Postal Reading group
August 2021
Notes on the book In a glass darkly by J. Sheridan le Fanu

It is, perhaps, fortunate that J. Sheridan le Fanu’s In a glass darkly is a collection of short stories, as this at least enabled me to take a more selective approach to reading this than would otherwise have been the case. Although this may mean that I haven’t done the author justice, it did enable me to tackle some of a book which I would otherwise have been tempted to put aside.

Variously described as gothic horror, or ghost stories, this collection does little to appeal to me, as I’ve never really felt the appeal of either genre. Although I have, of course, enjoyed books with ghosts in, I find these work best when the possible paranormal aspect is one aspect of a broader storyline. If done well this can leave the reader wondering whether they might believe in the paranormal after all. Instead, I found this to be very much a product of its time, both in the writing style and the content.

This present collection of short stories brings together five ‘cases’ of Dr. Martin Hesselius, one of the so called occult doctors, specialising in those possessed of haunted by demons, spirits, or whatever. The writing style throughout these stories is rather verbose, and at times borders on the pompous, suggesting the doctor feels that he is a master of his craft and wants everyone else to know it too. Combined with the small print on this edition it gives an unfortunate air of impenetrability. The subject matter was very much of its time too: for this was a time when interest in the occult and the paranormal were at their peak. For a time, ideas about the ether were even mainstream science. Of course, along with heightened interest in the paranormal, went a large number of charlatans who were prepared to take advantage of it, but that is another story.

The ‘generation gap’ between then and now makes it difficult for a modern reader to fully appreciate a book like this. I can’t have been alone in finding many of the accounts in the book to be unconvincing. Times change, and science has advanced at a greater rate than the rest of society, meaning that a book like this appears to have aged more than some of the other classics. Despite the passing of nearly two hundred years, the narrative of many of, for example, Dickens’ novels is still relevant today; change the details a bit, and there is as much inequality in modern society. However, the same does not apply to In a glass darkly; it is difficult to talk about demonic possession with a reader of any sophistication.

Having said that, perhaps one point which we can take away from these stories is that, despite the huge scientific advances of the last two centuries, we appear to be no closer to understanding mental illness. While we generally appreciate that it has nothing to do with evil spirits, the exact causes, and effective treatments still elude us.

The five stories in this collection are wide ranging both in their style, content and location. On the latter count alone they take in England, Ireland, France and Austria, with a few others implied. The introduction to this collection sees this as being demonstrative of a rejection of “all notions of fixed centrality, reliable identity and social stability”. Similarly, the immobile consciousness of Beckett in The Room in the Dragon Volant, contrasts with the immortality of Carmilla. The stories are also full of some interesting details, such as the drug “imago mortis” (meaning the illusion of death), or the name of the inn, “Le Dragon Volant”, alluding to a particularly fearsome cannon used in the Napoleonic wars, although I wouldn’t have noticed these details if it weren’t for the notes in the introduction. Another example of the generation gap, perhaps?

Of course, in any collection of short stories, the themes and standard of writing is somewhat variable. In this case, it ranges from the unconvincing Green tea, in which a clergyman is haunted by a demonic monkey, through Mr. Justice Harbottle who is tormented by the spirits to those he wrongly condemned, to the lesbian vampire of Carmilla which is widely thought of as being one of the better stories of this collection. Although I’m not best placed to comment on the sexuality, it must have created quite a stir with a puritanical Victorian audience. Although the stories do not convince me personally, some of the underlying ideas are nevertheless good. The monkey in Green tea might be seen as a reference to the conflict between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the teachings of the Church. Likewise, the spirits haunting the judge arguably represent the doubts which hopefully afflict the conscience of any member of the legal profession who truly cares about the lives they affect.

In conclusion, while there are potentially some interesting parts to this collection, I must admit to finding these difficult, because of the style of writing and the subject matter. Additionally, the stories are very much of their time, and have aged rather less well than many of the classics, again making them difficult for a modern audience. I was only able to appreciate some of the clever details with the aid of the introductory notes, and, combined with the subject matter, this was sufficient to limit my enjoyment. Personally, the occasional good story was insufficient to rescue the entire collection.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler