[The following is an updated reprint of a column which originally appeared in the December 16, 2004, issue of Hellnotes.]
Joseph Thomas Sheridan LeFanu is called by some the father of the modern ghost story, and he was widely read during the Victorian era. His most notable short story is the vampire tale “Carmilla,” which influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
LeFanu was born into a wealthy family on August 28, 1814, in Dublin, Ireland. His father, as seems to be the case for many early horror writers, was a clergyman, and his great-uncle was the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The following year, his family moved to Phoenix Park, west of Dublin, and in 1826, they moved to Abington in County Limerick. Throughout his life, LeFanu never wandered far from Dublin. He studied law at Trinity College in Dublin and was graduated in 1837. Two years later, he was admitted to the bar, but he never practiced law. Instead, he went into journalism.
He started writing poems as a child and continued writing poetry as an adult, as well as articles and ballads in addition to fiction. His first publication was the short story “The Ghost and the Bonesetter,” which appeared in Dublin University Magazine in 1838, a year after he joined the staff of that periodical. He was the editor from 1856 to 1869, and during this time, the magazine was one of the leading European journals. The magazine subsequently published many of his short stories, which were later collected in The Purcell Papers (1880). In 1861, LeFanu purchased the magazine, and he sold it eight years later.
In his works, LeFanu concentrated on tone and effect, rather than shock, to convey horror, and he often followed a mystery format, dropping clues here and there. A common theme of his was that of a villain returning to society in a new form, such as by possessing a human body or in the form of a living corpse or an animal. Spectral illusions and haunted suicides were recurring devices. M.R. James attributed LeFanu’s success in inspiring horror to “the very skilful use of a crescendo… [t]he gradual removal of one safeguard after another, the victim’s dim forebodings of what is to happen gradually growing clearer.” James said that LeFanu “succeeds in inspiring a mysterious terror better than any other writer.”
Charles Dickens was a fan of LeFanu’s work, and the two authors corresponded. Dickens published “Green Tea” in his periodical All the Year Round. Considering LeFanu an expert on spectral illusions, Dickens enlisted his assistance in helping a friend who suffered from such hallucinations.
In 1840 to 1842, LeFanu purchased and edited two newspapers, The Warden and Protestant Guardian, and he had interests in three other papers.
LeFanu married Susanna Bennett in 1843 or 1844, and they had four children. In 1851, they moved to Merrion Square, Dublin. Susanna died in 1858, after which LeFanu became depressed and reclusive, earning the nickname “The Invisible Prince.” He gave up the society life he had enjoyed and threw himself into his literary pursuits. After working at his newspapers, he would go home and write from midnight to dawn.
His first two novels, The Cock and Anchor (1845), a story of old Dublin, and The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O’Brien (1847), a mystery, were influenced by Sir Walter Scott. His most notable novels are The House by the Churchyard (1863) and Uncle Silas (1884). He wrote a total of fourteen novels, which are in the horror, mystery, and suspense genres.
The House by the Churchyard is a tale of pastoral life invaded by murder, blackmail, and the supernatural. The rich narrative includes a secret burial in the dead of night, a duel, and hints of schizophrenia, among other terrors. It also boasts dozens of characters, humor, a challenging storyline, and some 500 pages of text.
Uncle Silas is a psychological thriller which takes place in a gloomy old mansion, where the newly orphaned heroine is sent to live with her mysterious uncle, who has a scandalous, and maybe even murderous, past. A sinister governess completes the household. Horror scholar Everett F. Bleiler considers Uncle Silas “the Victorian mystery story par excellence…and it may well be one of the scant half-dozen nineteenth-century novels that are still honestly read for pleasure rather than as a school exercise.” Uncle Silas is one of the few LeFanu novels to remain in print.
Bleiler considers most of LeFanu’s other novels to be “pedestrian,” and that “[i]t is as a writer of nouvelles and short stories that LeFanu excels.” Bleiler wrote an excellent introduction to Best Ghost Stories of J.F. LeFanu (Dover, 1964).
“Carmilla” was published in 1872 in the collection In a Glass Darkly. This vampire tale has erotic undertones and suggestions of lesbianism. Many films were made of this tale, and a sequel novel, Carmilla: The Return, was written by Kyle Marffin (published in 1998 by the Design Image Group). This collection also included the chilling “Green Tea,” “An Episode in the Life of Schalken the Painter,” “The Familiar,” and “Mr. Justice Harbottle.” Another well-known story, “Squire Toby’s Will,” was originally published in the Irish literary magazine Temple Bar in 1868.
Besides “Carmilla,” several other LeFanu works were filmed, including The Wyvern Mystery (2000); The Dark Angel (a 1987 adaptation of Uncle Silas); two films entitled Uncle Silas (1968 and 1947); and The Sleep of Death (1981) and The Flying Dragon (1966), both film versions of “The Room in the Dragon Volant.” Uncle Silas was also the basis for a 1977 German TV series, Onkel Silas.
LeFanu died in Merrion Square on February 7, 1873. After his death, his work would have fallen into obscurity were it not for the efforts of M.R. James, who published a collection of LeFanu’s stories, Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (1923).
Several novels and collections by LeFanu are currently in print, published by Aegypan Press, Ash-Tree Press, Arkham House, Wildside Press, and others. Some of his works are available for reading on-line at Munsey’s and HorrorMasters.