So opens the gripping Gothic novel, Uncle Silas. I have always wondered what universal trait causes people to enjoy with such relish the sensation of being frightened … in the right dose, that is, and from the safety of one’s living room sofa. The rise of the Gothic novel began in the late 18th century and can take credit for starting the western tradition of thrillers, horror tales, ghost stories and sensationalism in storytelling and entertaining. This type of novel originally took place in medieval eras which earned it the appellation “Gothic,” after the Gothic style architecture of that time. The genre kept its name, however, even when the Victorian writers began to move toward more contemporary settings, such as in Jane Eyre, for example.
Typical characteristics of a Gothic novel include: horror, castles or mansions (usually in decay), elements of the supernatural, psychosis, damsels in distress (often locked up), bad omens, an overall atmosphere of suspense, a tyrannical male and a Gothic hero, among many other attributes. While it is easy today to make a parody of these elements, it is also easy to see why this genre was so immensely popular then — and why it remains so today. Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas encompasses nearly all of these elements, with the exception of the supernatural, and also weaves in what is now termed a “locked room mystery,” or a murder mystery in which a murder occurs in seemingly impossible circumstances, such as within a locked room that no one could have conceivably entered to commit the crime.
Uncle Silas is narrated by 17-year-old Maud Ruthyn who recounts the events leading up to her father’s death and her subsequent departure to live with his brother, her Uncle Silas. In Devendra Varma’s introduction to the Folio Society edition, he writes, “As the plot thickens, Le Fanu works upon the reader’s sense of fear and terror through traditional Gothic machinery — dismal, decaying mansion, haunted chambers, burning eyes, midnight whisperers, and hired assassins … It is a psychological thriller in which the tension is built up with consummate skill … His work does not belong to the conventional school of traditional spooks mantled in white or grey, with phosphorescent glow, clanking chain, moans and groans. His spectres — far more terrible — are contained in the brains of the haunted.”
While it falls neatly into the Gothic genre, Uncle Silas yet stands alone. Not only is it an intriguing story, but Le Fanu’s writing is absolutely marvelous. He is truly a master of suspense as I read each page fraught with anxiety, yet the gradual ascent to the climax has relatively little actual horror until the close of the novel. As Alfred Hitchcock realized with films, the terror of a story is often more defined by what is unseen and left to the imagination’s ponderings.
Le Fanu’s power of description and character development is captivating and serves to further enrich the tale. Varma describes his characters as coming “picturesquely alive through their facial expressions, mannerisms and tricks of speech.”
While it is considered improbable that there was a corresponding influence between the two, Uncle Silas does have some striking similarities to another of my favorite gothic novels — Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, which is considered the first novel in the detective genre. I highly recommend both!
The reading experience with this particular edition was further enhanced by Charles Stewart’s illustrations. Aiming to emulate the style of Victorian etchings and engravings, Stewart’s meticulous depictions of the events throughout Uncle Silas capture the incessant unease of the story and add an entirely new level of horror.