The Victorian era, which saw a surge in literary realism, also witnessed a growing fascination—maybe obsession—with spiritualism. Ghost stories and accounts of hauntings were hugely popular, especially around a Christmas fire. Several authors, including M.R. James, F. Marion Crawford, and Edith Wharton, contributed to its popularity. Most of these tales revolve around some anonymous narrator encountering the supernatural—good for nothing but a nice chill and moment of fear. Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu sets himself apart by summoning his spirits through psychology, even if his version of it is often backwards.
Like the anecdotal, often epistolary stories of M.R. James, many of Le Fanu’s tales read as true hauntings written in an analytical or reminiscent style from the perspective of a witness. “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” or “An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House” are, as they sound, entertaining reports. While chilling in their disembodied knocks and transparent apparitions, these stories lack the core that fuels Le Fanu’s most memorable work. For each little remembrance, he also composed tales in which spirits appear to represent something broader: a piece of the human mind.
This usually manifests as guilt, an internal impulse for punishment manifesting externally: the vengeful murder victim in The Haunted Baronet claiming retribution, or a bloodthirsty judge being delivered hellish penance in “Mr. Justice Harbottle.” The flesh-and-blood protagonists are hounded by increasingly frightening spirits, until they come to accept their own demise, usually dying of terror. In two adaptations of Irish legends, “The White Cat of Drumgunniol” and “Ultor de Lacy,” families are ruined by self-inflicted curses that span centuries. These apparitions are rarely seen by others—they are meant only for the guilty. His supernatural discipline echoes the future EC Comics and anthology shows like Tales from the Crypt, where the punishment typically is worse than the crime.
Even more interesting, perhaps, are the tales in which insanity and demonic forces become interchangeable. “Green Tea”—arguably his most terrifying—tells of a man who is stalked by a grotesque monkey for no apparent reason. Told by a doctor reviewing the case, it seems the man is hunted merely by his mind, but even this has grotesque consequences. There is also the infamous Carmilla, named for a young woman who simply seems desperate for another woman’s love—as well as her soul.
Le Fanu’s stories can be stringently Victorian in their morals. Consider the central character from Carmilla, a heartbreaking villain at her core, but excised as a plague—just like her equally queer counterpart Count Dracula. The conscience-driven apparitions, or aberrations, show the mind’s capacity to torment itself, or turn itself into a monster. Considering the time in which he wrote, and the oppressive conditions of his native Ireland, it seems that Le Fanu’s own subconscious made this crossover inevitable—ghosts are perfect fodder to explore the nebulous anxieties that plague one when they’ve broken some societal rule. Mental illness falls under this category, apparently deserving of penalty alongside crime. This is where Le Fanu’s tales fail to translate healthily into a modern era, and curdle the blood in a way that isn’t precisely pleasant.
By representing very real neuroses and paranoias, Le Fanu creates supernatural nightmares that go deeper than their anecdotal form. He recognizes that ghosts do exist, at least within the dark corners of our minds. There’s optimism in his tales as well; if guilt or aberrant desire manifests as an apparition, it can be exorcised, and the psyche can be absolved. Unless society deems that psyche to be monstrous; then, well, justice will take its course. Thereby, the stories linger with a more deliberate chill—maybe those ghosts live inside our own minds and will condemn us for something we never did.