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ne of the key characteristics of Gothic literature is its emphasis on visualization, deploying elaborate images to immerse the reader/viewer in its imaginative world. This ‘ocularcentric’ approach (Parnell 232) has been used since the beginnings of the genre in the eighteenth century. Often specified in the manner of painting, Gothic visuality was applied in manifold ways. It notably acts to represent characters and to describe ghosts, ghouls and monstrosities, to evoke a supernatural atmosphere, and to register the Gothic iconographies of haunted houses or castles, weird landscapes and other settings such as alienating urban spaces.

The encounter with the visually-startling monster is defined by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (1818). Dr Frankenstein’s contemplation of his bungled creation exemplifies the Gothic emphasis on pictorialized horror:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. [58]

Shelley’s description is a calculated visual shock in which she emphasises the queasy, ‘horrid’ contrasts of colours – yellow, black, ‘dun-white’ and ‘pearly whiteness’; carefully specified, the image ingrains itself on the reader’s mind’s eye.

The same is true of the many memorable settings which place Gothic narrators in liminal spaces which are in part tangible locations and in part physical zones of visual excess that take the observers into a field of distortion and unbearable intensity, being almost too vivid to contemplate. Poe’s description of the house of Usher and its topography (1839) is a prime example of pictorial hyperbole, inscribing its moral and spiritual abnormality in a series of detailed images as the reader’s eye is directed, as in Shelley’s sight-map, to scrutinize the parts:

Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones … Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn. [‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ Tales and Poems 233]

Visceral in effect, all such descriptions corporealize the menacing physicality of the Gothic fictive world. Yet, if vision were important, and the prime means of evoking horror and fear, it is also the case that sound has an important role in creating the writers’ effects. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), for example, the final stages in Harker’s fateful journey to the Count’s castle are marked, first of all, by a howling dog (21) and later by the sound of baying wolves (23), auditory signs which prefigure later developments and create a menacing atmosphere. Moreover, Gothic monsters are often identified by their strange emissions, shouting, shrieking or otherwise generating noise to affront to the sense of hearing and disrupt the ‘normal’ surface of ambient sound as it is found in reality; as one critic observes, ‘cacophony’ matches over-focused vision to articulate ‘dissonance’ and ‘the ‘chaotic force … for which the genre is so well-known’ (Archambault 14).

The workings of this soundtrack have recently been the subject of critical analysis in scholarly articles by Angela M. Archambault, Lucie Ratail and John Bender. Analysing the texts in cinematic terms, these critics present a plausible reading of ‘Gothic sounds’ and the ‘Gothic soundscape.’ Their focus is on eighteenth century fiction, primarily in the work of ‘Monk’ Lewis, Charles Maturin and Anne Radcliffe.But investigations of the acoustic qualities of Victorian Gothic are less developed, despite the emphasis on sound, as John Picker has argued, in Victorian literature as a whole. One of the most interesting Gothic writers, in this connection, is J. S. Le Fanu. Like other practitioners of the genre, Le Fanu’s fiction is infused with Victorian ‘word painting,’ in which he offers elaborate tableaux of settings while visualizing his characters’ appearance in ekphrastic detail; but he also invokes the sense of hearing, using sound to define his personae, both mortal and supernatural, and to accentuate the effects of climactic, troubling encounters. These strategies have never thus far been the subject of critical investigation. I consider them here.

Characterization and Sound

In Le Fanu’s fiction, how a character speaks is often as important as the content of their utterance. The tone of voice, pace and volume, and even the pronunciation of the words, are all important, and become a revealing sign of the character’s personality.

