Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 845
Although Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is best remembered as a master of the psychological horror story, his first literary efforts were in the field of the Irish historical romance. These early works were ignored by critics and readers, and Le Fanu abandoned the novel and turned to writing short fiction and editing. It was not until after the death of his wife in 1858 and the extensive seclusion that followed that he returned to long fiction and produced the major novels of his last years, the first of which was The House by the Churchyard. The major topics of the work, violent murder and retribution, are characteristic of his late novels, but the novel also reflects Le Fanu’s earlier interest in historical and social subjects and can be seen as a transition between the two phases of his career.
All of Le Fanu’s novels are depictions of lush life—and something more. Death, mystery, and the supernatural are the grim twilight materials of his fiction. Constant speculation on death and the supernatural enabled him to communicate a spectral atmosphere to his novels. A master of terror, Le Fanu has been favorably compared with such other great writers of the supernatural as Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe. This novel is generally regarded as his masterpiece, although Uncle Silas (1864) was the most popular during Le Fanu’s lifetime.
The setting of The House by the Churchyard, the Dublin suburb of Chapelizod, was an area Le Fanu knew and loved in his youth. This becomes clear in the warmth and humor with which he captures the atmosphere and character of small-town Irish life in the late eighteenth century. Some critics fault the novel as too diffuse and fragmentary, but, in fact, Le Fanu carefully balances the activities of the various social and economic groups as he gradually brings the different plot lines together. The serious courtship of Mr. Mervyn and Gertrude Chattesworth and the doomed love between Captain “Gipsy” Devereux and the rector’s daughter, Lilias Walsingham, are carefully juxtaposed against the farcical romantic entanglements of the clownish members of the Royal Irish Artillery and their equally comic lady friends. Even the central villainy, Paul Dangerfield’s murder of Dr. Sturk, is set opposite Mary Matchwell’s absurd attempt to defraud Charles Nutter’s widow of her inheritance. Coupled with Le Fanu’s acute social observations, it is this balance between the comic and the horrific that gives The House by the Churchyard its unique place in the Le Fanu canon.
This is not to minimize the element of sensation in the novel but to put it into proportion. Murder and violence dominate the second half of the book, although the comic is never completely subdued; but after Sturk’s beating, there is a definite acceleration in the pace and the intensity of the suspense. Whereas the focus of the novel is constantly shifting in the early sections of the book, the action in the second half concentrates on the activities of fewer characters, notably Mervyn’s efforts to vindicate his father’s name, Zekiel Irons’ sinister partial confession and bizarre actions, Paul Dangerfield’s ambiguous machinations, and, most vivid of all, the suffering of the mute, zombielike victim, Sturk.
Since Sturk alone can unravel the mystery, the question of whether he will recover or at least speak comes to dominate the novel. The climax of the book is the “trepanning” scene that gives Sturk the strength and stimulus to expose Dangerfield (trepanning is the archaic medical practice of drilling a small hole in the skull to relieve pressure). The detective writer and historian Dorothy Sayers has rightly stated: “For sheer grimness and power, there is little in the literature of horror to compare with the trepanning scene in Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard. . . . That chapter itself would entitle Le Fanu to be called a master of murder and horror.”
Once the aristocratic Dangerfield is revealed to be the nefarious Charles Archer, he assumes a kind of evil grandeur that makes him almost the equal of Le Fanu’s gothic archvillain, Silas Ruthyn. Trapped and condemned, Dangerfield-Archer confesses and rationalizes his crime with a cool, stylish audacity that places him in the best tradition of the gothic hero-villain. “I assure you,” he tells Mervyn, “I never yet bore any man the least ill-will. I’ve had to remove two or three—not because I hated them—I did not care a button for any—but because their existence was incompatible with my safety which, Sir, is the first thing to me, as yours is to you.” Then he casually commits suicide.
Although The House by the Churchyard may not possess the sustained, mounting terror and the continuing dramatic intensity of Le Fanu’s gothic masterpiece Uncle Silas, it has a breadth, scope, humor, and social realism that the later novel lacks. For this reason, in spite of the greater popularity of Uncle Silas, many critics and readers consider The House by the Churchyard to be the crowning achievement of Le Fanu’s career.