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Described by M.R. James as 'one of the best storytellers' of the supernatural genre (M.R. James, 1923), Sheridan Le Fanu is perhaps best remembered for In A Glass Darkly (1872) a collection of ghost stories, and his novels The House by the Churchyard and The Wyvern Mystery.
Sheridan le Fanu was the son of the Dean of the Irish Episcopal College and was home-educated, so he would have been very familiar with St Paul:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.
(I Cor. 12)
In the title for his collection, Le Fanu changes ‘through’ for ‘in’: as Robert Tracey explains:
The glass of his title is not a window-pane through which we glimpse dim intimations of a spiritual world, or of divine truth. It is a mirror in which we glimpse our own darker nature.
R. Tracey, Introduction, In A Glass Darkly, 1999
The stories of In a Glass Darkly each mirror the darker aspects of human nature, life, and death. These may be repressed emotions and urges, a guilty conscience, or a portal to the other side.
In A Glass Darkly was published in 1872 and is a collection of five short stories. They are ‘cases’ collected by the narrator, who was secretary to Dr. Hesselius.
The first three stories are introduced in a prologue, followed by a note from Dr. Hesselius offering a rational explanation. The last two cases are presented as stories, introduced with a brief note on the opinions or theories of Dr Hessilius.
Dr Hesselius is a psychiatrist, who discusses the ‘inner eye’ (or ‘interior sense’) as described by Swedenborg, and offers a scientific solution:
The seat of interior vision is the nervous tissue and brain, immediately about and above the eyebrow. You remember how effectually I dissipated your pictures by the simple application of iced eau-de-cologne. Few cases, however, can be treated exactly alike with anything like rapid success. Cold acts powerfully as a repellant of the nervous fluid. Long enough continued it will even produce that permanent insensibility which we call numbness, and a little longer, muscular as well as sensational paralysis.
Green Tea, Conclusion: A Word For Those Who Suffer
In a Glass Darkly features five stories: 'Green Tea', 'The Familiar', 'Mr Justice Harbottle', 'The Room in the Dragon Volant', and 'Carmilla'.
Mr Jennings is a clergyman Hesselius meets at a social gathering. Jennings has occasional breakdowns both in conversation and during his sermons:
...after proceeding a certain way in the service, he has on a sudden stopped short, and after a silence, apparently quite unable to resume, he has fallen into solitary, inaudible prayer, his hands and eyes uplifted, and then pale as death, and in the agitation of a strange shame and horror, descended trembling, and got into the vestry-room, leaving his congregation, without explanation, to themselves.
Green Tea, Chapter 1
After some hesitation and apparent recovery, Jennings contacts Hesselius and explains his situation. He has been doing research for a work on paganism and developed the habit of drinking green tea as a stimulant for his brainpower.
Returning home late after picking up some books, Jennings takes an omnibus. He takes a seat near the door, and after the one other passenger gets off, Jennings observes two red lights in the opposite corner. He puzzles about these in the gathering dark. Finally, Jennings realises the red discs are the eyes of a small black monkey. He pokes at it with his umbrella:
I fancied that one of the passengers had forgot this ugly pet, and wishing to ascertain something of its temper, though not caring to trust my fingers to it, I poked my umbrella softly towards it. It remained immovable—up to it—through it! For through it, and back and forward, it passed, without the slightest resistance.
– Chapter 6
Horrified, Jennings gets off the omnibus and walks the rest of the way. He is convinced the phantom monkey has vanished, and, relieved, reaches home. However, he discovers the monkey is still following him. Jennings finds he can not escape the monkey – it comes and goes, and when present, accompanies his travels.
In all situations, at all hours, it is awake and looking at me. That never changes.
Initially listless, it becomes increasingly aggressive, particularly when Jennings says prayers or even just meditates. Worse, it speaks to him, telepathically ordering him to commit crimes and injure those around him, or himself.
Hesselius advises Jennings to inform him the minute the phantom monkey returns. Hesselius is convinced the cause is physical, (i.e. some nervous disorder) and leaves orders with Jennings’ servant to check regularly in on Jennings in his room. Hesselius then retires to an inn with his notes and proceeds to study Jennings’ case.
He goes home the next day and finds a note from Jennings:
Dear Dr. Hesselius. It is here. You had not been an hour gone when it returned. It is speaking. It knows all that has happened. It knows everything—it knows you, and is frantic and atrocious. It reviles. I send you this. It knows every word I have written—I write. This I promised, and I therefore write, but I fear very confused, very incoherently. I am so interrupted, disturbed.
Ever yours, sincerely yours,
ROBERT LYNDER JENNINGS.