Writing in a genre in which class and the values of ‘respectability’ are constantly affirmed – and challenged – Le Fanu is sensitive to the nuances of accent and what these might connote. In Uncle Silas (1864), the author carefully differentiates between Maud’s manner of speaking and that of her cousin and (potential) murderer, Dudley: Maud employs the English accent of the Home Counties, the representation of culture and status, while Dudley is endowed with a northern (Derbyshire) accent which marks him out. This difference seems only a small detail but acts importantly to suggest how Maud’s status is threatened by a dangerous intrusion into her mode of living; how she speaks is presented as normative, the manner of the non-regionalized, educated upper classes, while Dudley’s accent places him as a member of the dangerous proletariat, despite his (apparent) standing as Silas’s son. His voice acts, in other words, to add a layer of social anxiety to Maud’s perception of his threatening appearance and behaviour: Maud is afraid of him because he does not fit in her class-setting, and the inconsistency of his being claimed as Silas’s offspring poses another, destabilizing question about her uncle’s honesty. The incongruity of Dudley’s manner amplifies the distorting effects of Maud’s vertiginous journey into the uncertain, and her response to Dudley’s speaking is unambiguous, regarding the mismatch of status and ‘unrefined’ sound, as a matter of ‘impudence’ (246) as the ‘odious … bumpkin’ (251) tries to ingratiate himself.

Le Fanu’s use of verbal dissonance, of voices not having the appropriate or ‘normal’ sound, has a racial or ethnic dimension as well. In Le Fanu’s ‘Welsh novels’ the sound of spoken Welsh becomes strange and menacing; though described as ‘the prettiest of all pretty tongues’ in The Tenants of Malory (1: 128), the unfamiliar cadences of the native people symbolizes the English characters’ sense of alienation in a land which, though politically unified with England, has a foreign soundscape and is not England. The effect of uncanny hauntedness – postulating a location adjacent to the characters’ home country which is yet radically different in terms of its language. The ‘unhomely’ replaces the ‘homely’, just as Dudley’s voice unsettles Maud’s assumptions about class and class membership.

Dudley’s northern accent and Welsh gabbling, as Le Fanu would have it, are matched, moreover, by voices in which the author uses their tone and volume as a telling sign. In ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’ (In a Glass Darkly, 1872), the husband’s brutal personality is identified by his ‘repulsive’ and ‘peculiar’ voice (125), which sounds by turns ‘reedy and nasal’ and ‘snarling’ (124) when he speaks to his wife and servants; both amusing and threatening, it suggests his dangerous ambivalence.

Indeed, Le Fanu repeatedly focuses on voices which seem aberrant, strange, or odd, using them to suggest the corrupt or sinister nature of a variety of characters. This approach is especially developed in his representation of the archetypical witch-figures that feature in his texts. Madame La Rougierre, in Uncle Silas, is exaggeratedly endowed with a curious way of speaking: in part another registration of the foreign Other – as in the writing of Welshness – La Rougierre’s monstrosity is registered in her cacophonous voice. When Maud first sees her, for instance, her sound is just as disturbing as her appearance, her ‘hollow features’ being matched by her weird ‘gobbling and cackling shrilly’ (16). Though cartoon-French in her manners, a xenophobe’s version of the sly Gallic type, La Rougierre is essentially a retread of the Irish Banshee – the blighted witch-like spirit whose ill-intent is announced in her hideous wailing. More disturbing still is the vision of the spectre in ‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost.’ This figure speaks with a pronounced Irish accent, which Le Fanu (as an Anglo-Irish Protestant), again presents as a strange aberration, but the strangeness of seeing her is mainly embodied in the non-verbal sounds she makes. As the terrified narrator reports it, ‘she came clatterin’ after (me) like a thing on wires … makin’ all the time a sound with her tongue like zizz-zizz-zizz’ (Le Fanu, Best Ghost Stories 55). The onomatopoeic noise completes the visual oddity of Crowl’s appearance and movement, adding a genuine note of strangeness and dislocation.

In short, these weird soundtracks register the characters’ psychological distortions: they look incongruous and they sound incongruous. At the same time, it is important to note that Le Fanu uses quietness, the absence of volume, as a device of parallel significance; if some characters make loud and ugly sounds, the index of wickedness and corruption, others are endowed with subdued tones which suggest a sort of inhuman otherness. Uncle Silas, for one, has a ‘sweet voice’ (415) which is ‘clear’ and ‘gentle,’ although it is also ‘cold’ (190); Carmilla, likewise, mainly speaks in a languid ‘murmur’ (In a Glass 262) as she seduces Laura, only emitting a ‘piercing shriek’ (315) when she is killed. Primary among these quiet characters, however, is Minheer Vanderhausen, the living, demonic corpse who purchases Rose in ‘Schalken the Painter.’ This grotesque figures barely speaks: his conversation striking the deal with Douw is extremely reticent and when he attends the dinner he speaks ‘hardly at all,’ and is viewed as having a ‘deathlike stillness’ (Best Ghost Stories 39); on the earlier occasion of introducing himself to Schalken, his presence is initially registered only by a ‘sudden sniff’ (31), and the painter did not otherwise hear him at all.

Such absence of sound greatly enhances the character’s menace and mysteriousness. By having him speak only minimally, Le Fanu invokes the associations of silence, linking him to the nullity of the grave, death, and the unknowability of the spirit world and evil. He looks like a corpse and has nearly the silence of the dead. Seen but rarely heard, Vanderhausen is ascribed the liminal status of the ghost – of here but not here, visible to the eye but (practically) invisible, as it were, to the ear. Indeed, the absence of sound amplifies the fear: as Ratail comments, speaking of Gothic more generally, silence ‘plays a multifaceted role as an enhancer of curiosity and stress,’ the blank ‘canvas’ on which the author might ‘draw the most fearful ideas.’

Sound and Hauntings: Le Fanu’s Vocabulary of Noises

Le Fanu deploys sound as a means to label at least some of his characters. These sound-signatures amplify their impact and add nuance to their psychological profiles. At the same time, the author frames his characters in a broader, auditory scheme, placing them against a series of soundtracks which are designed to evoke fear and anxiety. Typically, these noises have two functions: they represent the presence of the spectral when the ghost or unknown phenomenon is unseen, and they evoke the characters’ feelings of terror and anxiety when are forced into an encounter the mysterious and threatening. In this sense Le Fanu deploys sound metonymically, to represent the invisible, to register what is present but cannot be registered through vision as being ‘real.’

Nothing is more frightening, perhaps, than what is heard but not seen, and Le Fanu intensifies his uncanny soundtrack by endowing his sounds with a hypnotic, invasive, insidious clearness. In so doing he extends a Gothic tradition which was earlier practised in the soundscapes of Radcliffe, Maturin and Walpole, all of whom play on the notion of distinct noises. In Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, for instance, Jim Bender has noted how the eighteenth century writer used sound with an enhanced clarity in the manner of the ‘Foley effect’ of items added to a film’s soundtrack to give it a greater definition (34). Named after an early film technician called Jim Foley, this artificial heightening of particular sounds is as pronounced in Le Fanu’s writing as it is in Walpole’s.

Le Fanu also shares some of the stock sounds of Gothicism – shrieks, screams, wailing and others in an exaggerated register. But he differs from his Gothic forebears in developing a distinctive semiotic. Of prime significance are voices, knocks and footsteps, each of which is markedly disembodied but clearly heard as the registration of the unknown. The house in ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ is possessed by discordant and mocking noises: first of all the Squire is haunted by ‘gabbling and laughter,’ linking the ‘phantoms’ and the cacophonous ‘clamour’ (Best Ghost Stories 17); and the house is later infected by voices throughout the building:

The voices were not always in the room, They called … though the walls … from the neighbouring apartments, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the others; sometimes they seemed to holloa from distant lobbies, and came muffled, but threateningly, through the long panelled passages … all this added to the effect of terrifying mockeries … [20]

What is especially noticeable is that the voices are perceived as sounds rather than coherent language so that the listener, Mrs Beckett, ‘never could remember one minute after’ what the talking was about; its ‘horrible character’ remains but its ‘import’ (20) is completely unintelligible.

