LE FANU'S "GREEN TEA": A SESQUICENTENNIAL OF FEAR
by Brian J. Showers, © October 2019
Published alongside “Carmilla” in the landmark collection In a Glass Darkly (1872), Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” was first serialised in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round in 1869. Since its first publication, Le Fanu’s tale has lost none of its potency. “Green Tea” tells of the good natured Reverend Jennings, who writes late at night on arcane topics abetted by a steady supply of green tea. Is he insane or have these nocturnal activities opened an “interior sight” that affords a route of entry for an increasingly malignant simian companion? This 150th anniversary edition of “Green Tea”, with illustrations by Alisdair Wood and an introduction by Matthew Holness, is the definitive celebration of Le Fanu’s masterpiece of psychological terror and despair.
On this day, 23 October 1869, readers of All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens, may well have been unprepared for a chilling tale of paranoia and despair that commenced in Mr. Dickens’s weekly journal. That story was “Green Tea”, and though it was originally published anonymously, it was penned by the Dublin writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.
While Le Fanu is probably now better known for his pre-Dracula vampire novella “Carmilla” (1871/2), for me “Green Tea” will always be his masterpiece. The story tells of the good natured Reverend Mr. Jennings, whose late night penchant for green tea brings on a curious malady — that of opening the interior eye. The Reverend Mr. Jennings finds out that, in opening the interior eye, genii of the infernal plane can also perceive the world of man, and soon he is plagued relentlessly by a demonic chattering simian. For the delight of hell is to do evil to man, and to hasten his eternal ruin.
“Green Tea” was collected (along with Carmilla”) in Le Fanu’s most famous volume, In a Glass Darkly (1872), one of the author’s final books before he died in February of 1873. “Green Tea” has since become a staple of horror anthologies, gaining admirers from Dorothy L. Sayers to V. S. Pritchett.
For the story’s 150th anniversary, I wanted to create an edition worthy of such a powerful tale. My first port of call was Matthew Holness, known to many for his horror send-up Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, but also as the writer/director of Possum, one of the most emotionally chilling horror films I’ve ever seen. Holness is a long-time admirer of Le Fanu, which is why it seemed natural to ask him to write an introduction for our new edition. We’d also previously worked together on a volume in 2014 for the bicentenary of Le Fanu’s birth: Reminiscences of a Bachelor.
That same year I asked Reggie Chamberlain-King of Belfast’s Wireless Mystery Theatre if he could adapt “Green Tea” as a radio drama. He did this, debuting the piece at Toner’s Pub in Dublin that August. I’d been searching for an excuse to record this wonderful adaptation, and when work on the new edition began, an opportunity had finally manifested. Each copy of our new edition of Green Tea will be issued with a CD of this magnificent recording.
Then there are the illustrations of Alisdair Wood, with whom I worked on November Night Tales by Henry C. Mercer. As with Holness, working with Wood again seemed an obvious choice. His pen and ink style is reminiscent of magazine illustrations from the nineteenth century. For the book, Wood created twelve original illustrations, plus the book’s striking cover.
Rounding out the volume, Jim Rockhill and myself once again teamed up to write a pair of afterwords to explore the publication history and contemporary reception of “Green Tea”. We had previously done the same for Reminiscences of a Bachelor. Rockhill has long worked as a Le Fanu scholar, with perhaps his greatest achievement being a three-volume complete stories of Le Fanu, published by Ash Tree Press (2002-2005). It was great fun looking at “Green Tea” in depth. As always, we hope you find our scholarship illuminating, possibly even useful to your own explorations.
Other features found their way into the design. For example, the monogram on the full title page is from Le Fanu’s letterhead; and on the signing page, signed by all contributors, we’ve reprinted a facsimile of the author’s signature — I’m afraid the best we could do under the circumstances. The rest of us have signed the page ourselves. I did, however, take the opportunity to visit Le Fanu’s vault with the signing pages before they were bound into the books. There they rested while we enjoyed a freshly brewed cup of green tea (a pot of which I am drinking now. In moderation, of course).
Further instalments of “Green Tea” were published in All the Year Round over the subsequent three weeks in 1869: 30 October, 6 November, and 13 November. While you may have read this story before, we hope you’ll make time this season to return to its pages. For “Green Tea” Le Fanu holds no punches: exploring as he does the absolute limits of a man dogged by a fiend from hell, caught in the enormous machinery of a malignant universe. This is no cosy ghost story, no pleasing terror. “Green Tea” remains one of the bleakest in supernatural literature.
Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written short stories, articles, interviews and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, All Hallows, Ghosts & Scholars: The M.R. James Newsletter, Le Fanu Studies, Supernatural Tales and Wormwood. His short story collection, The Bleeding Horse, won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (2006) and Old Albert — An Epilogue (2011); with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2011). He also edits The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. www.brianjshowers.com
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