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'Inspiring a Mysterious Terror'

200 Years of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu


Edited By Jarlath Killeen and Valeria Cavalli

Best known for his Gothic masterpiece Uncle Silas and the vampire story Carmilla, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was a prolific writer whose extensive body of work included historical, sensation and horror novels, poems and ballads, numerous stories of the supernatural, journalism and a verse-drama. While his name is well known to aficionados of the horror genre, much of his work still remains in the shadows. Indeed, despite his vampire creation, Carmilla, being the best-known female blood-sucker in the world, and despite an enormous scholarly and popular interest in the novella in which this character first appeared (an interest evident in the very large number of cinematic, televisual and even new media adaptations of the story), Le Fanu himself is almost completely unknown outside of the world of Irish Gothic scholarship, and most of his fiction remains difficult to obtain or is out of print.

To celebrate the bicentenary of Le Fanu’s birth, this collection brings together established scholars and emerging researchers in order to shed new light on some of his less famous fiction and celebrate his influential contribution to the Gothic genre. The main aim of the collection is to read Le Fanu in the round, expanding the critical focus away from its current obsession with a small proportion of his work and taking account of the full extent of his writing, from his other Gothic novels, The Rose and the Key, Haunted Lives and A Lost Name, to his short stories and journalism. The collection also considers Le Fanu’s relationship to Victorian Ireland and especially Dublin from a number of different angles, as well as addressing his status as an ‘Irish’ writer of substance.

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2 The Mask and the Void: Romantic Grotesque in Le Fanu’s Later Romances


I want first to set this discussion in context by considering Mikhail Bakhtin’s powerful description, in the introduction to his classic study of François Rabelais, of a radical cultural shift in the nature of the grotesque caused by the impact of late eighteenth-century German metaphysics on Enlightenment optimism. According to Bakhtin, the surviving medieval folk tradition of the Grotesque undergoes a radical change:

The transformation of the principle of laughter which permeates the grotesque, that is the loss of its regenerating power, leads to a series of other, essential differences between romantic grotesque and medieval and Renaissance grotesque. These differences appear most distinctly in relation to terror. The world of Romantic grotesque is to a certain extent a terrifying world, alien to man. All that is ordinary, commonplace, belonging to everyday life, and recognised by all suddenly becomes meaningless, dubious and hostile. Our own world becomes an alien world. Something frightening is revealed in that which was habitual and secure. Such are the tendencies of Romantic grotesque in its extreme expression. If a reconciliation with the world occurs, it takes place in a subjective, lyric, or even mystic sphere.1

This breach between the subject and the world is caused by the loss or suppression of communal aspects of ‘folk culture’:

Unlike the medieval and renaissance grotesque, which was directly related to folk culture and thus belonged to all the people, the Romantic genre acquires a private ‘chamber’ character. It became, as...

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