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Tuesday 17 October 2017

THE DUBLINER WHO MADE US AFRAID OF THE DARK

Some 200 years after his death Sheridan Le Fanu remains one of Dublin's - and the world's- great horror writers, with a legacy that stretches to movies like The Exorcist and Twilight

Sheridan Le Fanu's name lives on in a public park and a road named after him in Ballyfermot.

Some people who worked in 70 Merrion Square, when I served on the Arts Council there, were convinced that his troubled ghost also lived on in that Georgian house where he was found dead in 1873.

One person working alone there at night saw a pane of glass being lifted off a table and shatter into pieces.

But perhaps the odd sensations some people experience there have more to with Le Fanu's wife, Mary, whose behaviour grew increasing erratic after they began to rent that Merrion Square house in 1856.

She was rumoured to see visions of her late father who would whisper that a space for her was being kept in the family vault in Mount Jerome.

After two troubled years in Merrion Square she experienced what was called a "hysterical attack" and died in circumstances never properly explained.

inexplicable

If her inexplicable death, at the age of 34, sounds like something from a horror story, then only one man alive back then could have captured the true ambiguity and terror of that tragedy.

This man was her husband, who blamed himself for her death and whose grief turned him increasingly into a reclusive figure. However - as befitted his practical Huguenot blood - Sheridan Le Fanu managed to be a successful entrepreneur (as an author and magazine owner) while becoming as strange and haunted as his near contemporary, the morphine-addicted poet, James Clarence Mangan.

The 200th anniversary of Sheridan Le Fanu's birth last week attracted little attention in his native Dublin.

But he was honoured by the most modern of all commemorative gestures - a haunting and creepy Google doodle. This specially commissioned image popped up on screens anytime anyone opened the Google search engine last Thursday.

It was a suitably universal celebration of his work: an unsettling, fleeting drawing of a ghost hovering over a girl's bed, unexpectedly appearing on millions of screens as people went about their daily tasks.

It seemed an appropriate public honour because this particular Dubliner is arguably among the most influential writers Dublin ever produced.

Some may not have heard of him, except as a Ballyfermot street name, but all of our imaginations have been perturbed by the ghostly phantoms that he conjured up, amid his grief and peculiar addictions, widowed in Merrion Square. Along with Edgar Allen Poe, Sheridan le Fanu was the inventor of the modern ghost story.

Every second Hammer Horror film ever made was based on one of his stories or novels. His great 1864 novel, Uncle Silas, has been cinematically reimagined many times: most recently with Peter O'Toole in 1987, renamed The Dark Angel.

Le Fanu was born in Dublin's Lower Dominick Street in 1814: the son of an impoverished Church of Ireland clergyman who was appointed as chaplain to the Royal Hibernian Military School in the Phoenix Park. The family moved to Chapelizod. The old church and graveyard there - and the darkness of the Phoenix Park itself - haunted the young boy's imagination. Some old houses in Chapelizod (including his childhood home) remain standing.

I never pass them without recalling the brilliant ghost stories he later set in that Dublin village.

Le Fanu belonged to a doomed Irish Protestant ascendancy class, who sensed that their political power was waning.

This sense of a class being on the verge of extinction, along with the horrors of the Irish famine and an intense sexual repression of the time, spilled out into the work of several Dublin Protestants who wrote bizarre, unsettling gothic horror stories, inspired by their fears and longings.

Clontarf's Bram Stoker is forever associated with vampires, but 26 years before Dracula, La Fanu not only gave us vampires but a sexually-charged lesbian vampire in his 1871 masterpiece, Carmilla.

vampire

Generations of film directors, since Carl Dreyer with Vampyr in 1932, have re-imagined Le Fanu's lesbian vampire. Roger Vadim's 1960s French language version, Et Mourir de Plaisir, was considered so shocking that it needed multiple cuts before being released in America.

I suspect that it was never shown in any cinema near Dublin's Dominick Street, but hundreds of films were inspired by the sense of apprehension and uncertainty which Le Fanu gifted to the ghost story.

The Exorcist and The Omen might have been made without his reinvention of the genre, but they would have been different films.

Even in watered-down ways, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the popular Twilight saga pay a discreet homage to this haunted figure.

Spare a thought for him tonight - preferably during those seconds after you turn out your bedroom light, when you wonder if you have just heard a creak on the stairs.

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