Book Review: A Stable for Nightmares By J. S. Le Fanu

Book Review: A Stable for Nightmares by JS LefanuA Stable for Nightmares was first published in 1896 by The New Amsterdam Book Company (New York). There are eleven stories in the collection.

The first story, “Dickon the Devil“, is told in the first person, by an unnamed narrator who is recalling events that happened thirty years ago at a Lancashire estate, near Pendle Forest. He’d been engaged by two old maids who had inherited the property and needed him to look it over prior to it being divided between them. Unfortunately the former owner, Squire Bowes, still haunted the house and its grounds and had already driven the stockman, Dickon Pyke out of his mind. “Dickon the Devil” is a very basic tale that offers no real resolution—the narrator learns the story, completes his task and leaves; and the spirit of the Squire continues to walk. It has to be said, however, that the scene where the Squire’s ghost puts its hand around the door in the middle of the night is rather creepy; it’s just a pity that the rest of the story is so mundane.

The theme of inheriting a haunted estate is used again in “A Debt of Honour“. Reginald Westcar has barely set foot in his new home when he falls for the daughter of a neighbouring landowner. Love might be in the air, but there is a debt of honor to be repaid and Reginald finds out, through spiritual intervention, that his estate is a lot larger than he originally believed.

Devereux’s Dream” is written in the first person and the narrator is sharing a strange story his friend Paul Devereux told him. Paul once had a dream in which he was travelling on a train and witnessed a murder. Three years later he fell asleep on a long train journey and awoke to discover that his new bride had been killed. Paul never saw the killer, but he is sure that it is the man from his dream so he tracks him down and takes his revenge. This story has a little more substance to it than the majority of its bedfellows and is one of the better stories in the collection.

In “Catherine’s Quest” a young orphan goes to spend Christmas with an old school friend and her family. Catherine is not the only guest, and many of the better rooms are taken, so she is given a room in an older and little-used part of the house. She is an adventurous girl who does not mind this until she witnesses the ghostly re-enactment of a dreadful crime. Like “Devereux’s Dream”, this is one of the better stories in the book.

In the fifth story, “Haunted“, a congressman, Colonel Demarion, is on his way home after attending a convention. The weather takes a turn for the worse and he is forced to spend the night at an inn where the only available room is haunted. Naturally, pleasant dreams are out of the question. He is visited by the spirit of a murdered man who asks the Colonel to bring his killer to justice. This isn’t the worst story in the book, by any means, but it does not seem to have been very well thought out. The reader is aware right from the start that the inn is packed, yet when the Colonel discharges his gun in the middle of the night—twice!—nobody comes to investigate the disturbance. Never mind, at least the congressman gets his man in the end.

Pichon & Sons, of the Croix Rousse” is without doubt the most boring story in the book and it would have benefitted from a severe cut in the word count. It’s a very long and drawn out tale that bored me so much I had difficulty in even following what it was meant to be about. At the beginning it reads like some kind of god-awful French History lesson and then, as it drags along, a dash of romance is added against a background of political unrest, followed by betrayal and murder. Then, bearing in mind that this is supposed to be a ghost story, there are hints of vengeance from beyond the grave.

The Phantom Fourth” is more strange than scary. So if you like strange tales this could be the one for you. The narrator is travelling by train from Paris to Calais when he meets a party of three men, one of which confides to him about a fourth companion who is invisible and proving to be very troublesome. Is this fourth man some kind of supernatural entity, or merely some form of hallucination formed from the men’s subconscious minds? The ending is left open to interpretation.

The Spirit’s Whisper” is about a man who is haunted by the spirit of a lost love, who urges him to bring her killer to justice. The very beginning of the story could almost be something from the pen of Poe, rather than Le Fanu, and the opening sentence, ‘YES, I have been haunted!—haunted so fearfully that for some little time I thought myself insane.’ did a good job of hooking my attention. The story flows along nicely and I became genuinely interested in the outcome of the story—even though it was easy to see where it was going, it was reasonably pleasant just to go along for the ride.

Dr. Feversham’s Story” is set in a library, where a group of people have gathered together to discuss the subject of ghosts. The doctor is adamant right from the start that he does not believe in ghosts. He then proceeds to contradict himself by sharing a ghost story, and assuring the group that it is true. When he was a much younger man Feversham went to live with a family in the North of England and split his time between secretarial duties and taking care of the daughter of the family, who suffered from strange fits in which she predicted the future. She was not, however, the only resident of the house with knowledge of the future. The house was haunted by the spectre of a pale lady whose appearance was known to herald a death in the family.

The Secret of the Two Plaster Casts” is easily the nastiest story in the book. More gory than spooky, it begins with a noted surgeon showing his friend, who is a sculptor, an exquisitely carved ivory crucifix. The sculptor finds much to admire in the piece, but comments that Christ’s posture on the cross is wrong. The two men debate this fact and then, using their powerful connections, manage to take possession of a recently executed convict. They then crucify the body and the sculptor takes some plaster casts of the corpse.

The final story is “What Was It?” Told in the first person, it is the account of a man who spends some time in a haunted house, where he is attacked in his sleep by an invisible entity. He manages to overpower his invisible enemy and straps it to the bed. He leaves it there until it dies and then buries it in the garden.

Overall I found A Stable of Nightmares pretty disappointing. Most of the stories are very predictable and some of them are padded out to such an extent that they seem to drag on forever. None of the stories are particularly frightening, but a few of them, such as “Dickon the Devil” boast the odd scene that is a little chilling. Any chills and thrills are few and far between, however, and, despite the title, I would be surprised if any of these ‘weird tales’ were to cause any nightmares. This is probably a must-have-book for dyed-in-the-wool Le Fanu fans, but readers who are more used to modern, faster moving stories may be better looking elsewhere because this collection is more likely to leave them cold than it is to send a shiver down their spines.

A Stable for Nightmares is not a hard book to get hold of. Brand new reprint copies are available and there are always plenty of second hand copies for sale in the various online marketplaces. You can even download a copy for most of the popular types of e-reader.

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