Many have wondered why H. P. Lovecraft held such a low opinion of the work of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, whose work merits barely a nod in Lovecraft’s seminal essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” [W. Paul Cook (ed.) The Recluse, 1927. Revised 1933-4]:
“The romantic, semi-Gothic, quasi-moral tradition here represented was carried far down the nineteenth century by such authors as Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Wilkie Collins, the late Sir H. Rider Haggard (whose She is really remarkably good), Sir A. Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson . . .”
How could one of the most influential writers of weird fiction in the 20th century fail to appreciate one of the masters of the prior century, an author whose work was extolled as exemplary by M. R. James, whose work received an entire chapter in the same essay?
We may ascribe part of the answer to Lovecraft’s atheism, which would have taken issue with the trappings of Christianity in Le Fanu’s work, though the view of Christianity displayed in Le Fanu’s fiction is considerably less orthodox than one finds in either James of Machen. An examination of Lovecraft’s correspondence with Donald Wandrei, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth suggests that the nature of the works to which Lovecraft had been exposed were probably equally to blame.
After reading a reference to “Le Fanu’s anthology 'A Stable for Nightmares' ” in a letter from Donald Wandrei dated 5 January 1927 [Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei. Ed. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Night Shade Books, 2002, p. 11], Lovecraft remarked, “I wish I could get hold of Polidori’s ‘Vampyre’ & something by Le Fanu. The latter has long been a familiar name to me, yet I have seen absolutely nothing of his.” [Mysteries of Time and Spirit, p. 14]. By 13 March 1927, Lovecraft had received Wandrei’s copies of A Stable for Nightmares and one of Le Fanu’s novels:
“As soon as I have read 'All in the Dark' I’ll return that and 'A Stable for Nightmares'.” [Mysteries of Time and Spirit, p. 54]
These are unfortunate choices for several reasons. A Stable for Nightmares was a gathering of eleven anonymous and unremarkable supernatural stories published by Trusley Brothers of London for the Christmas market in 1867. Seven of those stories reappeared in an American edition in 1896, with “Le Fanu” stamped on the spine, “J. Sheridan Le Fanu . . . Sir Charles Young, Bart. and Others” on the full-title page, and no author’s names supplied for any of the stories within. One of the stories new to this edition is Le Fanu’s “Dickon the Devil”, the second is “What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien, and the third, “A Debt of Honor”, is attributed to Sir Charles Young by default. No evidence has been put forward to establish that Le Fanu had anything to do with the first edition, and the author had been dead for 23 years by the time the American edition appeared, yet various anthologists and critics have assumed that at least some of these anonymous tales were written by Le Fanu ever since.
Lovecraft had some suspicions concerning the authorship of these stories from the beginning:
“I see that Le Fanu collection has Fitz-James O’Brien’s ‘What Was It?’—have you been able to identify others?” [Mysteries of Time and Spirit, p. 40].
Nonetheless, this first encounter with work he had first assumed to be by Le Fanu cannot have been an auspicious one.
Unfortunately, his second, more prolonged exposure was not much better. As a double-decker novel before a triple-decker demanding public, All in the Dark (1866) did not fare well with Le Fanu’s contemporaries, and in surviving notes for a lecture he delivered on Le Fanu on 16 March 1923, even the otherwise sympathetic M. R. James states, “Weakest of all the novels is All in the Dark—a domestic story with a sham ghost: an offence hard to forgive in any writer but much harder in Le Fanu’s case, seeing that he could deal so magnificently with realness without incurring any more expense.” [“The Novels and Stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu”, in M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror. Ash-Tree Press, 2001, p. 494. The first printing of this article in Ghosts and Scholars 7 omits this passage.]
