This suggested Halloween classic is just a single novelette of around 12,000 words. But the short tale is one of the most chilling, and multi-faceted, I know. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), the Irish ghost story writer, wrote “Green Tea” as the first story in a book, In a Glass Darkly, published in 1872 just before his death, a series of the cases of one Dr. Martin Hesselius, a German specialist in “metaphysical medicine,” which also included his famous vampire story “Carmilla.” It tells of the good Doctor’s treatment of poor kind Rev. Mr Jennings, enthusiast for green tea and ultimately victim of a horrible obsession. And it stands out even in that great collection, for its combination of brutal impact and feline ambiguity.
For one thing, there’s Dr. Hesselius himself. Apparently an advocate of the scientific method, who appears able to make Holmesian deductions about his patients, he also seemingly believes in the spirit world and its influence in medical and other matters. And his “scientific” explanation leaves open the possibility of demonic intervention. “By various abuses, among which the habitual use of such agents as green tea is one, this fluid may be affected as to its quality, but it is more frequently disturbed as to equilibrium. This fluid being that which we have in common with spirits, a congestion found upon the masses of brain or nerve, connected with the interior sense, forms a surface unduly exposed, on which disembodied spirits may operate.”
Then there’s Mr. Jennings and his phantom persecutor. “This courteous man, gentle, shy, plainly a man of thought and reading” slips without warning into the language of Biblical damnation and persecution mania, caught in “the enormous machinery of hell.” And the demonic familiar that creeps after him in the shape of a small malevolent monkey could be a hallucination, but from its first manifestation, in a mundane omnibus, it is described with such vividness, and its actions are so psychologically consistent, that it’s hard not to believe it’s real. Even the modern reader is left uncertain what hand he’s been dealt, and all the awful possibilities remain fully open and preserve their original power.