Haunted Objects in Women's Weird Fiction
From gloves to saucepans to scissors, supernatural stories from the 1920s to the 1950s use haunted household items to explore women’s changing social roles. Sarah Jackson explores these trinkets of terror in her first essay for Horrified...
Like hermit crabs, ghosts and demonic forces are extremely adaptable when it comes to finding a new home. Especially fond of portraits, mirrors, and dolls, they have also been known to inhabit more mundane items. A saucepan. A fur boa. A pair of gloves. A snuff box.
Household items charged with supernatural power are a common motif in the large body of weird fiction written by British women in the first half of the twentieth century. Sometimes the effect is darkly comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes terrifying. As Melissa Edmundson notes in her introduction to Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 (Handheld Press, Melissa Edmundson, 2019) many of these haunted objects are ‘traditionally feminine’, and almost all have some connection to women’s changing roles and complicated relationship with domesticity and sexuality in this period.
These are some of my favourite examples of the trope. I’d love more people to read these stories so I’ve tried not to give away the endings. I’d also like to acknowledge that all the stories I’ve identified from this place and period which feature haunted objects are by white women, and mostly middle-class white women at that, and the themes that I read in them largely reflect the dominant experiences and concerns of that same group.
In 1931 Virginia Woolf famously confessed to a murder. The victim? The ‘Angel In The House’, the idea of the perfect, dutiful Victorian wife and mother: ‘I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me.’ The angel keeps coming back, however: her mouldering, shuffling step can be heard in several weird stories by women from this period which subvert symbols of happy domesticity.
In ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ by Margery Lawrence, published in The Second Ghost Book (James Barrie Ltd, Cynthia Asquith, 1952), a young man taking up a furnished flat is persecuted by a malevolent saucepan: ‘The moonlight streamed into the dark passage through the invisible open door, and with the moonlight came the distant sound of bubbling and boiling – like water in a kettle – or saucepan… In the silence there seemed, however ridiculous it may sound, a sort of quiet menace in the sound…’
Put to evil use by its former mistress (‘young, beautiful, hard as marble’) the saucepan is imbued with some of her traits: ‘a little saucepan, had its lid not quite on – not quite fitted on levelly, I mean – and it had the oddest look for a moment, just as if it had cocked up its lid to take a sly look at me!’
The saucepan as a symbol of domestic bliss and nurturing femininity is entirely inverted as the protagonist and his valet experience severe stomach pains when they eat or drink anything prepared in it. The little enamel pan is essentially a witch’s cauldron in disguise.
A pair of scissors
‘Young Magic’ by Helen Simpson (an Australian author, but I loved this story and couldn’t bear not to include it) was originally published in her collection The Baseless Fabric (1925). Sinister supernatural activity is focused on the sewing room in the protagonist’s childhood home. It’s this room where she is forced to sit quietly while her nurse uses the sewing machine, simmering with resentment at being prevented from playing in the garden which she loves, collecting snails and being free to scamper or play at being a valiant prince.
A precursor to Matilda (Roald Dahl, 1988), the girl channels her frustration and imaginative power into a kind of telekinesis, causing a pair of scissors to twitch and move until they are ‘standing upright, but unsteadily, like a man walking a rope, and moving with timorous jerky steps towards the hand that still held the wheel’. When she returns to the sewing room as an adult she tries to grasp the dark force that she inadvertently summoned.
First published in 1933, ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen begins with three female friends in their sixties enjoying a cosy evening together and discussing a local manor house called Hartleys, occupied by an eccentric old woman, Miss Lefain.
One of the party, Martha Pym, owns an antique shop and a full set of splendid Crown Derby china, (minus one plate) which she bought at auction from Hartleys years before. She sets off to see Miss Lefain at the lonely old house and find out if the missing plate has been found and whether she might buy it. However, Miss Lefain is not what she seems, and although Miss Pym obtains the plate the price is higher than she is prepared to pay.
The story excels in building atmosphere and using subtle grotesque detail to contrast the beautiful china with the ugly greed and possessiveness it inspires: ‘Miss Lefain squealed in her agitation, and rising up ran around the wall fingering with flaccid, yellow hands the brilliant glossy pieces on the shelves.’
