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EXILE ON AUNGIER STREET:
A CONVERSATION WITH JIM ROCKHILL & BRIAN J. SHOWERS
© August 2014
Editors Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers are long-time admirers of J.S. Le Fanu's ghost stories and novels of gothic suspense. Between them they have worked on several Le Fanu-related projects, including the collected supernatural stories, a bibliography, and a series of chapbooks. They also sit on the editorial board of Le Fanu Studies, and with Gary W. Crawford edited the Stoker Award-nominated volume Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu.
Jim Rockhill: So, tell me, Brian, why are you interested in Le Fanu?
Brian J. Showers: I became interested in Le Fanu long before moving to Dublin, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you which story I first read. I’d hazard a guess that I first sought out “Green Tea”, as that’s the one that’s often mentioned in all the essays on horror literature. I also have early memories of “Squire Toby’s Will”. Like many other readers, I worked my way through Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as a teen. But Le Fanu’s stories were special, they stuck with me. They were filled with melancholy and doom, they somehow seemed more real in their execution than Lovecraft’s stories, and emotionally they cut closer to the bone. The silent, beckoning figure in the door-yard in “Squire Toby” and the absolutely brutal ending of “Green Tea” always make me shiver. I suppose my interest is a natural response to good writing.
Do you remember your impressions of the first Le Fanu story you encountered?
JR: Yes, I reached “Green Tea” in Wise & Fraser’s Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural around Easter of my twelfth year. I had just spent an unpleasant dream-tossed night, with the closet light turned on, after reading M.R. James’s “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, when I decided to read the innocuously titled “Green Tea”. All those arcane references to spiritual states and the sheer nastiness of the haunting fascinated me at the time, but what really set this work apart was that this was the first work of fiction I had read, which nagged at me not only during the night, but also during the day. It implied something fundamentally wrong with the world, so that the fear I had experienced the night before wondering if that shirt sleeve really had moved, paled in significance. Through “Green Tea”, I first became conscious that fiction was capable of conveying implications much deeper and more troubling than the events they described, and as you say, they “seemed more real”. You mention that your interest was a natural response to good writing, and I have to say, though I did not realise it consciously at the time, that I felt that way too.
Most of us are familiar with “Green Tea”, “Carmilla”, and Uncle Silas. Can you name a tale by Le Fanu, which you feel deserves more attention than it has received, and why you feel that way?
BJS: You chose “Green Tea” for comfort reading? Yikes! I suppose that explains a lot though. I was actually going to ask you the same thing—which Le Fanu tale you feel is overlooked, which story you see something extra special in that no one else seems to have noticed. Really, that’s the fun part about being an enthusiast: you can get cosy with the nuances of an author’s work, noticing things that casual readers might miss.
As for myself, I am a huge fan of Le Fanu’s later stories that return to the rural Irish setting of his youth. Stories like “The Child that Went with the Faeries”, “Stories of Lough Guir”, “Laura Silver Bell” (I know this isn’t set in Ireland, but it easily could be), and “The White Cat of Drumgunniol”. I was very happy that two authors in the anthology contributed stories that were direct responses to “The Child that Went with the Faeries”: Peter Bell’s “Princess on the Highway” and Angela Slatter’s “Let the Words Take You”. Even though they were both looking at the same themes, each of them went in completely different directions, and each one lingered in my mind the same way a Le Fanu story does.
As we were putting Dreams of Shadow and Smoke together, did any themes emerge that surprised you? Anything you weren’t expecting?
JR: As to overlooked favourites, I think “The Child that Went with the Fairies” is finally starting to receive the attention it has long deserved, but the way Le Fanu punctuates the story with descriptions of the shifting light and shade from the mounded hill has always seemed marvelous to me, an equal mixture of the uncannily beautiful and the menacing. Other favourites are “Ultor de Lacy” and “The Haunted Baronet”, both full to brimming with beautifully described landscapes, unusually vivid and varied supernatural events, and imbued with a crushing sense of inexorable doom. History looms like a juggernaut in both of these stories, a characteristic of Le Fanu’s fiction Gavin Selerie captures very well both in his book-length work Le Fanu’s Ghost and the story he contributed to our anthology, “Rite of Possession”.
