[Review] Modern Ghost Stories by Eminent Women Writers [Part One: Thoughts on Individual Stories]

Readers are sure to welcome the second volume of this critically well-received collection of ghost stories by great women writers. As is true of ghosts themselves, these stories will take the reader by surprise. A.S. Byatt, Antonia Fraser, Daphne du Maurier, Ruth Rendell, Edith Wharton, and Jean Rhys are among the writers whose stories reveal the extraordinary range and development of a genre that has thrilled readers for over two hundred years.

A.S. Byatt's "The July Ghost" is such a boring, navel-gazy male POV mess of nothing that I would've bet my life savings it was written by a deeply pretentious man had it been handed to me without context.

(...and now onto the second story, which is already starting off with a lowkey misogynistic take on gender politics. I realize this is a book from the 90s, but this is coming across so far as some pre-1950s bullshit and how is that "modern" to 1991?)

Mary Butts's "With or Without Buttons" is an intriguing but ultimately disappointing story that presents a bizarre little... can it even be called a haunting? (Long story short: two women invent a ghost story to terrorize their neighbor 'cause his skepticism offends them??? They plan to plant gloves all over his house to scare him. Then gloves start appearing of their own accord, & the house smells like death.) The story is vastly more inexplicable and strange than it is frightening or eerie, and what resolution the plot receives is unsatisfying and written in such a way that the climax is painfully anticlimactic and dull. I'm really hoping the next story is better, or else I might be throwing in the towel on reading this one.

Celia Fremlin's "Don't Tell Cissie" was a much more interesting story than the two that preceded it. It's short and sweet and perhaps a bit anticlimactic, but the nature of its ghostliness is a truly surprising plot twist that makes it considerably more fun than I was expecting!

Margaret Irwin's "The Book" is the first actual horror story of this collection. Unlike the morose and boring "The July Ghost", the unremarkable "With and Without Buttons", and the quirky-ghostly "Don't Tell Cissie", "The Book" has some real teeth to its plotline. The story dates from 1930, but its genuinely creepy plotline is a forebearer of modern horror stories. It's got Satanic undertones, features some mind-screwiness that wouldn't be terribly out of place in anything from a Lovecraft tale to a NoSleep story, and presents a genuine, bloody threat to its characters. Unlike most older ghost stories, the danger isn't that someone will see a ghost and die of fright; here, the characters might find themselves poisoned as their patriarch slowly goes insane.

To sum up--mostly for my own recollection, because I really want to make sure I mention this story in the eventual review for the book--the story involves an aging family man discovering that something weird is going on with his bookshelf. He picks out a book, changes his mind, and goes to pick out a different one--only to discover that there's now a larger gap in the bookshelf than he can explain. (It's all very House of Leaves, and I adore House of Leaves.) Anyway, in reading these perfectly ordinary books from this less-than-ordinary bookshelf, the MC starts to see perversity and wickedness in the stories that was never there before. Illustrations are twisted and evil; characters are malicious and pathetic; authors are sad little liars or cruel literary gods.

More frightening, though, is that the gap in the bookshelf has disappeared by morning, even though the books the MC took have not been replaced. When he brings this up to his family, his little children nonchalantly agree: books taken from that shelf are bizarre and frightening, and the bookshelf is always full when you return to it, no matter how many books you take. (It's creepy and I. Love. It.) And then, after getting more and more obsessed with reading books from this bookshelf, the MC finds one he probably shouldn't have. It's a handwritten thing in Latin with margins full of unrecognizable symbols, and that's never a good sign, is it? The MC begins translating it and eventually discovers cryptic commands in it. Following them brings him hitherto elusive financial success.

The guy's mental health is clearly suffering--and he likes his family less and less with every passing day--but so far, things are going pretty well! And then the commands get... yikes. The newest command is to kill his dog, and, well, his dog's been growling at him lately, so why not bump the furry little bastard off? In other words, bro's gone nuts & doesn't realize it. (His family's terrified.) Fear not, though, as the daughter quite accidentally saves the dog's life. Except she's grabbed by a ghostly hand while she does so, which is a little terrifying. The MC comforts her, and for a moment, he almost actually likes the poor kid again. And then he goes back to his book. And reads that the next command is to kill her. And he immediately talks himself into it, because he's just that far gone.