Uncertainty and infidelity
Increasing financial independence, more equal and more liberal divorce laws, and changing social attitudes to sex in the first half of the twentieth century meant that many women had more choice about if, when, and whom to marry. These changes were liberating but brought with them fresh anxieties. Themes of uncertainty, neglect, infidelity, betrayal and secrecy between couples are everywhere in these stories.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca de Winter is the most famous member of a spectral first wives club whose members appear and interfere in numerous stories by women in this period, including ‘The Telephone’ by Mary Treadgold, published in The Third Ghost Book (James Barrie Ltd, Cynthia Asquith, 1955).
The story is narrated by a young woman who has an affair with Allan, an older man. Allan leaves Katherine, his wife of 30 years. Katherine leaves the country, and shortly afterwards, the mortal coil. But when Allan calls their former home in Hampstead to test the line, Katherine answers. Or does she?
Whether the events of the story are supernatural or psychological is ambiguous, but the narrator’s suspicion and anguish will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had cause to doubt their partner’s faithfulness: ‘I had to pretend that I hadn’t seen him through the half-open door, gently laying down the receiver. And twice more in the evening – and there must have been other times – when I was cooking our supper, he slipped out of the kitchen and I heard that faint solitary tinkle in the hall.’
A snuff box
The feminine threat comes from another quarter in ‘The Crystal Snuff Box’ by Margery Lawrence. In this story, which appeared in her brilliant collection The Terraces of Night (1932), an antique snuff box turns out to be haunted by a sexy witch.
Peter, the honourable but not especially bright owner of the snuff-box, can’t comprehend what the mysterious dark-haired woman pursuing him through his dreams and in waking visions could possibly want. Luckily his smart fiancee Isabel understands that she must engage her supernatural rival in a battle for her sweetheart’s soul.
As she struggles, the snuff box is imbued with all the qualities of a confident older woman, shades of white and red and cool and hot temperatures hinting at their respective innocence and sexual experience: ‘for all her courage the girl was shaking in every limb, her brow pearled with sweat under the waves of shining fair hair, her hands cold and clammy with terror. In the firelight the Crystal Box glimmered demurely in its accustomed place, the ruddy light reflected in its shining sides…’
‘Hand In Glove’ by Elizabeth Bowen features two poor but stylish young sisters who live with their invalid aunt. The sisters are ruthless in their pursuit of a good match. They neglect and mistreat their aunt, raiding the trunks of clothes stored in the attic and cutting her old-fashioned gowns into smart new dresses, until the only thing standing between the eldest sister Ethel and marriage is a decent pair of evening gloves.
When their aunt dies Ethel finally gains access to the only trunk they haven’t been able to break open, and seems to have hit the jackpot. However the gloves become an uncanny instrument of the aunt’s revenge: ‘the spotless finger-tip of a white kid glove appeared for a moment, as though exploring its way out, then withdrew.’
In ‘The Token’ by May Sinclair, the problem is communication. Newly-wed Cicely is tormented by uncertainty about whether her emotionally reserved husband Donald truly loves her. After death, she cannot rest until she knows the truth of his feelings. The haunted object in the story is a paperweight, given to Donald by a novelist he admires, and treated with more affection than his wife.
Cicely’s ghost follows the same pattern as she did in life, sitting silently in Donald’s study, hoping he will see her, searching for a way to reach him: ‘The phantasm was perfect and vivid, as if it had been flesh and blood… always with its eyes fixed on Donald. It even lasted while Donald stirred, while he stooped forward, knocking the ashes out of his pipe against the hob, while he sighed, stretched himself, turned and left the room. Then, as the door shut behind him, the whole figure went out suddenly – not flickering, but like a light you switch off.’
Donald doesn’t see his wife as she haunts his study, but his unmarried housekeeper sister does: one invisible woman observes the other. His sister forces him to confront his feelings, and the paperweight – psychically charged with repressed emotion – becomes a conduit for an explosive expression of grief.
