“Perhaps other souls than human are sometimes born into the world, and clothed in human flesh.” — Uncle Silas (1864)
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) was born in Dublin on Dominick Street Lower. He spent his youth in Chapelizod and the rural village of Abington, Co. Limerick. He entered Trinity College in 1833 and was called to the Irish Bar in 1839. Instead of pursuing a career in law, Le Fanu purchased and edited several newspapers including The Evening Mail and The Warder. In 1861 he bought the Dublin University Magazine, which he edited until 1869. He retreated from public life on the death of his wife in 1858, and from the seclusion of his Merrion Square home he turned his attention to writing novels. He is best known today for such pioneering weird stories as “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in and Old House in Aungier Street”, “Green Tea”, and “Carmilla”. His notable novels include The House by the Church-yard (1863), Wylder’s Hand (1864), Uncle Silas (1864) and The Wyvern Mystery (1869). His seminal short story collection, In a Glass Darkly, was published in 1872, less than a year before his death.
Those who wish to explore Le Fanu’s writing even further might be interested in our two 2014 issues of The Green Book, which focused on Le Fanu and his writing in his bicentennial year: Issue 3 and Issue 4.
And for the Le Fanu aficionado who has everything, we suggest the Stoker-award nominated essay anthology Reflections in a Glass Darkly, edited by Gary W. Crawford, Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers.
A good while back I posted the image of a poster designed by myself and long-time Swan River conspirator Jason Zerrillo. It features a line-up of Ireland’s most recognisable and possibly most influential writers of fantastic literature. I explained the impetus for the poster’s creation in an earlier post.
While I’m pleased with the results, it was not easy choosing who to include and who to leave off. Much as I wanted to indulge in the most obscure and overlooked (Oliver Sherry, anyone?), there is also merit in showcasing the luminaries: a reminder of this island’s contributions to worlds of unbridled imagination.
Ultimately, this poster is meant as a gateway for exploration. So you can imagine my delight when Alison Lyons of Dublin City Libraries and Dublin UNESCO City of Literature agreed to produce copies of the poster to distribute for free around Dublin this autumn. The goal had always been to make this poster available to libraries, schools, bookshops, to anywhere that loves to promote good literature, and to anyone who loves to read it.
To augment this poster, I also wrote a series of capsule biographies and recommended reading for each authors. You can find it over on the Dublin City of Literature website.
And so how do you get a copy of the poster? Easy! Go into any Dublin City Library branch and ask! Better yet, have a browse around for these authors’ books. Librarians will be happy to help!
I write a line to tell you of our terrible loss. My darling father died on Friday morning [7 February] at 6 o’Clock. He had almost got over a bad attack of Bronchitis but his strength gave way & he sank very quickly & died in his sleep. His face looks so happy with a beautiful smile on it. We were quite unprepared for the end. My brother Philip & I never left him during his illness & we were hopeful and happy about him even the day before he seemed to be much better. But it comforts me to think he is in Heaven, for no one could have been better than he was. He lived only for us, and his life was a most troubled one. I know you will feel this Dear Lord Dufferin. He loved you very much and very often spoke of you.
Ever your affectionate,
Emmie L. Le Fanu
The above note was sent by Le Fanu’s daughter, Emma Lucretia, to his cousin, Frederick Temple Blackwood, 1st Marquis of Dufferin and Ava. It was written in a long flowing hand on card with a heavy black border. According to the diary of Le Fanu’s brother, William, the author breathed his last at “½ past 6”. He was interred in a vault in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin on 11 February, where he joined his wife Susanna. A stream of obituaries followed, lamenting the loss of Dublin’s “Invisible Prince”.
Le Fanu had many admirers, among them ghost story writer M.R. James, who famously observed that Le Fanu, “succeeds in inspiring a mysterious terror better than any other writer”; and Henry James who wrote that author’s novels were, “the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight.”
E.F. Benson’s brief laudatory essay on Le Fanu, published in The Spectator (1931), is available here.
In 1880 an anonymous reviewer of Le Fanu’s posthumous collection The Purcell Papers opined that, “The genius of the late Mr. Sheridan Le Fanu (the author of Uncle Silas and other romances) was also of a chill and curdling nature. No author more frequently caused a reader to look over his shoulder in the dead hour of the night. None made a nervous visitor feel more uncomfortable in the big, bleak bedrooms of old Highland houses.”
To celebrate the life of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, take the time today to read one of his most notable and chilling tales, “Green Tea”, available to read online here.
His vampire tale, “Carmilla”, which almost certainly influenced his fellow countryman Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, can be read here.
Or if you’re in the book buying mood . . .
