Joseph Thomas Sheridan (better known as just Sheridan Le Fanu) came from a Huguenot family with clerical connections. He was born on Dublin’s Lower Dominick Street in 1814. As his father was a clergyman in the Church of Ireland, the family moved around a considerable amount as he was appointed to different positions within the church. One such move was to the Phoenix Park, an area which would feature heavily in Le Fanu’s writing, in particular, the short story collection, Ghost Stories of Chapelizod.
Though he was trained in the law, Le Fanu developed a passion for writing and publishing, and it was in this vein that he would forge his career. He owned a number of newspapers and was a prolific writer, publishing a variety of works, beginning with historical fiction. Though his family were Protestant, Le Fanu wrote sympathetically of the Catholic Jacobite cause, a topic which had previously been romanticised by Sir Walter Scott. But it was as a writer of ghost stories that Le Fanu would earn his lasting fame. His most famous work, In a Glass Darkly, is a collection of short stories which deal with a variety of horror themes. The story Carmilla is credited with being the first novel to centre on a female vampire and is also believed to be one of the primary influences on fellow Irishman, Bram Stoker in the writing of his most famous work, Dracula.
Le Fanu’s great skill in writing was his ability to describe haunted houses in a way that evoked terror and curiosity in equal measure. Even his own death was shrouded in eerie mystery. Though the official report was that he died of a heart attack, the rumour quickly went about that he had quite literally died of fright, thus making the news of his death into a horror story of its own.
Henry James was an American author of Irish parentage (his father came from Bailieborogh, Co. Cavan) born in New York in 1843. The James family produced a number of authors of various types, and Henry himself wrote in a number of different forms and genres including fiction, non-fiction, plays, novellas, short stories, novels, literary critiques, travel pieces, and biographies. However, it was as a master of the horror genre that James would find his fame. Much of James’ work deals with the topic of trans-Atlantic relations. His characters are often living on a different side of the ocean to the one on which they were born. As an American of Irish descent who made a permanent relocation to England, James would have had a keen understanding of the difficulties which such situations create. His use of the inner monologue allows readers an insight into the psyche of the narrators, many of whom present unreliable versions of events, storytelling techniques which have been utilised ever since to build suspense and suspicion. These methods are put to exemplary use in James’ best-known work, the novella, The Turn of the Screw, a ghost story told through a first-person narrative, though the narrator’s account is never corroborated and there are many in the story who do not believe her. The piece is still studied at length today and generally regarded as one of the greatest ghost stories ever committed to the page.
Last but not least, one of the most famous horror authors of all time, Bram Stoker, was born in Clontarf, Dublin in 1847, though he is often associated with Sligo as this was the birthplace of his mother Charlotte. Stoker began his writing career as a theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, one of the newspapers owned by Sheridan Le Fanu. After marrying Florence Balcome, he moved to London, where he worked as the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre. It was while in this position that Stoker started to write novels, many of which were published to great acclaim, but it is his dark tale of the bloodthirsty Count Dracula for which Stoker is most remembered. The inspirations for Dracula are many and varied. There is, of course, Le Fanu’s Carmilla for the topic of blood-sucking vampires, but there are many other sources credited with inspiring the locations and narrative style. The castle is thought to be based on Slains Castle in Scotland, and the English setting based on the coastal town of Whitby. It is also believed that Stoker’s encounter with Ármin Vámbéry, the Eastern European travel writer inspired him to place Dracula’s castle deep in the terrifying Carpathian mountains. The crypts of St Michan’s Church in Dublin, and the mummies contained therein are also thought to have influenced Stoker in his gruesome tale of the undead.
Bram Stoker died after a series of strokes in 1912, but his legacy lives on. His story of Count Dracula has been retold in film and television, with countless pop culture references giving the gruesome tale a nod. He is also commemorated with the annual Bram Stoker Festival which is fittingly timed with Halloween, taking place in Dublin over the course of the October bank holiday weekend.
Watch: Connection between Sligo and Dracula strengthened
Though these Irish giants of the horror genre are long dead, there are many more current Irish writers who share their talent for telling a good ghost story. John Connelly, Edna O’Brien, and Caitlín R. Kiernan are all modern masters of the craft and well worth a read if you’re looking for a scare this Hallowe’en.
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Sheridan Le Fanu
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This Insight has been produced with support received from the Heritage Council.