Lovecraft admitted to August Derleth that he was not impressed with the book when he first approached it on 26 March 1927— “I’ll tell you about Le Fanu when I’ve read 'All in the Dark'—but I don’t think he’ll prove anything marvelous.” [Essential Solitude: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Hippocampus Press, 2008, p. 75]—then went on to pan the book to the same correspondent in a letter dated 26 July 1927, even though he admits that he has perhaps not read the best examples of Le Fanu’s work: “What I have read of Sheridan Le Fanu was a great disappointment as compared with what I heard of him in advance—but it may be that I haven’t seen his best stuff. I don’t know 'Uncle Silas', but the thing I read (I can’t even recall the name) was abominably insipid and Victorian.” [Essential Solitude, p. 100]
A few years later, Lovecraft was given the opportunity to read one of Le Fanu’s best novels, but again it was a work almost guaranteed to frustrate him. Although long touted as a supernatural novel based on the two early chapters devoted to “Ghost Stories of the Tiled House”, Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard (1861-2) is a sprawling portrait of life across class levels in 18th century Dublin that more often resembles the darker specimens of Jacobean and Restoration comedy than it does the Gothic novel. Derleth must have belatedly realized this when he decided not to publish the edition he had announced during the early years of Arkham House.
That he was misled concerning the book’s content is made clear by Lovecraft’s letter to Derleth on 26 September 1929:
“Just now I am making a bold effort to keep awake over an old Victorian novel which some damn’d misguided oaf recommended to me as ‘weird’—J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 'House by the Churchyard'. I had been disillusioned before by Le Fanu specimens, & this one just about clinches my opinion that poor Sherry was a false alarm as a fear monger, & I shall cut him out of any possible 2nd edition of my historical sketch [i.e. “Supernatural Horror in Literature”].” [Essential Solitude, p. 216]
Lovecraft seems to have given up attempting to read Le Fanu’s novels, but continued to express a desire to read “Green Tea”, “though”, he confessed to August Derleth on 20 November 1931, “I can scarcely imagine a really weird tale by the author of 'The House by the Churchyard' & other Victorian products which I have seen.” [Essential Solitude, p. 415]. He finally received an anthology containing the story in January 1932— “Cook has just presented me with 'The Omnibus of Crime', & I think the first thing I shall read will be the much-discussed ‘Green Tea’ by Le Fanu.” [Essential Solitude, p. 435]—but was initially put off by its length— “Well—I guess I’m too sleepy tonight to read ‘Green Tea' after all! It’s longer than I anticipated.” [Essential Solitude, p. 438].
This is the point at which we can assume that a combination of repeated disappointments, expectations too exalted to fulfil, continued difficulty in locating the author's work, impatience with Victorian manners, and distaste for Christian mysticism finally took their toll. After reading sham Le Fanu in an anthology, sham supernaturalism in one of Le Fanu’s own novels, and genuine supernaturalism diluted by the hundreds of pages of societal melodrama in which they appear, “Green Tea” may have appeared to be too little too late. To Clark Ashton Smith on 16 January 1932, Lovecraft wrote, “I at last . . . have read ‘Green Tea.’ It is definitely better than anything else of Le Fanu’s that I have ever seen, though I’d hardly put it in the Poe-Blackwood-Machen class” [quoted in an annotation to Mysteries of Time and Spirit, p. 15].
When August Derleth sent Lovecraft an article on Le Fanu in April 1935, Lovecraft remembered not “Green Tea” but his disappointment in the novels, “Thanks abundantly for the article on Le Fanu. I have 'The House by the Churchyard'—thought it is an insufferably dull & Victorian specimen. In reading it, it was all I could do to keep awake!” [Essential Solitude, p. 693]
If only Lovecraft had gained access to a volume of Le Fanu in full supernatural regalia his assessment may have been different, or perhaps with the aid of the critical apparatus M. R. James supplied in Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery—published in 1923, a mere four years prior to Lovecraft's first surviving reference of Le Fanu to Donald Wandrei—he may have seen a kindred spirit beneath those ostensibly Christian trappings. On the other hand, Heaven and Hell may have remained parochial to the cosmic materialist in Lovecraft no matter how creatively they had been couched by Le Fanu.
Just like a paperback novel...
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