The Outcast and The Rite:
Stories of Landscape and Fear, 1925-1938
By Helen de Guerry Simpson
by William Brown
Following its anthology of Elinor Mordaunt’s work last year, here is another collection of exquisite weird fiction from Handheld Press, this time focusing on the captivatingly disturbing stories of Helen de Guerry Simpson (1897-1940). Simpson died young, at just 42; perhaps just as shocking is the neglect of her work in the decades since her death. Step forward Handheld Press, specialists in unearthing such bafflingly overlooked treasures. With Melissa Edmundson once again at the helm, Simpson’s stories aren’t simply dusted off and given a snazzy cover, but brought to fresh, dazzling life, with a critical framework from Edmundson that illuminates the author’s extraordinary life and provides valuable insights into the stories themselves.
There are thirteen tales here, each of them utterly unique. The weirdness in Simpson’s fiction is more akin to that of Mordaunt than, say, Lovecraft or M. R. James; there are no monsters here, tentacular or otherwise. Simpson, as Mordaunt, specialises in narratives that, though propulsive and immersive, seldom deal in definite supernatural phenomena, let alone offer concrete explanations for whatever does go on—think Turn of the Screw (Henry James 1898), or The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters, 2009), rather than The Shining (Stephen King, 1977) or Hell House (Richard Matheson, 1971). These are stories of mesmerising ambiguity, effortlessly bridging the reductive distinction we have come to make between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction. Simpson possesses the prosodic precision, the arch tone and wisdom, and the incisive description, of her modernist peers, whilst still managing to disturb with evocations of ghosts that aren’t quite ghosts, of possessions that aren’t strictly demonic, and seances that don’t unleash supernatural evil – but rather uncover the atrocities of men.
Take ‘The Rite’ for instance. When Len, a ‘sullen’ adolescent who has stormed out from her controlling mother—‘She thought, I don’t care if I drop. Serve her right if they were to come out here and find me lying dead’—wanders into Parvus, the local forest, we might presume that we’re in folk horror territory. ‘Len, like the other villagers, feared Parvus,’ we’re told, ‘and would not set foot within its shadowed and dangerous borders; now it seemed to welcome and invite her.’ Even more so, when Len lies down, ‘her body supported by the forked roots of a tree, feet pressed against a rounded stone which stuck up out of the moss smooth and grey’, we sense some kind of supernatural communing with nature to be imminent. Certainly, some of the occult mythology of Arthur Machen is recalled when the boulder is described: ‘On the side turned away from her were little marks and slashes as though it had once been carved to some semblance of life’. Is Len, like the narrator of Machen’s ‘The White People’, about to be inducted into a secret world of folklore and black magic? However, ‘The Rite’ Pans out—pun intended—to be as much about the veiled occultism of society’s more overt rituals and ceremonies, specifically marriage. Len is being pressured by her mother to marry Arthur, a farmer who, though rich and much sought after by the village’s female population, is ‘odious to her.’ She would rather marry Steve, though he is ‘only a labourer’ who ‘live[s] with his mother in a dirty cottage’. Steve is an impossible dream in a world where money is king, Len reflects, and even ‘God was forever talking of houses, the beauty of his houses, his many mansions’. Arthur is the sensible and inevitable choice, and yet:
She knew how she wanted to give herself, but her heart rebelled at the thought of the one-sided bargain. It would be fine to flare up like a great flame; but in a while that would be done with, and he might change or be false, and the power, the great force of her body, be withered away. Youth gone. Love gone. So soon, and for so little.
Marriage is portrayed as the pagan sacrifice here, by which women are brutally used up—flaring up like Sergeant Howie on May Day—for the sake of the social good. The marital contract is an occult one, involving as it does the possession of one person by another, set into stone by so many ‘marks and slashes’. It is not some supernatural terror that Len discovers in Parvus; rather, the forest invokes in her a realisation of the dark forces that will soon dictate her everyday existence as a marriageable female.
The killing of women by men, metaphorical if not physical, is a recurring theme in Simpson’s stories. ‘That was what she would be if she married Arthur, dead, and buried in a bed with a man beside her who didn’t even know that she was not alive anymore’, Len reflects. In ‘Grey Sand and White Sand’, the opening tale in the collection, this kind of living death is examined in horrifying detail, as an artist becomes increasingly obsessed with submitting an elusive, sinisterly agentic landscape to canvas: ‘Below this inconstancy lay some quality which he could not discover, disguised by the passing shows of sun and wind, an unpaintable quality which disturbed him, and which he was constantly trying to fix and place in his mind’. As Edmundson notes, the artist ‘becomes increasingly suspicious of his partner’s attitude towards his paintings’. When he shows her his day’s work,
He saw with incredulity that her eyes were laughing, and the mouth, too, stirred derisively for a second. While he looked it was gone. She had hidden it as quickly and as securely as the marsh hid its secret, and he heard her saying the expected thing.
‘First-rate, old man. Just the way it looks.’
The mercurial landscape and the female mind are conflated; both, as Edmundson writes, are ‘unreachable and ultimately unseeable’, and the artist becomes increasingly deranged by his endeavour to master both with his brush. His artistic impulse, a la Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic and Elisabeth Bronfen’s Over Her Dead Body, is murderously patriarchal, seeking to dominate, to subdue, to dissect; the story lays bare the paranoia and sense of inadequacy that prompts this male fantasy, as it builds to a truly shocking—though perhaps inevitable—conclusion.
‘Grey Sand and White Sand’ is an absolute masterpiece, and easily the best story in this collection, but every tale here is a gem. One of my favourites, ‘Good Company’, is a possession narrative with a twist, as the protagonist, Elizabeth, becomes seized by the spirit of Canidia whilst travelling in Italy. Simpson portrays the moment of possession in terrifying terms, how Elizabeth ‘felt suddenly like a person drowning, sinking quick into imagined space. She was herself, but dwindled to a speck, a mere pin-point of consciousness about which great shining worlds revolved’, but the story is more akin to a quirky Odd-Couple caper thereafter, as Elizabeth’s money situation becomes increasingly dire and the aloof spirit doesn’t deign to intervene. Is Canidia the shrieking, lamb-devouring witch of Horatian lore? If so, Simpson recasts her as a saint, and in doing so disrupts the patriarchal dichotomy between the monstrous feminine and the angel in the house.
There might not be any ready scares or out-and-out monsters to be found inside these pages, but there are arguably things much more disturbing for their intangibility. The stories, like the landscape the deranged artist strives to capture, seem to swim and change as they are read, and seldom end conclusively, evading easy compartmentalisation. For all of the haunting and macabre images cast throughout The Outcast and The Rite, though, what truly stands out here is Simpson’s wonderful writing, sparklingly alive, as she finally gets the literary reincarnation she deserves.
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