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Jessica Amanda Salmonson (ed) – What Did Miss Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction (1989)

01/22/2016

A collection of feminist supernatural fiction published between 1850 and 1988. It’s a challenge not to be ahistorical in thinking about these, in terms of both feminism and where these stories fit in terms of genre. “Supernatural fiction” seems often to be used as a more commercially viable pseudonym for horror with a bit of cultural capital cachet, but here it really does just mean non-mimetic fiction. I had a discussion with Laird Barron recently about whether ghost stories are “by definition” weird fiction or not (I say not). It’s useful here to channel John Clute’s thought that “supernatural fictions with a horror “feel” are better called Weird Fiction,” and argue that these are largely perfect examples of supernatural fictions that do not have “a horror ‘feel.’” Indeed, With these stories, the intrusion of the supernatural doesn’t even signify wrongness all the time – sometimes the ghost (and it’s almost always a ghost) is just a person who happens to be dead, and/or is offstage entirely. Rosemary Jackson intro – “Women writers of the supernatural have overturned many of these assumptions and definitions–not, as with some of their male counterparts, to investigate ‘horror’ for its own sake, but in order to extend our sense of the human, the real, beyond the blinkered limits of male science, language, and rationalism.” Which is all very essentialist, but accurate that these stories are (mostly) not horror-for-the-sake-of-horror.

Instead of horror, we have alienation, discontent, the stifling domestic environment, and women bucking the status quo – feminism, but a very white, very American-middle-and-upper class feminism (for the most part); universal sisterhood rather than intersectionality. It would be ahistorical, though, to deny the importance of these women writing stories featuring female POV characters who possess, or at least seek to possess, agency over their own lives. Many of these were more interesting to me as historical portraits of women’s lives than as supernatural stories in and of themselves – the best, of course, were the ones that fully combined those two strands.

Also worth mentioning: the stories collected here are (again, for the most part) decidedly not “misandrist,” the ridiculous/ironic watchword of the day. Very few focus on women gaining the upper hand over male abusers – they’re more likely, in fact, to not feature male characters at all.

The Long Chamber • (1914) • Olivia Howard Dunbar
A couple are restoring an old house when an old friend of the wife’s comes to visit – her loveless marriage echoes that of the original builders of the house. The fact that she is subsumed entirely into helping her husband’s career (“complete self-immolation”) drives the wife of the host couple to a more modern/feminist viewpoint, while her husband takes a more traditional view ((why not, if she loves him?). When the guest sees the ghost of young lover killed by house founder’s husband, she learns what true love is.

A Ghost Story • (1858) • Ada Trevanion
Homoeroticism is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an undercurrent throughout many of these tales, and here we have a student encountering the ghost of a beloved teacher (before she was aware the teacher was dead) and receiving an important bit of information that allows her to help the teacher’s family. The benevolent ghost is another ongoing theme.

Luella Miller • (1902) • Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
An odd one, because I think this could easily be read as a misogynist story – a beautiful woman’s “self-destructive passivity” drains away the life of her caretakers (who had been “led away by a pretty face”); vampirism-by-another-name (“There are vampires, and there are vampires,” as Fritz Leiber wrote years later). Of course, it could also be read as an indictment of what the denial of agency can do to people. New England regionalism and dialectic, predating Lovecraft by more than a decade.

Conflicting readings aside, a classic of the American weird story, also present in Straub’s American Fantastic Tales.

What Did Miss Darrington See? • (1870) • Emma B. Cobb
A conversational narrative about a Massachusetts woman of great intelligence and good breeding who, while working as a governess in Kentucky, falls in love with a Cuban visitor (an American updating of the traditional Gothic Mediterranean/Catholic Other/inferior) – or rather, he falls madly in love with her, and while she is tempted to do the same, she instead chooses rationalism and social success. They part ways after a short sojourn, and never meet again until his ghost visits her after he is killed in the Glorious Revolution in Spain, after which she is distraught not to have valued his love more. “She believed that. If you doubt it–if you think it can not be–will you tell me what it was that Miss Darrington saw?”

