Long before people spent countless hours debating whether Edward or Jacob was the best pick for Bella, the supernatural writings of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu kept readers wide awake. Turning page after page to find out what ghastly surprise awaits, Victorian era readers were hooked on Le Fanu’s ghost stories and the eerie other worlds he created.
Le Fanu was born in 1814 in Dublin, Ireland. With a grandmother and great uncle as playwrights, Le Fanu’s love of reading and writing was instilled early. Joseph’s father, Thomas, was a clergyman for the Church of Ireland and had a home library Joseph used to entertain and educate himself. Though his father tried to keep up appearances, Joseph’s family was financially unstable.
Even with meager finances, Joseph was able to attend Trinity College in Dublin. Enrolled in a program unique to Ireland, Le Fanu did not have to attend on campus lectures and was able to study and learn at home and go to the university only to take exams and as needed. In 1839, Le Fanu graduated with a degree in law but he never went to the bar exam. With today’s technology, off campus courses are common and software is available for scholarship management and to help you find money to pay for online courses.
Even while completing his coursework, writing seemed to call to Le Fanu and he began contributing pieces to the Dublin University Magazine. In 1838, Le Fanu’s first ghost story, “The Ghost and The Bone Setter,” appeared in the Dublin University Magazine. Shortly after graduating, Le Fanu embarked on a career in journalism instead of pursuing a career in law. Writing ghost stories and pieces in other genres, Le Fanu immersed himself in writing and publication and by 1840, he owned multiple newspapers including the Warder and the Dublin Evening Mail.
Le Fanu would continue to work in the literary filed until his death in 1873. His body of work is vast and includes a wide variety of styles and themes. The earliest short stories Le Fanu wrote are a group of twelve known as the Purcell Papers. These stories include classic horror and supernatural themes such as gloomy, dark castles, spirits arising from the dead, suicide, and murder.
Spalatro book cover
Published in 1843, Spalatro: from the notes of Fra Giacomo was credited to Le Fanu belatedly in 1980. This novella has a Gothic Italian setting and is a supernatural story about the hero Spalatro and his femme fatale lover who just happens to be an undead blood-sucking bombshell. Entwining the supernatural and the erotic in Spalatro seems to interest Le Fanu as one of his future major works, “Carmilla,” revisits these themes.
The first novels Le Fanu penned were historical in nature and reminiscent of the style of Sir Walter Scott. These novels had an Irish setting and were sympathetic to the Jacobite cause.
In the time between 1864 and 1872, Le Fanu published numerous sensation novels. Sensation novels were hugely popular and told stories of crimes and the lives of people who commit them in a shocking manner. Stories were crafted to center around shocking subject matter that happened in the most ordinary places. For instance, one novel is about the hellish happenings at a private insane asylum.
A prolific writer, Le Fanu has two major works that are still widely read and enjoyed today. In 1864, “Uncle Silas” was published and it is still considered a standard in classic Gothic literature. In fact, two movie versions have been made of “Uncle Silas” to bring the macabre story to life.
The second major work of Le Fanu is a collection of five short stories entitled “In a Glass Darkly”. In the mystery and horror style, these stories revolve around the posthumous papers of an occult detective. “Carmilla” is included in this body of work and is an enthralling story set in Central Europe about a seductive lesbian vampire and her attacks on sleeping women. “Carmilla” greatly influenced another classic horror story, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and has inspired many films.
Le Fanu has numerous other short story collections published up until 1872 proving his lifelong dedication to his craft and chosen path in life. A far cry from a lawyer or typical clergyman’s son, Le Fanu forged his own path to become a renowned supernatural writer of the Victorian Era. Exploring dark themes, sexual situations, supernatural entities and the dark side of human nature, Le Fanu created a standard that all horror, mystery and supernatural stories are now measured against.
As compelling today as it was in the Victorian Era, Le Fanu’s works are dark, gloomy, melancholy, abstract, and of another place and time. Transporting readers to a dark and frightening place they want to stay in and explore takes talent and skill, attributes that Le Fanu had in spades. Entertaining readers for over one hundred and forty years, Joseph Le Fanu set the bar and paved the way for future horror and supernatural writers.