Except he changes his mind at the very last second. He flings the book into the fireplace... and is immediately choked to death by ghostly hands. In the morning, he's discovered, and it's assumed that he committed suicide because of the sudden collapse of his financial enterprises (which he couldn't have known about yet, but what other logical explanation is there?). It's a good story. The mind-screwy, House of Leaves-y elements of the bookshelf are to die for, & while the "evil book promises hidden knowledge while compelling the reader to evil" thing is a bit overdone now, that's not the point. It's a fun trope, and seeing an iteration of it from ninety years ago is awesome. "The Book" alone makes this collection worth reading, even if no other story does.

Daphne du Maurier's "The Pool" was beautifully written, romantic, and intriguing despite the potential frustration of having to experience it through the eyes of its deeply flighty child protagonist (though it's easily argued that the story couldn't be experienced through any other eyes), but is it a ghost story? Barely, if at all. It all reads as far more fey than ghostly, and... that's fun, but not what I wanted.

What do you know? "The Station Road" by Ann Bridge is an actual ghost story, not a psychological horror or magical realism story masquerading. And while it is an enjoyable older ghost story, there's a bit of meta to it that I just can't let slip past. It's a ghost story written by a female author about a woman being haunted. Except the woman in question never actually appears in the story; the entire narrative is her husband's retelling of her experience to his male friends. And given that this is Modern Ghost Stories by Eminent Women Writers, an anthology intended to showcase female-authored ghost stories (that meet the approval of the male editor of the book).... I'm just saying, it feels a bit indicative.

Honestly, I don't know what to do with Penelope Lively's "The Black Dog". I'd hardly call it a ghost story; the black dog in question isn't a spectral apparition but a heavy-handed metaphor for the looming death that haunts the protagonist, a middle-aged housewife who feels elderly already in only her mid-fifties. And that could make for an interesting story, but here, it definitely doesn't. The narrative takes on an overt attitude of judgment toward anything modern (funny, as its era is now extremely quaint and nostalgic), up to and including straw characterization of the woman's daughters that verges on antifeminism. They are portrayed as masculine know-it-alls for the sins of being employed & educated (and, of course, wearing pants), & their dialogue reads as bad satire of anti-elderly ageism.

That's not to say that I don't see what the story was going for or that the metaphor doesn't work... it's just that this is definitely not a ghost story, and its obnoxious portrayal of generational conflict as something the young inflict upon the elderly (with particular emphasis on blaming young women who either are feminist or benefiting from feminism) is utterly infuriating. All in all, it's a very well written story that perfectly portrays its message by imbuing the legend of the black dog with heavy metaphor. The problem is that the message fucking sucks. Spoiler alert: you're not elderly at fifty-five, feminism and young women aren't oppressing you by just fucking existing, and if you're seeing shit that isn't there, you do need to go seek medical help. Ugh.

E. Nesbit's "No. 17" is a particularly long joke masquerading as a ghost story. The payoff of the punchline isn't terribly worth the plodding set-up, but the sudden swerve from playing-it-straight spooky story to wait-did-I-just-get-conned humor is so unexpected that it's delightful. There's probably not a ton of reread value here, but it's a fun surprise the first time through!

I have some conflicted feelings re: Pamela Sewell's "The Prelude". First and foremost, the title initially led me to believe that there was more to this story; I've found no evidence of this, however, and it seems complete enough as it exists within this anthology, so I assume that "prelude" here is intended as a musical term rather than a literary one. (Though, knowing next to nothing about music, I'm unsure.) But that's not my major issue with this story. On the one hand, it's an interesting tale about the triumph of an abused woman over the memory of her abusive husband (and/or his literal, actual ghost). On the other hand... it's also the story of a woman destroying a beloved possession of her daughter for the sole reason of spiting her dead ex-husband, and that's 100% a tactic of narcissistic abusers themselves.

So, yeah, I'm conflicted. It's a story that ultimately wants me to sympathize with the protag, the wife of a deceased abuser... except that IRL, I am in fact the child of a fairly narcissistic woman who was previously married to an abuser, and so I find myself instead sympathizing with the daughter whose prized possession is destroyed by the mother/protagonist in her attempt to gain victory over her abuser. So... yeah. Like I said, I'm conflicted, and I think it's best if I just refrain from even attempting to give it a more in-depth analysis than this: It's a well-written tale, and I'm sure it would be especially cathartic for the spouses of abusive men (particularly, those spouses who are also mothers).

