Monday 8 September 2014

Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born just over 200 years ago, and occupies a unique position in the twilight realm of ghostly fiction. Le Fanu was a very successful Victorian novelist, an equally accomplished short story writer, and produced poetry and drama for good measure. He is arguably the central figure in what we call Gothic fiction, as he wrote after the genre had matured but died well before the modern horror story begins to emerge in the Edwardian era.

Le Fanu was man of contradictions - these writer chappies often are. A famous recluse in his later years, he was rather well-travelled. He was an Irish literary giant, but agreed to set his novels in England to reach a wider audience. Two of his best-loved stories, 'Carmilla' and 'Schalken the Painter', are set on the continent. Elsewhere he focuses on Irish folklore and the native culture of the Catholic peasantry he knew well, but stood apart from as a Protestant of Huguenot descent.

Dublin-based Swan River Press has produced a volume of stories to mark Le Fanu's bicentenary, jointly edited by Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers. These are not sequels/prequels to Le Fanu tales, but works  that examine some of the themes and ideas the author tackled. As such, Dreams of Shadows and Smoke is a fine collection in its own right, as well as a solid tribute to the 'invisible prince' of Irish fiction.

It so happens that I got not one but two sneak previews of stories in this collection. The first was Brian Showers' 'Some Houses: A Rumination', which won the reader poll for best story in ST#25. I need hardly add that it's a good one, conjuring up atmosphere in a modern setting as Le Fanu did for old Dublin and its environs.

Mark Valentine's 'Seaweed Tea' has never appeared in print before, but I was lucky enough to hear him read a version of it at the Midsummer's Phantoms event in Newcastle a few weeks ago. It is a tale of scholarship and mysticism, focusing on tide tables of all things. What begins as a fairly light-hearted account of a puzzling inconsistency in a dull list of figures gradually becomes something much darker and stranger. It's dream-like imagery also makes it the most 'Swedenborgian' story here.

Very different in tone and subject matter is 'Echoes' by Martin Hayes. Here is a Dublin-set story of a haunted house, and that most Gothic of characters, the man with a dark secret. But this is no tale of a murderer unmasked. Hayes' protagonist is the quintessential monster of modern society, a man who can't begin to forgive himself, let alone expect forgiveness from others. And yet, thanks to insightful writing, the monster remains a man and is still pitiable.

Another Dublin haunting features in 'The Corner Lot' by Lynda E. Rucker. Here an American abroad finds herself in a house where many women have died unnaturally, in a plot that recalls more than one Le Fanu tale, and Stoker's 'The Judge's House'. On the armature of the conventional ghost story - giant, misshapen rats and all - Rucker builds something slightly different, not least in the final paragraphs where already questionable 'fact' shades into urban legend.

In 'Three Tales from a Townland' Derek John takes us out to the country. Rural Ireland has been ruthlessly packaged for urban consumption, not least by Irish writers. But these vignettes don't prettify the scrabble for existence of Ireland's poorer farmers. John's rural narrator may seem a typical 'auld fella', but his stories have an edge to them, as befits a crop from miserly soil.

Gavin Selerie (a name new to me) acquits himself well in 'Rite of Possession'. The English country house setting, the family curse, and the discovery of secret chambers are all familiar ingredients from Le Fanu's novels. There is also a 'man with the features of a monkey', and a satisfying conclusion. Lovers of historically-detailed ghost stories will not be displeased.

The ordeals of childhood are another Le Fanu speciality, with Uncle Silas offering the best known example. In 'Alicia Harker's Story' Sarah LeFanu (no gap) uses the framing device of a modern academic research project to tell the tale of a childhood haunting. It's a good modern take on some familiar Gothic ideas, and nods to one of Le Fanu's best-known tales.

Peter Bell's contribution, 'Princess of the Highway', takes us outdoors again, to the kind of haunted landscape Le Fanu evoked in his Loch Guir stories. I think that Bell might also have hit on a new horror trope - the person in a remote rural area who has to wander around a bit to get a mobile signal. In some ways, though, this is the story most faithful to the spirit of Le Fanu, with its hints of the grotesque and the mysterious purveyed in stately, slightly hallucinatory language.

'Let the Words Take You' by Angela Slatter has a similar theme to Bell's story, though the Australian setting and very different take on parenthood gives it a different feel. It's a clever story in which the most casual and fleeting of impulses has terrible repercussions, and confirms Slatter as one of the rising stars of the genre. She has an enviable way with words:
Media interest waned, newspaper articles dwindled, the story melted slowly from the front pages of the nationals, away towards the back until it ran up against the sports pages and had nowhere else to go.
'A Cold Vehicle for the Marvellous' by Emma Darwin is set in the Netherlands and makes an early reference to Schalken, which is a clever bit of a misdirection. The tale is rather Aickmanesque, in that it doesn't offer neat explanations for its climactic incident. It also undercuts the Victorian Gothic convention of a stolid, reliable narrator.

There isn't a weak story here, and I think Le Fanu would have been rather pleased that so many of the themes and ideas that interested him are represented. The tales and the story notes that accompany them make clear that, far from being a literary footnote, Le Fanu remains a living (or at least an undead) presence in modern weird fiction.

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