This is another post where I talk about some of the stories in the collection Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers, 1852-1923, ed. Leslie S. Klinger and Lisa Morton (2020), as part of my Deal me In project.
12) The Lady with the Carnations, by Marie Corelli (1896)
- Originally published in Corelli’s collection Cameos (1896)
- My rating: ★★★
Our narrator feels drawn to a portrait while visiting the Louvre. It may or may not be a painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze; it may or may not be his La cruche cassée (1771). It features our eponymous lady with the carnations.
The painting seems to be calling our narrator (who may or may not be a woman), desperate to tell her story. Our narrator seems to be followed by “the strange sweet odour of the carnations”, and starts to encounter the lady everywhere: at another museum hall; at the Théâtre Français; then, at a friend’s chateau in Brittany – but no one else can see the mysterious lady.
The chateau our narrator is visiting is full of carnations and is rumoured to be haunted – “the garden was ablaze with these brilliant scented blossoms”. Needless to say, the lady ghost will eventually appear to our narrator once again. The lady may or may not be a figment of his/her imagination, but she is intent on telling her story and breaking free of it.
The ending is a bit of a letdown, but I loved the uncanny atmosphere and the (possibly sapphic?) eroticism in this story: the image of a person (possibly a woman?) haunted (and gradually possessed) by the ghost of another woman trapped inside a painting; the idea of a painting escaping its frame – firstly through scent, then through image, and finally through her voice and ability to tell a story (much like a ghost who breaks free from a dead body, or like an author who creates a tale out of a painting); the painting itself, the portrait of a violated girl, her virtue broken like a vessel full of flowers. Our narrator will be forever haunted by the scent of “that burning cluster of carnations clasped to her breast”.
13) The Were-Wolf, by Clemence Housman (1896)
- Originally published as a book in 1896
- My rating: ★★★★★
It’s dark and cold, it’s snowing and the wind is blowing. A family and its farmworkers are gathered inside a house, waiting for one of the twin brothers, Christian, to come back. Three times someone knocks at the door; three times a child’s voice is heard pleading to be let in; three times the dog Tyr howls restlessly, like a bad omen; three times Christian’s brother Sweyn opens the door and there is no one outside. “He saw the lonely expanse of snow, the clouds swagging low, and between the two the line of dark fir-trees bowing in the wind.”
Once again, there is a knock at the door; once again, a voice is heard; once again, the dog barks furiously. But, this time, when Sweyn opens the door, there is a woman outside, dressed in white fur, in a “half-masculine” way. She is tall, strong, mysterious, and beautiful. People call her White Fell. She is a huntress, and she is sniffing her prey. “I fear neither man nor beast; some few fear me”, she says. And Sweyn falls in love.
Much like his older brother, the toddler Rol is moved by “a child’s full confidence in the kindness of beauty”, and climbs up on White Fell’s knees. His hand is wounded, and its scar fascinates the mysterious woman. She kisses him. She is hungry.
Meanwhile, Christian is on his way home, and sees a track of a large wolf on the snow. And the wolf footprints are heading toward his house. As soon as he opens the door and spots the mysterious woman inside, Christian knows: she is a treacherous seductress; she is a female Were-Wolf.
But his brother does not believe him, thinks Christian is in love with White Fell, and mistakes his twin brother’s concerns for jealousy. Sweyn is a sceptic, and mocks Christian’s warning as an old woman’s superstition – something not only false, but also improper for a man. “Women are so easily scared”, pursued Sweyn, “and are ready to believe any folly without shadow of proof. Be a man, Christian, and fight this notion of a Were-Wolf by yourself.”
As it turns out, Sweyn is the one in folly, unable to spot “the dreadful Thing in their midst, (…) veiled from their knowledge by womanly beauty (…)”. Only the dog Tyr understands and shares Christian’s fears. “They knew, they only; and the man and the dumb dog had comfort of each other.”
White Fell brings discord into the family, and a ruffle ensues between the twin brothers. The Were-Wolf’s kiss marks someone for death. A child disappears, then an old woman. When White Fell kisses Sweyn, Christian (the name is self-explanatory enough) realizes he must sacrifice himself to save his brother: he must chase the Were-Wolf through the night, until the clock strikes midnight. “So they went running together, silent, towards the vast wastes of snow, where no living thing but they two moved under the stars of night.”
Christian and White Fell will run for hours, and blood will be drawn. At midnight, the woman will turn into a white wolf: “And before the final blank overtook his dying eyes, he saw that She gave place to It; he saw more, that Life gave place to Death – causelessly, incomprehensibly. For he did not presume that no holy water could be more holy, more potent to destroy an evil thing than the life-blood of a pure heart poured out for another in free willing devotion.”
I loved everything in this story, except for the heavy-handed Christian allegory – particularly in the end, where the author unnecessarily explains everything away, by having Christian assume the image of a crucified man with blood-stained hands – and, as if this weren’t enough to make us understand the allegory, then adds: “And he knew surely that to him Christian had been as Christ, and had suffered and died to save him from his sins.”
Despite its small but unforgivable narrative sin in the end, I was gripped by this story’s atmosphere. I guess I fell for White Fell.
14) Transmigration, by Dora Sigerson Shorter (1900)
- Originally published in Sigerson Shorter’s collection The Father Confessor, in 1900.
- My rating: ★★★★★
Our narrator, Bulger, has wasted his life in hopelessness and gambling, and lies now raving in his bed. He feels alone, deserted by God and man. His neighbour, Graham, hears his cries and enters the room to help him.
