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...
(The entire section is 845 words.)