Wylder’s Hand (J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1864)


This pastoral mystery is one of the less-read works of the prolific and (then) popular Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In the true Le Fanu style, there is an abundance of natural beauty, a pervasive sense of foreboding, and a deep mystery with an air of the supernatural.

Charles de Cresseron, our narrator, is visiting the town in which he grew up to advise on the estate issues of an old acquaintance, and shortly becomes peripherally involved with mysterious happenings surrounding the intertwined and feuding families of the Lakes, the Wylders, and the Brandons. It’s a fun and interesting book, yet with much to criticize.

(Non-specific spoilers ahead, for those who care.)

The characters and central drama of the book are introduced fairly early on and the halcyon environs soon take a turn for the dire and dramatic. There is also a rather frightening encounter early on that offers a potential ghostly twist. But that, as well as the near-hysterical level of dread experienced by those closest to the mystery, turn out to be rather exaggerated.

It has, overall, largely the same strengths and weaknesses of “The Room at the Dragon Volant,” a novella by Le Fanu, with similar hints at a horrible truth, a touch of melodrama, and a rather prosaic wrap-up. That you are in suspense is unquestionable – but once you know all, the spell is broken, and you feel a bit cheated.

There is also a focus on narrative side shows that are generally unrewarding. The depredations of the lawyer Jos Larkin on the honest and conveniently un-worldly Vicar, and the family problems of that man, amount to little in the long run, and don’t do much work in illustrating their characters. Same for the election towards the conclusion; I felt shades of “Ten Thousand A-Year” as the throwaway names and positions bubbled up meaninglessly.

Ultimately the book’s parts are greater than the sum; well before the end I was beginning to wonder if an unimpressive solution was even possible for the problems posed by the story, so highly was the tension raised. But Le Fanu managed it. In my disappointment, I was not disappointed.

I was not, however, disappointed in the prose; the man’s writing is, for the most part, extremely good, which accounts for some of the fun of the book. Here are a couple short nuggets to show you of what he is capable:

“This general liking for children and instinct of smiling on them is one source of the delightful illusions which make the remembrance of early days so like a dream of Paradise, and give us, at starting, such false notions of our value.”

“And he sighed; and his long palms were raised, and waved, or rather paddled slowly to the rhythm of the sentiment.”

“You can’t be too frank when you have wronged your neighbour; but keep your offenses against God to yourself, and let your battle with your own heart be waged under the eye of Him alone. A miserable sinner have I been, my friend, but details profit neither thee nor me.”

“It is the same earth for all; the same earth for the dead, great and small; dust to dust. The same earth for the living. “Thorns, also, and thistles shall it bring forth,” and God provides the flowers too.“

Also, Uncle Lorne’s “prophecies,” though too long to repeat here, are uncanny, and his every appearance is genuinely chilling.

Le Fanu has a remarkable vocabulary; I learned a score or more of words reading the book, and not one felt out of place. How strange it is, then, that this same vocabulary seems to fail him utterly in a few specific situations. Captain Lake, for instance, “glides” nearly everywhere. Chapter after chapter, line after line, he glides, glided, was gliding. I think he must have glid upwards of 30 times in the book, when a tenth of that would have been adequate to illustrate his smooth style of locomotion. And Larkin “smiles sadly” at a similar frequency. Strange that a man with such a wealth of phrases in him should reach so readily for the same one so regularly!

There is also a consistent use of French (“Perhaps his personnel prejudiced me”; “There was something naive and spirituel”), though whether the habit was de rigeur in 1864 or a consequence of the narrator’s Frenchness is unclear. It’s probably a little of both, and at all events isn’t detrimental, but seems worth mentioning.

Readers looking for crimes and characters of a gothic character and magnitude should probably look elsewhere; “Wylder’s Hand,” while enjoyable, is rather a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

A note to would-be buyers: I have the Atlantic Books “Classic Crime” imprint, a handsome trade paperback with a great custom cover and nice type. It is riddled with typos. The first paragraph has one. They are present throughout. In one case two words are actually completely transposed – something was “gnignah morf” a hook. Don’t support their shoddy, disrespectful resurrection of this book; buy another edition.