In his introduction to this anthology editor Mike Ashley reminds us that “although the history of the ghost story often emphasises the role of male writers … it is all too easily overlooked that the development of the field, helping the weird tale to progress, was as much the territory of women. And that was true from the very start”.
Indeed, even the subtitle of this book – “Lost stories from the women of the weird” – implies some kind of passive accident, sheets of manuscript slipping between floorboards or behind sofas, when the fact is that stories are lost far less often than they are forgotten, even actively suppressed. Thankfully, books like Queens of the Abyss and the recent Women’s Weird series from Handheld Press – where Melissa Edmundson echoes Ashley’s sentiment when she says that scholars of the gothic and the weird “have been guilty at times of having tunnel vision when it comes to appreciating the vast role women played in the development of the genre” – have started the process of rectifying this oversight by bringing these stories back into the light of day.
Ashley explains at the end of his introduction how he has “deliberately chosen lesser known stories, even by the better known writers, but all of them show how women writers continued to experiment and develop the weird tale from its gothic beginnings”. By including weird fiction from writers like Edith Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett – perhaps better known as the authors of The Railway Children and The Secret Garden respectively – alongside rarer stories from Mary Elizabeth Counselman and May Sinclair, whose names if not their complete works are known by readers of the weird, Ashley has definitely achieved this goal.
This statement also pro-actively refutes some of the claims I’ve seen in other reviews that Queens of the Abyss simply “isn’t weird enough”. These claims aren’t unfounded – the book’s first few selections are barely even ghost stories, when it comes down to it – but they do miss Ashley’s point; Queens of the Abyss is not intended to showcase the weirdest tales imaginable, and even the very weirdest tales here are thankfully bereft of tentacled horrors and Cyclopean structures, but to show how the weird creeps up on us when we aren’t paying attention. Queens of the Abyss illustrates, quite powerfully, that weird fiction is not something that suddenly appeared, fully formed on the pages of Weird Tales, but which bubbled and oozed through any crack it could find.
As usual with anthologies like this, it would take far too long to discuss every single selection so I want to pick out a few that demonstrate, at least for me, this process of development. Edith Nesbit’s “From the Dead” and “The Haunted Flat”, by Marie Belloc Lowndes, both deal with the return or the lingering of departed souls but they are both at the more pleasant end of the spectrum; the spirit offers forgiveness or guidance rather than retribution. There’s room for burgeoning shivers of the weird even here, however.
“From the Dead”’s Ida Helmont surmises – “wearily” as the narrator tells it – that her husband “would be afraid, now I am dead, if I came round to you and kissed you”. Ida is not an aloof spectre pointing at hidden treasure or peering in at a window but an aware and self-reflective consciousness. She knows she is dead and knows how this state puts her in a fundamentally different category of existence from her living husband, even as she yearns to breach that difference.
This theme of category errors and breaches is then developed into a more fully weird tale by May Sinclair in “The Nature of the Evidence”. This story deals with that most weird of concerns: the collapse of assumed reality when something other, something which should not be, pierces in through its flimsy membrane. Our narrator tells us that “This is the story Marston told me. He didn’t want to tell it. I had to tear it from him bit by bit”.
This reticence is in stark contrast to the “The Haunted Flat”’s May Murchison who breezily exclaims, when renting the eponymous dwelling, that “I don’t care how haunted it is!” and it also looks forward to the ideas of revulsion and disgust that Jonathan Newell posits as key to understanding weird fiction in his A Century of Weird Fiction.
Rather than the discrete, once-removed entities of a traditional ghost story, the shambling revenant or the lurking spectre, the “phantasm” of “The Nature of the Evidence” manifests as something that shifts between states: “thin, at first, like a shaft of light” and then “a perfect likeness of flesh and blood” which, nonetheless, feels “soft and horrible”. The horror here comes not from any action of this phantasm – in fact, one of the most chilling lines in the story is the strangely blank “it didn’t do anything” – but from the inherent wrongness of the way in which it exists and, ultimately, the inherent wrongness in how Marston reacts to it.
This wrongness is also used to horrible effect in one of my favourite stories from the anthology, Sophie Wenzel Ellis’ “White Lady”. Here we travel to the “lonely Ile-de-Fleur” in the Caribbean Sea, where André Fournier has been pursuing Moreau-esque experiments into the local plant life; “everywhere, among frond and spray and giant runner, bloomed hybrid blossoms whose weird forms and colours suggested André’s tampering with Nature”.
Ellis, like Sinclair, uses her story to look at the disgust generated by hybridity and this “tampering” with things-as-they-should be, transforming them into things-which-should-not-be. This is embodied by the White Lady of the story, “a flower whose round, pallid petals formed a face like the caricature of a woman”. Yet Ellis tells us that it is not the disconcerting appearance of the White Lady that disgusts Brynhild, Fournier’s fiancé, “but what it was doing”. “Just below the head,” we’re told, “protruded two slender, dagger-pointed white spines, set in sockets in such a manner that they could be moved like arms. These two spines, rubbing together, produced the music that had captivated her.” The White Lady’s human appearance is startling but not disturbing as, after all, even lowly pansies are sometimes referred to as flowers with faces. What horrifies and disgusts Brynhild is rather the White Lady’s intent, it creates music as a willed act, and its agency, it can choose whether or not to play its music and the kind of music it plays. In a story that predates John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffid by almost two decades, Ellis investigates the weird consequences of what happens when then taxonomic membrane between plant and animal, between thinking and unthinking is dissolved.
Not all of the stories in Queens of the Abyss are as effective as these. “The Antimacassar”, by Greye La Spina, wastes a deliciously taut and claustrophobic build-up with its “oh well, never mind” anticlimax of an ending. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Christmas in the Fog” is also a strange, as opposed to weird, inclusion. Dripping with prim middle-classishness it tells the story of The Romantick Lady – a thinly-veiled and self-aggrandised version of Burnett herself – as she spends her time on a becalmed trans-Atlantic cruise collecting money for the children of the “Goths and Huns and Russian Jews” down on the steerage deck. A charitable act – albeit one which even she can’t resist pricking with a classist barb as she worries that “perhaps I had imbedded in the minds of the hundred and fifty the seed of pauperism, and they would sail in with their hands out for charity and not for work” – but not an especially weird one, despite the swirling fog it takes place within. Yet even this looks forward not to the narrative concerns of weird fiction but its problematic relationship with classism and racism.
Most importantly the few minor blips in quality are easily forgotten when considered against other excellent stories like the inevitable dread and corrupted folklore of Jessie Douglas Kerruish’s “The Wonderful Tune” or Margaret St Clair’s oneiric “Island of the Hands”, which manages to blend elements from “The House On The Borderland” and Clark Ashton Smith’s more psychedelic episodes into its own creation.
If you come to Queens of the Abyss expecting the stereotypical trappings of the weird – slithering, unspeakable things and yawning cosmic gulfs – then you will be largely disappointed. If you’re looking for more subtle horrors and an insight into weird fiction as a bubbling, amorphous lineage rather than a bibliography of discrete stories, however, then it is a mandatory purchase.
Queens of the Abyss edited by Mike Ashley is published by British Library Publishing.