Bram Stoker is a household name, yet his predecessor Le Fanu never seems to get the same level of appreciation. That's why I'd like to spend a post highlighting Le Fanu's body of work. If you're unfamiliar, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish author during the Victorian era, who was known for his Gothic tales, mystery novels, and ghost stories. His writing had a huge influence on Bram Stoker's Dracula and on the ghost tales of other Victorian authors, such as M. R. James. Below are a few of Le Fanu's most important works:
Today, Le Fanu's biggest claim to fame is his vampire novella, Carmilla. Written two decades before Bram Stoker's Dracula, this novella is notable for its focus on a female vampire and its portrayal of her as a somewhat sympathetic character. The homoerotic overtones of this story are also a popular topic of discussion. In the story, a young, innocent-looking vampire named Carmilla befriends Laura, a teenage girl who lives with her father in an isolated castle in Austria. But when Carmilla exhibits some strange behaviors and Laura falls mysteriously ill, the father begins to suspect that something is wrong.
Uncle Silas (1864)
Before Carmilla, Le Fanu had published another Gothic tale—this one incorporating elements of mystery and thriller. The novel features a teenage protagonist named Maud Ruthyn, who is sent to live with her mysterious uncle Silas. Silas has been viewed with suspicion ever since a man to whom he owed a great debt apparently committed suicide within one of the rooms of his estate. Maud is determined to find out whether her uncle is truly guilty of murder. Uncle Silas is celebrated as an early example of the "locked room" mystery trope initiated by Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in which a crime is committed inside a locked room and no one can figure out how the culprit would have entered and exited. The story also has all the trappings of a classic Gothic novel—an innocent young woman; a man trying to force her into marriage (in this case, Maud's cousin Dudley); and a castle-like estate that is seemingly impossible to escape.
The House by the Churchyard (1863)
Less widely read than the two above, The House by the Churchyard is a complex and many-faceted novel that blends the mystery genre with historical fiction. It is set in the village of Chapelizod (now part of Dublin, Ireland) in the mid-1700s. The main plot slowly unravels the story behind a mysterious skull that is found in the churchyard many years later. The wide web of characters, many of whom have their own dark secrets, serve to complicate the plot and provide many red herrings to the mystery of the murder at the center of the novel. Though The House by the Churchyard is not quite as popular today as Carmilla and Uncle Silas, it is frequently recognized for its influence on another Irish writer: James Joyce, who incorporated elements of it into his famously complicated tale Finnegans Wake.
Have you read any of the works of J. Sheridan Le Fanu? Are there others besides the ones mentioned here that you would recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments!