Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Cold Embrace – Weird Stories By Women, (Introduced and Edited by S.T. Joshi), Dover Publications

Today, an anthology of women writers' feels quite passe. Women are hardly under-represented in the field; least of all requiring of showcasing by a named male editor. Then, I suppose, the state of play in the 19th and early 20th century was rather different. This collection of known gems and all too occasional obscurities, is book-ended between an early tale - Mary Shelley's post-Frankenstein 'Transformation' (1830) - and the latest - May Sinclair's excellent 'Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched' (1922).
  In most cases, this is only a worthy collection if you've somehow overlooked, or yet to be introduced to, the cheap and easily available Wordworth Editions Mystery and the Supernatural series. (At least eleven of their nineteen entries are here, in fact). Less often anthologised titles – certainly new to me – are all too few, but include Margaret Olipant's 'The Secret Chamber' (1876), Sarah Orne Jewett's distinctly odd 'In Dark New England Days' (1890), Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's revelatory 'The Hall Bedroom' (1903) and Ellen Glasgow's intriguing 'The Shadowy Third' (1916).
  Re-reading some of the earlier entries reminds me how the sedentary pace and explanatory minutiae, redolent in late Victorian short fiction, so often deflates any sense of approaching menace or threat. For this reason, I now find Vernon Lee's 'A Wedding Chest' (1904) almost unreadable; too many Latin terms crammed into breathless nine-line sentences, misting the reader's focus.
  Even if climaxes are too easily foregrounded, the best of them, here and through the rest of the anthology, concentrate on playing out the plot from the opening page. In Mary Elizabeth Braddon's title tale a love-obsessed young student, a "scoffer at revelation" and "enthusiastic adorer of the mystical" vows that, should fate end their match, one or other of their spirits would return to hold the surviving lover forever. In Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's 'The Hall Bedroom' a landlady relates the journal of one of her former tenants whose extreme sensual experiences at night gradually challenge his earlier, presumably sane, perceptions. A tale that foretells early takes on drug-induced experiments, (such as Crowley's 'The Drug,' previously reviewed here), it is a revelation itself considering its age.
  In 'The Shadowy Third' a nurse is summoned, by a great surgeon, to a country house to look after his bedridden wife. The sudden, unexpected presence of a little girl who may – or may not – be a figment of his ailing wife's imagination, is nevertheless also witnessed by the nurse. When the patient confides in her that her surgeon husband had previously killed the girl, and discovers their mutual connection, the conclusion is made suddenly inevitable. Pleasingly, as with 'The Hall Bedroom,' this is too well written to be a mere shocker.
  Again, this is one of those collections that is passable for those unfamiliar with the form's early highlights. For the rest of us, it is top-heavy with re-runs reprinted elsewhere. I can at least glean some new finds in the latter three that prompt some renewed interest.

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