The whisper of distrust soon started

Hi, folks!

leslie klinger lisa mortonThis is another post where I 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), as part of my Deal me In project.

For more about the project & my previous posts on it, go here: Reading Plans | Weeks 1 | 2 | 3| 4 – 7 | 8 – 11 (you are here)

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8) Nut Bush Farm, by Charlotte Riddell (1882)

  • Originally published in Riddell’s collection Weird Stories (1882)
  • My rating: ★★★

Rumour has it that the farm our narrator, Jack, has just leased is haunted by the last tenant’s ghost. Jack dismisses the whole thing as an “old woman’s story”: to him, only women and members of the lower classes are irrational and impressionable enough to be affected by such rumours.

The farm’s owner, Miss Gostock, has, in his eyes, something otherworldly about her: she drinks brandy, wipes her mouth with her hand, curses, dresses like a man, does not shy away from manual labour and hard work – and, sin of sins, she has the economic power of a man. In Jack’s perplexed eyes, Miss Gostock is a monster: “Like one in a dream I sat and watched Miss Gostock while she wrote. Nothing about the transaction seemed to me real. The farm itself resembled nothing I had ever before seen with my waking eyes, and Miss Gostock appeared to me but as some monstrous figure in a story of giants and hobgoblins. The man’s coat, the woman’s skirt, the hobnailed shoes, the grisly hair, the old straw hat, the bare, unfurnished room, the bright sunshine outside, all struck me as mere accessories in a play – as nothing which had any hold on the outside, everyday world.”

While Miss Gostock’s power is portrayed as spectral, the previous tenant’s ghost is very much real. What follows is Jack’s encounter with it on the farm’s land, as he suspects Miss Gostock of murdering her last tenant. By this point, we know that Jack is not an entirely reliable narrator, and that the thing that haunts him the most might not even be the ghost itself: Miss Gostock’s unconventionality seems to breach his sense of normality much more strongly. Needless to say, all of his suspicions about women in the story will prove to be wrong.

The plot is a bit of a mess, turning from ghost to detective story, dragging in the middle and then rushing to the end. I find thinking about it more enjoyable than actually reading it. Jack will firstly have to lose his sense of reality, to find the truth of the matter that lies beneath what he considered natural: the realities of family abuse, female economic dependency, moral corruption, and prejudice.

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9) The Gray Man, by Sarah Orne Jewett (1886)

  • Originally published in Jewett’s collection A White Heron and Other Stories (1886)
  • My rating: ★★★★

As the story opens, we are on a derelict farm on a remote location. It is cold and dark, and no one lives there anymore. Some say the farm is haunted and that “some uncanny existence possessed the lonely place”; others say there is a treasure buried in the land. Its owner is long dead, and nature has taken over the place.

One day, a stranger appears in town and takes up residence in the abandoned farm. No one knows where he comes from, nor why he is there. He has “an unusual pallor” and “a grayish look” – our eponymous Gray Man. “The whisper of distrust soon started”. Some villagers believe he must be an escaped criminal, a fugitive from justice, and lock their doors to the Gray Man.

Slowly, however, he tries to win them over. The Gray Man is friendly and kind. He offers them “reasonable words of advice”, and some think he possesses some kind of supernatural wisdom and that “his horizon was wider than their own”. He leads a simple life, works on his land, and is even able to tame wild birds.

But a “strange foreboding” seems to follow him around. Hunters stayed at his farm once and said they saw “an empty chair glided silently toward him”. The Gray Man never sleeps. The Gray Man never smiles. The Gray Man is an outcast.

At the outbreak of war, he leaves the same way he appeared: suddenly, and without explanation nor warning. A boy, wounded in a battle, is said to have seen “the gray man riding by on a tall horse”: “Death himself rode by in the gray man’s likeness”.

I liked the story’s subdued power and increasingly uncanny atmosphere, as well as its lack of conclusion. Maybe the Gray Man was Death in disguise, maybe this is just a boy’s fancy: it doesn’t matter. Both have something to teach, both are shunned, and both must be, someday, welcomed home.

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10) In a Far-Off World, by Olive Schreiner (1890)

  • Originally published in Schreiner’s collection Dreams (1890)
  • My rating: ★

In a distant world in a distant star, things are different. A man and a woman walk and work side by side and are friends. One night, the woman goes to the wood where one’s wishes are granted. She kneels down, uncovers her breast and wounds with a sharp stone. As her blood drips on it, a voice asks her what did she seek. The woman makes her wish: she wishes that the man shall have that which is best for him.

Her prayer is answered. The woman leaves the woods and goes to the beach. A boat is sliding out to the sea, carrying the man away from her. “With my blood I bought the best of all gifts for him”, she cries, “I have come to bring it him! He is going from me!” The voice then whispers that the best of all gifts is that he might leave the woman. And the gift was granted. The woman accepts her fate and feels contented. The end.

This could not be more depressive, but it surely could have been better written. As it is, the story fails in all fronts it has tried to tackle: its images, its politics, its sentimentality, and its moral lesson would have benefited from a degree of shade. Plus, no reader appreciates being treated as an idiot who needs everything spelled out.

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11) The Giant Wistaria, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1891)

  • Originally published in The New England Magazine, in June 1891.
  • My rating: ★★★★

When the story starts, we are somewhere in the 1700s in the USA, in a house where an English family have just planted a wistaria vine. But this is no idyllic scenario: the parents wish the boat they had taken had sunk. Their daughter has just had a child out of wedlock, and they prefer that she had drowned, to spare them the shame. The girl is now kept locked in her room, begging for her baby, whom is being kept away from her. The family plans to leave the baby behind, move back to England, and marry their daughter away to a cousin, as swiftly as possible, to escape public scandal.

The story then jumps to somewhere in the late 1800s, and two young couples have rented the same house for a holiday. The house is now a shadow of its former self – abandoned, decrepit, taken over by a giant wistaria vine that has run wild. The group fancies the house is haunted, and they are not far from the truth.

On their first night, some of them share a dream, where the ghost of a woman carries a mysterious bundle. From the elements in their dreams, they are led to the cellar. The corpse of a new-born baby will be pulled up from a well; shortly after, the bones of a woman will be found beneath the floor on the porch, wrapped in the wistaria’s roots.

Here we have a classic tale of a haunted house – except for the fact that the ghost is very much grounded in reality. I love the atmosphere in this story, as well as the juxtaposition of past and present. The two storylines are seamlessly intertwined, joined by the wistaria itself. I wonder whether the choice of plant (wistaria/ wisteria) was meant as a play on the word hysteria – as if the story were uncovering its hidden roots.

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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.


Allegory of Winter, 1948 by Remedios Varo
Allegory of Winter, 1948 by Remedios Varo


About the book

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

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