In the 19th and early 20th centuries, ghost stories proliferated in English literature, with countless writers vying to chill the blood of their readers. The acknowledged master of the supernatural genre was the Anglo-Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, whose celebrated short stories blend elements of Gothic horror, Irish folklore and psychological realism with uniquely unsettling and convincing results.
In a Glass Darkly presents a series of five stories from the casebook of Dr Martin Hesselius, a physician interested in ‘metaphysical’ maladies. In ‘Green Tea’, a respectable vicar is convinced that he is being followed by a monkey with glittering, malignant eyes. Dr Hesselius suggests this is a nervous complaint brought on by drinking too much tea – though this cannot fully account for the horrors the vicar experiences. ‘The Familiar’ is a story of revenge and demonic possession set in 18th century Dublin. In ‘Mr Justice Harbottle’, a depraved judge is tormented by a man he sentenced to be hanged, while in ‘The Room at the Dragon Volant’, a young man travelling in France becomes fatally seduced by a mysterious woman. The final tale, ‘Carmilla’, is one of the greatest vampire stories ever written. Set on the border of Austria and Hungary, it draws on the ‘banshee’ superstitions of rural Ireland and was an influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The brilliance of the narratives lies in their gradually mounting suspense and ambiguous endings. Are the patients of Dr Hesselius mad, mistaken or suffering from a guilty conscience? Le Fanu allows these possibilities – but there is always an even more sinister interpretation.
Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin in 1814, where he worked as a newspaper editor and journalist. After his wife’s death in 1858 he became increasingly reclusive and was supposedly nicknamed ‘the invisible prince’ by the people of Dublin. This Folio Society edition is introduced by novelist Patrick McGrath, who explores the historical context of these stories. Illustrations by Finn Campbell-Notman take us inside Le Fanu’s world with their eerie perspectives and ghostly, muted palette.
Review by sibilum on 17th Feb 2013