The eye is deceived as well as the heart

Hi, folks!

weird-women-lisa morton leslie klingerThis is the second post where I talk about some of the stories in the collection Weird Women – Volume 2: 1840-1925: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers, ed. Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger (2021), 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 | 24-27 | 28-31 (you are here)

 

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28) Little White Souls, by Florence Marryat (1883)
  • First published in Marryat’s collection The Ghost Of Charlotte Cray and Other Stories (1883)
  • My rating: ★★★

Ethel Dunstan is married to a colonel stationed in India, and they have a baby, Katie. Life is boring in the colonies, and any gossip travels fast. One day, Ethel is told that her husband has been seen walking with the town’s newest flirt, Mrs. Lawless. Jealousy grows in Ethel’s heart like an incubus.

When Katie falls ill and has to be sent to an isolated palace, Ethel has not much choice but to go with her and leave her husband in town, prey to Mrs. Lawless’ spells.

As it turns out, Mrs. Lawless is not what she seems to be; Ethel is pregnant; and the palace is haunted by the ghost of a woman who had seen her child be murdered – and now wants a child of her own.

I enjoyed the atmosphere in this story, and the idea of a woman haunted by jealousy – but I could do without racist depictions of Indian people.

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29) Let Loose by Mary Cholmondeley (1890)
  • First published in Temple Bar, April 1890, and later included in Cholmondeley’s collection Moth and Rust (1902)
  • My rating: ★★★★

Our narrator wants to know why his brother-in-law always wears high starched collars, and, one day, finally gets a story out of him. Is it a vampire story? A ghost story? Something in between?

It’s all about a crypt inside a church in a remote village. While studying a medieval fresco in the crypt, locked behind two doors and in the company of his faithful dog Brian, the high-collar-guy ends up releasing an invisible evil creature from its tomb. His dog is the first to notice, becomes restless, tries to warn his owner – all in vain. People will have to perish, before a guy is able to understand canine wisdom.

A child dies, then an old man – each with marks of strangulation on their necks. The local clergyman is worried: “No blood was drawn, but the second time the grip was stronger than the first. The third time, perchance —“.

Our guy remains clueless. On the third night, the creature comes for him. His dog goes mad and attacks him. Or is he attacking the creature? The dog will die, but our guy will be left to tell the story: to this day, he bears the marks of fingers on his neck.

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30) The Fulness of Life by Edith Wharton (1893)
  • First published in Scribner’s Magazine, December 1893
  • My rating: ★★★★

A woman dies and finds herself on the threshold of afterlife. The Spirit of Life comes to greet her, and they start to talk. Is this the story of a spiritual journey? Or the parody of one? They talk about love – or the lack thereof.

You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple. But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there’s the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and going out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room; the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.

Her life has been lonely and empty, and she never really loved her husband – a regular guy who didn’t read the right books and never really knew his wife. The woman is then promised a heavenly soulmate and a full life in afterlife, but she knows better.

She decides to wait for her husband to join her: “‘What do you intend to do?’ asked the Spirit of Life. ‘What do I intend to do?’ she returned, indignantly. “Why, I mean to wait for my husband, of course. If he had come here first he would have waited for me for years and years; and it would break his heart not to find me here when he comes.”

What makes one’s life full? Certainly, not her marriage. But, after enduring death in life, our woman chooses life in death – not the fulness of life, but life, the regular kind, unexceptional, even empty and boring. 

Or is she choosing to stick to her good old death in life? Maybe it’s all the same. Is this some kind of revenge on her husband? Should we take this story seriously – as a parable of fidelity, as if our woman were some kind of Penelope? Or is Wharton mocking marriage, and mocking our attempt to take her story seriously? Things are never what they seem with Wharton – and that’s why we love her.

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31) The Library Window by Margaret Oliphant (1896)
  • First published in Blackwood’s Magazine, January 1896, and later included in Oliphant’s collection Stories of the Seen and Unseen (1902)
  • My rating: ★★★★★

A young woman is spending the summer with her Aunt Mary, while recovering from an undisclosed illness. Her favourite place indoors is the window recess in the drawing room, where she sits to read and dream. From there, she can look out onto the university college library across the street.

One day, her attention is drawn to the fact that one of the library windows is different from the rest: some people believe it is false, others believe it is real. It may be an optical illusion, a painted wall, a bricked-up hole, or a product of one’s wild imagination. It may be inhabited by ghosts.

We follow our protagonist’s growing infatuation with the library window, as she begins to spend increasing amounts of time looking out at it, and even seems to be able to see more and more through it: the faint outline of a room, a desk, a chair; then, a man writing.

norah langeOur protagonist becomes gradually obsessed with (and haunted by) the mysterious library window – which reminded me of People in the Room (2018, tr. Charlotte Whittle. Original: Personas en la sala, 1950), and made me wonder whether Norah Lange read Oliphant.

Is Oliphant’s a story about a woman going mad? A ghost story? A story about confinement and trespass? About lack of opportunities? About unrequited love? All of the above?

Our heroine longs to break through that mysterious window and into the library. Is she being lured by a ghost? Or by her imagination? Is she looking in or out? Is this some kind of initiation? Is she surrounded by witches? Is she one of them? Is this a curse?

She is “one of us”, says Aunt Mary. “It is a longing all your life after“, she explains. “It is a looking—for what never comes. The eye is deceived as well as the heart.”


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

Yours truly,

J.


 

The Window Seat William Orpen
Sir William Orpen, “The Window Seat”

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