LeFanu! I love that name. One can have so much fun with it. For instance:
LeFanuuuu, This is Gary Gnu (Guh-nuuuu)! How dooo you doooo? Excuse me, ah..ahh…achoooooo!
Oh shucks, I just discovered that his name is pronounced with the short “a”, which is the syllable that is stressed. How disappointing! But his ghost stories are not, which is the important thing. Far from it! Some consider him to be the best of his craft; the master of the ghost story. His work certainly epitomizes the classic ghost story. By the way, “classic” is always the best!
I first encountered Joseph Thomas Sheridan LeFanu when I read The Mammoth Book of Haunted Houses Stories . LeFanu’s tale “An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House” was just one of many stories that was necessary to plow through on the way to the book’s end. While I am proud of my review of the book as a whole, it didn’t do justice to the many authors and stories that made the anthology special. I’m glad to finally have the opportunity to hone in on this great author and examine some of his delightful haunted house stories.
It was Anne Rice that first recommended J.S LeFanu to me. Well okay, not to me personally, but she dedicated a post to him on her Facebook page. His vampire story “Carmilla” influenced her works tremendously. After reading her post I went to Amazon and bought Best Ghost Stories of J.S. LeFanu . Fourteen chilling tales! I have yet to read them all, but I for purposes of this article, I will examine three tales that deal with haunted houses. But first, let us go over some interesting information concerning the master.
LeFanu was an Irish novelist – born 1814. He is one of the main figures associated with Victorian ghost stories. He influenced many authors of the supernatural, including M.R James, H.P. Lovecraft, and Anne Rice. His vampire story Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” by twenty-six years. According to Dover Books, the publisher of Best Ghost Stories of J.S. LeFanu, he “achieved depths and dimensions of terror that still remain otherwise unexplored.” His knack for setting up an atmosphere that all but welcomes a haunting explains his success.
He specialized 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.
With that said, let’s explore some of LeFanu’s haunted houses. We’ll begin with story synopses and then we shall delve into deeper analysis that will uncover common themes.
(WARNING: Spoilers are lurking below!)
Squire Toby’s Will
Two brothers quarrel over the hereditary rights to Gylingden Hall, the house that is at the center of this story. After Squire Toby Marston passes on, the favored son, Charles, takes possession of the house. Scroope Marston contests this and gives it his “legal all” but to no avail. Inside the house in a secret compartment, Charles discovers documents that prove Scroope’s right to his share of the inheritance. But Charles isn’t telling!
A stray bulldog comes wandering along and Charles takes a liking to him and takes him in, against Butler Cooper’s wishes. The dog is locked up at night, but somehow, it always finds its way to his master’s bedroom. It climbs upon Charles’s bed. There in the darkened bedroom, its face transforms into the face of his father. Toby Marston then warns his son, through the mouth of the mutt, to give Scroope was he is due.
Time passes and so does Scroope. Scroope is to be buried inside the family graveyard that is out beyond the garden of Gylingden Hall. While the ceremony is in progress, two men in black coats and hats are spotted exiting a stagecoach and entering house. Servants search for these two strangers so that they might inquire about their identities, but they are nowhere to me found.
After the arrival and disappearance of the two figures, the house is never the same. Servants hear whispering at the ends of corridors. Nurses witnesses strange figures passing by the room of Charles, who is now sick and confined to the bed. Poor Charles, his mind is going. He rambles on and on about lawyers, about bulldogs, about his deceased father Toby and his dead brother Scroope. It does not seem that his remaining moments here on earth will go too well.
Ghost Stories of the Tiled House
Old Sally is the servant of young Lilias, and she just loves to shares stories with her mistress. Likewise, Lilias enjoys hearing about the older woman’s experiences. So Sally tells her all that she knows about The Tiled House; a house that Lilias had been hearing vague but foreboding tales about ever since she was a young child.
One evening, Sally says, the servants and the family friend await the arrival of the master of the house, who is due in quite late. They hear the rustle of the stagecoach horses, the howl of the wind, and a knocking on the front door. The butler springs to his feet and goes to let his master in. He opens the door. No one is there. But he feels “something” brush past him. Intuitively the family friend, Clinton, solemnly states “The master has died”
Another tale of the Tiled House is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator. Another family lives at the house; it is another time. Occupants look out the window, only to see a set of hands clenching the windowsill. There is knocking at the door and when the door is opened, the greeter again sees no one but feels a presence brush against him. Now hands are seen in the middle of the night, penetrating the valences that surround the beds, reaching out toward the unsuspecting sleepers.
An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House
The story begins with the comments of a fictional editor, who is presenting this tale, presumably to some kind of made-up publication. He vouches for the characters of the witnesses that have told him the tales for which he is about to present.
It is a tale told from the perspective of yet another unnamed narrator. He has a large household consisting of a wife, three children, and many servants. They move into a large house and strange things begin to happen.
Quite frequently, the occupants awake in the middle of the night to find strangers prowling about their bedrooms. A tall man moves across the room stealthily. And old woman is seen searching for something. They think of these trespassers as ordinary prowlers. The servants examine the coal vaults, searching for a possible secret passage that might allow trespassers entry to the house. They find nothing.
Maids see a pair of human-shaped shadows move across the wall, passing and repassing.
Later, human bones are uncovered from the outside garden. Eventually the family moves out of the house. Their stay was never meant to be permanent. The mysteries of the house remain unsolved.
