the Fairies." They aren't nice. Really, really, really not nice, and this story really works as an epitomal tale of stolen children, a recurring trope in traditional stories of the Fairie in the British Isles. One calls them The Good Folk or The Kind Folk in the hopes of flattering them, not because they are.
Throughout the stories, Le Fanu deftly establishes setting and regional dialect, regardless of where the story is set. There are both urban and rural tales of the supernatural here. There are disturbingly fluid spectres, at least one Devil, ghosts whose touch corrupts and kills, innocent lives stolen or ended by all manner of unearthly beings, and terrible discoveries behind hidden doors.
Le Fanu has what would be now called a "cinematic eye" at points -- there are some marvelous visual descriptions in "Squire Toby's Will" of strangely mutating, threatening shadows that resolve into figures but dissolve when closely regarded; this skill manifests in several other stories as well. Some of Le Fanu's ghosts resemble those 3-D posters that suddenly resolve into an image when looked at the correct way. Except the posters aren't out to kill you.
M.R. James originally selected and introduced this collection in the 1920's, which is fitting given James' place as perhaps the most accomplished and influential writer of ghost stories in history. All in all, an excellent collection. Highly recommended.