Le Fanu and the Weird Turn of the Ghost Story
Today is the Sheridan Le Fanu bicentenary: this key figure in the Irish ghost story was born on 28 August 1814. We thought, then, this would be the perfect time to go all ghostly on you. The following facts about the history of the ghost story in the nineteenth century are largely taken from this book, Bewilderments of Vision: Hallucination and Literature, 1880-1914 (Sussex, paperback edition 2014), which, as well as being a rollickingly interesting book (but of course!), is also written by the curator of Interesting Literature, Oliver Tearle.
The earliest mention of ‘ghost-story’ recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1824, from a manuscript of Byron’s Don Juan, which mentions ‘Supper, punch, ghost-stories, and such chat’ (which, if nothing else, is the recipe for a fine Friday night). Ghost stories would evolve dramatically over the nineteenth century: after Byron introduced the phrase into the language, numerous writers – starting with Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens in the 1840s – would start to introduce a greater sense of uncertainty into the genre, uncertainty surrounding the precise provenance of the ‘ghosts’. Were they supernatural visitations, or mere hallucinations, all in the mind of the beholder? Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (one of his best stories) is one such example, where the beating of the heart under the floorboards could either be the spirit of the murdered old man giving away the identity of his murderer to the police, or could be the murderer’s conscience – like Macbeth’s before – getting to him and making him hear things.
Indeed, Dickens’s imaginative power was often likened to hallucination by nineteenth-century commentators. His first biographer, his long-time friend John Forster, summarising the view of a leading psychologist of the day, coined the term ‘hallucinative’ for Dickens’s imagination. Both G. H. Lewes (common-law husband of George Eliot) and French thinker Hippolyte Taine saw Dickens as a ‘hallucinative’ artist. When Nancy is fleeing from Sikes, fearing for her life, she tells Mr Brownlow that a coffin had passed her in the street. Brownlow thinks little of it. ‘They have passed me often,’ he says. ‘Real ones,’ Nancy replies. ‘This was not.’
And then there is Sheridan Le Fanu, whose tale ‘Green Tea’ (1869), perhaps more than any of his other stories, plays out this growing uncertainty surrounding the relationship between the supernatural and the psychological. In an age that was seeking to explain everything in rational and scientific terms – witness the founding of the Society for Psychical Research a few years later, which took a scientific approach to studying supernatural phenomena – the old-style ghosts were giving way to blurrrier visions of diseased minds, conscience-stricken individuals, and fear-haunted criminals. The tale ‘Green Tea’ centres on Jennings, a benevolent reverend whose frequent collapses suggest that he may be plagued by some sort of mental disturbance. Jennings’ penchant for green tea coincides with the horrific appearance of a ghostly monkey whose sole mission seems to drive the good reverend mad. But one of the interesting things about the way Le Fanu crafts the story is that he doesn’t draw a clear line of cause and effect between the tea-drinking and the monkeyish apparitions: sure, the appearance of this diabolical primate may be a hallucination brought on by too much green tea, but it might actually be some sort of divine – or devilish – creature from … well, God (or the Devil) only knows. You can read ‘Green Tea’ here.
Victorian ghost stories would continue to explore and exploit this weird hinterland between the brain and the world beyond the veil, culminating, perhaps, in what is the most famous ambiguous ghost story of them all, Henry James‘s The Turn of the Screw (1898). But a few years later, another James, M. R. James (no relation), would publish the first volume of his ghost stories, and his tales would return the genre to more conventional, firmly supernatural territory. But the seed that Poe, Dickens, Le Fanu, and others had sown would become a key part of many ghost stories of the next century. They had shown the way towards a kind of fiction that could explore hallucinatory states closely and authentically – modernist and postmodern literature, magical realism, urban fantasy, and beyond. The line between this world and the next, between the ghostly and the hallucinative, would never be clear again.