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.
9 Death and the Maiden: Theology, Gender and the Grotesque in Le Fanu’s Fiction
The terrible ends of the haunted protagonists of many of Le Fanu’s ghost stories and the debilitated passivity of the heroes of his longer fiction lead critics such as James Walton to discern in his writing a fascinated attraction to the void, while for Michael Begnal he exhibits a ‘fatalistic nihilism’, and for W. J. McCormack a ‘formal nihilism’.1 Even Victor Sage’s nuanced attention to the interplay of textual ‘death’ and the spirit of the imagination in his work results in nothing but an epiphany of horror.2 While not denying the spiritual vertigo and self-division of Le Fanu’s Calvinism, which I have explored elsewhere, this paper seeks to recover the moments in the stories where hope breaks in.3 For example, in ‘The Familiar’ (1872), one of the tales collected in the In a Glass Darkly volume, the sufferer of a demonic haunting regards it as the judgment of a ‘malignant, and implacable, and omnipotent’ spiritual system – an angry God.4 This engine of retribution is halted however, in a dream in which the guilty protagonist finds himself held in the lap of a girl who sings the song of his whole life. He wakens ← 177 | 178 → comforted ‘for I knew that I was forgiven much’.5 The girl in question is presumably the young woman he had wronged, and for whose death he is pursued by her father, his ghostly ‘familiar’. Although this intervention might be interpreted as a typical example of the Victorian angelic woman, it is important to...
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