Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” and The Horror of Psychological Horror

Illustration from Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea,” by Edward Ardizzone.

There are no monsters in real-life, right? No ghosts, vampires or werewolves? So to avoid being laughed at some supernatural writers choose to go down the psychological route.

As is the case, for instance, in the short story “Green Tea,” written by Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (text here.)

In the tale – first published in Charles Dicken’s magazine All the Year Round in 1869 – Jennings, an English clergyman, is haunted by a small spectral monkey that is invisible to everyone else.

The reverend’s subsequent descent into terror and despair are recorded in the papers of German physician, Dr Hesselius.

Hesselius is of the opinion that his patient’s downfall is self-inflicted. He gives two reasons for this diagnosis. They are

1) Jennings is given to excessive consumption of green tea.

2) Whilst drinking the hot beverage Jennings obsessively reads books on paganism – into the early hours.

For Hesselius, the reverend’s choice of hot drink is central to his downfall. The story is called “Green Tea” – indicating the key role the substance has in the story.

When Le Fanu’s tale was published tea-drinking had become popular in Britain. But there was still a mistrust of oriental tea growers and packagers – particularly those involved with green tea – who were often accused of adulterating or contaminating the product. It’s foreign-ness makes the reverend’s favourite beverage suspiciously exotic – and dangerous.

As for the second reason, a fondness for “pagan”  books – Hesselius admits he shares his patient’s (at the time relatively novel) interest in non-Christian philosophy. So reading them hardly seems a reason for the poor man’s life-destroying delusions.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the reverend isn’t really guilty of any serious wrongdoing -apart from drinking tea and staying up late. Certainly not enough to warrant his terrible hallucinations and torments.

But in the light of Hesselius’s diagnosis it’s hard to avoid somehow blaming Jennings.

Which is one of the cruel things about this type of psychological horror. Monstrous, even.

An audio version of this blog is available here:

Illustration from Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea,” by Edward Ardizzone, 1929

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