This is, in other words, an uncanny soundtrack which partakes of the ambiguity of the ghostly, sound of the world but disconnected from the signification of language, sounding but not attached to a particular space or speaker. Such mystery is deeply unsettling because it is impossible to place in reality, even though it exists as a melee of noises. Just as it is impossible to comprehend the spectral because it is both seen and a chimera, so it can also be said that Le Fanu’s sound is troublingly evasive despite its apparent distinctiveness.

This is especially true of footsteps, ‘acousmatic sounds’ which testify to the ‘presence of a human being’ (Ratail) but are unconnected with flesh and blood. In ‘The Familiar,’ Captain Barton is menaced by his unseen pursuer, the ‘mysterious footfall.’ Though ‘audible,’ there is no-one to make the steps: ‘no form of any kind was visible there’ (Best Ghost Stories 212). In ‘Carmilla,’ likewise, Laura is finally terrified not by the visual recollection of the vampire, but by ‘the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door’ (In a Glass Darkly 319), and in the ‘Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House’ the alien sound of ‘footsteps in the lobby’ (Best Ghost Stories 428) seems to indicate the presence of the supernatural.

These sounds suggest not just the intrusion of a ghost, but of a poltergeist with physical agency, and Le Fanu is at his most terrifying when he makes his noises not only distinct but viscerally intrusive, implying the existence of an entity with significant, even muscular power, and perhaps a malign intelligence. This strategy is exemplified by the inclusion of tapping and knocking, as if a real person were trying to enter the door of reality, just out of sight. In the ‘Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House’ there is ‘knocking at the door’ followed – horrifyingly – by the ‘turning of the handle’ with ‘full force’ (Best Ghost Stories 428). Similarly unsettling are the haunting sounds in ‘Ghost Stories of the Tiled House.’ These come in a variety of forms, as ‘knocking,’ ‘beating’ on the door and ‘a sort of patting’ which becomes ‘a series of double knocks’ (Best Ghost Stories 404). Clearly, this ghost is far more than a chimera – and seems to try to communicate in acoustic codes which remain mysteriously unintelligible to the listeners.

Such knocking is also a cultural reference, alluding to the ‘spirit rapping’ of the Fox sisters, while replicating the sounds of contemporary seances. In an age when clairvoyance was a continuing craze and enjoyed by a large bourgeois audience, Le Fanu links his fictional hauntings with the many (fraudulent) visitations of ghosts who apparently turned up, on request, in mediums’ and believers’ parlours.

Often, though, Le Fanu invokes not the conventional sounds of ghosts and spectres, but the baffling noises of some entirely unknown and incomprehensible phenomenon. These feature not as knocks or taps but as sounds which (like the voices that come through the walls in ‘Squire Toby’s Will’), are impossible to categorize. One of the weirdest of these appears in ‘An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street.’ This starts off as the familiar sound of ‘perfectly distinct’ footsteps as a ‘slow heavy tread’ descends the stairs; however, it turns into something inexplicable, possibly the impact of bare feet, but certainly a noise between ‘a pound and a flop’ which is ‘very ugly to hear’ (Best Ghost Stories 367). These the terms ‘pound’ and ‘flop’ sit oxymoronically in an incompatible juxtaposition, and the effect is one of sensory illegibility, the product of something incomprehensibly unknown and unknowable – an effect that prefigures the strange flopping sound in the attic, the prefiguration of the arrival of the demon, in William Friedkin’s terrifying film, The Exorcist (1973). The threateningly alien similarly features in ‘Green Tea,’ partly when the spectral monkey swears at Jennings, but more when the sound itself seems detached from any natural register. This ‘peculiarity,’ the Reverend reflects, ‘is not like the tone of a human voice’ and is not even heard in his ears, but ‘like a singing through my head’’ (In a Glass Darkly 31). Always distinct, but ultimately intruders from another domain, Le Fanu’s vocabulary of sounds makes an unsettling contribution to his evocation of the strange.

