This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Green Tea”, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1869.
This 1869 story is considered one of the first occult detective stories.
The narrator in this story, told as letters to his friend and former patient Professor Van Loo of Leyden, is the German doctor Martin Hesselius. He introduces or narrates (the anthology’s introduction is not entirely clear) the stories in Le Fanu’s collection In a Glass Darkly. However, this is the only story in the collection featuring Hesselius.
The story centers around the Rev. Jennings, a middle-aged man with a strange problem. He can’t officiate at his church in Kenlis. Partway through the services, he stops and can’t continue except with “solitary, inaudible prayer” and starts to shake and grow pale. One might expect some sort of slacking off from Jennings’ appointed duties. His dear friend Lady Mary Heyduke thinks it “nerves and fancy”.
We then hear Hesselius’ impression of Jennings on their initial meeting. He initially observes Jennings without talking to him, and his impressions are favorable. He does note how Jennings frequently looks at the carpet with a sidelong glance.
When they do talk, it turns out Jennings knows of Hesselius’ work, in particular a book he wrote about 10 or 12 years ago called Essays on Metaphysical Medicine.
Hesselius says he believes
the entire natural world is but the ultimate expression of that spiritual world from which, and in which alone, it has its life. I believe that the essential man is a spirit, that the spirit is an organised substance, but as different in point of material from what we ordinarily understand by matter, as light or electricity is; that the material body is, in the most literal sense, a vesture, and death consequently no interruption of the living man’s existence, but simply his extrication from the natural body—a process which commences at the moment of what we term death, and the completion of which, at furthest a few days later, is the resurrection ‘in power.’
Hesselius’ treatment centers on the effects of maladies of the heart and brain. Le Fanu cleverly doesn’t trap himself into having to provide specifics. Hesselius just says they would bore the layman and are reserved for a technical article for doctors.
When Hesselius asks Jennings why he’s interested in his book, he detects some nervousness and shame on Jennings part. Jennings just says he has followed a train of thought and “one book suggests another”.
Hessilus offers to come to Jennings house and drop off a spare copy for him.
Hesselius talks to Lady Mary and finds out that Jennings has been working on a book for the last two or three years, “some abstract subject – perhaps theology”. Hesselius asks Lady Mary if Jennings drinks green tea when working on his book. So he does, after giving up coffee. In fact, he drinks so much that Jennings and Lady Mary almost quarreled about it.
He also asks if Jennings’ father ever saw a ghost. So he did, replies Lady Mary, surprised at the question.
Hesselius goes over to Jennings’ house on Blank Street, a gloomy place. Waiting for Jennings in his library, Hesselius picks up some volumes of Swedenborg’s Arcana Caelestia and sees several passages underlined by Jennings.
They all (and I assume Le Fanu’s quotes are accurate) put forth the idea that each human has at least “two evil spirits”. One speaks fluently to that person though in a harsh and grating way. The others don’t speak as fluently, but their “dissent of thought” is perceived by that person “silently creeping along with in it”. Normally these “associate spirits” are unaware of the person nearby, but, sometimes, they do become aware of them, and then they strive to do evil to man, and to “hasten his eternal ruin.”.
Hesselius notes that Jennings has written his own marginal note, indicating he finds something personally relevant in Swedenborg’s book: “May God compassionate me.” This confirms Hesselius’ suspicion that Jennings has a problem he might be able to help with. However, out of tact, he’s not going to offer help unless Jennings asks. He puts the book back and reads some more Swedenborg which tells how evil spirits present themselves in “correspondences” like beasts which represent a “particular lust or life”.
Hesselius is surprised in his reading by Jennings. The former confirms that, yes, he is familiar with Swedenborg, and Jennings will find, in Hesselius’s book, more on the influence of his thought on Hesselius.
They also talk about a mutual acquaintance, one Dr. Harley. Jennings finds Harley one of the “greatest fools I have ever met”. Hesselius considers him an eminent physician. Jennings thinks him a mere materialist.
After leaving, Hesselius is definitely convinced Jennings has a problem.
Jennings returns to Kenlis to have another go at his duties, but he again is unable to fulfill them.
Hesselius gets a note from Jennings asking him to visit.
In their conversation, Jennings tells all.
He says his book is on the “religious metaphysics of the ancients”. He thinks it was the study of paganism, a unified system which binds everything together in an “evil sympathy”, that led to his problem that started “three years and eleven weeks ago, and two days”.
He describes his workday of morning errands and research and an afternoon and evening of writing. He drank a lot of green tea while writing (though actually only two or three cups) between 11 PM and 3 AM.
One night, on an omnibus, he saw two glowing red lights which moved. Eventually, he decided they belong to a monkey in the dark. The monkey followed him on the walk to his house. When he saw the monkey in the house – unnoticed by his servant, of course, he decided he must be having a nervous breakdown and hallucinating.
Deciding he had lived too long in his mind, he didn’t write that evening, just smoked and drank.
But that didn’t help. The monkey started to show up in the daytime though, for some reason, it goes away for weeks on end. When it returned, it just followed him everywhere and stared at him.
Over time, it grew more aggressive. When Jennings started a sermon at Kenlis, the monkey pounced off the floor and sat on Jennings’ open book.
Jennings consulted with Dr. Harley but didn’t think much of Harley’s opinion:
They talk of the optic nerves, and of spectral illusions, as if the organ of sight was the only point assailable by the influences that have fastened upon me—I know better. For two years in my direful case that limitation prevailed. But as food is taken in softly at the lips, and then brought under the teeth, as the tip of the little finger caught in a mill crank will draw in the hand, and the arm, and the whole body, so the miserable mortal who has been once caught firmly by the end of the finest fibre of his nerve, is drawn in and in, by the enormous machinery of hell, until he is as I am.
The monkey’s movements dissipated Jennings’ thoughts to “a point”. He even saw the monkey with his eyes closed.
And, about a year ago, the monkey started speaking to Jennings with “dreadful blasphemies”.
Hesselius tells Jennings not to trouble himself; he should just confine himself to the facts of his experience. Jennings then tells Hesselius that, when he was alone with his niece in Shropshire a few weeks ago, he had the urge to jump into the shaft of a coal mine. The urge was evidently visible to his niece – she wouldn’t walk on ahead. It was only the idea of the pain his suicide would give his niece that stopped him from doing it.
Finally, Jennings breaks down and weeps. Hesselius advises him to brighten up his room with more candles, and he advises Jennings, who is afraid the monkey will return, to call him anytime if he needs him. Hesselius will study his case.
Hesselius, a wandering sort, is staying at a local inn, but he delays getting there, and the delay is fatal. When he finally arrives, he finds another message from Jennings asking him to return immediately. The monkey is back.
Arriving there, he finds Jennings has committed suicide with a razor.
Then, in the “Conclusion: A Word for Those Who Suffer”, Hesselius gives us his explanation.
His theory is that the brain pumps “nervous fluid” about the body as the heart does blood. The brain can be sent into disequilibrium by substances like green tea. This results in hallucinations. That disequilibrium can also produce
“delirium tremens, and entirely shut up again when the overaction of the cerebral heart, and the prodigious nervous congestions that attend it, are terminated by a decided change in the state of the body.”
The treatment for Jennings would have been simple: iced eau-de-cologne on the temples.
I have to admit I found the explanation rather disappointing. I hoped Le Fanu would go the Swedenborg route and give us a demonic spirit in the form of a monkey. In fact, the explanation is just an expansion on the theory Hesselius gives us at the beginning.
On the other hand, after giving us a hint of the explanation at the beginning, Le Fanu cleverly makes us a forget it with the red herring of Swedenborg.
Hesselius claims he has treated several similar cases, so I don’t think we are to take his claims ironically or with skepticism. Jennings wouldn’t give Hesselius his confidence so was not treated in time.