Women's Weird 2:
More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937
ed. Melissa Edmundson
Ally Wilkes reviews Women’s Weird 2, the second collection of strange stories by women 1891-1937, from Handheld Press...
Women’s Weird from Handheld Press was a delight: an impressively lovely-looking volume collecting British and American writers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This second volume expands its geographical net: as well as Britain, there are authors from Ireland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and the settings include a colonial Indian hill-station and the Australian Bush. Melissa Edmundson provides an interesting introduction, which focuses on the interaction of the Weird with a developing modernity: ‘our ghosts change as we change; like us, they must adapt, and in so doing, reflect modern sensibilities and complexities.’
The stories presented are very varied, and I enjoyed all except one – a common issue with anthologies: no editor is ever going to please everyone! There isn’t space or time to discuss all thirteen, but I’ll pick out a few which I thought were particularly noteworthy, and illustrative of the trends which Edmundson highlights, quoting from Dorothy Scarborough’s 1917 ‘The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction’: ‘Modern ghosts are… more democratic than of old, and have more of a diversity of interests.’
‘A Twin-Identity’ by Edith Stewart Drewery sits at the intersection of supernatural fiction and noir: our narrator, a Parisian police-agent, is a woman ‘tall but very slightly made, with a face which lends itself well to masculine disguise’, who observes to the avid listeners sharing her railway carriage that she possesses ‘a woman’s wits and a man’s courage’. She’s a truly modern woman for 1891, and this story can be read with a feminist eye: the tale she relates is one of derring-do, pursuing a wife-murdering fugitive across the Channel using a variety of disguises, a loaded revolver, and her considerable skills in language, deduction and gambling. It reads like a classic noir, and Edmundson also highlights the way in which crime and mystery are linked to the Weird, a genre-blending tendency often overlooked in an attempt to pigeonhole female writers into a ‘female Gothic’. The more grounded adventure is interrupted by the appearance of a classic ‘woman in black’ – or is it? There’s something more than your typical pointing/beckoning ghost at work, and I wonder whether I caught a queer subtext to the ending, with the sister of the murdered woman providing the reason for the agent’s present return to Britain, as she ‘likes to have her cherie Marie Lacroix’ with her on Christmas Eve.
‘A Dreamer’ by Barbara Baynton is one of those stories which might not have made it into a collection less concerned with a broad range of the Weird. A particularly short tale, it has no supernatural elements in it at all, but absolutely drips with dread and tension. The protagonist is never named – just a woman alighting from a train at a small town in the Australian Bush, finding that no-one is waiting for her, and that she must make her lonely way on foot through the forest and across the creek. To my mind, it’s some of the very best writing in the collection, making the landscape and elements (very familiar to the author from childhood) feel effortlessly animate and hostile.
‘The Hall Bedroom’ by Mary E Wilkins Freeman is perhaps one of the closest stories in this volume to the classic fiction we associate with the Weird Tales authors of the 1920s-1940s, and Freeman was – unusually amongst these writers – critically acclaimed in her time. I really enjoyed the tangible sense of the economic precarity of her two narrators (a boarding-house landlady and one of her tenants). Both are down on their luck, and the descriptions of the boarding-house and titular hall bedroom were utterly vivid. I felt convinced I could understand exactly what sort of transient and rather cramped accommodation was being depicted – not a million miles away from the horrors of London’s present-day housing market, with its ‘studio flats’ (room with microwave in the corner) and ‘mezzanine levels’ (a shelf with a mattress). The man’s voice is full of gloom and resignation: ‘I have lost in everything – I have lost in love, I have lost in money, I have lost in the struggle for preferment, I have lost in health and strength… I am now settled down in a hall bedroom to live upon my small income… until Providence shall take me out of my hall bedroom.’ But at night the bedroom has the uncanny elongation and weird geographies of Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and possesses a beautiful – yet horrible, possibly fatal – allure. There’s a mathematical horror to the dimensions behind the room, making Freeman’s tale (at least in my mind) a science fiction one.
The title of ‘creepiest story in the book’ must go to ‘The Red Bungalow’ by Bithia Mary Croker, written in 1919 during the British occupation of India. The author was Irish, she and her husband stationed in Madras; the story exemplifies the tension and anxieties underpinning colonial fiction, and the growing discomfort of authors with the occupation (which is acknowledged to have been by way of genocide, famine and other atrocities). The narrator of ‘The Red Bungalow’ is a well-off British officer’s wife, watching her newly arrived friend Netta house-hunting in their hill-station; Netta comes to insist on a particular bungalow which has been unoccupied for a long time. There’s a real sense of the privilege and blitheness of these colonists, with their extravagant decorating ideas, armies of servants and gatherings of the ‘station ladies’. The story deliciously juxtaposes this gilded life with the growing awareness that there’s something truly bad in the red bungalow: the author employs the now-familiar ‘cursed/appropriated land’ trope, and servants refuse to stay there, referring only to ‘It’ or ‘the Thing’ – brr! The climax is utterly cinematic and horrifying; Croker holds back as much as she shows.
‘Outside the House’ by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor is my final pick; a Weird tale which – with its origin story about greed and wealth leading to a truly malevolent haunting by the ‘underclass’ – sits alongside ‘The Red Bungalow’ in demonstrating the new concerns of fiction writers of this period. It makes great use of its post-WW1 setting: the narrator is to marry the nurse who helped him recover from injuries in France, but first must convalesce at her (very unusual) family home. She says, almost off-hand: ‘I was wondering how you will feel at my home…’ and gives him the pep talk – or warning? – that ‘nothing can really do you any harm.’ When he arrives, he finds a beautiful scene of an upper-class family picnicking on a curious sunken lawn. Although war talk haunts the story, he’s initially at ease, until the family tell him ‘it’s getting late… for the garden’ and, one by one, go inside. The sunken lawn exerts a horrible pressure or gravitational pull from which the narrator barely escapes. He’s intrigued. The horror and tension in the story come from that fascinated curiosity: we know he’s going to open a door or window onto that lawn and see what’s ‘Outside the House’ after 5pm, and we also know it’s going to be abominable. Kyffin-Taylor uses War iconography to conjure up a nightmarish No-Mans-Land of smoke, fire, blackened bodies, skeletons, and human greed. The sunken lawn is built on another kind of cursed or appropriated land; this feels like an utterly modern story.
Edmundson writes of this period that the ghosts in these stories ‘have become more complex and carry more cultural baggage. For writers who had witnessed world war, the devastating effects of imperialism, first-wave feminism, and economic depression, the supernatural story could never be the same.’ It’s to be celebrated: as she acknowledges, female writing of this time (or of the Gothic/Weird) is sometimes assumed to be limited to the traditional supernatural ghost of the English stately home. This book showcases the variety of writers, settings and stories – many of which deal with themes which remain relevant today. If one is on the cards, then I’m very much looking forward to Women’s Weird 3!
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