by Davy Kenney
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is possibly one of the most underrated Victorian spook-smiths.
If you are a Bram Stoker aficionado, you will easily recognize many borrowed motifs in stories like “Carmilla” and “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street.” But beyond his influence, Le Fanu is a master of horror.
Long ago, I read “Green Tea” and “Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand,” and the creepy images conjured by those stories have remained quite vivid in my mind. “Green Tea” in particularly uniquely realizes one of the most unsettling aspects of ghostly encounters – isolation. And here I do not simply mean being locked in a room.
No, I’m talking about an experience that separates you from the rest of humanity, an experience that makes it so that you can no longer share the same human experience that the people around you enjoy. As a small, monkey-like creature slowly begins to manifest itself to the protagonist of this story, the real horror comes when the man realizes that no one else can see the little fiend, which follows him through the streets in broad daylight, leaving him to grapple with the possibility of madness or the even scarier alternative to sanity.
Although not strictly a ghost story, Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas is still a great gothic suspense novel that capitalizes on feelings of frustration and impotence caused by isolation often found in tales of the supernatural.
In this novel you are frustrated both for and with the protagonist, as she is abused by other characters but still stubbornly refuses to believe that anyone has ill intentions, leaving you to scream at the book on your lap, “No! Don’t trust them, Maud! They want to kill you!” And I’ve always thought that if a book can get you to speak out loud to it, you know it’s a good one.
Experiencing the twists and turns of the plot is part of the fun, so I don’t want to give away much, but let me just set the stage. Imagine you are a young woman in Victorian England, and your father dies. Back then women weren’t responsible enough to look after themselves until they turned 21, so since you are only 19, you and your extensive fortune have to be placed under the total control of a relative until you come of age – talk about frustrating. You take a creepy carriage ride out into the creepy countryside and walk up to the creepy house, expecting that the relatives you heard so many horrible stories about must just be misunderstood and that a positive attitude and a little compassion will set everything right. And who should be standing there, smiling, as the door opens but your new legal guardians: Dracula, Count Olaf, and Bill Sykes.
Uncle Silas is a beautifully grotesque novel with exquisite scenes of gothic chicanery. Like Dickens, Le Fanu creates characters that seem lifelike because of their wild exuberance, which is particularly fun in a gothic novel like this one where characters dance through the graveyard talking to tombstones and creep down dark hallways at night ruminating on murder and metaphysics.