These very walls shall remember

Hi, folks!

I fell well behind on Deal me In, and, in this post, I will try to catch up and talk about some of the stories in the collection Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Ground-breaking Female Writers, 1852-1923, ed. Leslie S. Klinger and Lisa Morton (2020).

leslie klinger lisa mortonI am no longer shuffling the cards, as I noticed I prefer to read short story collections back-to-back. This collection is ordered chronologically, and starts with The Old Nurse’s Story, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1852). I already wrote about here, so I am not counting it as part of my project.

For more about the Deal me In project & my previous posts on it, go here: Reading Plans | Weeks 1 | 2 | 3| 4 – 7 (you are here)

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4) The Moonstone Mass, by Harriet Prescott Spofford (1868)
  • Originally published in Harpers Magazine, October 1868
  • Also collected in The Moonstone Mass and Others (2000)
  • My rating: ★★★★

The story is told in an extended monologue, where, moved by the perspective of earning a reward promised by his wealthy uncle, our nameless narrator leaves his fiancée Eleanor and joins an Arctic expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Our protagonist is initially moved by greed rather than a true sense of adventure, but, after months aboard a ship, he undergoes a gradual sea change: “I had but one thought, one ambition, one desire in those days—the discovery of the clear seas and open passage.

The ship eventually gets “wedged in the ice”, and out narrator joins a search party to look for an escape route westward. However, the wind and the current carry the ice on which the group was travelling, and all but the protagonist drown in the sea.

Latched onto a piece of ice, our narrator is driven to an ice cave, where he sees and feels mesmerized by the eponymous moonstone mass. When he tries to snatch it, the current carries him away, far beyond the magnetic north pole, and he loses conscience. Sometime later – it could be hours, days, or months, he doesn’t know -, our protagonist is found unconscious by a group of whalers in the North Pacific Sea. He claims to have traversed the Northwest Passage, afloat on ice, but everyone thinks he is raving. No one believe his Arctic adventure tale. Is he mad? Has he dreamt about the moonstone? Does it exist? Is it some kind of magic gem? Did it protect our protagonist, saving him from death and guiding him through the passage? How reliable is our narrator?

Maybe the gem has evil powers: our protagonist was forever changed by it, and still dreams of going back to snatch his beloved moonstone. He has fallen from grace, tempted by precisely that which he can never have. The gem will forever be his white whale, and his sea journey is some kind of odd rite of passage: downfall and coup de grâce, intertwined: “—it was a mass of moonstone! With these eyes I saw it, with these hands I touched it, with this heart I longed for it, with this will I mean to have it yet!” 

“The Moonstone Mass” (1868) is frequently compared to Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1864), and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), but its atmosphere reminded me more strongly of Spofford’s poem “The Story of the Iceberg”, collected in the book In Titian’s Garden and Other Poems (1897). In the poem, we have the story of an iceberg that breaks loose from “the mother glacier” by “a band of sunbeams” in early spring, and is carried away in a journey “down to equatorial seas”. Unaware that the sun is destroying him, the floating iceberg crashes “his way through sinking ships”, in “jewelled splendor”, like “some vast fleet in majesty”. When he finally realizes that his glory will cost him his existence, it is too late: the iceberg is already “dissolving in a fervent heat”, regretting his journey, and longing to go back to his “dim, dark home”. The poem ends with the iceberg’s obliteration: “And, but a hulk of crumbling ice, / Within the deep he found his grave, / Stranded upon a hidden key, / And washed to nothing by a wave.”

Both in the poem and in the story, we have a tale of hubris, loneliness, and existential dread, as well as a protagonist is lured into a death trap by some kind of “jewelled splendor”. Both in the poem and in the story, the protagonist seems possessed by something he cannot see, as if drawn to its magnetic pull. In both, he undergoes some kind of transformation: “I was to learn”, says the narrator in the story, “that death and stillness have no kingdom on this globe, and that even in the extremest bitterness of cold and ice perpetual interchange and motion is taking place.”

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5) Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy’s Curse, by Louisa May Alcott (1869)
  • Originally published in Frank Leslie’s The New World, in 1869, under the initials L.M.A., and rediscovered in 1998
  • My rating: ★★★

Our protagonist Paul Forsyth has returned from an expedition to Egypt with his colleague Professor Niles, and decides to show his fiancée Evelyn a mysterious box of red seeds he brought home from the journey. Little he knows that the seeds will haunt both of them forever.

We learn that Forsyth and Niles almost perished inside a pyramid during the expedition. Both are lost, Niles has broken his leg, and they have to find a way to signal their guide Jumal. Luckily, they happen to have a mummy with them (yes, you’ve read that correctly), and decide to desecrate the “little brown chrysalis”, burn its wooden coffin, and unroll the mummy’s wrappings to add to the fire.