La Femme Noir • (1850) • Mrs. S. C. Hall [as by Anna Maria Hall]
A young woman being raised by her uncle in an Alsatian castle falls in love and finds herself in a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet situation. She stands up to her uncle, a “dark, stern, violent man,” but he still attempts to ride down and kill the suitor before being stopped by the titular ghost. Remarkably, this gives him a newfound sense of piety, and after much time spent studying “THE BOOK,” he gives the lovers his blessing to marry and lives out the rest of his days a kind, peaceful man. Boilerplate Gothic, but fine enough for what it is. One of the few selections here with a man as a clearcut antagonist.

A Friend in Need • (1981) • Lisa Tuttle
Two women happen to meet in an airport, and slowly realize that each was the imaginary(?) friend of the other’s childhood. Universal sisterhood as support mechanism for child abuse. I liked this one.

Attachment • (1974) • Phyllis Eisenstein
Also tackles the idea of universal sisterhood while using telepathy as a means of examining generational and urban/rural differences (ie religion, pre-marital sex). Our protagonist is a 20-year-old American who has been in mental contact for as long as she can remember with a 50-year-old German, whose imminent death from cancer will leave the American on her own for the first time in her life. Clunky dialogue.

Dreaming the Sky Down • (1987) • Barbara Burford
I think this is the only story here by a woman of color, a Jamaican-born Londoner, and also the only story to include the intersections of race and class with sex. An overweight teen, antagonized by a racist bully of a gym teacher, finds herself with the ability to fly (freedom, autonomy, etc). My favorite new-to-me story here, I need to read a copy of Burford’s only collection in the near future.

The Sixth Canvasser • (1916) • Inez Haynes Gillmore [as by Inez Haynes Irwin ]
Like “Attachment,” concerned with approaching death – emphasized repeatedly with interjections of “The moment of death!” – an old woman sits and waits for death while watching a group of canvassers work her neighborhood to promote suffrage. She also meditates on technological (cars, electric lights) and social change, both in her own family and through the larger issue of suffrage (and remembers hearing Susan B. Anthony speak when she was a young girl). Throughout, she mourns the loss of a son who had vanished years before, and when he appears to gather her up, her terror turns to gentle acceptance. Jackson’s introduction suggests that this ending is “disturbingly open to interpretation,” but it doesn’t read that way to me at all.

An Unborn Visitant • (1932) • Vita Sackville-West
The night after she receives an unexpected marriage proposal, a “hopelessly ordinary” Edwardian lady receives a visit from the ghost of her unborn flapper daughter, and although they butt heads, the love between mother and daughter wins out, and she resolves to get married as soon as possible. Mostly played for laughs regarding generational differences and the things yet to come in the future (“Freud, you know–but no, of course you don’t know”).

Tamar • (1932) • Lady Eleanor Smith
Tamar, a “gipsy” anti-heroine, is alone one night and up to no good when a handsome stranger arrives and recounts her various misdeeds to her – it’s the Devil, in beautiful-fallen-angel mode, who has decided to marry her due to her evil escapades. She isn’t interested in playing second fiddle to him in Hell, so she poisons him and escapes. This one was fun – you have to wonder if Anton LaVey ever read it (vis a vis solipsistic individualism and Satan). Tamar belongs in the same genealogy as Jamaica Kincaid’s Xuela Claudette Richardson.

There and Here • (1897) • Alice Brown
Essentially the same plot as “Miss Darrington,” but this time with barely-concealed homoeroticism. Two lifelong friends are separated after Rosamund has to go live with her brother, leaving Ruth with “loneliness and heart-hunger.” Eight years later, Rosamund pays Ruth a visit, and the two spend the night in Rosamund’s childhood home, which is mysteriously no longer decrepit and ruined but clean and cheerful. The next day, Ruth’s mother tells her that Rosamund has died, and Ruth returns to the house only to find it as desolate and abandoned as it should have been.

The Substitute • (1914) • Georgia Wood Pangborn
A woman who refused to settle regrets never marrying or having children, when the ghost of an old friend who had had a happy marriage and children (but nothing else – “Envy me, but pity me, too!”) visits her and bequeaths her her two children. The appearance of the ghost is effectively creepy. Strikingly ambiguous statement about motherhood – the protagonist’s regret would seem to have little weight when balanced against the fact that the mother literally worked herself to death, but the end of the story seems to find both women at peace. There’s an odd moment of gender dysmorphia between the two children I haven’t quite puzzled out yet.

