Thursday, 28 August 2014

Le Fanu, libraries, and lesbian vampires...

Today is Sheridan Le Fanu’s 200th birthday, or so Google reliably tells me. Le Fanu was an Irish writer of spooky tales and mystery novels, the leading ghost-story writer of the nineteenth century and he was central to the development of this much ridiculed genre. You may know his best known works: Uncle Silas, Carmilla, and The House by the Churchyard.

Ah, Carmilla. How well I remember first reading about her.

It can be relatively small things that set the pattern of your life and add to the person that you will become. When I was growing up in a small market town in Oxfordshire my greatest entertainment, prior to my teens and pubs and girls, was the library. I spent a couple of evenings a week and as many Saturday mornings as I could at the library. I loved the quiet and order of the surroundings and I carried my beige library cards like badges of honour. They made me feel special, privy to a secret world only I and the authors I read really knew about.

By the age of nine I’d tired of books written specifically for children. Narnia was fine, but I’d read all of those. The Hobbit was okay, but a little overlong. The Borrowers were just The Borrowers and Stig, William, Bunter, Biggles, and Jennings were all a little easy.

What could I read?

My hours in the library had stood me in good stead and not a librarian’s eyelid was blinked when I wandered out of the children’s room and over to adult fiction. My gaze fell upon a book of short stories, an old battered volume with at least three ‘borrower’ pages stamped up to the full, each one covering the other. This book had been going for years and had been much read. As it worked out it was an anthology of ghost stories by authors such as M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce, Saki, and Sheridan Le Fanu. I took it to the desk only to be told that I would need an adult reading card to take it out. The librarian looked at me and then made me one up. I was not quite ten at the time.

The stories in that book were literally fantastic and I was hooked - which brings me to those small things that set the patterns of our lives. I was so taken by a story by Sherdan Le Fanu, Green Tea I think it may have been, that I sought out and read as much of him as I could. It wasn’t long before I discovered his novella Carmilla and must have read it three times in a row without a break. I realise now that the reason that it so enraptured me was that it’s themes were lust and decadence, with it’s ‘heroine’ Carmilla not only a vampire but a lusting lesbian bloodsucker to boot. Of course at the time I think I only picked up on the understated sexual connotation subliminally. But it set the scene for all those Hammer Horror movies that I was to devour so earnestly a few years later.

Of course, Le Fanu pre-dated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a number of years and Stoker owes much to Le Fanu’s Carmilla, but this one story set me on the Vampire trail – one I followed until that bloody awful Twilight nonsense was published.

I also owe Le Fanu another great debt. His short story ‘A Strange Event In The Life Of Schalken The Painter’ was made into a TV film by the BBC in 1979. Godfried Schalcken was a real life painter by trade, serving his apprenticeship to Gerrit Dou, the trompe l’oeil master.

Schalcken, at least in the story, is quite in love with Rose, his pretty blonde niece. But whatever aspirations he may have for her are quickly dashed when a wealthy older man named Vanderhausen purchases her wedding contract, much to her dismay. Schalcken figures the best way for him to deal with this is to get so good at his craft that he can quickly make enough money to buy Rose’s contract from Vanderhausen, and to cut a short story even shorter, Schalcken gets what he wants, but not quite in the way he expected.

After watching that film, with its candlelit scenes and implied mysterious goings on, the way I looked at paintings was never the same again. It opened my eyes to what was going on around the subject, the sub-plot that artists put into their work. Godfried Schalcken was the master of chiaroscuro, painting candlelit scenes, and if you looked closely into those shadows I wonder what you might see? For that matter, what might you see in the shadows of the real world?

Anyway happy birthday Sheridan and thanks, I’ve been looking over my shoulder, behind open doors, and under beds ever since I met you and God forbid that candle ever blows out.


  1. Sharon Taylor on FB
    well all I can say is that I love Hammer House of Horror, but when I can retire I will come to you for a book list for the kindle I have yet to buy ;O)

    1. Andrew Height
      I'd buy your Kindle now Sharon the long nights are coming and you will save yourself a fortune on books.

  2. Ricardo Listeretti on FB
    Must confess I do revisit the Karnstein trilogy on occasion - long overdue a blu-ray transfer.

  3. Ricardo Listeretti on FB
    For research purposes only

  4. Ah, the Collinson twins. I have twins of Evil on my laptop somewhere.Yes, research purposes only.