Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Le Fanu, J Sheridan

(1814-1873) Irish writer who spent much of his life as proprietor of various Dublin newspapers and journals. He is of central importance to the history of 19th-century Supernatural Fiction, though none of his 14 novels does more than hint at supernatural materials. JSLF wrote relatively little Fantasy; his bibliography, which is vast and quite remarkably complex – especially in view of his tendency to incorporate recastings of earlier work into various contexts – is here rendered only in part.

Of JSLF's 40-45 stories, about 28 are supernatural fictions, beginning with his first story, "The Ghost and the Bone-Setter" (1838 Dublin University Magazine), a Ghost Story whose condescending "Irishry" now seems offensive. But JSLF's relationship to his native Ireland was by no means simple. As a conservative Protestant from a prosperous landed family, he was violently opposed to any measures which might loosen the political union between Ireland and the rest of the UK, and resisted any form of local rule; he also fought against the disestablishment of the Protestant Church. It has been suggested that much of his mature fiction can be understood, at one level, as a deeply pessimistic (and indeed guilt-ridden) presentation of his class and religion as locked into a decaying redoubt within Ireland. This may be why his best stories frequently turn on the disastrous consequences of sins committed – years or decades before the price must be paid – against now-decadent families, and against the Protestant religion which serves as a bulwark against dissolution. A sense of chill Belatedness – a sense that those now living are Puppets of dead sinners – governs these stories, which often gain their most powerful and most haunting effects when characters act out prior dramas of violation.

Of those tales written before 1853, when he became relatively inactive for some years, the best is probably "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" (1839 Dublin University Magazine), in which a young painter loses his loved one to a corpse-like Demon. It appears in JSLF's first collection, Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (coll 1851), along with "The Watcher", first published here. (Much transformed, it appeared again as "The Familiar" in 1872. We will not provide further examples of these recastings, because JSLF's reworkings sometimes extend far beyond simple revisions.) Further early work of interest includes "Spalatro, from the Notes of Fra Giacomo" (1843), in which a Doppelgänger represents the cold priority of the past, and "The Mysterious Lodger" (1850 Dublin University Magazine), in which apostasy from Protestant values is punished by the eponymous Demon.

It is for the short stories that JSLF wrote between 1866 and his death – a mere seven-year timespan – that he is now esteemed. They include: "Squire Toby's Will" (1868 Temple Bar), in which the death of a house (JSLF's Haunted Dwellings are exceptionally evocative) is rendered inevitable by a son's refusal to obey the ghost of his father; Green Tea (1869 All the Year Round; 1943 chap), featuring a malevolent ghost monkey, and arguing the case that bad thoughts infect the thinker, allowing evil or repressed supernatural entities to invade the real world; "The Child that Went with the Fairies" (1870 All the Year Round), a rare – and horrific – fantasy about Time in Faerie; Carmilla (1871-1872 Dark Blue; 1971 US), one of the first successful Vampire stories, in which vampirism is linked to lesbianism; "Dickon the Devil" (1872 London Society), which features a vengeful ghost willing to kill in order to maintain his long-perished will; and "Mr Justice Harbottle", which appears in In a Glass Darkly (coll 1872; cut vt Green Tea 1907), and whose protagonist sends an innocent man to be hanged, beds the widow, and is now trying to shake off the guilt.

Of JSLF's novels, Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh (1864) is perhaps the most powerfully atmospheric, and its Villain the closest to supernatural in the demonic intensity of his actions; it was memorably filmed as Uncle Silas (1947; vt The Inheritance US). But it is in his stories – some of them of nearly novel length – that JSLF remains vital, and where his sense that the world was sliding into chaos most vividly continues to chasten. [JC]

other works: Chronicles of Golden Friars (coll 1871); The Purcell Papers (coll 1880), assembling early work; The Watcher and Other Weird Stories (coll 1894); Madame Crowl's Ghost (coll 1923) ed M R James; Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories (coll 1945 US); Sheridan La [sic] Fanu: The Diabolic Genius (coll 1959 US); Best Ghost Stories of J.S. Le Fanu (coll 1964 US) ed E F Bleiler; Carmilla and The Haunted Baronet (coll 1970 US); The Best Horror Stories (coll 1970); Vampire Lovers, and Other Stories (coll 1970); Irish Ghost Stories (coll 1973); Ghost Stories and Mysteries (coll 1975 US); The Hour After Midnight (coll 1975); The Purcell Papers (coll 1975 US) ed August Derleth, differing contents from the 1880 coll; Borrhomeo the Astrologer (1862 Dublin University Magazine; 1985 chap); The Illustrated J.S. Le Fanu (coll 1988).

further reading: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1971) by Michael H Begnal.

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.