Hesselius returns to Jennings’s house, but arrives too late, as Jennings has killed himself. Hesselius closes with a note on hereditary suicidal mania, which he is convinced was the true cause of Jennings’ death.
The second ‘case’ is described by a clergyman of Dublin and concerns a navy captain, James Barton, who returns to Dublin in 1794 after a distinguished career in the American wars. He is described thusly:
intelligent and agreeable companion when he pleased it, though generally reserved, and occasionally even moody.
Captain Barton takes a house in a fashionable quarter of the town and keeps one servant. He lives carefully and quietly, does not drink, gamble 'nor any other vicious pursuit (Chapter 1)'. He becomes engaged to a penniless social beauty, Miss Montague.
Miss Montague lives with her aunt, Dowager Lady L, in the north part of Dublin, while Barton lives in the south. His walk home passes through a street that is under construction. One evening, after a conversation about the supernatural (which he treats with complete scepticism), Barton takes his leave and walks home:
He had proceeded thus some way, when he, on a sudden, heard other footfalls, pattering at a measured pace, and, as it seemed, about two score steps behind him."
Barton turns a couple of times to see who is following him, but sees nobody. He finally reaches home, and, once recovered, decides it was an illusion. At breakfast the next day Barton receives an anonymous letter of warning from somebody called ‘The Watcher’.
The captain assumes the letter to be a hoax, and the footsteps some sort of prank or trick of the imagination. He therefore tells nobody about either. He does however avoid the street. The footsteps continue to follow him, and he receives another letter:
You may as well think, Captain Barton, to escape from your own shadow as from me; do what you may, I will see you as often as I please, and you shall see me, for I do not want to hide myself, as you fancy. Do not let it trouble your rest, Captain Barton; for, with a good conscience, what need you fear from the eye of 'THE WATCHER.'"
The Captain begins to hear the footsteps by day as well as night. One day while walking with the clergyman and several friends, the group is approached by a man:
short in stature, looked like a foreigner, and wore a kind of fur travelling-cap, walked very rapidly, and as if under fierce excitement, directly towards us, muttering to himself, fast and vehemently the while."
The man walks up to Barton, stares at him, then walks away. According to the clergyman, Barton seems terrified by the encounter. His companions suggest he is unwell and he returns home. Miss Montague's father General Montague finally arrives in Dublin. He has known Barton briefly in the past and laughs at the idea of ghosts – he is determined to catch whoever is at the bottom of these visitations:
Now, my dear fellow, I'll make it my business to catch this mischievous little mountebank, and either beat him to a jelly with my own hands, or have him whipped through the town, at the cart's-tail, before a month passes."
Both Barton and the General see the man, but fail to capture him. The General suggests a trip abroad to raise Barton’s spirits. They get as far as Calais when the man appears again to Barton. They return to Dublin, with Barton convinced he is to die.
Lady L- has a house outside of Dublin, which she offers to Barton. His doctor advises rest, seclusion, and plenty of cheerful company. A month passes and Barton appears to be recovering. Then one day Lady L sends her maid out to the herb garden. The maid returns with a disturbing tale:
‘a singularly ill-looking little man, whose countenance wore the stamp of menace and malignity, standing close to her, at the other side of the hawthorn screen’
The little man has a message:
that he, Captain Barton, must come abroad as usual, and show himself to his friends, out of doors, or else prepare for a visit in his own chamber.
Lady L forbids the maid from telling anyone else of this. Barton also sees the little man while walking in the courtyard, and faints. He is carried to his room. Later Barton is found dead, huddled up against the head of the bed, his hands clenching the sheets:
The features were fixed, stern, and white; the jaw was fallen; and the sightless eyes, still open, gazed vacantly forward toward the front of the bed."
Shortly before, his servant had heard two voices in the room, Barton’s and another’s, but only Barton is found. Miss Montague's pet owl had fluttered in and now flies out again. Later it comes to light that six years before, Barton had been involved with the daughter of one of his crew. The girl’s father treated her so badly that she died:
Barton retaliated this, and what he resented with still more exasperated bitterness—his treatment of the unfortunate girl—by a systematic exercise of those terrible and arbitrary severities which the regulations of the navy placed at the command of those who are responsible for its discipline.
The man escaped the ship in Naples but died later in a hospital there.
Hesselius notes that he can only conjecture, as he was not present during the case. He suggests hereditary conditions and brain disease, although he also allows that the 'inner eye' may lose its protective layer.
Hesselius’s opening note on this third case states:
It was one of the best declared cases of an opening of the interior sense, which I have met with.
