We’ve all read Bram Stoker’s very commercially successful treatment of the vampire stories in the character of Dracula. Written in 1897 and adapted to the stage and later to the movies, Dracula became the modern archetype of the vampire. But Stoker didn’t in fact introduce the vampire to the English speaking world. The Irish writer, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, provided a wonderfully creepy treatment of the vampire in his 1872 novel Carmilla.
Carmilla reads just like a movie: a strange woman comes to the castle and her daughter stays behind to be a companion to the young lady of the house. But strange things happen and the young lady begins to fall ill. Furthermore, other young women in the area are taken ill and rapidly die. Concern for the guest leads to discovery that she disappears at night, as if through solid walls, and doesn’t join the household until later in the day.
Le Fanu isn’t a top grade writer but he is sufficient when creating such sensational fiction as this vampire story. He’s also Irish. Interestingly the vampire story is also considered at another level to be an invasion fiction. Think about it: mysterious creatures arrive in England from Eastern Europe and bring death and destruction and a few boxes of dirt. That dirt—bringing the old homestead with you—might be more important than either flies or spiders.
J. Sheridan Le Fanu is an author you might want to dip into. His output is considerable but some might be better for wrapping fish. Le Fanu’s two major works that often receive recommendation (read them before you die) are Uncle Silas and In a Glass Darkly. In a Glass Darkly is actually a container book which includes “Green Tea,” “The Familiar,” “Mr Justice Harbottle,” “The Room in the Dragon Volant,” and “Carmilla.”
Here is a more complete listing from Wikipedia:
Le Fanu’s first novels were historical, à la Sir Walter Scott, though with an Irish setting. Like Scott, Le Fanu was sympathetic to the old Jacobite cause:
- The Cock and Anchor (1845), a story of old Dublin. It was reissued with slight alterations as Morley Court in 1873.
- The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O’Brien (1847).
- The House by the Churchyard (1863), the last of Le Fanu’s novels to be set in the past and, as mentioned above, the last with an Irish setting. It is noteworthy that here Le Fanu’s historical style is blended with his later Gothic style, influenced by his reading of the classic writers of that genre, such as Ann Radcliffe. This novel was later an important influence on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and is set in Chapelizod, where Le Fanu lived in his youth.
Le Fanu published many novels in the contemporary sensation fiction style of Wilkie Collins and others:
- Wylder’s Hand (1864).
- Guy Deverell (1865).
- All in the Dark (1866), satirising Spiritualism.
- The Tenants of Malory (1867).
- A Lost Name (1868).
- Haunted Lives (1868).
- The Wyvern Mystery (1869).
- Checkmate (1871).
- The Rose and the Key (1871), which describes the horrors of the private lunatic asylum, a classic gothic theme.
- Willing to Die (1872).
His best-known works, still widely read today, are:
- Uncle Silas (1864), a macabre mystery novel and classic of gothic horror. It is a much extended adaptation of his earlier short story “Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess”, with the setting changed from Ireland to England. A film version under the same name was made by Gainsborough Studios in 1947, and a remake entitled The Dark Angel, starring Peter O’Toole as the title character, was made in 1987.
- In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of five short stories in the horror and mystery genres, presented as the posthumous papers of the occult detective Dr Hesselius:
- “Green Tea”
- “The Familiar”
- “Mr Justice Harbottle” (perhaps better known in its earlier, very different version, “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street”)
- “The Room in the Dragon Volant”, not a ghost story but a notable mystery story that includes the theme of premature burial
- “Carmilla“, a compelling tale of a lesbian vampire, set in central Europe. This story was to greatly influence Bram Stoker in the writing of Dracula. It also inspired several films, including Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers (1970), Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960), Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness in 1971.
Other short-story collections
- Chronicles of Golden Friars (1871), a collection of short stories set in the imaginary English village of Golden Friars, including:
- “A Strange Adventure in the Life of Miss Laura Mildmay”, incorporating the story “Madam Crowl’s Ghost”.
- “The Haunted Baronet”, a novella.
- “The Bird of Passage”.
- The Watcher and Other Weird Stories (1894), another collection of short stories, published posthumously. The publication of this book, which has often been reprinted, led to the revival in interest in Le Fanu, which has continued to this day.
- Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (1923), uncollected short stories gathered from their original magazine publications and edited by M. R. James:
- “Madam Crowl’s Ghost”, from All the Year Round, December 1870.
- “Squire Toby’s Will”, from Temple Bar, January 1868.
- “Dickon the Devil”, from London Society, Christmas Number, 1872.
- “The Child That Went with the Fairies”, from All the Year Round, February 1870.
- “The White Cat of Drumgunniol”, from All the Year Round, April 1870.
- “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street”, from the Dublin University Magazine, January 1851.
- “Ghost Stories of Chapelizod”, from the Dublin University Magazine, January 1851.
- “Wicked Captain Walshawe, of Wauling”, from the Dublin University Magazine, April 1864.
- “Sir Dominick’s Bargain”, from All the Year Round, July 1872.
- “Ultor de Lacy”, from the Dublin University Magazine, December 1861.
- “The Vision of Tom Chuff”, from All the Year Round, October 1870.
- “Stories of Lough Guir”, from All the Year Round, April 1870.