Strange Stories by Women 1890-1940
ed. Melissa Edmundson
Sarah Johnson reviews Women’s Weird, a collection of strange stories by women 1890-1940, from Handheld Press...
Handheld Press publishes a range of fiction and non-fiction titles, from classics to modern literature, in addition to biographies and letters. As an independent publisher, Handheld’s catalogue brings to light authors whose work is currently neglected but worthy of exposure. Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women 1890-1940 is a short story anthology edited by Melissa Edmundson, with notes by Kate Macdonald. Edmundson’s introduction to the collection is informative and supports the short stories that follow. Discussing topics such as ‘Defining Weird Fiction’, Edmundson is scholarly and analytical, while remaining accessible. The notes supplied by Macdonald are equally as useful, providing historical and biographical detail; I enjoyed reading the Introduction and Notes almost as much as the stories themselves. The 13 short stories published here are engaging and significant examples of female authors whose work is forgotten but deserving of rediscovery.
I’ve read many short story anthologies, beginning with the Pan Books of Horror Stories at possibly too young an age; I’ve read some of the short stories in Women’s Weird elsewhere. For instance, ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ by Margery Lawrence is an old favourite of mine, but not one I had thought of as Weird fiction. This is where Edmundson’s Introduction is so useful, as I reassessed the story in light of her comments. Weird fiction is a broad genre, but when thought of as ‘something more than a traditional ghost story’, the inclusion of ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ makes perfect sense. The ghost which haunts the saucepan is not that of a dead person, and a sense of dread pervades the narrative. The saucepan is a mundane domestic item one moment, and the next embodies the uncanny, ‘singing to itself, secretly and abominably…chortling to itself in a disgusting sort of hidden way’ as the protagonist describes. The description is particularly effective in communicating how – with the right atmosphere – the border between the natural and supernatural is breached and one bleeds into the other.
There are numerous stories I haven’t encountered before, and each tells a tale which goes beyond the traditional ghost story and reminds readers of ‘the strangeness of the world’, as Edmundson quotes from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I particularly enjoyed those which featured symbols of domesticity evolving from the ordinary to extraordinary. In ‘The Weird of the Walfords’ by Louisa Baldwin, the ‘old carved oak four-post family bedstead’ represents to Humphrey Walford not three hundred years of family history to be cherished, but the endless cycle of birth, suffering and death spanning human existence. The bed haunts him, his young wife, and their child, gradually encroaching on their family life, which is full of unspoken tensions. Humphrey Walford refers to Grace Walford as ‘his little wife’ and ‘my child’, describing her as:
‘only eighteen years old, fair and fresh as an unfolding flower, and full of the high spirits and delight of life suited to her age and her free and simple bringing up.’
The impression is of a marriage of unequals, with Grace Walford at a constant disadvantage – an inequality which the bed exploits. ‘The Weird of the Walfords’ explores a woman’s plight within oppressive social institutions, a theme present throughout the collection.
Women appear in Women’s Weird as wives, sisters, lovers, and street-walkers. Sometimes they are victims of the supernatural, sometimes a patriarchal society, and occasionally they harness the unseen for their own ends. ‘With and Without Buttons’ by Mary Butts features two sisters who unintentionally conjure a haunting to prove a point to their neighbour. The sisters do not consciously invoke unseen powers, but the suggestion is that – with their combined will – they cause a ripple in the cosmos. These are powerful women even if they do not know it, a sleeping power Butts depicts as follows:
‘With every door and every window open, the old house was no more than a frame, a set of screens to display night, midsummer, perfume, the threaded stillness, the stars strung together, their spears glancing, penetrating an earth breathing silently, a female power asleep.’
Inevitably the sisters are called witches, as their power manifests itself in the form of vengeful gloves: with and without buttons. Just as domestic objects attain symbolic meaning, so do items of women’s clothing. In ‘Couching at the Door’ by D K Broster, poet Augustine Marchant participates in unnamed rituals with a street-walker and is forever after persecuted by a woman’s feather boa. I confess I enjoyed reading about the evolving powers of the sisters in ‘With and Without Buttons’, as well as the persecution of Augustine Marchant, a hypocrite and fraud.
In Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women 1890-1940, editor Lisa Edmundson achieves her stated aim to ‘spotlight women’s involvement in Weird fiction’. The collection is varied and presents a range of weird tales varying in style and content. Some of the stories might be familiar, but, as I found, when introduced in a different light can be enjoyed from another perspective. After reading and enjoying this anthology, I am now curious as to what Women’s Weird 2 holds.
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