Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Essay - Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Short Fiction Analysis

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Short Fiction Analysis

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s method for writing horror fiction was unusual. After drinking copious amounts of tea for stimulation, he would retire around midnight to his dismal bedroom, where he would nap for approximately two hours, having, if possible, a few provocative nightmares. Upon awakening about two o’clock in the morning, he would begin to write and continue until daylight. He would then sleep again until noon. Unlikely and bizarre as this routine sounds, it was the ritual that Le Fanu followed during the last fifteen years of his life. This was the period in which he produced his best work, a body of fiction that entitles him to rank with Edgar Allan Poe as an innovator in the development of the modern horror and mystery genres.

Le Fanu began these curious compositional procedures following the premature death of his wife. The grief and shock of her passing were instrumental in turning him gradually from a socially active, convivial editor-journalist-writer to a recluse. This progressively increasing self-absorption, isolation, and preoccupation with the dark side of human experience found objective expression in the supernatural stories of his last years, as well as in such outstanding novels as Uncle Silas and Wylder’s Hand. This is not to say, however, that his concentration on the morbid and supernatural represented an abrupt shift in Le Fanu’s work. Although his earliest stories and novels focused more on Irish history and society, the macabre was an important ingredient in virtually everything he wrote, especially his shorter fiction. During his fifteen-year “dry spell” (1848-1863), the only book of fiction he published was Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery in 1851.

“Schalken the Painter”

“Schalken the Painter” is vintage early Le Fanu, although in a brief summary it probably sounds as overblown and chaotic as the worst examples of Le Fanu’s gothic predecessors. Schalken, a promising Flemish artist, is in love with Rose Velderkaust, the ward of his painting master, Gerard Douw. Because he is poor, Schalken’s proposal of marriage to Rose is rejected by Douw in favor of a suit pressed by a rich, mysterious old man, “Minheer Wilken Vanderhausen of Rotterdam.” When the principals finally get a good look at Vanderhausen, however, they are horrified: He looks to be a walking corpse. His face has a “bluish leaden hue,” his eyes “an undue proportion of muddy white a certain indefinable character of insanity,” his lips “nearly black,” and “the entire character of the face was sensual, malignant, and even satanic.” Nevertheless, the marriage is contracted and takes place.

Some months later, after the couple has vanished and Vanderhausen has been exposed as a fraud, Rose suddenly comes to Schalken and Douw, dressed in a strange white garment, and babbling hysterically that “the dead and the living never can be one”; she eats ravenously and begs for protection. They attempt to guard her but fail, and she vanishes from behind a locked door, never to reappear in the flesh. Years later while in Rotterdam for his father’s funeral, Schalken sees her in a dream. Dressed in her white costume, she leads him to a small apartment containing a curtained four-poster bed. She spreads the curtain apart, and Vanderhausen sits up. Schalken faints and is found unconscious the next day in the burial vaults, stretched out beside a coffin.

This narrative clearly leaves more questions than it answers; the reader who expects everything to be neatly tidied up and explained in the end will be disappointed. The experience it offers, however, is both unified and potent. Three factors enable Le Fanu to order the chaos in the story quite effectively: the precision with which he controls the structure and point of view; the careful balance in his language between graphic realism and suggestive abstraction; and strong suggestions of an underlying worldview in which such horrible events really do not seem out of place. The title notwithstanding, the main action of the story does not focus on Schalken but on the bizarre fate of the innocent Rose Velderkaust. The painter simply provides the eyes through which these strange events are viewed in bits and pieces. Since most of the action happens offstage, the reader is forced to share the rejected lover’s anxiety and puzzlement. Like Schalken, the reader must guess at the awful details of her marriage, and, in the end, the reader is left with the same unanswered questions. As is typical of the best modern practitioners in this genre, Le Fanu stimulates fear and horror as much by what he omits as by what he includes, leaving it to the reader’s imagination to make concrete horror out of his many dark hints.

When Le Fanu is specific, however, he is very precise, visual, and visceral. Vanderhausen is no wispy, floating ghost of the sort that haunted old gothic mansions. He is a physically solid—if rotting—corpse, who acts directly and purposefully. The reader cannot avoid identification with the distraught bride as she contemplates intimacy with such a creature. Later, when she makes her sudden appearance dressed in white, her agitation and hysteria are described with powerful visual images and telling details; and lastly, the dream sequence, although brief, ends with the sharp picture of Vanderhausen sitting up in his bed-coffin and grinning at Schalken, a striking final image of perverse sexuality and death.

“Schalken the Painter” bridges the gap between the old gothic and the modern horror story. The plotting probably belongs to the realm of the old—innocent girl sold to the highest bidder, walking corpses, kidnapping, violence behind locked doors, and necrophilia—but the manner of the telling—the carefully controlled structure, point of view, language, and imagery—is definitely new. In the later stories, the transition is complete; both form and content are modern. The best examples of the mature Le Fanu style can be found in his last and finest collection of short stories, In a Glass Darkly. All the horror stories in this anthology—,“The Familiar,” “Mr. Justice Harbottle,” “Carmilla,” “Green Tea”—are fully realized, with the last two generally acknowledged as his masterpieces.

In a Glass Darkly

The In a Glass Darkly stories all ostensibly come from the papers of the late “Dr. Martin Hesselius, the German Physician,” as edited by his secretary. Le Fanu had used this kind of framing device in his first collection in a relatively superficial way. In this anthology, however, the technique is handled in a more sophisticated manner. In addition to gathering the stories, Hesselius personally “analyzes” each “case” and in one story, “Green Tea,” plays a major role. If Hesselius, himself, is unconvincing as a personality and “psychic detective,” the character type he represents was to become prominent in modern literature; he is, in fact, the first practicing (meddling?) psychiatrist in English fiction.

Hesselius is a mixed blessing. The concept of the psychic detective is a provocative one, and Hesselius’s comments give the anthology some...

(The entire section is 2958 words.)