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carmilla

Sheridan Le Fanu

Horror is back! We missed you. I haven’t read a horror story since the Romantic era. I was eager to love Irish author, Sheridan Le Fanu. I tried. His most noted work is the vampire short story “Carmilla,” which is ok. Everything else I read by him was dreadful.

I was hoping he’d be great, so I started at the very beginning with his 1872 collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly, which is the preferred Bible quote for people trying to be cryptic. Le Fanu sets up a narrative double blind, ostensibly one physician is providing us with his colleague’s notes. The colleague, Dr. Hesselius, treats haunted people. Nabokov uses layers of narrative to great effect. Le Fanu uses them to no effect. There is no reason to have one doctor introduce another doctor. There’s no reason for any of the characters to be doctors at all. Dr. Hesselius doesn’t save anyone. All his patients die. They are haunted and then they die. We didn’t need a special doctor to get that outcome. All Dr. Hesselius does is refer to Swedenborgian theory, which was some kind of Victorian spiritual mumbojombo that Le Fanu loved to mention but couldn’t figure out how to work into the plot or theme in any meaningful way.

Let’s talk about the story “Green Tea.” Dr. Hesselius fails to treat a man who is haunted by a demon monkey. Le Fanu does write this one effectively creepy sentence about the bedeviled man “Mr. Jennings has a way of looking sidelong upon the carpet, as if his eye followed the movements of something there.” That gives me the willies. After Jenning’s suicide, Hesselius declares that he inherited a predisposition to suicide, and that evil spirits got into his circulation through the green tea he habitually drank. Yes, friends, green tea killed him. Nice try, Le Fanu. Green tea is not scary and you didn’t make it so. This might be an expression of imperialist guilt, but it’s also very silly.

I tried out one of Le Fanu’s novels, because I’m thorough. It’s called Uncle Silas: or How to Sacrifice Your Daughter to Your Patriarchal Pride. I added the subtitle. Maud Ruthyn is an innocent maid with a wretched set of relatives. Her father is sore, because of rumors that his brother Silas killed a man who was found dead in his house. Daddy dearest refuses to believe these rumors, because, well because he doesn’t want to. Silas is generally a scoundrel. Dad isn’t on speaking terms with him, but he’s certain that he isn’t a killer, because he just can’t believe that a member of his noble bloodline could do such a thing. Oh, you nonsensical British aristocrats.

Anyway, Dad hires Maud a governess who is evil, abusive and sly enough to get away with it. She’s secretly also in Silas’ employ. Dad doesn’t believe Maud when she complains about Evil French Governess. Dad dies. Instead of sending wee Maud to live with her charmingly forthright aunt, Lady Knollys (I think Lady Knollys is her aunt, but I might have gotten the less-than-gripping minutiae of this book mixed up), he sends her to live with Uncle Silas. This fool believes in the glory of his bloodline so much, he’s willing to sacrifice. . .his bloodline to prove the value of his noble name. Get this guy a world’s worst dad mug. The thing is, if Maud dies before she reaches what’s that thing called? 21. You know. Majority! If she dies before she reaches her age of majority, her money goes to Silas. Dad’s objective was to show the world that he was so confident in Silas that he trusted his only child to him even given that Silas has a strong incentive to kill her. Which he does in fact try to do, but only after his creepy son tries to court her. I’ll say this, I was frightened for Maud. She was in a very precarious situation that could have been avoided with even the slightest measure of caution or care for her wellbeing. Thanks, Dad.

Now on to “Carmilla” the story of a girl and her vampire best friend. This one’s ok. There are some very silly elements, but it’s not complete garbage. The main character is a bit daft, which does nothing for me as a reader. There’s a very silly thing involving anagrams. Somehow, the story manages to be a bit creepy and even a bit charming despite these flaws. It’s a tale of a female friendship gone awry. Men are afraid of very close female friendships, aren’t they? The main character makes a new friend who seems to love her too much. Oh, dear. Being daft, the protagonist suspects that she might be a boy who disguised herself as a girl to get close to her. No, sweetie. I’m sorry no one ever told you about homosexuality. Or vampires. Anyway, if you read anything by Sheridan Le Fanu, let it be “Carmilla.” It’s brief, if nothing else.

You might like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • I don’t know, you’d have to be very dedicated to ghost stories. Even so, there are better ghost stories.

You might not like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • You’ve read a good ghost story.

Final thoughts: It’s a shame that the great stylists didn’t write horror stories. I do love a ghost story, just not these ones. I’m pretty sure we’ll have to wait another 14 years for Robert Louis Stevenson to get a good horror story. Sometimes if you dig deep into the short stories of great writers, you find a ghost story. Oscar Wilde has a great one. We’ll get there in good time.

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