Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Schalken the Painter

According to the book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost stories (edited by Richard Dalby) that I picked up for $1 last Saturday at a book exchange, Schalken the Painter, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, "was the first important ghost story to be published in the Victorian era, and is still regarded as among the finest of the whole century. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73) was the greatest ghost-story writer of the nineteenth century, bar none. 'Schalken the Painter'originally appeared in The Dublin University Magazine of May 1839."

I had not heard of Le Fanu before and I only read the story because it is first in the anthology, but it really was a treat for a blustery October evening.

The story is a framed story, a construct the Victorians dearly loved, especially for their ghost stories, where they liked to conjure up an image of friends gathered around a roaring fire swapping tales of the supernatural. In this instance, the narrator tells a story that he was told by a friend whose painting he admired on frequent visits to his home. The painting is described in the opening paragraphs:

It represented the interior of what might be a chamber in some antique religious building—the foreground was occupied by a female figure, arrayed in a species of white robe, part of which is arranged so as to form a veil. The dress, however, is not strictly that of any religious order. In its hand the figure bears a lamp, by whose light alone the form and face are illuminated; the features are marked by an arch smile, such as pretty women wear when engaged in successfully practising some roguish trick; in the background, and, excepting where the dim red light of an expiring fire serves to define the form, totally in the shade, stands the figure of a man equipped in the old fashion, with doublet and so forth, in an attitude of alarm, his hand being placed upon the hilt of his sword, which he appears to be in the act of drawing.

I looked for an image of this painting online in the hopes that a fan of the story sometime over the past 160 years might have taken a stab at reproducing, but to no avail. It's no matter, really, because Le Fanu does a great job painting with words. The story, then, is about how Schalken comes to paint this picture, and it is indeed a first rate ghost story replete with broken hearts, a terrifying and malevolent ghost, and a convincing narrative that only comes from belief in the supernatural on the part of the narrator/author.

Unlike my last encounter with a ghost story, that of The Turn of the Screw, there is no ambiguity here. Unlike James, Le Fanu exhibits no disbelief in the supernatural by providing a false note by any of his narrators (i.e., the person telling the story, the friend who owned the picture and told the story of Schalken, or Schalken himself who told the story to the friend).

I recently listened to one of The Teaching Company's lectures on Shakespeare in which the marvelous Peter Scaccio describes the canon regarding the supernatural during Elizabethean/Jacobean times. I think the Victorians shared many of the tenets of the canon one of which is that if you're not Catholic and don't believe in Purgatory (from which ghosts can return to our world to atone for their misdeeds), then ghosts are demons. In Schalken the Painter, the ghost, Myneer Vanderhausen is most definitely of the demon type, hell-bent on destroying lives and tempting the good into evil.

Always attuned to mythological archetypes, I anticipated this being a Demeter/Persephone story with the heroine, Rose Velderkaust, being tricked into becoming a bride of Hades. Unfortunately, there really was no Demeter figure but elements of that story are clearly there. I particularly liked Rose's "arch smile" when she lures her lost love Schalken into the scene in the picture. Reminded me of the super creepy vampire ladies in Bram Stoker's Dracula--I assume that Stoker was very familiar with this story and perhaps it became part of his well of creativity that he tapped for Dracula.

Want to read Schalken the Painter? You can find it here on Project Gutenberg as part of The Purcell Papers.


  1. I haven't read this yet, but really enjoyed Le Fanu's stories from In a glass darkly. That collection includes Carmilla, which is a vampire story that clearly influenced Stoker and is great spooky fun!

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  3. Sarah - funny you should mention Carmilla because when I was googling on Le Fanu up popped a book of graphic gothic classics that I bought because it contained a version of Northanger Abbey. I wondered whether it might also contain anything by Le Fanu, and it turns out that the first story is Carmilla. So, I will try to get to it this week! I feel like I just won a prize--a new Victorian author to explore! Thanks for stopping by :)

  4. I have heard of Le Fanu, but never read anything because I'm not a ghost story fan. However, if this is easily available on line then I might just go and have a quick look.

  5. I will definitely read this one. I just reviewed In a Glass Darkly yesterday and I enjoyed Le Fanu. I think I might have read something by him in an anthology. He's definitely a great writer of Victorian sensational stories!

  6. Le Fanu's Carmilla is well worth reading - probably my favourite classic vampire story. I will have to read this story also. I should keep an eye out for the anthology, in fact. It sounds fabulous.