Saturday, 20 August 2011
Playing on the Nerves
In A Glass Darkly,
Le Fanu Sheridan
Far less known than his great admirer M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu may be an even better and more haunting writer, despite not relying so heavily on the supernatural. Some of his stories seem to be explorations of neurological disease rather than ghostly visitation. Such disease was much more common in his Georgian and Victorian day, before the toxicity of many common substances was understood and legislated against. But the horrors conjured by a diseased brain can be both stronger and more mysterious than a ghost or demon, being much more intimate but also less accessible. Le Fanu is intimate in another way: he has Robert Aickman’s ability to start currents swirling in the subconscious, till you can feel yourself being drawn down into the abysses that wait there, dark and mysterious with sex, death, and primal instinct. “Carmilla”, his classic of adolescent lesbian vampirism, is a good example and also demonstrates Le Fanu’s wider sympathy with humanity. M.R. James would not have written about women or that kind of sex. Homosexuality and necrophilia seem to inform James’ work; Le Fanu’s has the richness and bittersweetness of a man with wider sexual interests. Like Frankenstein or Sherlock Holmes, “Carmilla” may be more famous than its author is, still appearing in horror anthologies partly because of its theme, partly because it’s probably his best work, and partly because it’s written more simply than, say, “The Familiar” (and its title is easier to remember than his name). You can have to pay attention as you read Le Fanu’s complex prose:
The mind thus turned in upon itself, and constantly occupied with a haunting anxiety which it dared not reveal, or confide to any human breast, became daily more excited, and, of course, more vividly impressible, by a system of attack which operated through the nervous system; and in this state he was destined to sustain, with increasing frequency, the stealthy visitations of that apparition, which from the first had seemed to possess so unearthly and terrible a hold upon his imagination.
If you don’t concentrate as Le Fanu tosses you the balls, you drop them and can’t juggle up the whirl of metaphor and concept he is trying to create. The effort required is no doubt part of why he isn’t as well-known as he should be, but what you invest is repaid with interest and this collection, in Penguin’s World Classic’s series, is well symbolized by the painting on the cover: a detail from the great John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Dulce Domum, with a melancholy-dreaming young woman sitting in a house rich with detail, from peacock feathers to Chinese vases.