D.K. Broster's "The Pestering" was a surprisingly long tale, compared to the rest of the short stories that I've read so far in this anthology. Unfortunately, it was not a particularly intriguing story. My secondary complaint is that it was rather boring and a bit of a slog to get through; my primary complaint, though, is that there was an odd undercurrent of misogyny to it. The story begins from the perspective of one Mrs. Seton, whose residence at a home called "The Hallows" brings her into contact with a ghost. But as the story progresses and the haunting begins to factor into the plot, the reader must endure Mrs. Seton's own interalized misogyny (directed toward both the hired help and herself in the face of the ghost) before the POV suddenly shifts to her husband. All in all, it makes for a somewhat jarring experience given that this is an anthology dedicated to female writers of ghost stories. What we have here seems to be a blatant expression of the author's own internalized misogyny, considering the way the story plays out, and given the other complaints I've had regarding this anthology's potential(?) feminism... I'm just very unsatisfied with this story.

Jean Rhys's "I Used to Live Here Once" is such a tiny little piece of flash fiction that it hardly has a plot and I'm honestly not sure what could possibly have warranted its inclusion. *shrug*

Clotilde Graves's "A Spirit Elopement" is a very silly little ghost story involving a jealous married couple, the husband's ghostly not-mistress, his wife's ghostly revenge-psuedo-dalliance, and the perhaps inevitable hookup between the two ghostly not-lovers. I genuinely can't tell if this is *meant* to be funny, but it's too ridiculous to be anything else.

Whatever the fuck Eleanor Smith's "Whittington's Cat" is, it's *not* a ghost story. It's a bizarre little horror story dealing with pantomime theatre (which I know nothing about), the main character's growing insanity, and a particular creepy-ass cat (that's as big as a dude and bipedal???) with a dash of maybe-magic-maybe-mundane for flavor, and it's an absolute trip. It's fascinatingly weird and I *think* I liked it?

I adore the concept of Ruth Rendell's "The Haunting of Shawley Rectory". The execution... that's less enchanting, but the actual twist of the haunting is a super fun idea! To spoil, mostly for my own future reference: the rectory was "haunted" by a murder that hadn't actually happened yet--and didn't happen until two people who fit the right profiles moved in. Most interestingly, the people who experienced the "haunting" in the lead-up to the murder were those people who were nearly the right profile to play either murderer or victim in the couldn't-possibly-have-happened-historically-but-would-happen-in-the-near-future urban legend about the rectory. I'd actually be really interested in seeing an adaptation of this one!

Margery Lawrence's "Mare Amore" is lowkey a fable about how you need to chose a partner who shares or at least understands your hobbies. Seriously, it's a short story about a woman who so deeply hates that her husband love the sea/sailing that she manipulates him into moving inland and who ultimately gets hunted down and drowned in her own home by the literal ocean itself? It's weird, and it ain't a ghost, and... meh.

Antonia Fraser's "Who's Been Sitting in My Car?" is what I had hoped for this anthology to be. It's an actual ghost story--as in, there's an actual ghost--with a female protagonist, and the plot deals heavily with themes of feminism, misogyny, and the female experience. Not that it's a fun read; in dealing with its heavy themes, it's a hard read, emotionally. We have a misogynistic, sexually threatening ghost haunting an emblem of freedom so long denied to women (still denied to women in some places): a car. We have a modern divorcee judged for her decision to forgo a male partner and focus instead on raising her children. We have the ostensibly friendly ex-husband who replaced his wife with a younger model and is perfectly willing to forsake and commit his ex as soon as her psyche appears to stumble. We have the police, who infantilize and then accuse and ultimately imprison. We have a woman who chooses to stay in an abusive relationship (with a murderous ghost!) to protect the children she'll never again be able to see. And perhaps most distressingly, we have the young second wife who's perfectly pretty and sweet and kind to her predecessor in the most misogynistically pitying, judgmental way. It's an upsetting look at how all the agents of patriarchy, from regular men to other women to authority figures, work together to gaslight and condemn and control and imprison women, and it's super upsetting in a very good way.

Elizabeth Fancett's "The Ghosts of Calagou" is a short and satisfying Old West ghost story with a sad ending. I don't have much to say about it, but I also have no complaints.

Edith Wharton's "Afterward" has an interesting little premise: a house haunted in such a way that the residents never recognize the haunting until sometime afterward--hence the title. The plot, then, when boiled down to its simplest element is that a woman who wants to be haunted encounters a ghost she mistakes for a normal man until long after he's caused terrible misfortune to befall her family. Speaking a bit less simplistically, the primary twist is obvious from the moment the ghost shows up properly. Astute readers will find his ghostliness excruciatingly obvious. But there is a fun secondary twist here, in that Wharton expertly explains how an earlier sighting of the ghost was justified. The ghost appears twice: once, when he attempts to kill himself (only succeeding in falling into a coma) because of the protagonist's husband's misdeeds; and second, when he dies comatose and finally gets his ghostly revenge.

