Thursday, November 05, 2020

"The Familiar" (1872)

This Sheridan Le Fanu story appeared over 20 years earlier in another version called "The Watcher." As the new title, "The Familiar," suggests with perhaps even more force, it's the story of a demon that attaches to and torments a single person, to the death. I've been characterizing stories structured like this one (and others by Le Fanu as well as many others) as inspired by the Sherlock Holmes model, with a rational investigator grounding and explaining fantastic events. But obviously Le Fanu predates Arthur Conan Doyle's tales by decades. This should remind us once again that it was Edgar Allan Poe, with Auguste Dupin in the 1841 story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," who basically invented the rational investigator and detective fiction, though Doyle certainly gets the credit for perfecting it in certain ways. But Le Fanu chipped in his advancements too, working out the details and systematizing many aspects of it in the horror vein. The device works well with horror—H.P. Lovecraft used it all the time—and Le Fanu uses it well. "The Familiar" has predictable problems with antiquated language, and generally is a little too long, but it is often effective (the technical term for "scary"), proceeding like a true-crime account. It starts with an experience that is common. Walking alone at night, you often think you hear footsteps besides your own, as if someone is following or approaching from behind. The next day our man has another strange experience, one of the story's high points, with an anonymous note in the morning's mail. It's in an unfamiliar hand and makes sinister reference to the experience of the night before. Mostly the story follows along from there with the haunted man's attempts to cope, his increasing agitation, and a few more tricks up its sleeve as well. At the end there is some explanation of the demon's grievance—it's not unjustified. This story has fundamental points of horror. This type of harassment by demon is as lively as ever, for example, in the 2007 movie Paranormal Activity, existing somewhere in between demonic possession and ghost or haunted house. It's closest to a ghost story, but this ghost travels with a specific person. Our haunted man eventually sees a diminutive but ferocious figure wearing red, something like the dwarf in the movie Don't Look Now. Daphne du Maurier wrote the long story that movie is based on and almost certainly she was aware of Le Fanu. She came much later, of course, but Le Fanu was fashionable in the 19th century, counting Henry James and M.R. James among his most admiring readers. Even if your name isn't James you might like it too.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

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