In celebration of Le Fanu’s 200th birth anniversary, Swan River Press published two books: Reminiscences of a Bachelor, a brooding gothic novella not reprinted since its first publication in 1848; and a tribute anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, which won the Ghost Story Award for best book in 2014.
by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
One wild and simple bugle sound,
Breathed o’er Killarney’s magic shore,
Awakes sweet floating echoes round
When that which made them is no more.
So slumber in the human breast
Wild echoes that will sweetly thrill
Through memory’s vistas when the voice
That waked them first for aye is still.
Oh! memory, though thy records tell
Full many a tale of grief and folly,
Of mad excess, of hope decayed,
Of dark and cheerless melancholy.
Yet, memory, to me thou art
The dearest of the gifts of mind,
For all the joys that touch my heart
Are joys that I have left behind.
I’m sure you’ve seen the ubiquitous “Irish Writers” poster around Dublin. It depicts the usual suspects: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, et cetera. A while back the Irish Times published a reply to that poster, again entitled “Irish Writers”, but this time featuring only women (as the original featured only men). You can view both posters here.
Despite the strengths of these two posters, I felt there were still a few conspicuously absent faces.
As Swan River Press is Ireland’s only publishing house dedicated to what might broadly be termed “literature of the fantastic”, I felt it up to us to submit our own entry into the cavalcade of Irish literary posters.
As our treat to you this Halloween, I’d like to present Irish Writers of the Fantastic.
The poster was designed to give an overview of these worthy and often overlooked Irish authors. Some you will recognise, others you will not. Some, such as Bram Stoker and Lord Dunsany, have had a profound impact on international literature. Others, like Fitz-James O’Brien and Dorothy Macardle, will be more obscure. But each one is worth discovering or revisiting this Halloween season.
Ultimately I hope you will find something of interest among them. There are both men and women included in our poster. Writers who are world renowned and those who are less well known. There’s horror, fantasy, science fiction, supernatural, satire . . . You’ll find here writers from both the Republic and Northern Ireland, and their contributions to literature span the better part of two centuries.
However, as is the nature of lists, I hope you will disagree with this one. With any luck, you’ll be only too eager to point out someone that deserves to be included, but was not. And I hope you do. And when you do in the comments below, tell us why you think they should be included (and might they bump someone off the list?) Don’t grunt, elucidate! That second part is the most important bit. Because, above all, this poster is meant to get people talking about these writers . . . and then running to the nearest bookshop or library to read their works. In the meantime, Swan River Press will continue to lead the way in their rediscovery.
Anyone with a further interest in Ireland’s contributions to the genre might want to check out our twice-yearly journal The Green Book, which features commentaries, articles, and reviews on Irish gothic, supernatural, and fantastic literature. Until then . . .
So far The Green Book has been avoiding Mr. Bram Stoker. Not out of dislike or animosity, but for a journal that hopes to illuminate the lesser seen corners of Irish fantastic literature, I felt it was okay to let Stoker—our most prominent spokesman—wait patiently in the wings for the first few issues and allow others the spotlight for just a moment. But now that we’re six numbers in, it’s time to give Mr. Stoker his due and allow him to take centre stage. And so we pull back the red velvet curtains on this issue in grand style.
It’s not every day one discovers a forgotten story by Bram Stoker. But there it was, on page three of an equally forgotten daily newspaper. It appeared quite unexpectedly in the far right-hand column. There’s nothing quite like that rush of excitement one feels when making such a discovery in the otherwise subdued and dimly-lit microfilm room of the National Library. The thrill of reading that recognisable prose, filled with masculinity, adventurous seafaring, nefarious murder, teetotalling, a clever fiancée, and a ghost. Did I not mention it’s a ghost story too? It is, and also the second (known) story Stoker had ever published. No, it’s not every day that one discovers a forgotten story by Bram Stoker. But they’re out there, just waiting to be uncovered. And we’re happy to be able to share this one, which has lain dormant for nearly 150 years, with you.
We’re equally fortunate to have in this issue an introduction from David J. Skal giving some background and context to Stoker’s lost tale. As some of you may already know, Skal’s new biography of Stoker, Something in the Blood, will be out next year; certainly an event keenly anticipated by many. At the end of this issue, John Edgar Browning, himself no stranger to unearthing forgotten writings by Stoker, interviews Skal about Dracula, Stoker, and his forthcoming book.
So what’s in between this Stoker sandwich? Glad you asked. We’ve got an excellent essay on Lafcadio Hearn’s Irish influences from John Moran (to coincide with the Hearn exhibition running this autumn at the Little Museum of Dublin), a short reminiscence of the Great War by Lord Dunsany, a piece by Martin Hayes on the fraught relationship between Yeats and Crowley (hey, we’ve got to mark the Great Poet’s sesquicentenary somehow, right?), and finally an essay on the oddly overlooked mystic, visionary, poet, artist, pacifist, and statesman George William Russell (AE)—rightly described by Archbishop Gregg as “that myriad-minded man”—who I hope you will find as interesting as I do. In addition to all this, we have our usual crop of reviews, from which I hope you’ll find something to discover.
