Le Fanu was one of the early pioneers of the ghost story in its written form, and the tales in this particular book were collated and compiled by no less a figure in the genre than M.R. James himself, who declared Le Fanu to be ‘absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories.’ At the time of its first posthumous publication as a single volume in 1923, Le Fanu had been largely put aside by the reading public owing to changes in public taste, and it was James who helped to repopularise him.
Le Fanu was a contemporary of Dickens, having been born two years after the latter in 1814, and dying a few years after him in 1873. He contributed stories to Dickens’s periodical publication All the Year Round, but it was his gothic novels such as Uncle Silas and Carmilla that truly made his public name.
Returning to Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories, the reader will find within a range of tales spanning many of decades of Le Fanu’s life as a writer. Stylistically, therefore, they undergo certain changes, with some of the earlier pieces such as Stories of Lough Guir representing his own retelling of Irish folktales with a certain spin of his own. The folkloric element is strong, with many of the stories being morality tales (e.g. Sir Dominick’s Bargain and The Vision of Tom Chuff), and a number involving Ireland’s untrustworthy fairy folk (e.g. The Child that went with the Fairies and Ultor de Lacy).
Like many nineteenth-century writers, Le Fanu makes extensive use of the phonetic rendition of everyday speech, so much so that in some cases, as with Madam Crowl’s Ghost, it is on occasion difficult for the reader to grasp the meaning of what is being said, especially when Irish dialect is thrown into the mix. This, nonetheless, adds additional flavour to these pieces, and the speech found in the other contributions to this volume is far less impenetrable than that of the illiterate old woman who narrates the story of Madam Crowl.
Le Fanu’s horror is pleasantly understated, and there are a number of rattling good yarns that I particularly enjoyed, such as Squire Toby’s Will and Sir Dominick’s Bargain, in which the author’s characters exhibit those human foibles and frailties that so often, in fiction at least, appear to invoke supernatural retribution. If you would like to explore these forays into the uncanny, then Madam Crow’s Ghost may be viewed here.