They could not face death, quiet, enthroned

Hi, folks!

leslie klinger lisa mortonThis is the final 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.

For more about the project & my previous posts on it, go here: Reading Plans | Stories 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 – 7 | 8 – 11 | 12 – 15 | 16-23 (you are here)

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16) The Banshee’s Halloween, by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh (1903)
  • Originally published in McClure’s Magazine, in May 1903.
  • My rating: ★★★

It’s Halloween, the ghosts are on the loose, and our hero Darby is on a mission to bring tea to an ailing woman from the village. We are somewhere in Ireland. “Halloween night, to all unhappy ghosts, is about the same as St. Patrick’s Day is to you or to me – ‘tis great holiday in every churchyard”.

Darby must cross the dark, scary woods, so he is understandably afraid that the ghosts must be after him. The contrast between what goes on in his mind and what is really happening outside is the joy of this story – as well as the dialect in which it is written (tea is spelled as tay, for example).

When he arrives at the house, our hero overhears a conversation where the woman fears that she will die and her husband will soon fall in love and marry another one. There is no such thing as everlasting love. Or is there?

Darby will eventually come face to face with a (this time very much real) banshee, who will lose her magical comb and then become very keen on negotiating with our hero to be able to retrieve it. Darby will be granted three wishes, and at least one of those will be hilarious. Our hero knows he has nothing to fear now: the banshee will keep her promise, she is “a woman of your worrud.

This story was a fun ride.

*

17) In the Closed Room, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1904)
  • Originally published as a book in 1904
  • My rating: ★★★★★

Judith lives with her parents in an airless room by the train tracks. They are hardworking but poor, and they are struggling. To make matters more complicated, Judith is not like the other children. If she were an elf, everything would make sense, I would understand her better, everyone would. Maybe she is an elf in disguise. Let’s pretend that she is.

She is also a frail, quiet, solitary child. She plays by herself in a corner. Her parents do not really get her, but they try. They do. But it is as if they spoke different languages, there is no real intimacy between them, they have no clue about what goes on in their child’s mind. “Seems sometimes as if somehow she couldn’t be mine”, muses her mother. And the child reminds her of Aunt Hester.

Odd, elf-like, and now dead – Aunt Hester. Judith never met her, but she knows her. “She knew her Aunt Hester as her mother did not”. Judith meets her Aunt in her dreams. “’But I don’t fall asleep when I see Aunt Hester’, says she, ‘I fall awake’”.

One they, the family gets the opportunity to get out of their airless room and spend a time in the countryside, house sitting for a rich family who left their mansion for unclear reasons. Judith and her parents are allowed to live in the big house for the month, and circulate freely – except for one room, which is kept locked.

But Judith wants so much to go into the closed room. And she can do it – in her mind. Inside, she will find the girl of her dreams. They will play together, but will never touch each other; they will talk and talk, but no words will ever be uttered between them. Maybe the girl is dead. Maybe she is a product of Judith’s imagination. Maybe she is using Judith to take a message across. Maybe she knows Aunt Hester, too.

Is this spooky enough, or do you need more? Maybe more people will die. But is death really – death? This is a gem of a story.

*

18) The Dream Baby, by Olivia Howard Dunbar (1904)
  • Originally published in Harper’s Bazar in 1904
  • My rating: ★★★★★

Miss Agatha and Miss Emily are about to retire from teaching. They are spinsters, but they are also a couple. They have lived together for so long, that everyone takes them not as individuals, but as an entity: “Miss-Holt-and-Miss-Vanderkoep.

They are about to finally have the time of their lives, but leisure only exposes a huge blank: Emily misses children, Agatha misses working.

One day, Agatha dreams that Emily has had a baby. She has always ardently wanted so, and Agatha can finally fulfil her friend’s deepest wish: if not in real life, she can at least give Emily a baby… in dreams. A dream baby.

The baby develops in Agatha’s dreams as if it were a real child. They give him presents; they make him a birthday party. But only in Agatha’s dreams. Emily can never have enough of her baby, but regrets never being able to hold him in real life, nor even to dream with him.

The baby grows, gives his first steps, then utters his first words. And, eventually, he will die. Whose fault will it be? Emily will decide to buy the flowers herself. And this will not be the beginning of a story, but the end of more than one.

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19) The Third Drug, by Edith Nesbit (1908, under the pen name E. Bland)
  • Originally published in the Strand Magazine, in February 1908, under Nesbit’s married name E. Bland.
  • My rating: ★★★★

We are in Paris. Roger Wroxham is heart-sick and despondent, and decides to leave his room one night to roam through the city. Bad luck: while walking along a dark street, he is chased by a gang, and the bandits are armed with a knife. They want money, and they attack him.

Roger is bleeding, but he manages to flee and to sneak inside an open door. And the door belongs to a medical doctor – or so it seems. He invites Roger inside and treats his wound. But then things start to get stranger and stranger. Roger is trapped.

I have told you”, said the doctor, impatiently; “it is in the third drug that life — splendid, superhuman life—is found. I have tried it on animals. Always they became perfect, all that an animal should be. And more, too—much more. They were too perfect, too near humanity. They looked at me with human eyes. I could not let them live. Such animals it is not necessary to embalm”.

As it turns out, the doctor is actually an embalming specialist who is experimenting on live humans to look for the “secret of life”. And he has found it – “in death”. Being chased by a gang was bad enough, but it is not every day that one gets to be treated by a mad scientist known among his peers as “The Prince of Vivisectors”. Understandably, Roger is not pleased.

And late at night, when heart and brain had been stretched almost to the point where both break and let in the sea of madness, someone came.”

This story was as creepy as it gets.

They could kill a living man, but they could not face death, quiet, enthroned”.

