Weird fiction, a literary mode defined by Lovecraft as possessing “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces”, is usually spoken about in the same sentence as names such as Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, M.R. James, and, of course, H.P. Lovecraft. Unlike the earlier and related genre, the gothic, the names of women very rarely turn up in discussions of weird fiction, unless when referring to writers who came later in its development, from the 1950s onward. And even then, far too little. It’s high time, therefore, for the release of this new collection of short stories from Handheld Press, edited by expert on women’s supernatural fiction, Melissa Edmundson, whom Sublime Horror readers might remember from Avenging Angels and her reading list of ghost stories by Victorian women.
Women’s Weird is a collection of stories covering a 50-year period, 1890-1940, illustrating the evolution of weird fiction and showcasing women’s contribution to it. There are a range of styles and themes on display in these stories, some closer to traditional gothic ghost stories, especially in the earlier years, but as soon as we get to Edith Nesbit’s “The Shadow” (1905), we have entered weird fiction territory. “The Shadow”, which also features in the British Library’s Spirits of the Season, sees a pair haunted by a dark shape, fluid like ink, that follows them about a house, sensed more than it’s seen, “I always feel that I shall see the thing next minute – but I never do – not quite – it’s always just not visible.” The pair are haunted but not by a ghost, but by some entity that’s barely describable, as if from a different universe. It is this transition we see from the first three stories in this collection, which are much more traditional, to Nesbit’s that illustrates what differentiates weird fiction from its ghostly siblings.
One of those opening trio of stories is worth looking at more closely, however. As we commonly see in the fiction written by women in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, especially supernatural fiction, quite a number of the stories in Women’s Weird touch on gender issues. One such example is “The Giant Wistaria” (1891). More gothic than weird, “The Giant Wistaria” by “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, shows how she was ahead of her time with her feminist writing.
“The Giant Wistaria” is a story in two halves. The first is set in the 1700s and tells of an English family in an American home, who have just planted a new wistaria vine to grow on the porch. The daughter has had a child out of wedlock, which is being kept from her, and the family plans on returning to England to leave the child behind. The second half is set in the 1800s, with two young couples wishing to rent the same house for a summer holiday, now quite decrepit and engulfed with the giant wistaria vine. One of the two women, Jenny, is convinced the house is haunted and that there is a story to be found, “But I’m convinced there is a story, if we could only find it. You need not tell me that a house like this, with a garden like this, and a cellar like this, isn’t haunted!” The group awaken on the first night having had the same dream of a “female ghost” with a “big bundle under her arm” and a “little red cross that hung from her neck”. They go on to discover the hideous fate that befell both mother and child. In the first half of this story, the young mother is in agony to see her child and begs her own mother to allow her to see it. The father of the young mother wishes his daughter had drowned rather than endure the shame she has brought to the family. In the second half, the two women are regularly treated like children by the men – Jenny given bromide by George to ease the “fuss” she was making. The contrast between the two time periods questions whether women’s roles had really progressed much at all in the intervening years.
Elsewhere, Women’s Weird is packed with weird gems. “Unseen – Unfeared” (1919) by Francis Stevens displays racism as if a form of madness – that to display such negativity to nationalities other than your own is not part of one’s natural state.
“Puzzled a trifle, for I am more inclined to sympathize with poverty than accuse it, I watched the faces that I passed. Never before had I observed how stupid, how bestial, how brutal were the countenances of the dwellers in this region… My sense of impending evil was merging into actual fear.”
The protagonist can’t quite comprehend the feelings he’s experiencing. Later in the story, he encounters creatures that are ordinarily invisible but everywhere, fed by the negativity and ugliness of humanity. After encountering the “unseen”, the man proceeds to attempt to take his own life. Again, in common with much classically-weird fiction, we have unnatural creatures which somehow penetrate our sight and existence, the very comprehension of which is enough to drive us mad, and an inexplicable feeling of fear and dread.
When reading an anthology of previously published stories, I typically like to see those which are difficult to find elsewhere. That is certainly the case with Women’s Weird, which not only illustrates a theme (women’s contribution to weird fiction) but also puts back into print stories that will genuinely surprise you – something that would probably happen more often if more collections omitted men.
In her introduction to Women’s Weird, Edmundson compares the gap in the bookshelf of Margeret Irwin’s story “The Book”, “the gap between two books seemed the most hideous deformity, like a gap between the front teeth of some grinning monster”, with the gap in the weird fiction bookshelf where womens’ historic contribution to the mode should be highlighted. This excellent collection of stories begins to fill that gap but there is still space for more.