Elder Signs is a website dedicated to the Cthulhu Mythos in general and the Book Collector in specific. The Book Collector is a creation of G. W. Thomas, a dark detective who seeks out the arcane books of the Mythos for his employer, the mysterious Telford.

Listen to the Book Collector on Pseudopod:

"Goon Job"

"Merlin's Bane"

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Read G. W. Thomas' Book Column

"Writing the Mythos"

at Innsmouth Free Press

WEIRD SITES: THE HELLFIRE CLUB

MALCOLM M. FERGUSON

Weird Tales Author

C. Hall Thompson: Lost Opportunities

The Ghostbreaker Mythos

Why Write Horror?

The First Deep Ones

The Avon Fantasy Reader Covers

Dark Bards: Mythos Poetry

Ithaqua: Walker on the Winds

Frank Belknap Long's The Castle of Otranto

Michael May's Adventureblog

"The Door to Infinity"

"The Graveyard Rats"

"The Yellow Nineties"

"Spider Mansion"

"Why I Watch Under the Dome"

 

LE FANU & THE CRITICS: SEEING THROUGH OTHER EYES

If 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 today.

Between 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?

I 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.'

This 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?

Two 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.

Secondly, 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.

Ultimately, 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.


If 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.

"The Tractate Middoth"

"M. R. James: Ghostwriter"


THE DIARY OF A MAD MAN: GUY DE MAUPASSANT

DR. STYX: FIRST MYTHOS COMIC?

MONSTERS ON MY MIND: HOW TO BECOME A MYTHOS ICON

MORE ABOUT THE BOOK COLLECTOR STORIES

MY CTHULHU STORY PART 1

MY CTHULHU STORY PART 2

ARTISTS OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS

THE FUTURE OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR

WRITING THE MYTHOS & OTHER ADVICE

MYTHOS LINKS

 

© G. W. Thomas unless Fair Use is intended.