A good read for more than one stormy night: In a Glass Darkly

By Kathrin Kobus

Southside of Merrion Square just under 18,000 marathon runners received their well-earned medals in the afternoon sunshine last Sunday. They may not have been aware that in one of the townhouses, next to the Catholic Library resided nearly 200 years ago one Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, (1814-1873) journalist, writer and for a time proprietor and editor of Dublin University Magazine. Some of the best supernatural Irish fiction came from his pen. Le Fanus very first published short story Schalken, the Painter (1839) set the way he would write and guide his readers through mystery adventures, and they keep an ambiguity right up and beyond the ending. Five of the best make up the collection published in 1872 a year before his death as “In a Glass Darkly”. It offers The Green Tea, The Familiar, Mr. Justice Harbottle and two slightly longer novellas The Room in Dragon Volant and Carmilla for some scary encounters.

The Familiar and Mr.Justice Harbottle were reworkings of earlier stories, while The Green Tea had been serialized in 1869 in the periodical All the Year Round. These three stories come as excerpts of volumes of Doctor Martin Hesselius a self-styled metaphysical doctor, what today might be called a counsellor or psychotherapist. He is the narrator and introduces the reader into each story, giving them appearance of actual documented cases of real-life events, when of course they are fictional explores of the weird, ghostly, spooky and bizarre. Not in the bloodthirsty, gory way of HP Lovecraft, more focussed pre-Freudian analysises of mental illnesses or triggers for behavourial pattern changes that lead to the main characters facing an unfortunate demise. Le Fanus main characters or victims, Jennings, Captain Barton and Justice Harbottle claim to be haunted, followed or possessed. In The Green Tea the supernatural takes the shape of a black monkey, The Familiar has an apparent shape changer following Captain Barton, and Justice Harbottle is driven to suicide by the spectre of a prisoner he had condemned to death. Barton, the Navy officer in The Familiar leads the reader on a nightly walk which can be retraced today. From Montjoy Square across the Liffey and along what is todays Nassau street towards lodgings at Merrion Square, followed by something or someone called ‘the watcher’, which was the original name of the story. Mr.Justice Harbottle is an excessive revision of ‘An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street’, more than just a switch of location from Dublin to London, Westminster.

Le Fanu himself became a night walker after the death of his wife and preferred to leave his house at Merrion Square during hours of darkness, so maybe the autumnal “dark and stormy nights” could serve as inspiration for his best fictional creations. The innovative story of Carmilla, the female vampire concludes the Darkly collection. The positions are reversed to the other stories because Carmilla is the one who does the haunting and hunting. She is the revenant of Countess Karstein in Styria, who is taken in by Laura the young lady and her father and begins to feast on the inhabitants of the surrounding villagers while wooing Laura. There are the familiar events and type casts that will later re-emerge Stokers Dracula, the castle somewhere far in mountains of Central Europe from the Alps – Styria, the Ore and Tatra mountain range, gypsies or mountebanks selling charms to protect against regional superstition, ancient lore of the dead returning to feast on the living and detailing as well how to put an end to the curse of vampirism in the neighbourhood. One can be tempted to see Dr.Hesselius as a forerunner of Professor van Helsing.  

Bram Stoker knew what he owed to Le Fanus vampire story. Originally his Dracula manuscript had  Jonathan Harker discovering the tomb of a countess in Styria (where “Carmilla” haunts ) during Walpurgis night 30th of April to 1st of May and getting rescued by Count Dracula. This opening chapter was cut. Instead Jonathan Harker begins his journey leaving Munich on May the first, travelling further East into lands beyond the forest aka Transylvania. Today each year Bram Stoker and his most famous creation gets a Dublin festival all to itself year after year.  A new three part miniseries will be aired by the BBC, and even so there have been adaptation for the screen of Carmilla it is a source that deserves another chance. In the mean time: get yourself a copy of  In A Glass Darkly, sip a green tea and allow yourself to be carried away in the safety of your own home into the realms between the worlds of the living and the dead, ghosts, spirits.  

“In a Glass Darkly” by Sheridan Le Fanu is widely available in bookshops all over Dublin.