J. Sheridan Le Fanu occupies a unique place in the richly textured histories of weird and supernatural literature. Those who have read and enjoyed his stories recall him as a master of a strange and dreadful kind of fiction, making indelible contributions to traditions such as the Gothic, the ghost story, and the vampire myth, all the while becoming a forerunner for writers of weird fiction like M.R. James. His work deserves the same kind of scholarly attention and scrutiny afforded other writers of fiction similar to his.
Enter Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Gary William Crawford, Jim Rockhill, and Brian J. Showers for Hippocampus Press. Since its publication last year, it has garnered high praise and accolades, including a nomination for the 2011 Bram Stoker Award for Best Non-Fiction. It’s an ambitious, wide-reaching collection of writing about Le Fanu and his work, built with the intention, in the editors’ words, of “[crystallizing] past scholarship, while bringing fresh perspectives to both familiar works and works that are either undeservedly neglected or maligned.”
The editors meet their objective splendidly, offering a broad, yet often vivid selection of material. Writers such as the aforementioned M.R. James, E.F. Benson, and V.S. Pritchett pay loving, yet clear-eyed, tribute to Le Fanu and his stories. Paths of influence are charted to and from Le Fanu with such writers as the Brontë sisters and Charles Dickens, as well as artists like Dutch painter Godfrey Schalken and filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer (for his classic film Vampyr, loosely inspired by Le Fanu’s collection In a Glass Darkly). Other materials more biographical in nature, such as memoirs of Le Fanu and his life, a collection of portraits, and a compilation of obituaries composed upon his passing in 1873, give an idea of the author himself beyond his work, personalizing him in unexpected and poignant ways.
The Contemporary Reviews section of the anthology is especially impressive, with its exhaustive focus on not only Le Fanu classics such as “Green Tea” and Uncle Silas but also more obscure works such as Le Fanu’s final novel, Willing to Die. Equally impressive is the variety of critical viewpoints deployed in exploring Le Fanu’s stories, which should lead to new entry points for these texts. Essays by William Hughes and Victor Sage make convincing cases, for example, of Le Fanu experimenting with metafiction and fragmentation of narrative continuity in his stories, while Sally C. Harris reads within The Wyvern Mystery a willful desire to shift and challenge genre distinctions, as “historical, Gothic, realistic, and fairy-tale elements emerge, battling for primacy in the house of fiction.” And, in her essay examining the ambiguous maternal role the titular character in Carmilla sometimes assumes, Jarlath Killeen takes a feminist reading of the story as a commentary on both the absent mother motif in Gothic fiction and an interrogation of then-current Victorian attitudes toward motherhood and womanhood in general, noting along the way how “Le Fanu consistently treats Carmilla far more sympathetically than Stoker does his female vampires.”
Reflections is a splendid achievement, equally useful to both experienced Le Fanu scholars and comparative neophytes. Readers will come away from this collection not only feeling genuinely educated and provoked by the ideas within, but also motivated to read and revisit Le Fanu’s stories, classics and overlooked gems alike.