Irishman Sheriden le Fanu is perhaps the doyen of Victorian ghost story writers, and his five-story collection “In a Glass Darkly” is a superb introduction to the writer’s work. These are classic unsettling stories in the British/ Irish tradition, in that they are largely subtle tales that unfold slowly but surely, and usually climax with a suitably macabre, and sometimes truly horrific, ending.
The neat narrative framework for this collection is that they all purport to be papers from the collection of German physician Martin Hesselius. Hesselius is German doctor, prevented from going into practice by an injury to his hand. Instead he branched out into a different area becomes something of a specialist in afflictions of a more supernatural nature.
Though an intriguing character in his own right, Hesselius exists more of a framing device in the story. Each story is a ‘case history’ taken from his files. He only appears as a participant in the first story, the unsettling “Green Tea”, a tale of a clergyman whose studies in occult lore and love of said beverage bring on the unwelcome attentions of a particularly sinister creature that starts plaguing his existence. But is it a real visitation or a hallucination? Is the clergyman mad or truly damned? As a doctor, Hesselius can only speculate as to the cause, something he does in each of the stories.
This pseudo-medical/ psychiatric aspect of the stories is interesting. Of course Le Fanu was writing well before the development of modern psychiatry and psychology, and some of Hesselius’s attempts to explain the various phenomena in the stories struck me as being quant or downright odd. They do help lend the stories a convincingly studious air nonetheless, and with his detached and determined air, Hesselius comes across as a true investigator, so much so that you could imagine his character being resurrected and used in stories set in the modern day.
Even without Hesselius’s comments, however, each story provides the intrigue, shocks and thrills you’d expect from good ghost/ horror fiction. Le Fanu is an inventive and original writer who is capable of producing some genuinely original plots. That said, perhaps the most famous story in the book is the final one called “Carmilla”, where he makes use of one of the oldest horror legends of all. One the great vampire stories, it was apparently an influence on Bram Stoker. Carmilla the female vampire is a fascinating character, and this story of her (literal and figurative) attachment to the other lead female character is justly seen as a classic of the genre.
If you read it for yourself you may come away with the impression, as I did, that a rather knowing Le Fanu got away with quite a lot with regard to the story’s sexual subtext. Not all Victorians, it seems, were as straight laced as they would have wanted us to believe, and just like us they liked a good scare now and then.