Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lovecraft on Le Fanu

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.

Robert Aickman and Philip Challinor: Akin to Poetry

Philip Challinor. Akin to Poetry: Observations on Some Strange Tales of Robert Aickman. Baton Rouge: Gothic Press. 2010. 80 pp. $22.50 pb. ISBN 978-0-013045-19-0

The British author Robert Fordyce Aickman (1914-1981) was a man of varied interests and wide culture. Although he received a formal education focused on a career in architecture, his father's profession, he was, from a very early age, more interested in literature, music, and the theatre. He was theatre critic for The Nineteenth Century and After, chairman of the London Opera Society, active in multiple other operatic, ballet, and theatrical organizations, as well as cofounder—along with another writer of ghost stories, L.T.C. Rolt—of the Inland Waterways Association, a group dedicated to the preservation and restoration of England’s inner canal system. This last group consuming as it did a great deal of the author's time while he was most closely associated with it, is the focus of a great portion of his second autobiographical volume, The River Runs Uphill and is also the sole subject of two books Aickman wrote in the 1950s.

The first volume of Aickman’s autobiography, The Attempted Rescue goes into fascinating, excruciating, and often savagely funny detail about his parents’ dramatically dysfunctional marriage and the devastating effects this had on his own development. His Father moves about in the book like some kind of capricious, baffling, and frightening Olympian godling, too indifferent to the needs of others to be useful or understood by anyone else. His bitterly unhappy mother clings to her son as a surrogate for the love she felt she had lost elsewhere, laying the foundations for her son’s interest in the arts and his love for language, when not engaged in heated and nearly incessant battle with her husband. Her father, Aickman’s grandfather, was the charming swindler turned Victorian novelist Richard Marsh (1857-1915), author of The Beetle, a novel, whose popularity in its time, rivaled that of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was published the same year (1897).

Aickman is best known as the author of 48 “strange stories”, a title he used in what he felt was the absence of any really satisfactory equivalent for the German words “geistlich” or “unheimlich”, which he felt were the best terms serving the definition of the “ghost story” he established in the introductions and selections he made for the first eight celebrated volumes of Fontana’s Book[s] of Great Ghost Stories.

Aickman won the World Fantasy Award in 1975 for his story “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” and the British Fantasy Award in 1981 for “The Stains”. He was a controversial figure in supernatural fiction during his lifetime and afterwards, earning accolades as “one of the most accomplished avatars of the English ghost story tradition” from such distinguished critics and authors of supernatural fiction as E. F. Bleiler, Ramsey Campbell, John Clute, Dennis Etchison, Michael Dirda, Neil Gaiman, Russell Kirk, Fritz Leiber, Peter Straub, Jack Sullivan, and others due to the high literary polish and ambiguity of his work, while at the same time eliciting baffled scorn from many others as a pretentious peddler of stories from which the conclusions had been lopped to give a false impression of profundity. His devoted but limited following has slowly, steadily increased thanks to a few significant reprint editions and wider critical acceptance. As late as Autumn 2005, a never-before published ghost story by the author appeared in the British journal Wormwood, edited by Mark Valentine.

I regret that two informal sources that mixed playful erudition with probing analysis of this author’s work are currently unavailable. No transcript seems to be available of the panel devoted to Aickman presented at the 2007 World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, with participation by Kathryn Kramer, Lisa Tuttle, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Dirda, and others. Also, the variety of approaches and perspectives brought to bear on several Aickman stories by a variety of academics and amateur critics at the now moribund alt.books.ghost-fiction group, once collected (amongst a number of more formal essays, all highly recommended) at Barb Yanney’s sadly defunct website Robert Aickman: An Appreciation are currently only available to those willing to delve through reams of Google and Deja group archives. To those diligent enough to search these archives, I particularly recommend the remarks by Robert Suggs and the late lamented John Eatman, two talented amateur critics who had an uncanny knack for ferreting out the finest details of whatever they examined and doing so with such joy in discovery as to make all this concentrated effort entertaining rather than labored.

To date, criticism of his work has been rather limited and much of that tentative, with S.T. Joshi’s assessment of the author, “So Little Is Definite” in Studies in Weird Fiction 18 (Winter 1996. Reprinted in The Modern Weird Tale, McFarland, 2001) offering a few insights concerning the use of language and landscape, but otherwise remaining as baffled, if not as infuriated, by the author as Joanna Russ had been when reviewing the collection Painted Devils for the February 1980 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

More insightful have been John Clute’s essay in E. F. Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers (Scribners, 1985. Reprinted in Clute’s Strokes: Essays and Reviews, 1966-1986, Serconia, 1988), Peter Straub’s introduction to the Aickman retrospective collection The Wine-Dark Sea (Arbor House, 1988), Michael Dirda’s. “Crossing into Darkness: Robert Aickman’s `Strange Stories’ ” in Washington Post Book World, 11 Dec. 1988: 9 (Reprinted in Dirda’s excellent, wide-ranging compilation of essays and reviews, Bound to Please, W. W. Norton, 2005), Gary William Crawford’s frustratingly brief yet informative Robert Aickman: An Introduction (Gothic Press, 2003), a smattering of essays and dissertations in a variety of venues (see Crawford’s online Aickman database at for publication information and short assessments of secondary literature devoted to Aickman), and at long last, the present collection of essays by Philip Challinor, some of which first appeared at the website mentioned above.

As already noted, Challinor’s essays are not the only valuable analyses available, but Challinor is unique, at this point in Aickman’s critical reception, in dealing with several individual stories in depth rather than attempting to infer as much as possible about all of Aickman’s work based on examination of themes common to several stories or choosing a single “characteristic” story upon which to base a key to all of the author’s works. Fritz Leiber’s description of Aickman’s impact, written upon the publication of Cold Hand in Mine in 1975, remains one of the best:

“Robert Aickman has a gift for depicting the eerie areas of inner space, the churning storms and silent overcasts that engulf the minds of lonely and alienated people. He is a weatherman of the subconscious.”

