Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu
Over lunch, I was reading the Wikipedia article on horror fiction and came across a reference to Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, of whom I had never heard. I went to the article and found out some interesting things (granted, Wikipedia is not the most respected source, but if even half of this article is accurate, Le Fanu bears some investigating by avid horror aficionados).
Le Fanu was a respected writer of ghost stories and Gothic tales in the 19th century. I read his “The Ghost and the Bonesetter” (1838), which Wikipedia describes as “his first-published and jocular story”. For our generation, this is more humor than horror, but Le Fanu’s talent is patently obvious from this work. I look forward to reading more.
It fascinates me that, as well-read as I am, I have never heard of Le Fanu, but then I have only recently begun to delve into the horror genre to any great degree. Based on the Wikipedia article, he was very well-known in his time and influenced 19th and 20th century writers such as M.R. James, Bram Stoker, and James Joyce. His best known works are the vampire novella Carmilla and The Purcell Papers (a collection of short stories). Apparently, he has also had something of an influence on modern cinema, with movies still being made of his work occasionally (Le Fanu’s mystery novel “Uncle Silas” was made into a movie in 1947, and then remade, starring Peter O’Toole, as The Dark Angel in 1987).
Here is a paragraph from the Wikipedia article to whet your appetite for further investigation of his work:
“Le Fanu worked in many genres but remains best known for his mystery and horror fiction. He was a meticulous craftsman and frequently reworked plots and ideas from his earlier writing in subsequent pieces. Many of his novels, for example, are expansions and refinements of earlier short stories. He specialised in tone and effect rather than “shock horror”, and liked to leave important details unexplained and mysterious. He avoided overt supernatural effects: in most of his major works, the supernatural is strongly implied but a “natural” explanation is also possible. The demonic monkey in “Green Tea” could be a delusion of the story’s protagonist, who is the only person to see it; in “The Familiar”, Captain Barton’s death seems to be supernatural, but is not actually witnessed, and the ghostly owl may be a real bird. This technique influenced later horror artists, both in print and on film (see, for example, the film producer Val Lewton‘s principle of “indirect horror”). Though other writers have since chosen less subtle techniques, Le Fanu’s best tales, such as the vampire novella “Carmilla“, remain some of the most powerful in the genre. He had enormous influence on the 20th century’s most important ghost story writer, M. R. James, and although his work fell out of favour in the early part of the 20th century, towards the end of the century interest in his work increased and remains comparatively strong.“
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Here is an interesting section/stanza from the ancient Chinese work Wen Fu (The Art of Writing). It is entitled “The Terror”.
I worry that my ink well will run dry, that right words cannot be found ; I want to respond to the moment’s inspiration.
I work with what is given ; that which passes cannot be detained.
Things move into shadows & they vanish ; things return in the shape of an echo.
When Spring arrives, we understand that Nature has its own reason.
Thoughts are lifted from the heart on breezes, and language finds its speaker.
Yesterday’s buds are this morning’s blossoms which we draw with a brush on silk.
Every eye knows a pattern, every ear hears a distant music.
Wen Fu was written by Lu Chi (261 AD – 300 AD), who was a scholar, a military leader, and the the Literary Secretary in the the Emperor’s court. It is very short and may take an average reader 15-20 minutes to complete. The hardcopy translation I have was written by Sam Hamill and published by Breitenbush Books in 1987. A far more poetic version can be found at http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/LuChi.htm.
I like to peruse Wen Fu occasionally, because the language is simple yet mystical while the ideas are straightforward yet metaphorical. What fascinates me most about the work is that the principles it expresses are eternal and universal. The underlying principles that guided Lu Chi’s art are the same ones that underlie ours nearly two thousand years later and in a society (and language!) that would have been completely alien to Lu Chi. What’s more, Lu Chi describes the experience of writing from a very intimate standpoint to which any author who is passionate about his art could relate.
What are your thoughts? What principles of writing are eternal and universal? What do you see in the stanza above?