After the vast casualties of the First World War, there were almost two million more women than men in Britain, many of whom were unable to marry. There are several stories from the interwar years which use supernatural elements to explore women’s loneliness and grief, and this is one of the most brutal.
‘The Strange Case of Miss Cox’ by Margery Lawrence (again) is a modern fairytale. An impoverished spinster sits on a park bench worrying about where her next few meals will come from when she sees a mysterious man selling balloons. When a small child loses his balloon she impulsively spends her last few pennies to buy him a new one, and is rewarded with a fantastic gift.
Miss Cox is unmarried and childless after losing her lover in the Great War, independent but struggling on her small income, half-starving but still concerned with maintaining a respectable appearance. As a ‘tragic survival’ of the ‘cruel Victorian age that educated women for one profession only – that of marriage – she painfully filled her empty existence with foolish little tasks’.
The balloons represent another time, another world before all the disappointment, more vivid than this one, and more alive. They are beautiful, alien and sinister: ‘Ruddy orange, green clear as a piece of priceless jade, crocus-purple, crimson, blood-scarlet, lemon-yellow, and silvery mauve… like delicate living things they jostled and bobbed against each other…’
While women in the first decades of the twentieth century had far greater sexual freedom than their mothers and grandmothers, sex was never without risk. Premarital sex and pregnancy were still widely seen as scandalous, birth control was not widely available, and abortion was illegal. There was also a growing awareness (and fear) of lesbianism, and in 1921 a failed attempt to outlaw sex between women.
A fur boa
‘A man is pursued by a fur boa’ might sound like a ridiculous premise for a horror story, but in ‘Couching at the Door’, first published in 1933, D. K. Broster delivers some genuinely creepy moments along with a satisfying satire of bohemian male vanity and sexual entitlement. (If you’ve ever felt the urge to smack Aleister Crowley in the face there’s a strong chance you’ll enjoy this story.)
But darkness blooms beneath the humour as the story unfolds: the fur boa once belonged to a woman – casually dismissed as ‘a common streetwalker’ – subjected to unspecified sexual and occult acts so extreme that the protagonist’s ‘sin’ has taken physical form to pursue him for eternity.
Broster’s descriptions of the ‘fur rope’ which silently follows the protagonist at every turn are surprisingly unsettling, bestowing uncanny life on the inanimate object: ‘dark and shining as before, rippling with a gentle movement as it coiled itself neatly together… with only that tapering end a little raised, and, as it were, looking at him – only, eyeless and featureless, it could not look’.
Despite this supernatural persecution the protagonist offers no remorse, and looks for ways to weasel out of his fate, with horrifying results.
In ‘With Or Without Buttons’ by Mary Butts two sisters decide to teach their male neighbour a lesson about the limits of rationality by inventing a ghost. They use an old box of gloves they’ve found in the shared attic of their two cottages to suggest he is being haunted by the spirit of the eccentric spinster who lived there before, Miss Blacken: ‘a dirty old woman… nice about her hands’. It soon becomes clear that they have opened the door to a real and vicious spirit who begins to plague both the sisters and their neighbour.
The gloves come to embody the split existence endured by many Victorian women in which their bodies and desires were bound in stifling propriety. Miss Blacken’s kid-skin gloves (‘the kind worn by one’s aunts when one was a child’) are repeatedly described in bestial terms. One hangs ‘like a cluster of slugs… yellow-orange kid-skin, still and fat’. Their smell alternates between a ‘sweetness, like a ladylike animal’ and the ‘dead smell’ of ‘bad skins’. The theme of sensuality curdled and ‘gone bad’ is reinforced when they hear gossip about how Miss Blacken once lost her petticoat on the village green, and ‘the women had it there were holes in it, like a face’.
A chaise longue
Easily the most chilling of these stories is The Victorian Chaise-Longue (Marghanita Laski, 1953). In Laski’s novella, the protagonist Melanie is effectively ‘pulled back’ into the 1860s, into the life (and the body) of a woman known as Milly. The portal between the two women is a chaise longue that Melanie buys at an antique shop. There are some parallels between the women, not least that both have had premarital sex – a situation which bears some risk for Melanie, but which has dire consequences for Milly.