Finally, before I leave you in the capable hands of Mr. Stoker, I would like to direct your attention to the cover. Here you will find Harry Clarke’s “Mephisto” (1914) from Goethe’s Faust. Stoker’s employer, the celebrated actor-manager Sir Henry Irving, played Mephistopheles with great success throughout his career. It is a role Stoker saw him perform over seven hundred times. The infernal character, as portrayed by Irving, is thought to have influenced Dracula—but the astute reader will catch Stoker’s much earlier reference to Mephistopheles in the pages ahead.
And now, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present to you, Mr. Bram Stoker’s “Saved by a Ghost” . . .
First published in 1845, Valancourt Books reissued the novel in 2010.
The Cock and Anchor is set in Dublin in 1710, twenty years after Protestant William of Orange defeated Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. Ireland is under British rule and a Lord Lieutenant, Thomas, 5th Baron Wharton, is ruling the country from Dublin Castle. While the leaders of the Catholic aristocracy who supported King James have fled to France (The Wild Geese) there is still a corps of Jacobite supporters in Ireland who are readying themselves for the day when King James returns to reclaim his crown and the lands of England and Ireland.
I did not know what to expect when I started reading this novel, but what I found delighted and intrigued me. It proved to be one of those books that I did not like to put down and found myself making time to return to.
The Valancourt edition contains a 46-page introduction, 14 pages of informative notes referenced from within the text, and a 52-page appendix containing contemporary reviews and extracts of other works referenced in the introduction. The novel itself is 439 pages in length. All in all, this is a comprehensive tome for anyone intent on studying The Cock and Anchor in a serious fashion.
In this note I will freely discuss elements of the story, so I warn the reader to set this document aside until having read the work and then return to discover my thoughts on the book and to agree with them, argue against them, raise your own thoughts, feelings, or revelations that pounced upon you as you travelled through the pages written in an age long gone, 130 years into the past.
The geopolitical machinations of the novel’s setting, and the societal impact of the war ended only nineteen years before the tale told in the book begins, are used by Le Fanu as a backdrop to the story rather than as a raison d’être for the telling of the story. While the prevailing political and religious practices and prejudices of the time are not the main theme of the story, they do inform the behaviours of the characters and the social context of the events and relationships involved.
At the heart of the story is the love between the son (Edmond O’Connor) of a Jacobite nobleman, (Richard O’Connor), and the daughter of Sir Richard Ashwoode, a member of the ruling aristocracy. As a Jacobite, Edmond O’Connor is a Catholic and as the daughter of one of the established ruling aristocracy, Mary Ashwoode, the daughter is Protestant. Sir Richard is, of course, not in favour of an alliance between Mary and Edmond, but the religious difference is not cited as the root cause of his displeasure about the match, but the fact that he considers young Edmond O’Connor to be from a poorer class.
The Irish peasantry is presented as a body of people who look up to the wealthier classes and doff their caps and follow their orders. Some of them are used for comic relief, especially Mr. Larry Toole who is a stereotypical, stage-Irish character with all the “begorrahs” and “begads” you could ask for. He was a servant in the employ of the Ashwoode estate who has been let go and who manages to find himself a position as servant to Edmond O’Connor.
Humour was an unexpected element of the book but it is more pervasive in the first half of the story. It is still present later in the book but the more serious matters of the later parts of the story reduce the opportunity for humour. It is still there, but not as frequently. Much of the humour is in the descriptions of the characters:
Lady Stukely: “Lady Stukely was a delicate, die-away lady, not very far from sixty; the natural blush upon her nose outblazoned the rouge upon her cheeks; several very long teeth – “ivory and ebony” peeped roguishly from beneath her upper lip, which her ladyship had a playful trick of screwing down, to conceal them – a trick which made her ladyship’s smile rather a surprising than an attractive exhibition.”
Physician: “The physician of those days was a solemn personage: he would as readily have appeared without his head, as without his full-bottomed wig; and his ponderous gold-headed cane was a sort of fifth limb, the supposition of whose absence involved a contradiction to the laws of anatomy; his dress was rich and funereal; his step was slow and pompous; his words very long and very few; his look was mysterious; his nod awful; and the shake of his head unfathomable; in short, he was in no respect very much better than a modern charlatan. The science which he professed was then overgrown with absurdities and mystification. The temper of the times was superstitious and credulous, the physician, being wise in his generation, framed his outward man (including his air and language) accordingly, and the populace swallowed his long words and his electuaries with equal faith.”
