In A Glass Darkly is known as one of “the classics of occult fiction” and one of the first novels that portrays strange occurrences from an observer’s detached perspective. When I was researching horror for my novel Terata Americana of the Raving Variety, I read numerous references to this novel, which is actually a collection of 5 short stories and novellas, but I never actually read the book. I guess when you read people’s synopses of a work it is easy to think that you know what they are talking about without reading it. Boy, was I ever wrong.
The first four stories in the book were indeed unnerving, and one of the things that made them so eerie was the fact that the narrator’s detached medical perspective leaves each story quite open to interpretation. He lays out the events “as they were relayed” to him, and while there is something of a medical explanation for the horrific occurrences, when you really think about what happened it still doesn’t seem quite right. In A Glass Darkly‘s narrator, Dr. Hesseliop, himself almost seems unconvinced, but we hardly hear the details from his own point of view. This was a really clever way of presenting the horrifying stories.
The final story, “Carmilla,” tells the tale of a woman who accidentally comes to live with a father and his young daughter in their Austrian castle. Carmilla is a bizarre character who sleeps all day and is seen walking along the marsh in the dead of night. Laura, the daughter, sort of becomes Carmilla’s love interest which I found quite shocking for a novel published in the late 1800s. It’s not even hinted at, the lesbian relationship is presented very matter-of-factly in the medical style of Dr. Hesseliop . “Carmilla,” in essence, is the definitive vampire story and was the inspiration for every vampire story that has been written since. Bram Stoker uncovered this story and subsequently wrote Dracula. Anne Rice’s homoerotic vampires have their basis in this story. Stephen King not only used “Carmilla” but many of the other horrific tales in this collection as inspiration for his own scary stories and novels. It was remarkable to finally read this work and to truly begin to appreciate how it has inspired a whole genre of vampire literature. I myself wanted to write a vampire story after reading it!
Clearly, “Carmilla” is the shining star of this collection, but the other stories are also worth a read featuring diabolical visions, vengeful ghosts, demons and even a live burial. I was unsettled and haunted in some way by each tale, and there was something really charming about reading such modern scary stories in the old English of 1872. Interesting turns of phrases, long forgotten words and of course, stories that will continue to be scary no matter what year you live in.