The chaise longue is described from the start using language evoking careless sensuality. Melanie first sees it ‘stacked upside-down on top of a pile of furniture, its clumsy legs threshing the air like an unclipped sheep that had tumbled on to its back, its rich wine-red wool-embroidered underside spread like a canopy over the marble-topped washstand’. The comparison to an ‘unclipped sheep’ hints at innocent and unconstrained nature, and the steps which may be taken to constrain it.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue is one of numerous time-slip stories written by women in the first half of the twentieth century, and there is an even greater number in which a modern woman experiences or bears witness to the oppression of a woman from an earlier period. The repetition of this theme suggests a traumatic inheritance and a deep anxiety about the permanence of the limited emancipation that women in Britain had achieved by the 1950s.
The unhomely homes and living objects in these stories inevitably bring to mind ‘the uncanny’ or the unheimlich as articulated by Freud in his 1919 essay, with which many of these writers were familiar. May Sinclair in particular paid homage to Freud in the title of her short story collection, Uncanny Stories (1923).
On the whole, supernatural fiction followed the ‘inward turn’ of modernist literature identified by Erich Kahler, and the focus shifted from external events to psychological experiences. As Virginia Woolf explained, modern ghosts like those of Henry James ‘have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts—the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed by the strange’.
This changing interpretation of the origin of ghosts – arising from within us rather than without – is mirrored by a broad shift away from the classic gothic tropes that Woolf lists to more ambiguous and bizarre manifestations. The ordinary is ‘ringed by the strange’, and horror bleeds into everyday settings and situations. While cosmic horror might be most strongly associated with the weird writing of this period, the intimate domestic horror explored by these writers is uniquely chilling.
I believe part of the reason many of these stories are so effective 100 years later is that the strange events unfold on a much more familiar stage (for most of us!) than in classic gothic tales of windswept moors and crumbling manor houses. ‘They do well in flats, and are villa-dwellers,’ Elizabeth Bowen wrote in her introduction to The Second Ghost Book in 1952. Modern ghosts or demons ‘know how to curdle electric light, chill off heating, or de-condition air. Long ago, they captured railway trains and installed themselves in liners’ luxury cabins; now telephones, motors, planes and radio wavelengths offer them self-expression’.
They also recognise a deep truth: that sometimes we cannot escape the castle because we carry it with us. We still live in a society shaped on many levels by Victorian patriarchy, from office hours to wedding ceremonies, and still measure ourselves and each other against their deeply-entrenched binary gender norms. Our ghosts might be bubbling on the stove rather than clanking chains, but as the poet H. D. observed, ‘we are all haunted houses’.
The Terraces of Night (Margery Lawrence, 1932, reprinted by Ash Tree Press 1999)
The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories (Marjorie Bowen, Wordsworth Editions, 2006)
Couching At The Door (D. K. Broster, Wordsworth Editions, 2007)
Uncanny Stories (May Sinclair, 1923, reprinted by Wordsworth Editions 2006)
The Victorian Chaise-Longue (Marghanita Laski, 1953, reprinted by Persephone Books 1999)
Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 (ed. Melissa Edmundson, Handheld Press, 2019)
Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women 1891-1937 (ed. Melissa Edmundson, Handheld Press, 2021)
The Second Ghost Book (ed. Cynthia Asquith, 1952)
The Third Ghost Book (ed. Cynthia Asquith, 1955)
The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (ed. Richard Dalby, 1990)
‘Henry James’s Ghost Stories’ (Virginia Woolf, 1921)
‘Professions for Women’ (Virginia Woolf, 1931)
‘The Uncanny’ (Sigmund Freud, 1919)
The Inward Turn of Narrative (Erich Kahler, 1973)
Tribute to Freud (H. D., 1970)
Queens of the Abyss (ed. Mike Ashley, British Library 2020)
What Did Miss Darrington See? An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction (ed. Jessica Amanda Salmonson, The Feminist Press, 1989)