The story is told by a Mr. Harman, who learns of a house in Westminster that is haunted by two men in 18th-century clothes, one of them carrying a rope. Curious to discover the history of the house, Harman writes to a friend (apparently a historian of sorts) who sends back a detailed account of the judge who lived in it during the eighteenth century.
The Judge … had a great mulberry-coloured face, a big, carbuncled nose, fierce eyes, and a grim and brutal mouth. … This old gentleman had the reputation of being about the wickedest man in England…"
One evening in 1746 the Judge receives a mysterious visitor. When the visitor leaves, servants notice that the Judge looks frightened. The Judge sends one of his footmen to accompany the visitor to his home:
and in no case to show his face again without having ascertained where he lodged, and who he was, and all about him.
The visitor has hinted at a secret tribunal, a Jacobite group, that seeks revenge on judges such as Harbottle. They call themselves the High Court of Appeal. He has also mentioned a prisoner, Lewis Pykeham, whose case the judge is to try shortly at Shrewsbury.
The footman attempts to accompany the visitor who escapes. The Judge dismisses the whole incident as some kind of trick set up to frighten him. He remembers Lewis Pyneweck rather uncomfortably. Some six years earlier, the Judge lodged in Pyneweck’s house and had an affair with Pyneweck’s wife:
Had not that scoundrel an account to settle with the Judge? had he not been troublesome lately? and was not his name Lewis Pyneweck, some time grocer in Shrewsbury, and now prisoner in the jail of that town?"
Mrs Pyneweck is now the Judge’s ‘housekeeper’, and although she has no love for her husband, she asks the Judge to do his best for him. The Judge responds by ensuring that Pyneweck is hanged.
On the Judge’s return to London and the Old Bailey, he is astonished to see Lewis Pyneweck in court:
He was stretching his low cravat with his crooked fingers, while he slowly turned his head from side to side—a process which enabled the Judge to see distinctly a stripe of swollen blue round his neck, which indicated, he thought, the grip of the rope.
The judge sends clerks of the court to find the man, but he has vanished. The judge then receives a letter of warning: he will be tried before the High Court of Appeal, and it is signed Caleb Searcher, "Officer of the Crown Solicitor in the Kingdom of Life and Death" (Chapter 5). The judge laughs it off as a prank but is a little pale.
He goes to the theatre and arranges to pick up two friends in his carriage. He waits a while, and dozes off. He is awoken by his two friends getting into the carriage. They slam the door shut and the carriage sets off. He discovers, however, that the two men in the carriage are not his friends, and that he has been taken to a court of law in another dimension, ruled over a phantom Judge Twofold:
a dilated effigy of himself; an image of Mr. Justice Harbottle, at least double his size, and with all his fierce colouring, and his ferocity of eye and visage, enhanced awfully.
Judge Harbottle is pronounced guilty by a jury of shadows and sentenced to be hung in a month’s time. He is taken to be put in chains, only the chain is welded to his ankle. His roar of pain transports him back to his carriage:
His friends Thavies and Beller were startled by the Judge's roar in the midst of their elegant trifling about a marriage à-la-mode case which was going on. The Judge was in panic as well as pain. The street-lamps and the light of his own hall-door restored him."
He is diagnosed with gout and advised to rest. Phantoms are seen around the house: Mrs. Pykeweck sees a long, thin man with a rope who leans over the stairs, and he turns and goes into a room. However, when Mrs. Pykeweck follows him, he vanishes, leaving only the rope.
In the morning the judge is found:
hanging by the neck from the banister at the top of the great staircase, and quite dead.
Hesslius’s interest, in this case, is the use of drugs that induce a catatonic state. The story is more of a mystery or tale of suspense, although Beckett’s experience suggests he (briefly) becomes one of the undead, thus echoing the supernatural.
It’s 1815 and a naive young Englishman (Richard Beckett) is travelling through France when he witnesses an accident, an overturned carriage with its passengers stranded. One of the passengers is an elderly gentleman, and the other is a beautiful young woman. Beckett, fascinated by the woman, follows them to an inn called the Dragon Volant. He is tricked into believing he is rescuing the unhappy young wife of the villainous Count St. Alyre.
He ends up staying at the Dragon Volant, where apparently on three previous occasions, lodgers have vanished after spending the night in a particular room. He is drugged with coffee and liqueur, which induces a cataleptic state: he remains conscious yet unable to speak or move. The Countess appears alarmed at first, and calls out his name:
Great and loud was the lady's agony. She seemed to have lost all sense of fear. She called me by my name, shook me by the shoulder, raised my arm and let it fall, all the time imploring of me, in distracting sentences, to make the slightest sign of life, and vowing that if I did not, she would make away with herself.