Drama and Sound Tableaux

Le Fanu’s use of sound embraces volume, so that loud intrusive noises assert the presence of the unknown, startling the characters with their inexplicable immediacy, while quietness can equally be a sign of menace and otherworldliness. Moving between sound and no sound, his is a fictional universe that has to be listened to as well as seen.

A third acoustic dimension is provided by his use of sound to structure dramatic crises. To build tension as a moment of horror or violence approaches, he typically builds a carefully graded soundtrack that leads from quiet to loud, climactic noises. The registration of a variety of sounds in sequence is especially marked in the slow development of the mysterious woman’s emergence through the wall in The Wyvern Mystery (1869). This montage opens with Alice’s hearing of a ‘fidgeting little noise’ in a room otherwise silent except for her own ‘low tones’ as she talks to herself, and these small sounds at the edge of perception quickly become more pronounced: ‘a heavy and muffled sound’ becomes a ‘stealthy sound … as of something cutting or ripping’ as the wallpaper is removed (152–53); as soon as Alice sees the face, however, her silence is replaced by a ‘helpless yell’ succeed by the ‘glorious clatter’ of Tom’s hobnails on the stairs (155–6). Enacted as if in slow-motion, the visual structure of the emergence of the monster – itself an influence on Charlotte Brontë’s writing of Bertha’s nighttime encounter with Jane Eyre – is punctuated by the slow development of intrusive sounds.

Dudley’s murder of Madame La Rougierre, whom he mistakes for Maud, is likewise presented as a sequence of patterned sounds, though this time the transition from quiet to loud is more rapid and pronounced:

Madame was breathing in the deep respiration of heavy sleep. Suddenly, but softly, he laid … his left hand over her face, and nearly at the same instant there came a scrunching blow; an unnatural shriek, beginning small and swelling for two or three seconds into a yell such as are imagined in haunted house, accompanied by a convulsive sound, as of the motion of running, and the arms drumming on the bed; and then another blow – and with a horrid gasp he recoiled a step or two … I heard a horrible tremor quivering through the joints and curtains of the bedstead, the convulsion of the murdered woman. It was as dreadful sound, like the shaking of a tree and rustling of leaves (my italics, Uncle Silas 415). < p>Le Fanu completes the gruesome effect by quickly returning from loudness to a sort of distorted quietude, with the small detail of a sound like ‘rustling of leaves’ adding a final touch of menace and incongruity.

We can see, then, how sound plays a central part in Le Fanu’s writing of character, in the evocation of the fearful, and in specific moments to highlight the horrible. Working in tandem with his grotesque visuality in the form of detailed descriptions, these structures make a multi-sensory appeal to the reader’s mind’s eyes and ears. Like all Gothic writers, he creates what Ratail characterizes as ‘a multisensory fictional experience.’



Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. Best Ghost Stories, ed. E. F. Bleiler. New York: Dover, 1964.

Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. In a Glass Darkly, 1872; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The Tenants of Malory. 3 Vols. London: Tinsley, 1867.

Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. Uncle Silas, 1864; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The Wyvern Mystery, 1869; Stroud: Sutton, 1994. 3 Vols. London: Tinsley, 1867.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Tales and Poems. London: Penguin, 1982.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, 1818; London: Penguin Classics. 1985.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula, 1897; London: Penguin, 1979.


Archambault, Angela. ‘The Function of Sound in the Gothic Novels of Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis and Charles Maturin.’ Etudes Epistémé 29 (2016). Online Edition.

Bender, John. ‘Foley Effects in the Gothic Sound in The Castle of Otranto.’English Literature 7 (December 2020). Online Edition.

Picker, John.Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Purnell, Carolyn. The Sensational Past. New York: Norton, 2017.

Ratail, Lucie. ‘Gothic Sounds and the Foreshadowing of Victorian Soundscapes.’ Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 94 (Automne 2021). Online Edition.

Created 5 February 2023