“”Despair not, my friend,” said he. “I will attend you; you are sick, and morbid from being left alone. Rouse yourself, and I will try and help.”
“Help me! no man can help me; I have helped no man. Unless you can give me another life to live with the knowledge I have of this.”
“My dear friend, God alone can do that,” his voice went on soothingly; “but you are truly sorry for your past?”
“Man,” I cried, “there are no such things as death-bed repentances. Death is ever beside us a yawning precipice; as we walk along its edge we know that it is there. We look at the sky above it, at the flowers by its brink, but we never look at it; we turn our heads away, but we know that it is there. We feel the chill of it in the heat of the sun. We see its shadow on the petals of the flowers. We know that a false step, a stumble, and we are gone, plunged into Eternity in a moment. We say that sometime this path must come to an end, as we but follow it to our extermination, and when we see before us the black doors of death, then will we lay aside our flowers, and still our songs and laughter. And Heaven will pity our prayers and sighs. Talk not to me of such repentances; I believe them not, nor you, nor any man.””
Bulger asks from Hell for a year of life, and his wish is granted. But it will be a life in Hell. “”You,” I said. Oh, the horror of it! “You must die, you with your life of purity behind you; death should have no fears for you. The gates of Heaven are open for you; give me your body, your life, and let me live.””
Graham lays his hand over Bulger, and the magic happens: our narrator’s soul enters into his neighbour’s body. “And then, I know not how it came to pass, whether my cry to Heaven or Hell had been answered, or, whatever it was, by some great effort of my will, but I stood by the bed looking down at my own sleeping body.”
Delighted to have been given new life, Bulger leaves the room and goes to his neighbour’s (now his) house. He is greeted by his neighbour’s (now his) child, who immediately feels something is amiss: “It not my papa!” And old lady (the child’s grandmother) dismisses this as folly, and Bulger (in Graham’s body) is given the task to take the child upstairs. Which he does, but not without getting angry at her, and dropping her from the stairs. “I did not mean it, Heaven knows I did not mean it, but my fingers lost their hold. I shook the little hands from their terrified grasp upon my coat. The hall echoed the screams of a child and a sickening thud on the flags beneath. A terrible laugh followed, a laugh that might have come from the lowest pits of Hell. Was it I who uttered it?”
Bulger’s soul possessed Graham’s body, but is he in turn also possessed – by the devil? His plea for life might have well been a Faustian bargain. “Had a devil entered into the body of Gilbert Graham during the time my spirit was passing from my own to it—a devil who, making me work its will, thus laughed in its hideous triumph. (…) I had launched my new life, and the waters that bore it were red human blood; but who or what was the dread pilot that guided it?”
Was Bulger evil, or has the eponymous transmigration made him so? He will be locked in this question as in Hell. “Life preys upon that which is weaker than itself, not that which is its equal”. He will ruin a man’s family, and then another. Murder will ensue, and then a new transmigration of souls – this time, back to his own body, still sick in bed.
An innocent man will be tried and hanged, and our narrator will find no forgiveness and no release. “Up and down the streets I wandered till dawn grew gray, but no dawn arose in my heart, only black night for ever.”
This is a pitch-perfect, claustrophobic read. My favourite story in this collection so far. Where does evil comes from? Together with Bulger, we are forever trapped in this question, forever running in circles, running for dear life.
15) The Wind in the Rose-Bush, by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (1902)
- Originally published in Everybody’s Magazine, in February 1902, and later in Wilkins Freeman’s collection The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1903)
- My rating: ★★★★★
Our girl is Rebecca Flint, a spinster, and she has travelled all the way to a remote village to take her niece Agnes home. Agnes’ mother, Grace (Rebecca’s sister), died a while back, and her father, John Dent, soon remarried. Now that John is dead, Miss Flint wants her niece to live with her, and not with John’s second wife (and now widow), Emeline Dent.
As soon as Rebecca arrives at Mrs. Dent’s house, she notices that something is amiss. The widow is cold and rather unpleasant. Emeline seems not to welcome Miss Flint’s visit, and tells her that Agnes is out with a friend.
Stranger things start to happen. It’s late in the season, but one rose still blooms in the porch, and Mrs. Dent is adamant that it shall never be touched. No wind is blowing, but the rose starts to move. Rebecca sees a shadow pass the window and mistakes it for her niece, but there is no one outside. Later, she hears the sound of a girl’s laughter under her window, but nobody is there. Agnes never comes back.
Day after day, Mrs. Dent comes up with a new excuse for Agnes’ absence. The girl is with a friend, she has gone to a party, she has travelled. Rebecca sees her niece’s shadow pass the window once more, then opens the door, and a wind blows inside – but there is no one outside. The room suddenly smells strongly of roses.
Mrs. Dent sees nothing, feels nothing, dismisses everything as nonsense. “As she spoke, the beautiful deep-rose colour suffused her face, her blue eyes met her visitor’s with the opaqueness of turquoise—with a revelation of blue, but a concealment of all behind.”
One night, Rebecca hears a song played on the piano, but there is no one there. Later, she comes up to her room to find Agnes’ nightgown laid out on her bed, its sleeves folded, and a small red rose between them. But outside, the solitary rose still bloomed in the bush, untouched.
Mrs. Dent is a stepmother, but is she evil? Is she a witch? She seems to fear the manifestations of an invisible presence. Is this house haunted? Will we ever find Agnes? It seems her rose will go on blooming forever.
That’s all for now, folks. I will be writing about the remaining stories in this collection in a future post.
About the book
- Pegasus Books, 2020, 384 p.Goodreads
- Project: Deal Me In
(Review to be continued…)