Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) was a ghost story writer who left an impressive legacy – any author who M R James says “stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories” demands to be taken seriously. J S Le Fanu was born in Dublin, the grandson of the famous playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and eventually became a journalist in his native city. After graduating at Trinity College Dublin (which was later to become the alma mater of that other master of the macabre, Bram Stoker), Le Fanu was called to the bar but never practised, for he saw a career in writing as his true calling. He had been fascinated by Irish folklore, with its tales of ghosts and hauntings, from an early age and he soon produced a vast body of novels and short stories which earned him an early comparison with Edgar Allan Poe.
Le Fanu became one of the best selling authors of the 1860s and 70s and earned widespread acclaim. The great transatlantic author Henry James (who was inspired by reading Le Fanu’s tales to write the classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw) once wrote: “There was the customary novel of Mr Le Fanu for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight”. Le Fanu’s countryman Bram Stoker was also a fan of his and it is often noted that Dracula (1897) contains strong echoes of Le Fanu’s own vampire tale Carmilla, which was written 25 years earlier. Le Fanu’s most celebrated literary admirer, however, was M R James, who was largely responsible for the revival of interest in the Irish author’s works after he entered what has been called a period of ‘unmitigated famelessness’. The rediscovery of Le Fanu stemmed from the publication in 1923 of Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery, a collection of largely forgotten tales of his that was edited by M R James. Since then Le Fanu’s reputation has risen steadily and he is now recognized not only as the equal of Wilkie Collins as a writer of mysteries but also as occupying a place all of his own in the field of supernatural fiction, where is is regarded as the ‘spiritual grandfather’ of the form.
So prodigious and talented a writer was Le Fanu that it is difficult to pick out what in particular to read from his vast body of work. There is the remarkable collection of stories entitled In a Glass Darkly, which purport to be cases from the papers of ‘Dr Martin Hesselius, the German Physician’ – a direct inspiration for Thomas Carnacki, John Silence and the long line of other psychic investigators in English literature. Then there is Squire Toby’s Will, which was considered by M R James to be among the best ghost stories in the English language. My personal favourite of Le Fanu’s works is The Wyvern Mystery, a longer ghost story with echoes of Jane Eyre, which was also turned into a superb (and genuinely scary) BBC adaptation a few years ago. Lastly, there is An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street, which was published in 1861 with a modest assurance from Le Fanu that “its sole claim to attention is its absolute truth”. Click to read it if you dare!