Naturally, the mummy is not pleased. As it turns out, the two men are playing with fire: they are handling the corpse of a sorceress who had vowed to curse anyone who dared to disturb her grave. They throw the mummy in the fire, but decide to keep a box of seeds they found clasped in her hands. They will fall unconscious from the smoke, but Jumal will rescue them and they will travel back home.

The box, however, will prove to be a deadly souvenir. Eventually, curiosity will lead our Eve(lyn) to plant one of the seeds. She will grow gradually frailer, but the seed will bloom into an odd flower, which she decides to wear pinned to her breast during her wedding. To make matters worse, Niles has also planted a seed of his own. One of them will die, the other will become forever mad. Forsyth will be left with the painful memory of both.

I can never resist a female mummy intent on exacting revenge on men, but what I liked the most about the story was its atmosphere, its sense of doom – and the uncanny image of a splendid but deadly flower blooming, pinned to a girl’s breast like a lover, and gradually draining her like a vampire.

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6) What Was the Matter?, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1869)
  • Originally published in Phelps’ collection Men, Women, and Ghosts (1869).
  • My rating: ★

Once the narrator’s father dies when she is still a child, her mother calls on her sister Alice to live with them. Aunt Alice leaves her home, but never arrives. No one knows what happened to her – and not knowing turns out to be more painful than the idea that she might me dead.

Everything changes when an orphaned girl comes to their house to work as a servant. She is docile but plagued by regular headaches that lead her into a trance, after which she remembers nothing. As it turns out, these headaches can come in handy for her employers: whenever the servant girl has them, she is able to see an object lost in the snow; tell when robbers are trying to break in; find another object dropped several miles away; and, finally, the girl is able not only see the image of Alice, who seems to be alive, but also to give clues as to her whereabouts.

However, clairvoyance will come with a price, and happiness will be fleeting. Finis. If this story sounds bland and unremarkable, it’s because it is.

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7) An Itinerant House, Emma Frances Dawson (1878)
  • Originally published in The Argonaut, in 1878, and collected in her book An Itinerant House and Other Stories (1897)
  • My rating: ★★★★

As the story starts, we are among a group of bohemians inside a boarding house, and the housekeeper, Felipa, has just discovered that her employer, Mr. Anson, has a wife. Maybe Felipa, a Mexican woman, has been his lover, maybe not – nothing is explained. But she calls Anson a coward and drops dead.

Our narrator is one of the boarders. His friends Volz, a musician, and Dering, a medical student, have the brilliant idea of… bringing Felipa back to life. “Let her alone! … Better dead than alive!”, pleads the narrator, who is promptly scolded by Volz: “… the nerve which hears is last to die. She may know all we say.”

With a combination of (so-called) medical knowledge, violin playing (to arouse her “gypsy blood”), and magnetism, the group succeeds in resurrecting the poor girl. To their dismay, the group is met with outrage rather than gratitude: forced to return to her body, Felipa is not pleased, and “her lips formed one word: “Idiots!”’

She then curses them: “‘Better dead than alive!’ True. You knew I would be glad to die. What right had you to bring me back? God’s curses on you! I was dead. Then came agony. I heard your voices. I thought we were all in hell. Then I found how by your evil cunning I was to be forced to live. It was like an awful nightmare. I shall not forget you, nor you me. These very walls shall remember— here, where I have been so tortured no one shall have peace!”

The house they are in is forever cursed. And, yes, it is an itinerant house: as one of the then popular prefabricated steel houses imported to California at the turn of the century, it moves from place to place. And so does Felipa’s curse, moving around with the house. People die in mysterious circumstances: a man goes mad; another has strange visions and drops dead. People who happen to lodge in the very room where Felipa was brought back to life fall prey to a strange illness. The main characters find themselves repeatedly but unknowingly returning to the cursed house, as if drawn to its magnetic pull.

I like the wild idea behind the story rather than its execution – clunky dialogues between pretentious characters who quote entire lines from obscure poetry are not usually my thing. However, if I close my eyes to the story’s pretentious tone, I love what I find behind it: rather than a dead person, the haunting force in the story is a woman who is very much alive; if anything, the ghost in the story is the house itself, moving randomly around San Francisco, as if it were chasing (or playing cat and mouse with) the main characters. Come to think of it, the odd prose only adds to the strangeness of the story: it reads like a decadent, opium-infused nightmare.

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That’s all for now, folks. I will be writing about the remaining stories in this collection in a future post.

Yours truly,

J.


Interior (The Rape), by Edgar Degas, 1868-1869
Interior (The Rape), by Edgar Degas, 1868-1869

About the book

  • Pegasus Books, 2020, 384 p. Goodreads
  • Project: Deal Me In
  • (Review to be continued…)

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