One of Le Fanu’s obituaries mentions that he was “a man who thought deeply,” a trait that may seem a little diluted in the novels, but is inescapable in nearly all of his supernatural fiction, where you can sense him dealing with personal fears and their deeper, more universal implications. I was extremely happy to see that even though we received not only the two stories you mention clearly influenced by “The Child that Went with the Fairies”, but also Martin Hayes’s “Echoes” and Lynda Rucker’s “The Corner Lot”, which took their lead from the spectral events Le Fanu had described in Aungier Street, none of these stories bore more than a superficial resemblance to Le Fanu’s story or each other. Each of the authors had a different, equally gripping story to tell, which used Le Fanu’s original as a springboard for their own imagination, their own fears. Just as Le Fanu had shown the impact of the supernatural upon the individual psyche in stories like “The Familiar” and “Green Tea”, I feel that each of the authors in the anthology reshaped their material in individual ways. For instance, Mark Valentine’s “Seaweed Tea” is both consistent with the mysterious, evanescent world of his Connoisseur and a subtly disturbing homage to “Green Tea”. However, my greatest surprise came while reading the series of linked folktales in Derek John’s “Three Tales of a Townland”, a delightful evocation of that extremely fine veil Le Fanu saw separating the present from the past, and consensus reality from the world of myth.
And you? Did anything in the stories we received stand out for you?
BJS: I was particularly pleased when we received submissions from—and accepted stories by—two descendants of Le Fanu, both distinguished writers in their own right. The first is Sarah LeFanu (note that she spells her name slightly differently than her great-great-great uncle—I think I got that relation right!). Sarah took her cue from “Madam Crowl’s Ghost” with a piece called “Alicia Harker’s Story”, though for me her story also recalls elements of “Carmilla” and Uncle Silas as it’s told from the perspective of a young girl who slowly comes to realise the horror of a concealed truth—though as with Le Fanu’s characters, perhaps never quite as fully as the reader does. And both Le Fanu and LeFanu do this without completely dispelling a lingering sense of mystery.
Then there’s Emma Darwin (another great-great-great niece) with her contribution “A Cold Vehicle for the Marvellous”. Though her title is a direct quote from “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in an Old House in Aungier Street”, Emma instead opts to address a broader theme in Le Fanu’s work. In her story note she says that “Le Fanu is acute about the psychological causes and effects of his horrors.” And so her story addresses that “void” that’s left behind by a traumatic experience. It’s also set in Holland, a deliberate nod to “Schalken the Painter”, which I quite like. We’ve a good few stories that aren’t set in Ireland. Angela Slatter’s, for example, is set in the Blue Mountains of Australia, while Gavin Selerie’s story is set in Berkshire.
So this year is Le Fanu’s bicentenary, and you’ll be coming to Dublin in a few weeks’ time to participate in the festivities. Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to?
JR: I was only able to be in Dublin a few days when you launched The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Stories at P-Con in 2008, and am very much looking forward to repeating my visits to Aungier Street, Merrion Square, Mount Jerome Cemetery, The Bleeding Horse pub, and Lough Tay! Expanding into Chapelizod and all the other Le Fanu sites in a single tour is something I have wanted to do for a very long time, and I am excited at the opportunity to do so. The cultural riches of Dublin are so plentiful—St. Patrick’s, St. Michan’s, Dublin Castle, the Music Hall in Fishamble Street where Handel’s Messiah debuted, all that stained glass by Harry Clarke, and historical sites almost without number, let alone all those memorials to Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and others—that I am apt to have a blissfully busy visit. Thank you for helping to make that possible, Brian!
BJS: It will certainly be a memorable one. I’m very much looking forward to launching Dreams of Shadow and Smoke at Shamrokon (Dublin’s Eurocon). We’ll also have in attendance a number of contributors, including Mark Valentine, Lynda E. Rucker, Martin Hayes, and Derek John. Gavin Selerie and Sarah LeFanu should be over for the Le Fanu Bicentenary Conference at Trinity College in October. What I’m perhaps most happy about is the Le Fanu’s family’s continued enthusiasm, generosity, and support—they’ve even raised enough money between them to have the Bennett/Le Fanu vault in Mount Jerome Cemetery cleaned, and a memorial plaque installed. My hope is that others visiting Dublin to celebrate Le Fanu this year (or any other year) will take the opportunity to visit his final resting place. Perhaps we ought to leave a copy of Dreams of Shadow and Smoke at the grave side on the 28th of this month?
JR: Not a bad idea!