It’s been many years since I last read Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection, and I really didn’t remember much about it. However, last year I read a critical edition of Carmilla, which is one of the stories in the collection, and enjoyed his writing style a good deal, though I can’t say I found it particularly scary. A look at the introduction to the collection reminded me that the overall premise is that each story is taken from the case histories of one Dr Martin Hesselius, a doctor who explains seemingly psychic phenomena in terms of mental illness…but Le Fanu leaves the reader less certain that the tales can be so easily explained away. The introduction also suggests that Mr Justice Harbottle is one of the more dramatic of the tales, so it seemed a good choice for…
Judge Harbottle is known as a hanging judge and is suspected of using his position and domineering personality to rig trials to get a guilty verdict, while his personal life is one of debauchery and drunkenness. As the story begins, he is about to preside over the trial of Lewis Pyneweck on charges of forging a bill of exchange. Just before the trial, the Judge receives a mysterious visitor who informs him that a secret society, calling themselves the High Court of Appeal, will be watching the trial and in particular the Judge himself to see that he behaves fairly. But he has a personal reason to despatch Pyneweck by the way of the gibbet, since some years ago the Judge seduced Pyneweck’s wife and took her child and her to live with him.
But as the trial progresses and after its outcome, the Judge begins to be haunted by visions of some of the people he has unfairly hanged and during one vision finds himself being tried by the High Court of Appeal, presided over by a judge who looks and acts like a monstrous version of Harbottle himself. Are these visions real – have the people wronged by the judge returned to exact vengeance? Or is the judge suffering delusions brought on by guilt and debauchery?
The story is very well written – long enough to allow for some good characterisation, particularly of the Judge himself, but short enough so that the pacing never slows too much. There were a couple of moments that took me by surprise and, while my eyes didn’t start from their spheres exactly, they certainly widened a little. The ending was effective, although not altogether unpredictable. Definitely a story worth reading which, while it didn’t leave me with nightmares, nor did it give me any desire to giggle, and it’s certainly left me keen to read more of the collection.
Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Next week on Tuesday Terror! – Susan Hill