These ejaculations, after a minute or two, suddenly subsided. The lady was perfectly silent and cool. In a very business-like way she took a candle and stood before me, pale indeed, very pale, but with an expression only of intense scrutiny with a dash of horror in it. She moved the candle before my eyes slowly, evidently watching the effect. She then set it down, and rang a hand-bell two or three times sharply. She placed the two cases (I mean hers containing the jewels) and my strong box, side by side on the table; and I saw her carefully lock the door that gave access to the room in which I had just now sipped my coffee.
The Count and the rest of the gang appear and proceed to go through Beckett’s money chest and luggage. They change his clothes for a nightdress and cap and he can hear them dragging something in from the adjoining room:
They were dragging something along the floor that made a continued boom and rumble, but they interposed between me and it, so that I could not see it until they had dragged it almost beside me; and then, merciful heaven! I saw it plainly enough. It was the coffin I had seen in the next room. It lay now flat on the floor, its edge against the chair in which I sat. Planard removed the lid. The coffin was empty.
The gang plans a sham funeral to dispose of Beckett. They place him in the coffin and have only finished screwing the lid down when the gendarmes arrive and Beckett is rescued, although he becomes a figure of fun for Parisian society and leaves as soon as he can.
Briefly, Dr Hesselius makes his notes on the case:
involving, not improbably, some of the profoundest arcana of our dual existence, and its intermediates."
Carmilla is set in Styria, yet Laura, the narrator is English:
My father is English, and I bear an English name, although I never saw England."
Her mother was descended from the Karnsteins, whose ruined castle lies in the area. She and her father live isolated in another castle with an abandoned village:
My father was in the Austrian service, and retired upon a pension and his patrimony, and purchased this feudal residence, and the small estate on which it stands, a bargain."
The villagers, fearing vampires, have abandoned the place. They receive news from a family friend, a general, who is to visit them with his niece. However, the niece has died under mysterious circumstances, which their friend will explain on his arrival:
I have lost her, and now learn all, too late. …The fiend who betrayed our infatuated hospitality has done it all. I thought I was receiving into my house innocence, gaiety, a charming companion for my lost Bertha. Heavens! what a fool have I been! …. I devote my remaining days to tracking and extinguishing a monster.
Meanwhile, a carriage accident occurs outside the castle. Its passengers are a young girl called Carmilla and her mother. Carmilla is injured and is left in the care of Laura and her father while Carmilla’s mother continues on her urgent journey:
the horses plunged and broke suddenly into a furious canter that threatened soon again to become a gallop, and the carriage whirled away, followed at the same rapid pace by the two horsemen in the rear."
The mysterious Carmilla reveals nothing about herself, and has a tendency to sleep all day and sleepwalk at night. Laura falls ill, and the doctor observes two puncture marks on her neck and warns her father. They meet up with the General, who explains his niece had been the victim of a vampire. His description matches Carmilla. They find the tomb of Carmilla (who is Mircalla, Countess Karnstein):
The features, though a hundred and fifty years had passed since her funeral, were tinted with the warmth of life.
They destroy the body after driving a stake through her heart and beheading her.
The body and head were next placed on a pile of wood, and reduced to ashes, which were thrown upon the river and borne away, and that territory has never since been plagued by the visits of a vampire."
Sheridan Le Fanu's (1814 - 1873) In A Glass Darkly is a collection of five short stories in the horror and mystery genre that was published in 1872.
The stories, presented as the posthumous papers of Dr. Martin Hesselius, a metaphysical investigator, explore themes of psychological horror and the uncanny.
Sheridan le Fanu borrowed a quotation from St Paul for the title of his book: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’
Dr Hesselius is a psychiatrist, who discusses the ‘inner eye’ (or ‘interior sense’) and offers a scientific solution.
Dr Hesselius is a psychiatrist who is interested in the ‘inner eye’.
Carmilla was written by Sheridan Le Fanu.
In A Glass Darkly was published in 1872.
A collection of five short stories, or ‘cases’ of Dr Hesselius.
Sheridan le Fanu was a mystery novelist and writer of supernatural stories.
When was In A Glass Darkly published?
In A Glass Darkly was published in 1872.
What is In a Glass Darkly?
A collection of five short stories, or ‘cases’ of Dr Hesselius.
Who is Dr Hesselius?
Dr Hesselius is a psychiatrist who is interested in the ‘inner eye’.
Choose: In Green Tea, a clergyman is pursued by a
Complete: In The Familiar, Captain Barton is followed by the sound of … and receives letters signed by the ….
In The Familiar, Captain Barton is followed by the sound of footsteps and receives letters signed by the Watcher.
True or False? Sheridan le Fanu was self-taught.
False: Sheridan le Fanu was home educated (by his father the dean).
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