FANU & THE CRITICS: SEEING THROUGH OTHER EYES
you read anything by Jack Sullivan or Mike Ashley you
will see that today J. Sheridan Le Fanu has fans. Horror
fans. He has been acknowledged as the first man to make
a living writing horror stories. He was the linchpin
between the clunky old Gothics of Radcliffe and Maturin
and the Victorian ghost story writers like Edwards and
Braddon. All in all, he was a pretty important fellow
and as such receives plaudits and praise. But that's
his death in 1873 and 1923 when M. R. James renewed
interest in the Irish prince of ghosts, Le Fanu's reputation
crashed and burned. It was so bad that when H. P. Lovecraft
wrote his "The Supernatural Horror in Literature"
(1927), Le Fanu gets little mention. Despite writing
such classic tales as "Carmilla", "Green
Tea" and "The Watcher". Only they weren't
classics then. They were forgotten along with a dozen
novels and numerous tales of Irish ghosts and bogies.
How did this happen?
think I gleaned a little of how when I read a copy of
Victorian Novelists by Lewis Melville from
1906. He spends his chapter on Le Fanu comparing him
to Wilkie Collins, faulting his characterization and
finally dismissing him as irrelevant and dull with:
'Why', one might ask, 'are the stories of Le Fanu so
much longer than those of, say, Wilkie Collins? The
answer would be, 'They are not, but they seem so.'
attitude is so unlike all the recent books I have read.
Jack Sullivan devotes a third of Elegant Nightmares
(1978) to Le Fanu and follows his influence to Algernon
Blackwood. "Carmilla" has been filmed as The
Vampire Lovers (1970),
and its influences on Bram Stoker have been widely documented.
Le Fanu's character, Dr. Martin Hesselius, has been
identified as the first of the ghostbreakers in a long
line that include Dr. Silence to The Ghost Busters.
So what happened during those five decades to obscure
a writer who is so evidently important today?
things struck me about Lewis Melville. First off, Melville
talks about Le Fanu's novels, his historical works similar
to Walter Scott and his mysteries that he sees as poorly
done Wilkie Collins. Melville is using the critical
mechanism for mainstream fiction. He isn't looking at
Le Fanu as a genre writer but is comparing him to novelists
like Trollope and Scott. He only switches when he concludes
that he was part of the "sensation" school
(and it is here he points to the horror classics we
all love). He tells us how Le Fanu resented being included
in the popular but sleazy "sensation" school
along with Wilkie Collins. It was the Victorians who
developed what we recognize quite easily today as the
genres of fiction. The sensation fiction would come
to be known as a "Thriller" and the Gothic
stuff as "Horror". Le Fanu has no desire to
become one of the unwashed but wants to considered with
Scott and the highbrow historicals. This was not to
be his fate.
what I get from all this is that M. R. James, whether
by intent or accident, revived the fallen reputation
of Le Fanu, but revived it transformed as Le Fanu the
ghost story writer and not as Le Fanu the novelist.
The modern critics who love Le Fanu today are those
in the specialized horror criticism field. His novels
have fallen by the wayside for pieces like In a Glass
Darkly and The Purcell Papers. What for Le
Fanu must have been an entertaining sideline, developed
from his local Irish folklore and his exploring the
elements of Mystery and the Gothic. In this respect,
Lewis Melville is correct. Le Fanu the mainstream novelist
is a curious footnote in the development of the English
novel, not worthy of Scott. But, as it turns out, he
was very important to the burgeoning horror genre and
as such is rightfully the father of the supernatural
horror story, just as Poe is the father of the psychological
horror tale. It is from Le Fanu we get Bram Stoker and
Dracula. It from Le Fanu we get M. R. James and
the best of the ghost story sub-genre.
J. Sheridan Le Fanu was the Prince of Ghosts, the father
of the monster story, the terror tale, the dark mystery,
everything Horace Walpole began with The Castle of
Otranto (1765) filtered to us, just as Poe would
do with the Detective story, jut as Henry James would
do with the mainstream story. To be forgotten seems
a poor payment for such important work. Would Le Fanu
have been happy to be a genre master? Maybe not. As
with most writers in his day, he wanted to be a mainstream
novelist of renown. The stigma remains even to today,
when Philip Roth and Norman Mailer are set higher than
Ray Bradbury or Stephen King. Call it the Curse of Le
Fanu if you like. As Wilkie Collins could have told
old J. S. with his The Moonstone, it's not what
the critics say, it's what the readers buy. For
more on Le Fanu and H. P. Lovercraft.
you want to know more about the genre Le Fanu helped
create, check out Mark Gatiss's M. R. James special,
"The Tractate Middoth" as well as a look at
James and his creations.
R. James: Ghostwriter"
DIARY OF A MAD MAN: GUY DE MAUPASSANT
STYX: FIRST MYTHOS COMIC?
ON MY MIND: HOW TO BECOME A MYTHOS ICON
ABOUT THE BOOK COLLECTOR STORIES
CTHULHU STORY PART 1
CTHULHU STORY PART 2
OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS
FUTURE OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR
THE MYTHOS & OTHER ADVICE