Although many of Aickman’s stories may share common themes and employ similar techniques, they affect the reader almost entirely on a subconscious level, employing allusions, metaphors, and subtle shifts in characterization, atmosphere, and geography to trigger memories and emotional responses in readers that a more straightforward plot and development would overlay and overwhelm. Furthermore, his use of allusion is so refined and so elusive that the author he most closely resembles is not any of his illustrious predecessors in the art of supernatural fiction, but the extremely subtle net of allusions and wordplay employed by James Joyce in Dubliners. Every word counts: from the title to the epigraph, to the names of characters, to variances in the way objects or locations are described, to recurrences or variations in dialogue. All of these interact with each other in a manner that elicits a very individual response that varies not only from reader to reader, but is also capable of striking the same reader in different ways depending on his or her experience, a phenomenon that Aickman described in his introduction to the 3rd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1966): “the successful ghost story is akin to poetry and seems to emerge from the same strata of the unconscious”.

In this remarkable collection of essays, Challinor has demonstrated that Aickman’s technique is equal to his intent by exploring eight stories from different stages in the author’s career as a writer of strange tales: one story from the 1964 collection Dark Entries (“Bind Your Hair”), three from the 1968 collection Sub Rosa (“The Unsettled Dust”, “No Stronger Than a Flower”, and “Ravissante”), three from the 1975 collection Cold Hand in Mine (“Niemandswasser”, “The Same Dog”, and “The Hospice”) and one from 1977’s Tales of Love and Death (“Le Miroir”).

Challinor’s identification of allusions and how these allusions contribute to the atmosphere and impact of the stories is apt and persuasive. Of “Niemandswasser”, he writes, “Aickman uses the English and German names interchangeably throughout the story, and there is a certain feline irony in his choice of a lake [Lake Constance] whose English name implies feminine fidelity” in a story that deals with broken engagements, gender-shifting doubles, and a pervasive sense of betrayal. His identification of a subtle reference to the German Romantic writer Annette Droste-Hülshoff is another nice touch, since, like the present Aickman story, Droste-Hülshoff’s famous novella “The Jew’s Beech Tree” is another exploration of the doppelgänger theme whose conclusion raises as many questions as it answers, and it serves to point out the delicate touch Aickman employs when delivering allusions and asides: “like many of Aickman’s seemingly casual asides, it both rounds off part of the tale and throws the reader slightly off-guard.” (Challinor, 16).

Joanna Russ in the review mentioned above, dismissed these subtleties, claiming, “Robert Aickman has left out the parts of his horror stories which explain what is happening and why, thus achieving a mystifying non-compossibility (i.e. you can’t put the damned thing together)”, but Challinor’s patient exploration of Aickman’s use of language and the precise methods the author uses to mis- and re-direct his readers proves otherwise. Challinor demonstrates that often it is not what Aickman has left out of his stories that threatens to confuse the reader, but what he has included:

“The presence of such a wealth of detail helps to emphasize the inexplicability of the weird phenomena; as though the narrator had difficulty deciding what was relevant and what was not, and so decided to put in everything. Relevant details are often so slyly inserted that their significance (at least in that conscious part of the reader’s mind to which Aickman so determined refused to truckle) only on repeated readings . . . ” (8)

“Aside from greatly enriching the texture of his stories, it is also a subtle kind of redirection; not imprecision so much as precision about the wrong things . . . the effect is both disorienting and richly allusive.” (19)

Time and again, Challinor points to the methods Aickman employs to reveal how much richer the world is than the one we normally see—the psychological and social decay that underlies the physical evidence in “The Unsettled Dust”, the ambiguities and seeming contradictions that counterpoint the male and female views of what occurs in “No Stronger Than a Flower”, the clash between private need and public myth in “Bind Your Hair”, the need to rationalize the unconventional “combination of sadness and carnal appetite [which] appears characteristic of the guests at The Hospice”, the “unsettling tangents” that allow settings and objects to shift out of recognition in nearly every one of the stories, and many more instances of the irrational erupting into and attempting to impose its individual will, upon the fabric of reality. In discussing “The Same Dog”, Challinor even manages to illuminate elements in the story by introducing passages from Aickman’s autobiography, a perilous enterprise that all too often results in readings that are either superficial or even smugly condescending. Curiously, Challinor’s exploration of “Le Miroir”, fascinating as it is, merely confirms my own estimation of the story as pretentious, self-pitying, and elitist with only a few flashes of wit to redeem it.

Look beneath the surface, Aickman tells us, and see a variegated realm whose patterns go beyond the obvious features of the world we think we all know, a world with hitherto unsuspected ties to our subconscious, containing truths we could not otherwise have recognized or grasped. Challinor has proven Aickman to be a worthy, if rather prankish, guide to these mysterious provinces, and has provided us with more of the signposts we will need to find our way.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wormwood 15

Wormwood 15 will be available mid-November. It will contain Stefan Zechowski: A Pilgrim of the Infinite by Brian Banks & Marta Mazur; Wilfred Rowland Mary Childe by Jonathan Wood; Gerard de Nerval: Exotic Voyager, Hashish Dreamer, Accursed Suicidalist by Adam Daly; Arthur Johnson: Another Sense of the Past by Robert Eldridge; Threshold in the First Half of the Tenth Chapter of Lucius Shepard's Viator by Adam Golaski; Under Review by Reggie Oliver; Late Reviews by Douglas A. Anderson and Camera Obscura. Please note that Under Review by Reggie Oliver is a new, regular column for reviews of contemporary publications.