Pseudopod 313: The Dead Sexton


by J. Sheridan Le Fanu.

This story previously appeared in ACROSS THE BRIDGE the Christmas Annual of 1871 in the magazine “Once a Week”. It is set in Le Fanu’s invented Lake District town of Golden Friars.
It can be read online here.

J. Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish writer of Gothic tales and mystery novels. He was the leading ghost-story writer of the nineteenth century and was central to the development of the genre in the Victorian era. Three of his best known works are UNCLE SILAS, CARMILLA and THE HOUSE BY THE CHURCHYARD. He studied law at Trinity College in Dublin, was called to the bar in 1839, but he never practiced and soon abandoned law for journalism. In 1838 he began contributing stories to the Dublin University Magazine, including his first ghost story, entitled “The Ghost and the Bone-Setter” (1838). Le Fanu worked in many genres but remains best known for his mystery and horror fiction. He was a meticulous craftsman and frequently reworked plots and ideas from his earlier writing in subsequent pieces. Many of his novels, for example, are expansions and refinements of earlier short stories. He specialized in tone and effect rather than “shock horror”, and liked to leave important details unexplained and mysterious. He had enormous influence on the 20th century’s most important ghost story writer, M. R. James, and although his work fell out of favor in the early part of the 20th century, towards the end of the century interest in his work increased and remains comparatively strong. CARMILLA, in particular, is a prescient and much-adapted work, as it prefigures the romantic and lesbian vampire figures.

Your reader this week is Ian Stuart – Voice over artist, writer, dog walker, dialect wrestler and father of famous hosts.

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“But he was a tall, sinewy figure. He wore a cape or short mantle, a cocked hat, and a pair of jack-boots, such as held their ground in some primitive corners of England almost to the close of the last century.

‘Take him, lad,’ said he to old Scales. ‘You need not walk or wisp him–he never sweats or tires. Give him his oats, and let him take his own time to eat them. House!’ cried the stranger–in the old-fashioned form of summons which still lingered, at that time, in out-of-the-way places–in a deep and piercing voice.

As Tom Scales led the horse away to the stables it turned its head towards its master with a short, shill neigh.

‘About your business, old gentleman–we must not go too fast,’ the stranger cried back again to his horse, with a laugh as harsh and piercing; and he strode into the house.

The hostler led this horse into the inn yard. In passing, it sidled up to the coach-house gate, within which lay the dead sexton–snorted, pawed and lowered its head suddenly, with ear close to the plank, as if listening for a sound from within; then uttered again the same short, piercing neigh.

The hostler was chilled at this mysterious coquetry with the dead. He liked the brute less and less every minute.

In the meantime, its master had proceeded.

‘I’ll go to the inn kitchen,’ he said, in his startling bass, to the drawer who met him in the passage.

And on he went, as if he had known the place all his days: not seeming to hurry himself–stepping leisurely, the servant thought–but gliding on at such a rate, nevertheless, that he had passed his guide and was in the kitchen of the George before the drawer had got much more than half-way to it.

A roaring fire of dry wood, peat and coal lighted up this snug but spacious apartment–flashing on pots and pans, and dressers high-piled with pewter plates and dishes; and making the uncertain shadows of the long ‘hanks’ of onions and many a flitch and ham, depending from the ceiling, dance on its glowing surface.

The doctor and the attorney, even Sir Geoffrey Mardykes, did not disdain on this occasion to take chairs and smoke their pipes by the kitchen fire, where they were in the thick of the gossip and discussion excited by the terrible event.

The tall stranger entered uninvited.”

About the Author

J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu (28 August 1814 – 7 February 1873) was an Irish writer of Gothic tales and mystery novels. He was a leading ghost story writer of the nineteenth century and was central to the development of the genre in the Victorian era. M. R. James described Le Fanu as “absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories”. Three of his best-known works are Uncle Silas, Carmilla, and The House by the Churchyard.

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About the Narrator

Ian Stuart

Ian Stuart is a writer/performer living in York. He has done work for the BBC and Manx Radio, as well as audiobooks, historical guides and promotional videos. He is also a storyteller/guide for The Ghost Trail of York, taking tourists round the city and telling them some of its darker secrets. You can read more about his poetry and his dog, Digby, on his blog, The Top Banana. If you wish to contact Ian about voiceover work of any kind , you can get in touch with him on Twitter at @yorkwriter99. His greatest boast is that he is the father of a famous son.

Find more by Ian Stuart

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