In A Glass Darkly
By Sheridan Le Fanu
Format: Paperback, 272 pages.
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions, 2007.
What are the chances of two horror novels being reviewed in the space of a couple of weeks with titles based on 1 Corinthians 13 (“For now we see through a glass, darkly”), kind of slim, but that’s the kind of joined up thinking you get at Highlanders Book Reviews (or pure jammy fluke as they say round these parts!). Perhaps what’s more fascinating is that without Sheridan Le Fanu’s misquote it is highly unlikely that we would have ever arrived at Bill Hussey’s Through A Glass Darkly despite the 136 year gap, let me explain.
Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish writer who, during the 19th C, was one of the founders of the written ghost story. For a more detailed biography have a look here or here but bear in mind this was a writer who directly influenced both M.R. James (master Victorian Ghost story writer) and Bram Stoker (more on vampires shortly!). This was a contemporary of Dickens, Browning, The Brontes and Stevenson who has largely been forgotten by the wider public so it’s great to see this collection back in print (raises glass to Wordsworth Editions yet again!).
In A Glass Darkly is a collection of 5 stories, each with a different supernatural bent but all loosely connected by the patient notes of a certain Dr Heselius who tries to explain the cases, generally using fairly bizarre pyschopathology. The stories are as follows :-
- Green Tea – About…..well, green tea really, oh and a monkey of course!
- The Familiar – A ghost from the past, Jacob Marley style.
- Mr Justice Harbottle – Payback time for the hanging judge.
- The Room In Le Dragon Volant – No dragons but a sting in the tail.
- Carmilla – An everyday story of lesbian vampirism!
So, as you can see a wide range of stories, some of which work better than others. The Room In Le Dragon Volant is perhaps the least successful and also the least supernatural, It’s also the longest. The Familiar and Mr Justice Harbottle are the most traditional and Green Tea is frankly just a bit mad. The true standout for me however is Carmilla, the story which is thought to have inspired Stoker to write Dracula and which also inspired the Hammer films The Vampire Lovers (based directly on the story) and it’s sequels Lust For A Vampire and Twins Of Evil (thank you Mr Le Fanu!). The descriptive writing in this passage is superb :-
" The glade through which we had just walked lay before us. At our left the narrow road wound away under clumps of lordly trees, and was lost to sight amid the thickening forest. At the right the same road crosses the steep and picturesque bridge, near which stands a ruined tower which once guarded that pass; and beyond the bridge an abrupt eminence rises, covered with trees, and showing in the shadow some grey ivy-clustered rocks.
Over the sward and low grounds a thin film of mist was stealing like smoke, marking the distances with a transparent veil; and here and there we could see the river faintly flashing in the moonlight.
No softer, sweeter scene could be imagined. The news I had just heard made it melancholy; but nothing could disturb its character of profound serenity, and the enchanted glory and vagueness of the prospect. "
Of course It’s not all like that, the writing is often of the stilted and dense style which we associate with Victorian literature and as such can often be hard work (I wouldn’t recommend this as bedtime reading) but that comes with the territory for writing that is 140 years old, stick with it and you will be rewarded with a glimpse of the very foundations of the modern horror story.
Rating 3 out of 5