Ancient Murders and Eerie Late-Night Funerals: The House by the Churchyard by Sheridan Le Fanu
It’s been a while since I’ve carved money out of my monthly Amazon budget to order a few more splendidly creepy titles from Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural line — or, as we like to call them, TOMAToS. I always have a few on my wishlist (they’re marvelously inexpensive), and in my last order I made room for Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous 1863 novel The House by the Churchyard.
The Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu was the author of Carmilla (1872), one of the earliest vampire novels, as well as the gothic classic Uncle Silas (1864), and the collection In a Glass Darkly (1872). He’s often called the leading ghost-story writer of the nineteenth century, and M. R. James described him as “absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories.” The House by the Churchyard is considered one of his finest works, and indeed, one of the greatest gothic horror novels of the era.
At 542 pages, The House by the Churchyard is also the longest of Le Fanu’s major works. It begins with the gruesome discovery of a skull buried in a churchyard, one which bears evidence of brutal violence. The narrative then travels back a century, to the year 1767, and opens with the mysterious and secretive burial of a coffin in the churchyard.
While Le Fanu has fans today, and The House by the Churchyard is still highly regarded for its own sake, the book is also remembered for its association with another famous Irish writer: James Joyce, who drew on the novel as a key source for Finnegans Wake.
We’ve previously covered Sheridan Le Fanu here:
The Nightmare Men: “A Doctor, Darkly” by Josh Reynolds
Gaslight Tales of Terror, edited by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
Weird Detectives, edited by Paula Guran
Wordsworth’s Tales of Mystery And The Supernatural is a really fabulous series of handsome and affordable high quality reprints of some of the best gothic horror and ghost stories ever written. We’ve covered several so far, including:
Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson
A Night on the Moor & Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist
The Crimson Blind and Other Stories by H.D. Everett
Couching at the Door by D.K. Broster
The Casebook of Carnacki The Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson
The Beast with Five Fingers by W.F. Harvey
The Power of Darkness — Tales of Terror, by Edith Nesbit
Alice and Claude Askew’s Aylmer Vance, The Ghost-Seer
The Black Veil & Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths edited by Mark Valentine
Voodoo Tales: The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead
Sherlock Holmes: The Game’s Afoot, edited by David Stuart Davies
The Casebook of Sexton Blake, edited by David Stuart Davies
The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions
The House by the Churchyard was published by Wordsworth Editions on August 1, 2007. It is 542 pages, priced at $4.99 in paperback, and $0.99 for the digital edition. The cover was designed by Robert Mathias. It is still in print.
The genre still hasn’t caught up with Carmilla, perhaps the wildest thing ever written by a staid Victorian gentleman.
I’ve never read it… but clearly, I need to correct that!
I agree with TP.
Victorian horror novels with none-too-subtle lesbian suggestions were non-existent in Victorian times–except for Carmilla! Also, I think it’s still incredibly creepy, especially the main character’s first “vision” of Carmilla.
I’m not a big fan of the thesis that a lot of a writer’s unconscious gets into the writing. I think writers who are worth reading know exactly what they’re doing. I have to say, though, that when I read Carmilla, I had to stop every few pages to blurt out, “Holy bleep! Does this guy have any idea what he’s saying?” And all in the framework of (as James says) a superbly creepy vampire story.