The Teacher • (1976) • Luisa Valenzuela
A man pays a visit to an old teacher whom he hopes to impress, is intercepted by her mob of bizarre children, and realizes that she is not how he remembered (she, meanwhile, barely remembers him at all). A reflection on man’s unreasonable and inhumane demands on/perceptions of women. Hallucinatory and odd.

The Ghost • (1978) • Anne Sexton
Well. While reading, this was one of my favorites – told from the point of view of the ghost, for a change, an old maid who haunts her great niece after her ignoble death in a nursing home. The two women share a name, never revealed, and the ghost is driven by an awful combination of self-loathing, jealousy, and antimodernism to torment the younger woman. Reading about Sexton’s life, though, retroactively ruined this for me

Three Dreams in a Desert • (1890) • Olive Schreiner
A prose poem written in epic, Biblical language. I didn’t get enough out of this to have anything to say here.

The Fall • (1967) • Armonia Somers (trans. of El derrumbamiento 1953)
Salmonson’s intros are usually pretty good but making no mention of race at all for this one is rather disappointing. Jackson, meanwhile, says that it “identifies women with blacks as social outsiders,” and if that was all it did it wouldn’t be great, but this is a story predicated on the reader’s disgust with the Virgin Mary (aka “the white Rose”) having sex with “the most naked and filthy of men” (ie a black man, who is usually referred to here by racial epithets). The black man is hiding in a safehouse after killing a white man, and after the house’s idol of Mary comes to life and demands this carnal debasement, she (“the Woman,” no longer “the Virgin”) leaves while the house (society) collapses, killing everyone inside.

Pandora Pandaemonia • (1989) • Jules Faye
Another very short prose poem, this one is a surreal reclamation of mythic images (death, goddesses, sea monsters, temples).

The Doll • (1896) • Vernon Lee
While visiting a local palace to buy antiques, our narrator becomes fixated on a most unusual family heirloom: a lifelike doll, commissioned generations ago by the family patriarch to honor his dead wife. More homoeroticism at play here; the narrator eventually buys and burns the doll in order to release the Doll (as she thinks of the actual woman) from “her sorrows.” The only supernatural element is the narrator’s sudden awareness of the Doll’s life story – and yet this was still one of my favorite stories here.

The Debutante • (1939) • Leonora Carrington
In which said debutante convinces a hyena acquaintance to go to a ball in her place. Short, sweet, and surreal, gives the lie to universal sisterhood when the debutante and hyena murder a maid in order to wear her face as a disguise.

The Readjustment • (1908) • Mary Hunter Austin
A woman who had always bucked the status quo dies and continues to haunt her home in order to try to bridge the unbridgeable disconnect between repression/husband and emotion/wife. A neighbor woman understands the dilemma, and convinces the ghost to leave after the husband tells “the Presence” all the things he should have said while she was alive. Sentimental, but not too much so. I loved the following exchange:

“Did you see her?”
“No.”
“How do you know, then?”
“Don’t you know?”
The neighbor felt there was nothing to say to that.

Clay-Shuttered Doors • (1926) • Helen R. Hull
Narrated by an unmarried woman journalist whose friend married a tyrant of a successful businessman. Reminiscent of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), the wife is killed when the husband crashes their car one evening, but returns to life for a while (“It is hard to get back in”) to support him during one last business deal – this much is obvious to modern readers, but clues are dribbled out quite effectively, leading up to a penultimate scene where she makes herself up for one last dinner party, “as if she drew another face for herself.” This is the sort of story I expected from this book.

Since I Died • (1873) • Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
The incredibly florid story of a thinly-veiled Boston marriage, narrated post-death by the ghost of one addressing her surviving partner. Unconvincingly interpretable as sisters rather than partners. Concerned, again, with the moment of death, and the running down of time.

The Little Dirty Girl • (1982) • Joanna Russ
If I had the money/time/energy/understanding of permissions and rights, I’d start a press just to publish Russ’s collected weird fiction (or collected short fiction, even). This, a letter to an unknown recipient, is about a Seattle-based author with chronic health problems who encounters the titular ghost. One of the all-time great American ghost stories. One of these days I’ll read it back-to-back with Truman Capote’s “Miriam” (1945). This story deserves a full review of its own, which I’ll get around to writing some day (ha ha).

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