In which two new lodgers in a long-empty Dublin house find that that they have an incorporeal (and rather unpleasant) third roommate.
First published in 1853
Yes, this is the story that I named the site after. I read “Aungier Street” first when I was fourteen, and it worked: it gave me a thoroughgoing case of the creeps. I like to think that Le Fanu would be happy to know that his writing made me uneasy, given that I was born a century-and-a-half later than he was. That’s the romantic in me.
There’s another reason to kick off this site with a Le Fanu piece, however. It’s because he was to the 19th century ghost story what Charlie Parker was to 20th century jazz. Both men took forms that were growing hidebound and jolted them into new directions.
To make it clear what Le Fanu did, think for a moment about a prominent fictitious spirit: Hamlet’s father.
The late King of Denmark is representative of most literary ghosts prior to Le Fanu. We understand why His Majesty isn’t in his final resting place, and exactly what his goals are. Hell, if we were him, we would ache for revenge, too. Despite his deceased state, the King is just like any other character in the play. He comes across as very human, and is utterly lacking in ambiguity.
Le Fanu gives us apparitions that are the opposite of this. In most cases, we don’t know why they’re back, or what it is that they want. They’re as inscrutable as a tornado or a flood, and just as calamitous, at least on a psychic level.
This is the core of Le Fanu’s innovation: his ghosts aren’t characters in the traditional sense. They’re something to be fled from or fought against, but no matter what they were in life, they aren’t quite people anymore.
The ghost in “Aungier Street” is a prime example of this. We learn a few facts about who he was during the course of the story, but nothing that would make him sympathetic, or the object of our pity. Le Fanu also conflates the ghost with the house he haunts, as if they were two aspects of the same entity. For instance, here’s how Richard, the narrator, describes the sleeping arrangements in the place, which he’s just rented with his cousin Tom:
“The bedrooms were wainscoted, but the front one was not gloomy; and in it the cosiness of antiquity quite overcame its sombre associations. But the back bedroom, with its two queerly-placed melancholy windows, staring vacantly at the foot of the bed, and with the shadowy recess to be found in most old houses in Dublin, like a large ghostly closet, which, from congeniality of temperament, had amalgamated with the bedchamber, and dissolved the partition. At night-time, this “alcove”–as our “maid” was wont to call it–had, in my eyes, a specially sinister and suggestive character. Tom’s distant and solitary candle glimmered vainly into its darkness. There it was always over-looking him–always itself impenetrable.” [Emphases mine.]
Inanimate objects are imbued with menace throughout “Aungier Street,” especially in a vivid dream sequence that Richard recounts, involving a window and an ominous portrait. At one point, Richard also has an unfortunate encounter with a menacing animate object, in the form of a large, malevolent rat. Musophobics would do well to avoid this bit.
Another of Le Fanu’s innovations was his introduction of subjective psychological states into ghost fiction. For example, Tom has a remarkable monologue, in which he describes a drinking song that he heard when trying to drift off to sleep; it was being bellowed by a drunk passing through the lane behind the house. The song describes a person who’s dead drunk, but soon it takes a darker turn, under the influence of someone who’s capable of entering Tom’s thoughts. This is one of the high points of the story.
“Aungier Street” was in many ways a rough draft of a later piece, “Mr. Justice Harbottle,” written almost twenty years later. “Harbottle” is considered by many critics to be the superior work, but I prefer “Aungier Street.” I could provide a number of plausible reasons for feeling this way, but the truth is that this was my introduction not only to Le Fanu, but also to all of the great fiction I’ll be covering on this site.
Reading this story really did change my life: it made me aware of a whole body of literature that I had known nothing about. That’s why I recommend “Aungier Street” so highly, in the hopes that it can be a sort of “gateway drug” for you, as well.