In A Glass Darkly

by Sheridan le Fanu

“All lights are the same to me,” he said; “except when I read or write, I care not if night were perpetual.”

There are five stories in this rather sizable book, which makes them more novella or novelette length than shorts, despite the book being known as a short story collection. Heavy on stylistic wording and sentence structure, the book presents somewhat of a language barrier to the modern audience. Still, it contains storytelling ranging from average to great, one of which is the influential early vampire tale, Carmilla.

“Green Tea” – Reverend Jennings approaches Dr. Hesselius in order to discuss a book the doctor had written combining medical science and metaphysics. As the two become acquainted, the reverend reveals he’s opened a kind of third eye and is being haunted by a malignant force.

“The Familiar” – Dr. Hesselius relates a case where a Mr. Barton is plagued by footsteps shadowing his progress at night, voices, and finally the apparition of a slightly-shrunken man. Unable to shake the spirit or confront the cause, his health deteriorates.

“Mr. Justice Harbottle” – Crooked Judge Harbottle, not for accepting bribes, but for forcing the justice system in any direction he pleases, is visited by a little man who warns the judge not to convict a man in an upcoming case. Harbottle, used to storming the world, pays as much attention as you might think.

The Room in the Dragon Volant – A young Englishman who’s made a tidy sum of money travels to France where he is warned the criminal element is beyond what he’s experienced in England. The young man ends up taking the room of an inn that’s reportedly haunted, and he falls madly in love with a gorgeous woman–a perilous combination.

Carmilla – A father and his teenage daughter are traveling when they cross paths with a rich woman and her teenage daughter. The woman convinces the father she needs to travel ahead and leave her own daughter, Carmilla, in his care for up to three months. The two teenage girls bond while a mysterious illness afflicts the neighborhood.

In A Glass Darkly contains good stuff, it’s just harder to reach than other types of storytelling. Academically we favor our stylists, oohing and aahing over writers’ abilities to turn sentences like, ‘he walked down the sidewalk’ into four-page studies on color, texture and smell, not to mention their voluminous vocabularies. This is great for poetry, but affects pacing in storytelling like molasses. It’s thick, rich and sweet, and it slows to a crawl when the story’s not hot.

If you go for the stylists, you’re going to love this. If you’re in for the storytelling, not quite as much.

“But as food is taken in softly at the lips, and then brought under the teeth, as the tip of the little finger caught in a mill crank will draw in the hand, and the arm, and the whole body, so the miserable mortal who has been once caught firmly by the end of the finest fibre of his nerve is drawn in and in, by the enormous machinery of hell, until he is as I am.”

3 stars

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