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"Sheridan Le Fanu"


from The Spectator, Vol. 146 (1931-feb-21, pp. 263-64)


THE writer of ghost stories and of tales which are designed to make the flesh creep embarks on hazardous voyages. If he does not scare his readers or inspire in them those precious uncomfortable impulses that cause them to glance hastily round in order to make sure that the creaking board or the wail of the wind did not betoken some dreadful presence even now making itself manifest to their horrified eyes, he has failed more ruinously than can any other class of narrator. The writer of humorous stories, though he may not amuse, may still interest his readers, the writer of serious psychological stuff may, though unwittingly, amuse; but no such adventitious good fortune can befall the author whose sole aim is to terrify. If he does not do that, he is naught, he falls completely flat, and no interest in side issues, whether intentional or not, will put him on his feet again. He must be all artist of no common sort, for the fearful lies but a hairbreadth away from the grotesque and the ludicrous, and his phantoms will terrify none unless they are surrounded by the phantasmal atmosphere in which alone they can live and breathe. Of all atmospheres, that is the most difficult to produce: it is easier to amuse, it is even easier to edify than, by suggestion, to alarm.

  Sometimes a novelist whose métier and methods are purely psychological brings off a tremendous hit in the creepy line. The classical instance of such a happening was when Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw. Not one of his most fervent admirers ever imagined that he could frighten them, but that appalling tale has probably alarmed more readers than the collected ghost stories of most other authors who make a speciality of creepiness. He tried it again, but with less success, in The Sense of the Past. Perhaps he would have been wiser to rest on one unfading laurel.

  But there is one author, far too little known by those in search of creepy lore, who seldom fails in his high mission: his name is Sheridan Le Fanu. He produces, page for page, a far higher percentage of terror than the more widely read Edgar Allan Poe, and whether he deals in ghosts direct or in more material horrors, his success in making his readers very uneasy is amazing. Though we may already know the story we select to give us some insupportable moments on a lonely evening, there is a quality about most of his tales which seldom fails to alarm: familiarity with them does not breed comfort. Many ghost stories are efficacious for a first reading, but few, when we already know the worst that the author has to tell us, preserve untainted the atmosphere of horror as do the tales in In a Glass Darkly. The best of these, "Green Tea," "The Familiar," and "Mr. Justice Hartbottle,"** are instinct with air awfulness which custom cannot stale, and this quality is due, as in The Turn of the Screw, to Le Fanu's admirably artistic methods in setting and narration. They begin quietly enough, the tentacles of terror are applied so softly that the reader hardly notices them till they are sucking tile courage from his blood. A darkness gathers, like dusk gently falling, and then something obscurely stirs in it . . . . Dickens, in his Christmas Carol, which is one of the most famous ghost stories in literature, goes the other way about it, and the wrong way. He leads off with the appearance of Marley's ghost, and then he has done his worst. The darkness brightens and we end on a grievous anti-climax of roast goose, Tiny Tim and a regenerated Scrooge. The moral is excellent, but who wants a moral in a ghost story? We can unbend our minds over morals afterwards.

  This quiet, cumulative method leading up to intolerable terror is characteristic of all Le Fanu's best work, and it is that which makes him so wholesale a fear-monger. He employs this technique not only in his short stories, but when he is engaged on a full-length, novel. Far the best of these, to my mind, is Uncle Silas, which in skill of narration, of gradual crescendo towards that most hideous chapter called "The Hour of Death," is a sheer masterpiece in alarm. The book is a long one: it is not till we come to the four hundred and fiftieth page or thereabouts that the climax arrives, but from the first page onwards there is no pause in the relentless drip, drip, drip of ominous and menacing incident. Without the aid of the supernatural (though we are once or twice, rather unfairly, threatened with a ghost that does not mature), Le Fanu piles up, in the growing dusk, chapter by chapter, the horror of great darkness. Out of this dusk, intermittently at first, peer the grim faces of the French governess, of Dudley Ruthyn, of Uncle Silas, creatures of flesh and blood, but more ghastly than any ghost. Occasionally, as when Madame de la Rougierre is sent about her business, or when Dudley has apparently sailed for Australia, or when Uncle Silas seems like to die, we try to persuade ourselves that the darkness is lifting, but we are aware in our quaking consciousness that we are but buoying ourselves up with idle hopes. We do not see them for the moment because night is gathering, but we are sure that they are awfully whispering together in that shroud of blackness from which they will presently emerge for some murderous business. We cannot close the book, we cannot skip a word, we are altogether in the author's grip, and these compulsions are due to the consummate art with which he handles and develops his hideous theme . . . . Already, after a dreary period of fiction in which so many of our eminent writers have seemed to aim at producing flat and interminable chronicles, there are signs that the public craves for stories again, and, if such signs portend a change, we may be sure that among the authors of the mid-nineteenth century Le Fanu will come into his own, for technically, as a story-teller, his best work is of the first rank, while as a flesh-creeper he is unrivalled. No one else has so sure a touch in mixing the mysterious atmosphere in which horror darkly breeds.

(Prepared with assistance from Ruth Jeffries)