This is the third 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.
32) Good Lady Ducayne by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1896)
- First published in 1896 in Strand Magazine
- My rating: ★★★★
Jobs are scarce for a girl of no special qualifications and little skills. When Bella finally finds a place as a lady’s companion, she doesn’t think twice before accepting it. The lady in question is the Good Lady Ducayne, very wealthy and very old. She has been around since forever and her decrepitude is mildly terrifying, but she will pay our girl a hundred a year, take her to spend the winter in Italy, and cover all the travel costs. Bella seems to have won the jackpot, but now you are asking: what’s the catch?
It is all about the blood, my friends. Good Lady Ducayne only hires girls of robust health, but they all seem to eventually become ill and die – despite the regular assistance of Lady Ducayne’s personal physician, Dr. Leopold Parravicini. Now, it is our Bella’s turn: ever since they arrived in Italy, she has been having problems with some odd mosquito bites that appear overnight on her arms, and her health is dwindling.
Luckily for her, a young (and rich) medical doctor has not only taken an interest in her case, but has also fallen head over hills in love with her. Like a good old Victorian heroine, Bella will eventually be saved by a man.
As is turns out, Dr. Parravicini is an Italian quack, and has been draining off the blood of Lady Ducayne’s young companions, to use it as a treatment to prolong the old lady’s life – and our good old lady, like a Victorian Elizabeth Báthory, has been gladly making use of such treatment, living off Dr. Parravicini’s transfusions.
I loved the atmosphere in the first half of the story, as well as Braddon’s use of vampiric, supernatural conventions to convey a very modern concern about the ethical limits of science and about class exploration – one cannot get more explicit about rich people sucking the lives out of the poor, and here lies the true horror of Braddon’s story.
However, the ending of the story is a bit of a let-down – bland and anticlimactic. If only our heroine had been less idiotic and our Lady Ducayne more terrifying…
33) Marsyas in Flanders by Vernon Lee (1900)
- Written in 1900 and first published in 1927, in Lee’s collection For Maurice: Five Unlikely Stories
- My rating: ★★
A relic washes up in the twelfth century on a beach in Flanders, and the locals take it for an ancient effigy of the crucified Christ, and put it on their church.
The effigy is not pleased: it is always hurling itself off the wall and getting rid of its crucifix. Strange things start to happen, and the locals insist on seeing them as miracles – but, to be fair, it is more like creepy poltergeist. Is the effigy cursed? Is the church haunted? Well, the devil is in the details: in this case, in the effigy’s leaf-shaped ears.
I like the way the story mocks certain aspects of religion, but – boy, this is a masterclass in writing a dull, convoluted story out of a good idea. Thinking about it is far better than actually reading it.
34) The Dead and the Countess by Gertrude Atherton (1902)
- First published in the August 1902 issue of The Smart Set, and later included in Atherton’s collection The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories (1905)
- My rating: ★★★
Since the good old days, technology is always messing things up. This time, it is a new railroad, recently built near the old cemetery. It is so loud, that it – quite literally – awakens the dead.
They become restless, and the local priest fears for their tormented souls, as he listens to their cries: “All the earth beneath him was filled with lamentation. They wailed for mercy, for peace, for rest; they cursed the foul fiend who had shattered the locks of death.”
Meanwhile, the local countess is dying, and longs to be buried near the tracks. All her life, she has dreamed of going somewhere else, but only death can take her away from the sheltered (more like imprisoned) life she has lived in her husband’s castle.
Maybe the priest is imagining things. Maybe he cannot sleep due to the railroad noise, and has then gone crazy. Or maybe he is right. Maybe he will bring the countess back to life.
This is not a particularly creepy story, but I liked the subtle twist in the end.
35) The Children by Josephine Daskam Bacon (1909)
- First published in Harper’s Monthly in August 1909, and later included in Daskam Bacon’s collection The Strange Cases of Dr. Stanchon (1913).
- My rating: ★★★★
A retired housemaid named Sarah is telling us the story of her mistress, Mrs. Childress. When Sarah comes to work for her, Mrs. Childress is a young widow who may or may not have had children. The children may or may not be dead. Or they may or may not be a product of Mrs. Childress’ imagination. “What they leave behind is worse than what they take with them; their curls and their fat legs and the kisses they gave you are all shut into the grave, but what they used to play with stays there and mourns them with you.”
You get the gist. And Sarah’s story may or may not be a confession of guilt. Wanting to cheer her mistress up, our narrator persuades her to pretend that her children – a boy and a girl – are still with her: ‘‘You should control yourself and be cheerful and act as if they were here—as if it had pleased God to let you have them and not Himself!’’
But what had started as a benign advice slowly grows to have a reality of its own: not only the two women, but the rest of the household start to pretend that two children inhabit the house. Strange things start to happen: books disappear, a piano plays itself while no one is there. Is Sarah seeing things, or is she perpetrating a hoax? “We talked about the children, of course. They got to be as real to me as to her, almost. Of course at first it was all what they would have been (for she was no fool, Mrs. Childress, though you may be thinking so) but by little and little it got to be what they were.”
From two imaginary beings, the children soon leap into existence, when a neighbour’s daughter believes to have seen one of them. A woman seems to have dreamt her children into being – and this reminded me of two other tales of spectral motherhood: Edith Olivier’s The Love Child (1927) and Olivia Howard Dunbar’s The Dream Baby (1904).
How reliable is Sarah? Is she deluded? She seems to be quite willing to tell a lie to comfort a person in need (or to keep her job and advance her career). And part of the horror of the story lies in the fact that we don’t know how to place her as a narrator. Should we trust her?
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, 2021, 384 p. Goodreads
- Projects: Deal Me In; RIP Challenge; Ladies of Horror Fiction Readathon
- My rating: (review to be continued)