I'm pretty sure I hate Mary Williams's "The Thingummyjig". Perhaps I'm misunderstanding something here, but it truly seems like the entire plot of this story just revolves around punishing a little girl (later, the woman she grows to be) for wanting to be free of her abusive grandfather. The jist is that her not-so-imaginary friend helped kill the old man, after which she got to go off to boarding school. She leaves on less than pleasant terms with the possessive "Thingummyjig", and when she returns years later, he teams up with the ghost of her grandfather to murder her. So, basically, two different men punish a woman (first with physical abuse, and then with death) for wanting to leave them. And since the author gives no real indication whether she thinks this fate was deserved, I'm leery af of her writing.

Mary Elizabeth Counselman's "The House of Shadows" is absolutely a ghost story, but there's nothing remotely creepy or frightening about it. A woman spends the night with an old friend and the friend's family, only to later discover that the family had died of smallpox a year before. It's a little weird, and there's one vaguely threatening moment... but nothing comes of it, so it's mostly just a sad little tale.

I'm giving Richmal Crompton's "Rosalind" such extreme side-eye that it's fucking painful. The crux of the plot is a shitty dude (Heath) who "falls in love" with a woman (Rosalind) he fully believes is not good enough to marry his "well-bred" ass. So when she gets pregnant, he immediately hates and then ditches her. Then we have the woman he actually decides to marry (Helen). More on her later.

Lastly, we have the narrator, who seems like a great guy until you really pay attention. So Heath sends Rosalind away to have her baby, and the narrator is her friend, so she tells him that she plans to get back at Heath. It's ominous, and the next he hears of her, he's hanging out with Heath. Heath gets the news that both Rosalind and the baby died in childbirth. His response? "A satisfactory end to an unsatisfactory business." He's relieved af that his "love" is dead, because an unwed mother actually getting to live her life would have been just so INCONVENIENT for him. At this point, to the narrator's credit: "At that moment, I think I actually hated him." Unfortunately, it's all downhill from here for everyone but Helen.

The narrator proceeds to remain Heath's BFF and even plans to be his best man. Meanwhile, Heath is going crazy; he's seeing Rosalind. It culminates a few days before his marriage to Helen. He sees Rosalind on the other side of the road; she gestures to him; he rushes toward her; he's instantly killed by a car. (Good riddance!) But what of the narrator, who's been pining for Helen this whole time? Well, Helen asks him to tell her the story of Rosalind and whether the ghostly baby her spirit was holding was actually Heath's. The narrator refuses to tell her out of respect for Heath (what about respect for THE WOMEN??) and then marries her after she has a fucking breakdown. It's specified that he NEVER tells her the truth about Rosalind.

Dorothy K. Haynes's "Redundant" is a sad little ghost story operating under the bizarre premise of the most recently-buried corpse in a graveyard being spiritually roped into playing the role of Death. I'd be very interested to learn whether this is an invention of Haynes or some real-world mythology with which I'm unfamiliar.

Do you want to read about a racist, misogynistic & possibly abusive twat being murdered by a psychotically jealous & probably abusive husband? (Also, there's a ghost.) If so, A.L. Barker's "The Dream of Fair Women" is the right story for you. As for the rest of us, though... Hard fucking no.

Rosemary Pardoe's "The Chauffeur" is an interesting twist on a familiar trope. Spoiler alert: rather than needing to use some folksy herbal magic to banish a malevolent spirit, the protag here realizes her friendly ghost has been missing lately and so discovers that she must weed his grave of the wild herb trapping him inside it.

I feel like Joan Aiken intended "The Traitor" to be a sad story about missing the opportunity to confess a secret... and even though I strongly suspect that's the intended interpretation, I don't remotely agree with it. IMO, it's 100% a story about the folly of allowing oneself to be weighed down by unnecessary guilt over one's past choices. The lesson? Own your decisions and learn to let shit go.

Elinor Mordaunt's "The Landlady" is an interesting take on ghosts with a disappointing ending (for both the reader and the characters!), making it a strange choice for the closing story of the anthology. The concept is that the "ghost" is actually the astral projection of an elderly woman who the protags eventually invite to move in with them... and she dies that night before returning to her beloved house. Ouch.

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