*

20) The Pocket-Hunter’s Story, by Mary Austin (1909)
  • Originally published in Austin’s collection Lost Borders (1909)
  • My rating: ★★★

Set in California among prospectors and settlers, this is a story about a revenge that plays itself out from beyond the grave. The narrator is recounting us a story she heard from a man referred to as the eponymous Pocket-Hunter.

Mac and Creelman are sworn enemies. Their relationship started to go sour after a dispute over a gold mine, but it soon turned into violent hatred, when Creelman was said to have made advances on “Mac’s woman”. The nameless culprit in case was an Indigenous woman Mac kept in his cabin as a piece of furniture.

Racism and misogynism are intertwined here. “He was not thought to set particular store by her’’, and he said that she was ‘‘no fit subject for white men to fight over”, but in truth Mac was furious: Creelman had violated his property by messing with his woman. He threatens to kill Creelman several times, and becomes obsessed.

Then, the story switches to that of two other prospectors, Shorty Wells and Long Tom Bassit. While going down a mountain, Bassit dies of heart trouble. Looking for help to deal with the corpse, Wells leaves the camp and returns with Pocket-Hunter. However, in the place of the corpse of Bassit, they find the body of ‘‘a smallish man of no particular color or complexion, with that slight distortion of the joints common in a country of leaded ores’’; a body marked by blood that had ‘‘gushed freely from the nose and mouth’’.

Later, Creelman’s body will be also found – dead. The corpse Wells and Pocket-Hunt found in the place of Bassit’s belongs to another man, a man who died another death. Whose corpse is this?

Elementary, my dear Watson.

It’s Mac’s. According to Pocket-Hunter, Mac’s spirit somehow entered Long Tom Bassit’s corpse and used it to exact revenge on Creelman.

A story about racism, misogyny, and a dead body possessed by a spirit of hatred who somehow survived beyond death – one cannot get more explicitly violent than that, I guess.

*

21) Twilight, by Marjorie Bowen (1912)
  • Originally published in Bowen’s collection God’s Playthings (1912)
  • My rating: ★★★★

In this story, Lucrezia Borgia didn’t die of a complicated pregnancy at 39, but reached old age. She is a decaying figure hiding her face behind paint, and musing about her glorious past. “If I was young again!

One day, a young man named Orsini meets her in the garden, and, fascinated by his youth, she longs to confess her sins to him. “He felt the sense of her as the sense of something evil.”

Maybe she is trying to seduce him.

“’Your Highness has enjoyed the world’, said Orsini.

‘Yea, the sun’, she replied, ‘but not the twilight’”

Maybe Lucrezia is looking for salvation. Maybe she is some kind of odd vampire trying to suck Orsini’s youth through her words. Maybe she is a serpent trying to lure him with all her beautiful sins.

Who knows? By the time he is chased in the woods by Lucrezia’s decrepit body, she will already be dead.

Lucrezia was motionless; her garments were dim, yet glittering, her face a blur; she seemed the ruin of beauty and graciousness, a fair thing dropped suddenly into decay. (…) He found something horrible in the memory of former allurement that clung to her; ghosts seemed to crowd round her and pluck at her, like fierce birds at carrion.”

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22) The Swine-Gods, by Regina Miriam Bloch (1917)
  • Originally published in Bloch’s collection The Swine Gods and Other Visions (1917)
  • My rating: ★★★

We are locked inside a man’s nightmare. He is walking on the Long Lane of the Lost. Strange figures come and go: Lost Love, Lost Hour of Delight, Lost Illusion.

Then, he enters a palace full of priests bearing small flames in different colours. Each flame was someone’s soul: a young maid, a poet who dreamed exquisite dreams, the heart of a man in love, another man who was the King’s favourite.

The priests seem to worship demonic deities, offering them those flames (and the stories behind such flames). It’s some sort of human sacrifice. It could be a Kubrick scene.

Our narrator runs away from the palace and is passed by a pack of hounds barking. They are like flames, too, and they are running. “The sleuth-hounds of God are passing down the Long Lane of the Lost.”

Shortly after, there comes a Huntsman like an Angel dressed in black – he is The Eternal Conscience. And our narrator wakes up.

This story has the quality of dreams: once we finish reading it, as when we wake up, we gradually forget all about them. They fade.

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23) Jordan’s End, by Ellen Glasgow (1923)
  • Originally published in Glasgow’s collection The Shadowy Third and Other Stories (1923)
  • My rating: ★★

Our narrator, a young doctor, has been called to Jordan’s End, a Southern country estate now in decay. Madness runs in the male line of the once glorious but now decadent Jordan family. Their mansion is now dilapidated and eerily gothic, inhabited by women dressed in black.

The current owner of the house, Alan, has begun to show the earliest signs of the family’s incurable disease, and his wife, Judith, has called the young doctor for help. The family is haunted from inside out, by this strange inborn, illness.

Our narrator’s diagnosis brings Judith no hope, and he leaves her some opium, for the case that the pacient gets violent. A few days later, Alan dies of an overdose. Did Alan commit suicide to spare his wife? Did Judith kill him to break free? No one will ask those questions but the reader.

Is this the end of the Jordans in Jordan’s End? The couple has a young son, but we are left with a dark foreboding as to what his future will be.

There are many literary takes on the topic of an aristocratic family’s decay, but doubtless one so full of racist depictions of black people. And so dull.

Now, I need to reread Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), to help clean my palate.


That’s all, folks. I will be writing about other collections in future posts.

Yours truly,

J.


the-five-senses-see-jessie-willcox-smith_orig
The Five Senses: Seeing, by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1911

About the book

  • Pegasus Books, 2020, 384 p. Goodreads
  • Project: Deal Me In
  • My final rating: 3,5 stars

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