Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (edited by M.R. James)

Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading this reminded me that I don’t like mid-nineteenth century fiction. It uses too many words, rambles in the wrong places, and I don’t care for the repetitious framework of addressing the listener, or reader, and the excessive time spent setting up the story as “something I’ll do my best to commit to paper” and ending it with “that’s all I have to say about that.” In his introduction, M.R. James says that he placed the best stories first and put the earlier and lesser stories at the end, but I prefer the stories in the second half (with the exception of the last story, “Stories of Lough Guir” which petered off into nothing). The small “chapters” save Le Fanu laboring over transitions with too many boring words that don’t add anything to the story. And his use of colloquial dialogue to convey an accented voice isn’t as overwhelming and distracting in the back half as in the leading stories of the collection.

I did tweak to some repeated imagery, but don’t get too excited; it’s of the mundane sort. Le Fanu really liked those large black and white houses. He used the same setting multiple times: the countryside of Munster, the Murroa woods, Lisnavoura. Perhaps M.R. James chose some of these stories because they were linked by these elements. He doesn’t say anything about that in his introduction, so I can’t know, and I don’t want to read any more of Le Fanu’s work to find out how common these elements are. I want these tales to be linked the way Angela Slatter’s Sourdough stories are all linked, but none of these tales reference each other or have characters in common. Le Fanu doesn’t build a shared world or mythos across stories.

I like the ghosts, spirits, and spectral encounters in the stories, but I also find myself wanting to re-write a lot of them, sometimes from other people’s point of view, almost always from a closer perspective instead of the distance of time or second-hand narrator. I have to disagree with James’s assertion in the introduction that a ghost story “needs some deliberateness in the telling: we listen to it the more readily if the narrator poses as elderly , or throws back his experience to ‘some thirty years ago.'” I am too modern in my tastes. I want the visceral immediacy of contemporary fiction. I want narrators of all ages telling their own stories, or for the third-person or omniscient narrator to get the hell out of the way. I do not “regard the leisureliness of [Le Fanu’s] style as a merit.”

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