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SOME THOUGHTS ON LE FANU: AN INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW HOLNESS
Conducted by Brian J. Showers, © November 2014
Matthew Holness is a film and television director. He co-created the Channel 4 series Garth Marenghiís Darkplace, and has recently written and directed A Gun For George (Film4) and The Snipist (Sky Arts Playhouse). He recently contributed a new introduction to Reminiscences of a Bachelor, which revives a "lost novella" by J.S. Le Fanu. Holness tweets as @MrHolness. www.matthewholness.com
Brian J. Showers: Do you recall the first Le Fanu story you read?
Matthew Holness: Perhaps typically, it was his much-anthologised masterpiece "Carmilla". I read it in a cheap hardback anthology which I still own to this day. The atmosphere it generated made a huge impression on me.
BJS: What were the circumstances under which you encountered it?
MH: Well, the book itself was a surprise Christmas present. A perfect one as I was a horror-obsessed teen at the time. I think I read "Carmilla" first because I was a huge fan of Hammer horrors, especially the "Karnstein" films (no prizes for guessing why). I used to tape all the late night double-bills and watch them on Sunday mornings with my brother. Then go to Church.
BJS: Is "Carmilla" your favourite of Le Fanuís works? Or does another story have that honour?
MH: My favourite is actually "Green Tea". It seems to me to represent Le Fanuís greatest strength Ė depicting the slow and inexorable disintegration of a haunted mind.
BJS: So what draws you to Le Fanuís writing then?
MH: His stories arenít remotely cosy. Le Fanu looks deep within for his ghosts; his tales feel isolated and deeply personal. They are oppressively dark, yet moments of tenderness can spring up suddenly and unexpectedly, like Bartonís melancholy dream-vision recounted towards the end of "The Watcher". Le Fanu captures private desolation and loneliness like few other writers. Itís almost apt that his work exists to this day in a kind of literary vacuum.
BJS: Youíve even said you admire Le Fanu more than M.R. James. Why is that?
MH: For me, his stories are far darker than Jamesís. Le Fanu approaches the supernatural from a psychological perspective. James creates lonely, haunted characters too but you donít feel for them in the way, perhaps, that you do for Le Fanuís victims. With James, you observe the haunting with a confident, reassuring authorís hand guiding you safely through the darkness towards a metaphorical fireplace where sherry and mince pies await. Conversely, Le Fanu makes you stand outside, alone in the cold and the dark, watching his traumatised victims slowly succumb to an exhausting, debilitating process of physical and psychological deterioration. Unlike James, Le Fanuís narrators arenít remotely reassuring either. They and the other characters in his tales almost look to the reader for assistance and understanding. With Le Fanu, youíre forced to watch the victimís journey of suffering towards a lonely, terrifying death. Without sherry or mince pies.
BJS: Why do you think Le Fanu's novella "The Fatal Bride", which appears in Reminiscences of a Bachelor for the first time since 1848, has been passed over?
MH: Very hard to say. Personally, I feel itís a worthy contender for Le Fanuís wider "canon". The understated tone, pacing and subject-matter are all characteristic of his established work. Itís a compelling story, too, and quietly disturbing. Who knows why it was never reprinted? Perhaps Le Fanu had personal reasons weíll never know of. But itís fascinating how he replayed similar scenarios and themes throughout his other work. I think there are probably reasons for that which have nothing to do with any perceived lack of imagination.
BJS: Youíre a comedian by trade Ė and there seems to be a connection between horror and comedy Ė but what is it?
MH: Was a comedian, I should perhaps clarify. I donít really know, is my honest answer. Possibly itís a generational thing, many modern comedians having been fortunate enough to grow up in a "golden age" of horror. We had video nasties, Stephen King bestsellers and classic horror films shown every week on TV. I was particularly fortunate as a boy in that I lived in the same town as Peter Cushing and was lucky enough to meet him several times. As far as I was concerned, Professor Van Helsing himself lived in my home-town. How could I not be obsessed with horror? Perhaps itís nostalgia for the cultural heritage we grew up with. And wanting to make that sort of reassuring, "grown up" stuff that haunted us as kids.
BJS: Do you have any prized Le Fanu editions in your own collection?
MH: No collectables, sadly, but I am immensely proud of my two well-worn Dover editions (The Best Ghost Stories of J.S. Le Fanu and J.S. Le Fanu: Ghost Stories and Mysteries both edited by E.F. Bleiler), and my copy of The Illustrated J.S. Le Fanu edited by Michael Cox.
BJS: Which of Le Fanuís works do you think is overlooked that you might recommend someone try?
MH: Of Le Fanuís novels, I think The Wyvern Mystery is superb and unfairly maligned by many critics. Meanwhile, of his stories, I think "Squire Tobyís Will" is first rate Le Fanu. Above all, however, Iíd recommend "The Child that Went with the Fairies". Similarly overlooked, itís a beautifully sad and subtle tale. Eerie, fantastical yet very human. I think itís one of Le Fanuís best.
Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written short stories, articles, interviews and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, All Hallows, Ghosts & Scholars: The M.R. James Newsletter, Le Fanu Studies, Supernatural Tales and Wormwood. His short story collection, The Bleeding Horse, won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (2006) and Old Albert ó An Epilogue (2011); with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2011). He also edits The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. www.brianjshowers.com
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