Tuesday Terror! Mr Justice Harbottle by J Sheridan Le Fanu

in a glass darkly“Make mad the guilty…”

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…

Tuesday Terror!

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?

Illustration by  Finn Campbell-Notman
Illustration by Finn Campbell-Notman

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

Carmilla: A Critical Edition by J Sheridan Le Fanu

‘But dreams come through stone walls…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Carmilla book coverAlthough overshadowed by the later Dracula, Carmilla still stands out as one of the best of the gothic vampire stories. This book includes the story itself in its original form, together with an introduction and four critical essays that set out to analyse the text from a variety of perspectives.

Atmospheric and chilling, Carmilla has everything we could want – gothic ruins, beautiful victim, even more beautiful and extremely sexy vampire, midnight terrors and a climactic graveyard scene. Throw in some very Victorian-style lesbian eroticism and Le Fanu’s fine writing and it’s no surprise that Carmilla continues to be influential on writers and filmmakers even today. It’s been years since I read it last, as part of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection, and I found I enjoyed it very much on re-reading.

However the main purpose of this book is to critically re-analyse Carmilla and (somewhat to my surprise) I found the critical essays at least as enjoyable, if not more so, than the story itself. Kathleen Costello-Sullivan’s introduction describes how the story’s psychological aspects, representations of gender and sexuality, and aesthetic and narrative characteristics have led to scholars returning again and again to re-assess the book over the years. She also justifies its inclusion in this Irish Studies series on the grounds that it is generally accepted that the story is drawing parallels with the political and cultural life of Le Fanu’s Ireland.

(One of the three engravings in the book)
(One of the three engravings in the book)

The first essay is by Jarlath Killeen, who takes this Irish aspect of the story and argues that the picture Le Fanu gives us of Laura and her father as English people clinging to their Englishness while living abroad is representative of Le Fanu’s own position as an Anglo-Irish protestant at a time when the Church was being disestablished and Home Rule was a major topic. So far, so convincing. However, I found Killeen’s positioning of Carmilla within this Irish-ing of the story less convincing. He seems on the one hand to be arguing against a Catholic Carmilla (based on her disgust at the Catholic forms followed by the villagers) and then claiming her as a metaphor for the Catholic aristocracy on grounds that I felt were either shaky or not well enough explained.

J Sheridan Le Fanu(source: wikipedia)
J Sheridan Le Fanu
(source: wikipedia)
In the second essay, Renee Fox suggests that the mutual attraction between Laura and Carmilla prevents a simple reading of Carmilla as a Catholic metaphor rising to crush the Laura-as-Protestant metaphor. In fact, she sets out to show the ‘indistinguishability’ of victim and vampire, the blurring of which is predator and which is prey. ‘The attraction and affinity between Laura and Carmilla functions not to demonize the Catholic Irish, but to express an ‘atrocious’ cycle of political vampirism in which Protestants and Catholics make monsters of each other, reproduce each other’s aggression, and ultimately become indistinguishable from one another.’ From a rather tetchy beginning in which Fox ticks off previous academics somewhat testily, this turned out to be a particularly interesting and well-argued analysis providing much food for thought.

Next up is Lisabeth C Buchelt who examines the ‘aesthetic’ positioning of the book. A subject about which I knew nothing, I found Buchelt’s arguments clear and easy to absorb. She argues that the story ‘forges a connection between popular ideas about the picturesque and what constitutes the vampiric’ and that Le Fanu uses the ‘popular literary trope of medievalism’ in constructing a ‘vampire aesthetic’. My initial reaction to that was to gulp a bit – quite a bit, in fact. However, she then goes on to explain this in a way that meant I not only understood it but was convinced by her argument. An interesting and informative essay.

Terror in the CryptLastly, Nancy M West takes us on a run through of the films that have been either adapted from or influenced by Carmilla, with a look at how the lesbianism in the story has been dealt with over the years as social mores and, perhaps more importantly, censorship rules have changed. Lighter than the other essays, this was an enjoyable finish to the book.

In conclusion, if you are interested in the story but not the criticism, then much better to get this as part of In a Glass Darkly. However, I found the criticisms very interesting, much more than I anticipated to be honest, and for me they have enhanced the story without destroying any of its original impact. I therefore heartily recommend this book.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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