In this section, not only am I working with the premise cited in Wikipedia (specifically that the “supernatural” in Le Fanu’s stories “is strongly implied but a ‘natural’ explanation is also possible.”) but also with notions concerning the lore-like “origins” of these stories. To begin, the creepy things that lurk within these tales blend in well with the “stuff” of imagination; the byproducts of heightened sensitivities brought on by fear. The face-changing dog in Squire Toby’s Will is the stuff of nightmares that bleeds into Charles’s wakefulness as he lies in bed. The disembodied whispers are disturbances that test the already frazzled-nerves of the highly imaginative maids that are hyper-reactive to rumors of spirits and hauntings. In Ghost Stories of the Tiled House, the strange noises heard upon “the phantom’s” arrival originate from the same place that gives us all those other unknown sounds that occur on a dark and scary night; that unknown location that is usually forgotten come morning time. The passing shadows behave as if they are but tricks of the flickering candlelight; the hands are perhaps made up of the same material that tends to pass out of existence after crossing the corners of our eyes. The trespassing figures in An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House are like phantoms freed of the nightmare.
In all these stories, the supernatural occurs within the darkest corners of the natural, and this is what makes them truly scary. Never are the ghosts proven to exist; never is there collective agreement concerning what has supposedly occurred.
Another fascinating aspect of these tales is that they are not first-hand accounts. Squire Toby’s Will begins with a narrator that is intrigued by Gylingden Hall. He describes its dilapidated structure and the “ancient elms” that surround it. He appears not to have witnessed the events of the story, yet he tells the tale. Ghost Stories of the Tiled House is a mixture of tales from an old maid (Sally) and then later by an unnamed narrator. The unnamed narrator confronts one of the occupants, Mr. Prosser, at the story’s end. In the events of the story Mr. Prosser is a young man. When confronted by the narrator, Mr. Prosser is quite old and minimizes the supernatural elements of which the narrator is inquiring. While the events that unfold in An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House do so from the first person perspective of the man of the house, the story is presented to readers via an editor.
As second-hand accounts, these stories rise to the level of folklore, which has staying power. They pass from one person to another like the ghosts that haunt the houses of successive generations of estate owners. Mysterious in content, mysterious is origin. Such is the nature of the ghost.
In all three of these stories, there is this theme – something from the outside wants in. Squire Toby’s Will has two cloaked figures (which some in the story guess to be the father and son spirits of Toby and Scroope) entering the house and then disappearing, perhaps embedding themselves forever into the spiritual fabric of the house. Ghost Stories of the Tiled House presents a scenario where a man, who is perhaps dead, is making noise outside the premises of his former home? Is he returning from the dead? Then there are the hands hanging from the outside window ledges. In one case a pudgy finger pokes through a bolt hole on the window frame. In An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, the apparitions appear both inside and outside. But there is the lingering fear that these beings, whoever (or whatever) they are, have forced their way in from the outside.
After these mysterious phantoms gain entry, things go awry. Servants from Squire Toby’s Will hear voices. Cooper the Butler sees two shadows dancing in wall, resembling the two cloaked men who had entered the home on the day of funeral. After the butler in the Ghost Stories of the Tiled House senses a presence brushing past him through the entryway, people begin to report some rather uncanny occurrences. There are strange noises. Indentations appear in the mattresses of beds without sleepers. The same situation occurs years later in the same house; a man at the door experiences the sensation of something making its way inside. After this, occupants no longer see hands outside the windows. They see the hands on the inside! They find handprints inside pools of dust. They see hands coming at them while they sleep in their beds. The mysterious beings of An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House had already gotten into their home. The question was – how to get them out?
Something is outside. It makes its presence known. It wants in. It gets in. Now what? These are the situations that the unfortunate characters of LeFanu’s stories have to face.
LeFanu has a way with words. He finely crafts these mood-alterting scenarios; the tone effectively digresses from ordinary to frightful with just a few strokes of the pen. It is the imagery that he invokes with this pen that transforms the piece. The things he describes rise up from within the words like the eyes of a gator emerging from the slough. They take form and come at the reader in almost three-dimensional fashion. Take for instance the shadow that merges with the wolf-head carving in Squire Toby’s Will. Out of this meeting the contorted face of Scroope comes into being and frightens poor old Cooper. In the Ghost Stories of the Tiled House, a poor maiden awakes to the sight of a strange man beside her bed. His throat has been cut and blood drips onto the floor. But he is not suffering. He is laughing. The hands that will grip the outer sills seem to reach be reaching outside of the book and clenching the yet-to-be-turned pages. The strange woman that haunts the house in An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House is described as a squalid little old woman, covered with small pox and blind in one eye. The way Le Fanu describes her shuffling about and wandering the room – is he looking though the page and describing a woman that he sees in real time standing next to you – the reader?
Throughout these tales, there is yet more captivating imagery. Vanishing stagecoaches, passing shadows, figures ascending staircases, shining eyes, ruffling curtains, and on and on and on. The things the come to be, they have a way of breaking the serenity. They creep up on their victims when they are at peace; sitting in a soft chair, lying in bed. They interrupt casual conversations. In this way, these image-evoking scenarios are similar to the “outside-in” theme. Inside, the occupants are going about their normal, peaceful lives. Something wants in. Once in, life is no longer normal. Likewise, once the object of the imagery forms and invades a casual scenario, the situation turns dire.
Summing It Up
Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu – who are you?
He is THE master of the ghost story. He conjures up frights that take place within the scariest realms of our imagination and then forces us to confront our own understanding of reality. He constructs haunted houses but leaves the ghosts outside. But they always seem to creep on in. He gives the readers the opportunity to “see” the apparitions that exist in the minds of his characters. He’s quite the ghostly dude. If you haven’t read any of his works, I suggest you do so soon. Soon = immediately! Get on it!