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"A Cold Vehicle for the Marvellous": writing a story for J Sheridan Le Fanu

One of the things which has made my summer busy and fun has been writing a story for a new collection, Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: stories for J. S. Le Fanu, which is published this Thursday. Though he's now mostly known as the author of Uncle Silas, the influence of J Sheridan Le Fanu on the ghost and horror tradition in literature is vast, not least in his homeland: his vampires pre-date those of that other Irish writer, Bram Stoker, and his novel The House by the Churchyard was an important influence on Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.  As V S Pritchett puts it:  

Grande_shadowandsmoke1Le Fanu’s ghosts are the most disquieting of all ghosts ... The secret doubt, the private shame, the unholy love scratch away with malignant patience in the guarded mind. It is we who are the ghosts. Let illness, late nights and green tea* weaken the catch we normally keep clamped so firmly down, and out slink one by one all the hags and animals of moral or Freudian symbolism.

And that master of the form, M R James, asserts that Le Fanu

stands in the absolutely first rank as a writer of ghost stories.

So I was delighted to be asked to respond creatively to this disquieting writer, along with biographer Sarah LeFanu, poet Gavin Selerie, short story wrier Angela Slatter and others; I only wish my Le Fanu grandmother were alive to  to attend the symposium on her Great-Uncle Joe's work, at Trinity College Dublin this October.

But I was also worried: I’ve never written a story which explicitly deals with the supernatural, though my novel The Mathematics of Love does have a sort-of ghost in it. Whereas in the commission for Radio 4 I had a specific theme, here it was harder to know where to start with my thinking.

I read through a collection of his best stories, and renewed my acquaintance with Uncle Silas. I thought that I was looking for settings I could borrow, or 18th or 19th century characters I could re-imagine, but longstanding readers of this blog won't be surprised to learn that what soon fascinated me was the how of LeFanu’s storytelling.

Le Fanu’s narrators are almost always internal, but at one remove from the heart of the story: the narrator is telling a story of someone else, or analysing an account that's come from history or a doctor's casebook, or listening to a tale told by an old servant. This device might seem distancing (and it's been used since the novel first emerged as a form), but it's also part of our sense of where the story's come from: someone is trying to make sense of an event so awful that the real victim is beyond being able to narrate it. In some stories, on the other hand - Uncle Silas, for example - the narrator is the central actor in some shattering event, and is driven, having survived, to re-tell their story.

There's something else, though, about this kind of framing. Since the beginning, novelists have found that using a voice of the teller of facts - "Trust me, I was there" - helps the reader to suspend the knowledge that this is fiction: that the ghosts on these pages didn’t actually exist. With Le Fanu's reliable narrators such as Dr Hesselius in charge, we're encouraged to commit to our side of the contract of fiction: that we'll read "as if" the events could and did happen, provided this honest narrator deals honestly in telling us. And it helps the writer, too, to set up a structure that sounds non-fictional, inside which we can, as Siri Hustvedt puts it, set about remembering something which never happened.

Le Fanu is acute about the psychological causes and effects of his horrors, but he doesn’t usually specify the mechanics of them, nor explain the how or why of it in his characters. An addiction to green tea isn't really the point, even if "green tea" is code for more powerful substances. As Harriet Vane observes in Dorothy L. Sayers' novel Gaudy Night, Le Fanu's literary confrère Wilkie Collins "was handicapped by the lawyer's fatal habit of explaining everything... It is in Lefanu that we find ... the master of the uncanny whose mastery comes by nature."

To use our twenty-first century vocabulary of Showing and Telling, Le Fanu primes our mind's eye and ear to read "as if" the story-world exists by showing strange noises, dim lamps, doors slammed, houses under attack by the leaping shadows of the past. But as we get nearer the void the narrator ceases to be able to show, or even to tell of, fear or horror with any specificity: events, facial expressions, and emotions become "indescribable",  "unfathomable", "inhuman". Is it that the narrator won't, or that he can't tell?  Perhaps, as a black hole can’t be seen or evoked, he uses these un-descriptive descriptions to open a void for each of our imaginations to fill with our own, personal horrors.

That void, it seems to me, is both personal, and historical-cultural. It’s relevant that his wife Susannah Le Fanu died in 1858, just as The Origin of Species** unified decades of scientific and philosophical investigation, and destroyed the apparent meaning and purpose of the universe. The marriage had been happy, but she, and to some extent her husband, seem to have suffered from a sort of deep, existential terror which neither religious faith nor the lack of it could do anything to ease. That it was his individual temperament which formed his creative work is suggested by his brother William's cheerful memoir, Seventy Years of Irish Life: in contrast, after Susannah's death Sheridan became a near-recluse, and Dublin responded by dubbing him the Invisible Prince.

What if my story explored what that void might be for different people? My narrator must survive, so he must be the least drawn-in to whatever it is that awaits the characters. And we’d need two others, if my idea were to get properly explored. From Le Fanu's "Schalken The Painter" (there's a nod to the name in my story) I drew on the idea of a Dutch artist, but a modern one because it is not only 19th century Dubliners who dread the void. What would a sculptor most fear, and be most at risk of? What is the crater around whose edge he dances? And who would fear that she’d be taken over not by her own experience, but by someone else’s? Creative artists must draw on what’s potent for them, including their fears, but how might the opposite sort of person fit into my story: someone who has no need to work with his fears, and is at first unconscious of the void?

The title, in fact, is a direct quotation from Le Fanu himself, in the opening of "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street": "pen, ink and paper are cold vehicles for the marvellous". I’d put it in my notebook for general use, but then I realised that it was the perfect title: Duncan is, himself, a cold vehicle for the story he needs to tell.

And that's one of the questions that, as a writer, you must always asks yourself: where does the narrator stand, relative to the events of this story? Which, of course, leads to the next question: "Why does my narrator need to tell his story?" It's in that question that, as the writer, you find not only the solutions to all sorts of decisions and choices about how to tell the story, but also the real energy within its telling. And it's a question, it seems to me, that Le Fanu's characters always answer at least implicitly: they tell their story because what happened in that house that night, and what was different for ever afterwards, is impossible not to tell.


* Of all the stories I've read, "Green Tea" is, to my mind the most frightening of the lot.

** Le Fanu was a near contemporary of Charles Darwin. When my parents got engaged, my father undertook to read Uncle Silas, if my mother read The Origin of Species, by way of a fair exchange of obligations to the ancestors.