Doctor Mallarde: “Doctor Mallarde was a doctor-like person, and, in theatrical phraseology, looked the part well. . . . he had a habit of pressing the gold head of his professional cane against one corner of his mouth, in a way which produced a sinister and mysterious distortion of that organ; and by exhibiting the medical baton, the outward and visible sign of doctorship, in immediate juxtaposition with the fountain of language, added enormously to the gravity and authority of the words which from time to time proceeded therefrom.”
I could continue to quote humorous character descriptions from this book all night, but I will let you enjoy reading them yourself when you read the book.
Real characters: Le Fanu uses a mixture of real and fictitious characters. The Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Wharton, was a real person whose character and description Le Fanu gleaned from the writings of Jonathan Swift, another real person who appears in the novel. Swift wrote a pamphlet from which Le Fanu drew information on the Earl of Wharton.
The supernatural: I recall four allusions to the supernatural: three of these could be dismissed as the imaginings of individuals but the fourth is a detailed description of the appearance of a spirit to Edmond O’Connor. This spirit fits with the legend of banshees in all but the appearance and the noise produced. Lord Ashwoode is overheard telling someone to leave him while in a state of delirium but subsequently it is discovered there is no-one in his room. Likewise, his son tells O’Connor of a spirit that is bothering him and tormenting him in his time of despair. The other mention of anything that might be supernatural is the young Sir Henry Ashwoode’s thinking her sees the paintings of his ancestors move as he looks at them.
Profanity: The novel is full of dashes: lines in the text to mark were foul words have been used. I have seen two editions of the novel and they both have the “bad words” obliterated. I suspect this was to placate the sensitivities of the puritanical reader. Even the word, “Devil”, is presented as, “D—l”.
Language: Le Fanu does not use one word where fifteen will do. This is not a complaint. The language he uses is a pleasure to read and is beautifully put together. Take for example, his description of Mr. Larry Toole’s tendency to poke his nose into other people’s business: “A liberal and unsolicited attention to the affairs of other people, was one among the many amiable peculiarities of Mr. Laurence Toole . . . ”
Kept guessing: While many of the plot elements are used in later texts, Le Fanu always kept what way the plot would turn a mystery. There were many places in the book where I was convinced I knew how the story was going to turn only to be surprised by Le Fanu as he took me a totally different direction. This kept me interested and eager to carry on reading the book.
Locations: Many of the locations used in the story are real and still exist. One of the most famous is The Bleeding Horse pub which is still a thriving business and has a stone plaque honouring Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu on the footpath at the entrance. Other locations that can still be visited are Dublin Castle, albeit slightly renovated since 1710; Leixlip, with a better road through the village than existed at the time of the story; and Chaplizod which still some of the aspects of the small village of 1710.
The view of Ireland: Dublin Castle was the residence of the Lord Lieutenant and in the novel it is the scene of a great social gathering. Le Fanu does not, however, let the reader forget that it is the centre of an occupying force that supports a predominantly English ruling class in a country with a population that has proven difficult to keep repressed. His description of the castle on the night of the banquet in question is wound up thus:
“ . . . the ponderous old towers which have since disappeared, with their narrow loopholes and iron studded doors looming darkly over the less massive fabrics of the place with stern and gloomy aspect, reminded the passer every moment, that the building, whose courts he trod, was not merely the theatre of stately ceremonies, but a fortress and a prison.”
In an exchange between the Lord Lieutenant and Johathan Swift, Le Fanu presents the views of the ruling class of Ireland and how it was considered a backwater that did no-one’s career any good:
“On my soul, we want you in England – this is no stage for you. By —- you cannot hope to serve either yourself or your friends in this place.”
“Very few thrive here but scoundrels, my lord,” rejoined Swift. “Even so,” replied Wharton with perfect equanimity – “it is a nation of scoundrels – dissent on the one side and popery on the other. The upper order harpies, and the lower a mere prey – and all equally liars, rogues, rebels, slaves, and robbers. By — some fine day the devil will carry off the island bodily. For very safety you must get out of it . . . ”
On St. Patrick’s Day I decided to spend my time not drinking Guinness, but instead promoting Irish Writers of the Fantastic on both Twitter and Facebook. While I’m not convinced there is a “tradition” of Irish fantastic literature—that is to say a relatively unbroken chain of influence from one writer to the next—Ireland has consistently produced authors whose works have proved to be singular contributions of international importance. Unfortunately, some of these authors are given short shrift in Ireland—even those authors otherwise widely recognised abroad.
Here is the list that I compiled. It is by no means complete or definitive (and at one point in particular even quite self-indulgent). There is a comments section down there too, so no reason you can’t add to the list if you feel I’ve overlooked someone important.
And as a reminder, anyone who would like to learn more about Irish writers of the fantastic, I encourage you to check out The Green Book, a journal started specifically to explore these authors and their works.