The Victorians wrote some of the best ghost stories still in print, and Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was widely considered to be one of the best tellers of the ghost tale ever to put pen to paper. Novels like Uncle Silas. Carmilla (which I read last year), and The House by the Churchyard are some of his best and best-known writings, but Le Fanu also wrote dozens of shorter stories, Gothic tales and supernatural mysteries, hauntings and deals with the devil. Four of the best have been collected in a slim Dover Thrift Editon for years now; in the mood to rekindle the long-lost past-time of telling ghost stories around yuletide, it’s one of two ghost story collections by Dover I picked up.
The first story, “Green Tea” (1872), spends a bit too much time on setup before arriving at a very interesting idea. It’s one of the stories about occult detective Dr Hesselius, who’s approached by a preacher with a unique affliction: wherever he goes, he’s followed by a spectral demon that takes the form of a dark, red-eyed monkey. It’s even began to speak to him, urging him to evil deeds and shrieking during his sermons, and the man is having trouble holding it together. Is this patient doomed by the sinister apparition—or is there a more mundane explanation for his visions? There’s a bit of pseudo-scientific babble here, but it shows Le Fanu’s keen psychological insight and subtle ability to build dread. It was called one of the best ghost stories at the time, and remains a decent tale.
The next one is not just one I prefer, it’s one of my faves. “Squire Toby’s Will” (1868) has the Gothic atmosphere and eerie creep-factor that Le Fanu does best. When Squire Toby Marston passes on, he leaves his manor not to his eldest son—the disfigured and hostile Scroope—instead, younger son Handsome Charlie inherits the estate. The two brothers get to feuding, and by the end, Scroope’s lost everything in court fees, and while Charlie retains the ancestral home, he’s also crippled in a hunting accident. A few months later, living in the old manor with but a few of his father’s loyal servants, he finds a strange but subservient dog moping around. The head butler urges him to destroy the animal, but Charlie enjoys its subservience and takes it into his care. And that’s when his dreams turn to nightmares, and images of his brother and dead father surround the strange hound… A creepy and effective story, with some interesting developments and a rich atmosphere of ancestral decay.
“The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” is the first of two consecutive tales featuring deals with the devil, and the inevitable downfall that such deals lead to. Robert Ardagh is an Irish lord with a penchant for gambling; he always seems to win, based on a Faustian bargain he’s made with a mysterious stranger. When the stranger returns to Ardagh’s castle, he brings ruin in his wake. There’s some good atmosphere here, set in the Gothic castle in rural Ireland; it’s a fascinating twice-told-tale where Le Fanu first tells the “traditional” legend before telling a more intimate version “authenticated by human testimony.” That makes the tale intentionally enigmatic, withholding or obscuring some necessary facts.
“Sir Dominick’s Bargain” is a bit too similar to the preceding story, which is a shame as it’s the better of the two. Our unnamed protagonist is traveling through Ireland, stopping at a wayside inn to rest his horses. A curious chap, he spends part of the afternoon inspecting the dilapidated ruins of a manor-house, wherein he finds a hunchback who tells its ancient story—the tale of Sir Dominick, a man falling into debt. In desperation, Sir Dominick agreed to serve the devil for seven years, after having the devil serve him for seven years first. As the end of the first seven years draws to a close, Sir Dominick attempts to evade his end of the bargain—but these deals always have strings attached, and escape does not come easy. Another tale with lush atmosphere—here, the Irish wilds and the ruined estate—as well as a fine sense of eerie unease and a chilling twist. It’s one of the finest ghost stories of its time.
If you’re familiar with writers like Robert Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, or M. R. James but have yet to read anything by Le Fanu, you really ought to pick up one of his volumes and see what you’re missing. Jumping into Victorian lit can be a sharp change of pace for modern readers, but the Victorians had such beautiful finesse when handling dark Gothic themes. And Le Fanu remains one of the best, his atmosphere rich and decadent, his settings eerie, his mysteries left unexplained—as it should be.
Title: Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories
Editor: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
First Published Date: 1838 – 1872
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley)
MSRP: paperback out of print / $3 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 048627795X / B014U9ATWA