Last fall, I wrote about M. R. James who many consider the master of the English ghost story. The other contestant for that title is the Irish writer Joseph Sheridan LeFanu. Born two generations earlier than James, LeFanu was a true Victorian, having lived from 1814 to 1873. If you like the leisurely-paced novels of Anthony Trollope or the mannered writing of Jane Austen, you probably will find something to enjoy in LeFanu’s works. LeFanu is best remembered now for writing “Carmilla,” a vampire tale that once rivaled Bram Stoker’s Dracula for popularity (Stoker and LeFanu were sort of the Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer of their days).
I think that one of the most interesting things about writers like James and LeFanu is that their works give us an insight into what folks in earlier times found frightening. When readers in the 22nd century look back at the scary stories from the 1990s and early 2000s they may conclude that serial killers and global terrorists haunted the psyches of North Americans. We seem to be mostly afraid of ourselves, or at least of people who are living in our world. Looking at these earlier thrillers and ghost stories, you get a very different sense of what kept people up at nights. Here, the supernatural is more often the source of the chills. It may be a malevolent spirit unintentionally released by an unsuspecting antiquarian, or, as in the first story in LeFanu’s book, it may be restless revenants seeking revenge on those who slighted them in life. In any case, the fear comes from otherworldly beings rather than from our neighbors.
So pour a cup or mug of your favorite fall libation and take up J. S. LeFanu to read about the horror of “Squire Toby’s Will” or the disturbing tale of “The Haunted Baronet.” They are wonderful October reading.
Check the WRL catalog for Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu