Women's Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937
Edited by Melissa Edmundson
(Handheld Press, 2020)
Women's Weird 2 is superior to the initial volume. The editor has dug deeper, found richer material. Both volumes are certainly worth reading and owning, but volume two has so much more to savor.
From the introduction:
....we can contemplate what exactly it is about the supernatural, the Weird, the unexplained that continues to fascinate us. What is it about these stories that attracts us and keeps us coming back for more? Why are we drawn to the unknown, the dark corners of our subconscious? One major appeal is the escapism and entertainment value these stories provide and the fact that we can vicariously experience fear and danger in the safety of our favourite reading nook. However, Weird stories give us something else, something not as easily defined. They help us come to terms with our shared sense of fear at what we cannot control or explain. And through written descriptions of someone's encounters with the unknown – whether in a work of fiction or in a personal account such as Bowen's – we begin to see that the supernatural does not alienate us, but instead it connects us. By reading these stories, we see that we are not alone in our own struggles. For all its ghosts, ghouls, demons, and monsters, a continuing interest in human relationships and individual character – with all their flaws and weaknesses, their strength and resilience – is at the heart of these scary stories....
....spectres themselves have become more varied as a result of 'living' in the modern world. They have become more complex and carry more cultural baggage. For writers who had witnessed world war, the devastating effects of imperialism, first-wave feminism, and economic depression, the supernatural story could never be the same.
....expanding our horizons with regard to women's involvement in the Gothic and Weird shows us that they were integral to early depictions of the supernatural. Scholars of the early Gothic 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 at the turn of the nineteenth century. Making the work of Ann Radcliffe as a Gothic novelist most prominent at the expense of other women writers and other literary forms has resulted in the often-restrictive concept of the 'female Gothic'. While this term has allowed us to appreciate different writing styles and authorial attitudes within the Gothic, it has also become a definition that tends to leave out a number of women who were writing subversive, innovative supernatural short fiction and poetry in the opening decades of the 1800s. In these works, particularly in the Gothic ballads of writers such as Anne Bannerman, Charlotte Dacre, and Elizabeth Harcourt Rolls, happy endings and fainting heroines were absent. Instead we find unexplained endings, nightmarish landscapes, biting social commentary, and encounters with dangerous otherworldly beings. Women's supernatural fiction in the latter half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century has more in common with these writers than with the work of Ann Radcliffe. By connecting women's more recent strange fiction with fiction and poetry of this earlier era, we can begin to see the Victorian ghost story not as a beginning and end of women's involvement with the supernatural, but as a continuation in the ongoing development of the supernatural tale written by women, a tradition that encompasses the Gothic, the Weird, the ghost story, the macabre, and the horror story. So while classification systems are important in helping us recognise the nuances in the 'ghost story' and the 'weird story', we also need to appreciate how these borders frequently break down and transgress easily defined categories.
....the strange elements in the present volume take many forms. In addition to geographic locations, this volume highlights weird places, evidenced by the many stories with 'room' and 'house' in the title. Anthony Vidler, in his study of the 'architectural uncanny', says that buildings give a sense of 'estrangement', 'alienation', and a 'feeling of unease' (Vidler 1999, ix, 3). He claims that 'the house provided an especially favored site for uncanny disturbances: its apparent domesticity, its residue of family history and nostalgia, its role as the last and most intimate shelter of private comfort sharpened by contrast the terror of invasion by alien spirits' (Vidler 1999, 17). There are several stories that reinvent how we read and understand the preternatural and focus on how a haunted self can exist within a weird landscape.
....Supernatural creatures return in Women's Weird 2, from incubi, grotesque fish beings, and slugs, to glowing blobs, giant rat-like monsters, and predatory fairies. The meaning latent in such creatures is directly tied to the English word 'monster', from the Latin 'monstrum', a combination of 'to reveal' and 'to portend'. The monstrous creatures in these stories indeed do both. They threaten the natural world and our place within it, while they also highlight that which is lacking in the people who summon or interact with such beings. These otherworldly creatures show us what can happen when we lose control of an otherwise regulated world. This world seemingly operates under a series of 'rules', but as these stories reveal, the rules are often illusory and easily broken. Whether it is a deal with a demonic force, a betrayed lover, or a desire for fame, the protagonists must reckon with the consequences of their decisions. These creatures constantly remind us that everything comes with a cost, and past mistakes must be paid for.
* * *
My thoughts on eight of the book's thirteen stories:
The Green Bowl by Sarah Orne Jewett (1901)
It would be hard to overstate how besotted I am as a reader with Sarah Orne Jewett's fiction. Mode, social milieu, and stance are of such clarity, and so warm and comradely in tone, as always to welcome and enrich.
'Somehow the whole thing was mysterious,' said Frances Kent, slowly. 'First we lost the road and then we heard the rooster crowing and could see no house, and then we spent the night in the church, and this strange little old woman came to the door in the morning, and we seemed to know all about each other before we had been together for five minutes, and now we had had that wonderful breakfast, and it was all exactly as if the green bowl had something to do with it; we were all thinking of it from the first minute we had entered her door! I was ready to burst with curiosity, and I said: Oh do tell us! But she grew still more scarlet and confused and caught up a water pail from its little bench, and ran away to the well to fill it.'
* * *
The Hall Bedroom by Mary E Wilkins Freeman (1905)
Here is poignancy and Machenean perichoresis at a very high level.
A woman who runs a modest boarding house offers her listeners excerpts from the diary of a near-destitute guest, Mr. George H. Wheatcroft, who is paying for a hall bedroom.
....Now I look at myself critically and search for the keynote to my whole self, and my actions, I have always been conscious of a reaching out, an overweening desire for the new, the untried, for the broadness of further horizons, the seas beyond seas, the thought beyond thought. This characteristic has been the primary cause of all my misfortunes. I have the soul of an explorer, and in nine out of ten cases this leads to destruction. If I had possessed capital and sufficient push, I should have been one of the searchers after the North Pole. I have been an eager student of astronomy. I have studied botany with avidity, and have dreamed of new flora in unexplored parts of the world, and the same with animal life and geology. I longed for riches in order to discover the power and sense of possession of the rich. I longed for love in order to discover the possibilities of the emotions. I longed for all that the mind of man could conceive as desirable for man, not so much for purely selfish ends, as from an insatiable thirst for knowledge of a universal trend. But I have limitations, I do not quite understand of what nature – for what mortal ever did quite understand his own limitations, since a knowledge of them would preclude their existence? – but they have prevented my progress to any extent. Therefore behold me in my hall bedroom, settled at last into a groove of fate so deep that I have lost the sight of even my horizons. Just at present, as I write here, my horizon on the left, that is my physical horizon, is a wall covered with cheap paper. The paper is an indeterminate pattern in white and gilt. There are a few photographs of my own hung about, and on the large wall space beside the bed there is a large oil painting which belongs to my landlady.
It has a massive tarnished gold frame, and, curiously enough, the painting itself is rather good. I have no idea who the artist could have been. It is of the conventional landscape type in vogue some fifty years since, the type so fondly reproduced in chromos⁶⁷ – the winding river with the little boat occupied by a pair of lovers, the cottage nestled among trees on the right shore, the gentle slope of the hills and the church spire in the background – but still it is well done. It gives me the impression of an artist without the slightest originality of design, but much of technique. But for some inexplicable reason the picture frets me. I find myself gazing at it when I do not wish to do so. It seems to compel my attention like some intent face in the room. I shall ask Mrs Jennings to have it removed. I will hang in its place some photographs which I have in a trunk.'
That modest painting in its modest room is uncanny like an artwork in a Reggie Oliver story.
....Last night I wakened as usual, and I knew, since I had fallen asleep about eleven, that it must be in the neighborhood of three. I wake with almost clock-like regularity and it is never necessary for me to consult my watch.'
'I had slept unusually well and without dreams, and I awoke fully at once, with a feeling of refreshment to which I am not accustomed. I immediately got out of bed and began stepping across the room in the direction of my dresser, on which I had set my medicine-bottle and spoon.'
'To my utter amazement, the steps which had hitherto sufficed to take me across my room did not suffice to do so. I advanced several paces, and my outstretched hands touched nothing. I stopped and went on again. I was sure that I was moving in a straight direction, and even if I had not been I knew it was impossible to advance in any direction in my tiny apartment without coming into collision either with a wall or a piece of furniture. I continued to walk falteringly, as I have seen people on the stage: a step, then a long falter, then a sliding step. I kept my hands extended; they touched nothing. I stopped again. I had not the least sentiment of fear or consternation. It was rather the very stupefaction of surprise. "How is this?" seemed thundering in my ears. "What is this?"'
'The room was perfectly dark. There was nowhere any glimmer, as is usually the case, even in a so-called dark room, from the walls, picture-frames, looking-glass or white objects. It was absolute gloom. The house stood in a quiet part of the town. There were many trees about; the electric streetlights were extinguished at midnight; there was no moon and the sky was cloudy. I could not distinguish my one window, which I thought strange, even on such a dark night. Finally I changed my plan of motion and turned, as nearly as I could estimate, at right angles. Now, I thought, I must reach soon, if I kept on, my writing-table underneath the window; or, if I am going in the opposite direction, the hall door. I reached neither. I am telling the unvarnished truth when I say that I began to count my steps and carefully measure my paces after that, and I traversed a space clear of furniture at least twenty feet by thirty – a very large apartment. And as I walked I was conscious that my naked feet were pressing something which gave rise to sensations the like of which I had never experienced before. As nearly as I can express it, it was as if my feet pressed something as elastic as air or water, which was in this case unyielding to my weight. It gave me a curious sensation of buoyancy and stimulation. At the same time this surface, if surface be the right name, which I trod, felt cool to my feet with the coolness of vapor or fluidity, seeming to overlap the soles. Finally I stood still; my surprise was at last merging into a measure of consternation. "Where am I?" I thought. "What am I going to do?" Stories that I had heard of travelers being taken from their beds and conveyed into strange and dangerous places, Middle Age stories of the Inquisition flashed through my brain. I knew all the time that for a man who had gone to bed in a commonplace hall bedroom in a very commonplace little town such surmises were highly ridiculous, but it is hard for the human mind to grasp anything but a human explanation of phenomena. Almost anything seemed then, and seems now, more rational than an explanation bordering upon the supernatural, as we understand the supernatural. At last I called, though rather softly, "What does this mean?" I said quite aloud, "Where am I? Who is here? Who is doing this? I tell you I will have no such nonsense. Speak, if there is anybody here." But all was dead silence. Then suddenly a light flashed through the open transom⁷⁰ of my door. Somebody had heard me – a man who rooms next door, a decent kind of man, also here for his health. He turned on the gas in the hall and called to me. "What's the matter?" he asked, in an agitated, trembling voice. He is a nervous fellow.'
Est enim magnum chaos
* * *
The House by Katherine Mansfield (1912)
A story about a woman's too-brief vision of domestic bliss as she dies: a bliss for which in real life there was no money.
....Standing on the landing this time she noticed a little gate at the foot of the next flight of stairs, and the walls were covered in brilliant posters – French, Belgian, English, Italian, and, too, a little picture of a boy in blue trousers standing in a daisy field.
'Shall we go up a minute,' he said.
'Oh, afterwards,' she answered, hurriedly.
Each time he mentioned the … each time she felt he was going to speak of their … she had a terrible, suffocating sensation of fear. If that should prove untrue, if that should prove its dream origin – and at the thought something within her cried out and trembled.
'Oh, well' he said, 'later. Perhaps it's better not to disturb …'
'Much better,' said Marion.
In the library a rose-coloured lamp lighted the round table holding the tray with its delicate china and silver. The soft sound of the kettle, the great leather chairs – yes even the smell of the toasted buns – every moment created in her a greater happiness.
'One small lump of sugar,' carefully selecting it for his cup. 'Did you remember to bring home cigarettes?'
'In the hall with my flowers for you. I brought a surprise for …'
'Bring the flowers, dear. I'm just greedy for them this weather. Um – how good the tea is.'
They sat almost silently, one on either side of the table, drinking their tea – eating – occasionally looking up, smiling, and then looking into the fire – each occupied with thoughts, perfectly content – rested after the long day.
'Why does lamplight shed such peace?' he said, in a low tone: 'it so shuts us in together; I love a lamp.'
And again, as she leaned forward to light her cigarette at the little silver fire-breathing 'Devil's Head' – 'Marion.'
'What makes me almost laugh, times, is that the novelty never ceases. I feel each day is our first day together.'
'Oh, it is the sense of "home" which is so precious to me – it is the wonderful sense of peace – of the rooms sanctified – of the quiet permanence – it is that which is so precious after –'
In the silence she heard the sweet sound of the rain against the window.
John put down his cup and lighted a cigarette.
'Let's go up. I'll race you to the top of the house.'
'I can't run in this long gown.'
'Well, wait a minute – my parcel.'
He brought from the hall the oddly shaped box.
'I won't undo the string – half the excitement gone –'
So again they went up the stairs, and together, and this time through the little gate.
Her heart was beating in her throat – her hands were cold – a curious sensation in her breast and arms – but the fear vanished when she saw the old nurse at the top of the stairs putting away linen into a green cupboard.
'Yes, sir, he's in the day nursery.'
John opened the door and Marion, swaying forward, saw the child banging the wooden head of a Dutch doll on the floor, and singing to himself. He wore a blue pinafore, tan socks and black patent leather slippers fastened with a strap and button.
'Darling,' she cried, swooping down upon him. 'Little son!'
The child cried 'Mummy, Mummy,' and clung to her dress. She sat in a low rocking-chair and held him on her lap. Oh, the comfortable feeling of the child in her arms, against her breast! John was explaining something marvellous about the odd-shaped box. She twined one of his curls round her finger – felt the little neck-band of his pinafore – a tiny frown between her brows – to see if it were too tight – he moved his head as though it was not quite comfortable, and then, out of the box came another bear, a black one with a white nose! The child slipped off her lap, and went over to the toy-cupboard to show his treasure to the rest of the 'Teddy family.'
'An' you've got to shake hands, an' you've got to give him a nice kiss, an' you've got to say "thank you, dear Daddy", I never did see such a nice daddy.'
The man looked over at the woman, she was rocking to and fro, a sweet brightness in her eyes.
'Sometimes,' she whispered, 'I think my heart will break for joy.'
'Oh, Daddy – do be a gallopin' pony.'
John went down on hands and knees – the child clambered on to his back.
'I don't know which is the younger of you,' she cried. 'John, I'll have to knit you a little pair of kneecaps …'
Suddenly as she watched them, she heard her name being called from the lower part of the house. Whose voice was that? What, what was he doing there – yes, it was he. Something within her seemed to crash and give way – she went white to the lips. Oh, please God, they would not hear until she had silenced that voice.
'I'll be back in a minute.'
But they were almost too gay to notice.
'Marion … Marion … Marion!'
Please God, she could stop that voice.
Down the stairs she ran into the hall. Where was it coming from – calling and calling she wrung her hands. Once listening, she heard the high, laughing voice of the child.
'Marion … Marion … Marion!'
From the porch. Yes, it came from the porch. She pulled the heavy door open – wind and rain rushed in upon her – out into the porch she stepped – and the door banged to behind her. It was dark and cold … and … silent … cold.
* * *
The Red Bungalow by Bithia Mary Croker (1919)
"The Red Bungalow" is the finest story in Weird Women 2. Croker sublimely concentrates and sustains her effects through the use of gossip and peripheral impressions. Until the climax, the narrator has nothing but her suspicions, and they are not enough.
....I said, 'Netta, I'm sure you think I'm an ignorant, superstitious imbecile, but I believe in presentiments. I have a presentiment, dear, about that Bungalow – do give it up to please and, yes, comfort me –'
'What! my beautiful find – the best house in Kulu – my bargain?'
'You may find it a dear bargain!'
'Not even to oblige you, dear Liz, can I break off my agreement, and I have really set my heart on your bête noire. I am so, so sorry,' and she came over and caressed me.
I wonder if Netta in her secret heart suspected that I, the Colonel's wife, might be a little jealous that the new arrival had secured a far more impressive looking abode than her own, and for this mean reason I endeavoured to persuade her to 'move on'.
However, her mind must have been entirely disabused of this by a lady on whom we were calling, who said:
'Oh, Mrs Fellowes, have you got a house yet, or will you wait for the Watsons'? Such a –'
'I am already suited,' interrupted Netta. 'We have found just the thing – not far from my cousin's, too – a fine, roomy, cheerful place, with a huge compound; we are already making the garden.'
'Roomy – large compound; near Mrs Drummond,' she repeated with knitted brow. 'No – oh, surely you do not mean the Red Bungalow?'
'Yes, that is its name; I am charmed with it, and so lucky to find it.'
'No difficulty in finding it, dear Mrs Fellowes, but I believe the difficulty is in remaining there.'
'Do you mean that it's haunted?' enquired Netta with a rather superior air.
'Something of that sort – the natives call it "the devil's house". A terrible tragedy happened there long ago – so long ago that it is forgotten; but you will find it almost impossible to keep servants!'
'You are certainly most discouraging, but I hope some day you will come and dine with us, and see how comfortable we are!'
There was a note of challenge in this invitation, and I could see with the traditional 'half-eye' that Mrs Dodd and Mrs Fellowes would scarcely be bosom friends.
Nor was this the sole warning.
At the club a very old resident, wife of a Government employé, who had spent twenty years in Kulu, came and seated herself by me one morning with the air of a person who desired to fulfil a disagreeable duty.
'I am afraid you will think me presuming, Mrs Drummond, but I feel that I ought to speak. Do you know that the house your cousin has taken is said to be unlucky? The last people only remained a month, though they got it for next to nothing – a mere song.'
'Yes, I've heard of these places, and read of them, too,' I replied, 'but it generally turns out that someone has an interest in keeping it empty; possibly natives live there.'
'Anywhere but there!' she exclaimed. 'Not a soul will go near it after night-fall – there is not even the usual chokedar – '
'What is it? What is the tale?'
'Something connected with those old mounds of brickwork, and the well. I think a palace or a temple stood on the spot thousands of years ago, when Kulu was a great native city.
Do try and dissuade your cousin from going there; she will find her mistake sooner or later. I hope you won't think me very officious, but she is young and happy, and has two such dear children, especially the little boy.'
Yes, especially the little boy! I was devoted to Guy – my husband, too. We had bought him a pony and a tiny monkey, and were only too glad to keep him and Baba for a few days when their parents took the great step and moved into the Red Bungalow.
* * *
Outside the House by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor (1920)
"Outside the House" is an ambitious story with a unique setting and social milieu. An officer wounded in World War One France goes to convalesce with his fiancée's family. The clan, inheritors of a blackguard ancestor's cursed mining fortune and estate, at first appear merely eccentric. But the more our narrator tries to explore the estate grounds after dark, the saner they seem.
Coker builds magnificently through slow accumulation of misunderstood dialogue and detail; her skill here is as accomplished as anything found in Aickman or Ramsey Campbell.
....What an unconventional crowd they were, or is it, they don't want to talk, I was wondering idly as I smoked a cigarette, when Bob sidled up to the vacant chair and perched himself upon its arm.
'You'll come in earlier tomorrow, sir, won't you?' he asked half-shyly, 'it kind of knocks one about to stay late.'
But I was going to play the same game as others, so answered casually –
'Oh! does it? It didn't knock me about.'
'Didn't it, sir? It did Jacobs,' he added slyly, 'he's what he calls "all of a dither".'
'I saw nothing to "dither" about,' I said.
'No, sir, I daresay you didn't, but it isn't what you see that does it.'
'And I most certainly didn't hear anything odd,' I went on.
'I hope you won't, sir, I did once, and (lowering his voice) I had brain fever afterwards. You won't catch me out after five.'
'Bob, come here, I want you,' rang out Maude's compelling voice.
'Oh! blow!' muttered the boy, 'they are dead scared for fear I tell you, and you cut off and leave Elsie.' With which cryptic 'give away' of his relations he strolled off, hands in pockets.
Once more I was alone, and content to be so, to light another cigarette and have a review of the rapid sequence of events – my arrival, tea, the sudden scattering of the group beneath the trees, the broken china and my desperate attempt to cross a few yards of turf. I could not make 'head nor tail' of any of it – sufficient for me I was in love and prepared to put up with a good deal to await the coming of the little girl I loved. My musings were interrupted by the sound of a bell in the distance.
'Dressing-bell, John,' shouted someone. 'I'll take you to your room,' called Bob.
'Many thanks, I'll be glad,' I said, 'I – I'm not very good at stairs alone.'
'You aren't upstairs, you're on this floor, Pater thought you'd like it, though I'm blessed if I should – too near the garden for this child to – hang on, sir, I'm pretty tough.'
Together we traversed again the long stone corridor, through the hall, along a similar corridor, but of more recent date, being of polished pine, instead of grey stones.
Bob opened a door about half-way down, saying – 'There you are, I hope you'll like it – shout, I mean ring, if you want things. Neither Mum nor Dad ever remember visitors.'
'Right,' I said, 'but I'll manage,' turning as I spoke to open the window.
'I wouldn't, sir,' said the lad, 'it's beastly – er – damp – '
There were three windows in my spacious bedroom, two on one side, one at a queer angle, in a built-out corner, this latter was heavily shuttered, barred up and padlocked.
'Great guns!' I cried, 'Who on earth are you expecting to get in – it's like being walled in – where does it look out? If it's ever opened!'
'It's opened till five pm,' said the lad, 'and it looks on to the low lawn. I'd leave it at that, sir, if I were you.' And he edged himself through the door.
'Alone again!' I thought, lighting the inevitable cigarette. What an extraordinary family they seemed to be, so detached, as it were, so self-absorbed, but above all, so skilful at playing into each other's hands – even the smallest of them aiding in the now apparent determination of each one not to remain alone with their wounded guest, and future relative! Why? I wondered. What did they fear? This last thought was a sub-conscious one, for I had not hitherto consciously thought of fear in any form. Well, time would reveal perhaps, meantime, it was a fresh interest – an unusual interest to find myself a guest in a unique house, full of unique people, all doing their best to keep me from finding out 'Something' – well – 'Something' that so far hadn't a name – it would amuse me to circumvent them, and help to pass the days until my girl came. And now to dress for another scene; the scenes were certainly following one another in rather rapid succession – perhaps too rapidly for a 'convalescent' and yet, I have a firm and fixed belief that the quickest way for a sick person to become a well one, is to keep the mind occupied, busy, interested, to fill up the days and hours, leaving no time for brooding, or speculation as to the why or wherefore of one's apparent slow healing; thoughts of health bring health, just as quickly as brooding melancholy brings depression, and subsequent ills in its train. It has been truthfully said, that the wounded lads who have recovered best are those whose outlook has been buoyant and cheery, those of whom 'even a swamp did not depress them', as Mark Tapley would have said. My days certainly gave promise of being full enough.
* * *
The House Party at Smoky Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1935)
Like Christies' "The Coming of Mr. Quin" and White's "Alfandega 49A," "The House Party at Smoky Island" is about a gathering of old friends. Some are privy to a secret, some only to a predicament. The setting, an island house on a Canadian lake, is well-observed. Our narrator is a deft sketcher of fellow guests, and the uncanny climax is swift as a summer thunderstorm.
....'Fancy a ghost in a crinoline,' giggled a Bright Young Thing.
Min Ingram, of all people, had seen a ghost and took it quite seriously.
'Well, show me a ghost and I'll believe in it,' said the Judge, with another snort.
'Isn't he devilish clever?' croaked the parrot.
Just at this point Brenda drifted downstairs and sat down behind us all, her tragic eyes burning out of her white face. I had a feeling that there, in that calm, untroubled scene, full of good-humored, tolerably amused, commonplace people, a human heart was burning at the stake in agony.
Something fell over us with Brenda's coming. Min Ingram's dog suddenly whined and flattened himself out on the rug. It occurred to me that it was the first time I had ever seen him looking like a real dog. I wondered idly what had frightened him. The housekeeper's cat sat up, its back bristling, slid from the orange velvet lap and slunk out of the hall. I had a queer sensation in the roots of what hair I had left, so I turned hastily to the slim, dark girl on the oak settle at my right.
'You haven't told us a ghost story yet, Christine. It's your turn.'
Christine smiled. I saw the Judge looking admiringly at her ankles, sheathed in chiffon hose. The Judge always had an eye for a pretty ankle. As for me, I was wondering why I couldn't recall Christine's last name and why I felt as if I had been impelled in some odd way to make that commonplace remark to her.
'Do you remember how firmly Aunt Elizabeth believed in ghosts?' said Christine. 'And how angry it used to make her when I laughed at the idea? I am … wiser now.'
'I remember,' said the Senator in a dreamy way.
'It was your Aunt Elizabeth's money that went to the first Mrs Armstrong, wasn't it?' said one of the Bright Young Things, nicknamed Tweezers. It was an abominable thing for anyone to say, right there before Brenda. But nobody seemed horrified. I had another odd feeling that it had to be said and who but Tweezers would say it? I had another feeling … that ever since Brenda's entrance every trifle was important, every tone was of profound significance, every word had a hidden meaning. Was I developing nerves?
'Yes,' said Christine evenly.
'Do you suppose Susette Armstrong really took that overdose of chloral on purpose?' went on Tweezers unbelievably.
Not being near enough to Tweezers to assassinate her, I looked at Brenda. But Brenda gave no sign of having heard. She was staring fixedly at Christine.
'No,' said Christine. I wondered how she knew, but there was no question whatsoever in my mind that she did know it. She spoke as one having authority. 'Susette had no intention of dying. And yet she was doomed, although she never suspected it. She had an incurable disease which would have killed her in a few months. Nobody knew that except Anthony and me. And she had come to hate Anthony so. She was going to change her will the very next day – leave everything away from him. She told me so. I was furious. Anthony, who had spent his life doing good to suffering creatures, was to be left poor and struggling again, after his practice had been all shot to pieces by Susette's goings-on. I had loved Anthony ever since I had known him. He didn't know it – but Susette did. Trust her for that. She used to twit me¹⁹⁶ with it. Not that it mattered … I knew he would never care for me. But I saw my chance to do something for him and I took it. I gave Susette tragic overdose of chloral. I loved him enough for that … and for this.'
Somebody screamed. I have never known whether it was Brenda or not. Aunt Alma – who was never upset over anything – was huddled in her chair in hysterics. Kittens, her fat figure shaking, was clinging to her Senator, whose foolish, amiable face was grey – absolutely grey. Min Ingram was on her knees and the Judge was trying to keep his hands from shaking by clenching them together. His lips were moving and I know I caught the word, 'God.' As for Tweezers and all the rest of her gang, they were no longer Bright Young Things but simply shivering, terrified children.
I felt sick – very, very sick. Because there was no one on the oak settle and none of us had ever known or heard of the girl I had called Christine.
* * *
The Black Stone Statue by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (1937)
Like some of the historical crime tales of Gerald Kersh, "The Black Stone Statue" does not hinge on mystery. It is phantasmagoria from the start. It does not rise above melodrama, but it is a very accomplished melodrama.
....'Instead of frightening me more, this weird discovery seemed to jerk me up short. Collecting my scattered wits, I started back-trailing myself to the camp, thinking McCrea might have returned in my absence. The droning noise was so loud now, it pained my eardrums unless I kept my hands over my ears. This I did, stumbling along with my eyes glued to my own footprints in the hard dry sand.
'And suddenly I brought up short. Directly ahead of me, under a black stone bush, lay something that made me gape with my mouth ajar.
'I can't describe it – no one could. It resembled nothing so much as a star-shaped blob of transparent jelly that shimmered and changed color like an opal. It appeared to be some lower form of animal, one-celled, not large, only about a foot in circumference when it stretched those feelers out to full length. It oozed along over the sand like a snail, groping its way with those star-points – and it hummed!
'The droning noise ringing in my ears issued from this nightmare creature!
'It was nauseating to watch, and yet beautiful, too, with all those iridescent colors gleaming against that setting of dead-black stone. I approached within a pace of it, started to nudge it with my foot, but couldn't quite bring myself to touch the squashy thing. And I've thanked my stars ever since for being so squeamish!
'Instead, I took off my flying-helmet and tossed the goggles directly in the path of the creature. It did not pause or turn aside, but merely reached out one of those sickening feelers and brushed the goggles very lightly.
'And they turned to stone!
'Just that! God be my witness that those leather and glass goggles grew black before my starting eyes. In less than a minute they were petrified into hard fuliginous rock like everything else around me.
'In one hideous moment I realized the meaning of that weirdly life-like statue of McCrea. I knew what he had done. He had prodded this jelly-like Thing with his automatic, and it had turned him – and everything in contact with him – into shiny dark stone.
'Nausea overcame me. I wanted to run, to escape the sight of that oozing horror, but reason came to my rescue. I reminded myself that I was Paul Kennicott, intrepid explorer. Through a horrible experience McCrea and I had stumbled upon something in the Brazilian wilds which would revolutionise the civilized world. McCrea was dead, or in some ghastly suspended form of life, through his efforts to solve the mystery. I owed it to him and to myself not to lose my head now.
'For the practical possibilities of the Thing struck me like a blow. That black stone the creature's touch created from any earth-substance – by rays from its body, by a secretion of its glands, by God knows what strange metamorphosis – was indestructible! Bridges, houses, buildings, roads, could be built of ordinary material and then petrified by the touch of this jelly-like Thing which had surely tumbled from some planet with life-forces diametrically opposed to our own.
'Millions of dollars squandered on construction each year could be diverted to other phases of life, for no cyclone or flood could damage a city built of this hard black rock.
'I said a little prayer for my martyred co-pilot, and then and there resolved to take the creature back to civilization with me.
'It could be trapped, I was sure – though the prospect appealed to me far less than that of caging a hungry leopard! I did not venture to try it until I had studied the problem from every angle, however, and made certain deductions through experiment.
'I found that any substance already petrified was insulated against the thing's power. I tossed my belt on it, saw it freeze into black rock, then put my wrist-watch in contact with the rock belt. My watch remained as it was. Another phenomenon I discovered was that petrifaction also occurred in things in direct contact with something the creature touched, if that something was not already petrified.
'Dropping my glove fastened to my signet ring, I let the creature touch only the glove. But both objects were petrified. I tried it again with a chain of three objects, and discovered that the touched object and the one in contact with it turned into black rock, while the third on the chain remained unaffected.
'It took me about three days to trap the thing, although it gave no more actual resistance, of course, than a large snail. McCrea, poor devil, had blundered into the business; but I went at it in a scientific manner, knowing what danger I faced from the creature. I found my way again to our camp and brought back our provision box – yes, the one there on the bed beside you. When the thing's touch had turned it into a perfect stone cage for itself, I scooped it inside with petrified branches. But, Lord! How the sweat stood out on my face at the prospect of a slip that might make me touch the horrible little organism!
* * *
Roaring Tower by Stella Gibbons (1937)
This is a story about a young woman whose parents cancel her unsuitable engagement and send her into rural exile to stay with an aunt.
....The Roaring Tower, which, you may be sure, was the first place I visited on the first day of my stay, became my favourite haunt. Its rose-bush was in fullest flower, and no matter at what time of the day I visited it, the first sound I heard as I flung myself down on the parching grass, breathless with my climb up the cliffside, was the sustained, slumberous drone of the wild bees, ravaging the open chalices of the roses.
I have written 'the first sound I heard'.
But there was another sound.
I learned, before I had been staying with Aunt Julia a week, whence the Tower got its strange name.
It was the noon of a burning and cloudless day. I was returning languidly along the cliff-edge from a walk to a village which lay inland, swinging my hat in my hand, my eyes half closed against the waving glitter of the grass and the smiting glitter of the sea.
I was not thinking of anything in particular, not even of my sorrow, my mind lay like a black marsh under the sun – flowerless, stagnant. If there was a thought hovering at the back of my head (I can write it now with a smile) it was a hopeful surmise that there might be fresh fish for dinner. But had I been taxed with this I should have denied it with anger. I hugged my grief; it was all I had. Nothing could heal it; it was a deathless wound.
Alas! the bitterest lesson I have since learned is how gently and remorselessly Time steals even our dearest wounds from us.
As I drew near the Tower I glanced, as usual, in its direction. A little group of village people stood about it, the women clustering together at some distance, the men scattered round it in a broken circle, like a doubtful advanced guard.
As I drew near I heard an indescribable sound which seemed to come from no particular spot but from the whole surrounding air, which I thought at first (for lack of better knowledge) to be the drone of bees in swarm.
It was a soft, hollow, furious roaring, such a sound as a giant distant waterfall might make; the sound I have heard that great hunter, my Uncle Max, describe when he told us how his heart would shake in his body to hear, in the dead of night, the solemn far-off voices of lions at their wooing and hunting in the starlit desert.
The sound rose and fell in waves, exactly as the roaring of an animal rises and falls.
As I advanced over the grass, intending to ask one of the women what was amiss, I saw my own inward uneasiness reflected in the sly, downward glances of the village people.
'What is it? What's the matter?' I asked sharply of a woman near me. 'What is that strange noise?'
She hesitated, glancing appealingly at the man by her side, but he avoided her eyes. I repeated my question imperiously.
'It's only the Roaring Tower,' she said at last, reluctantly. 'When the rose-bush is all out, and on sweltering hot days, miss, the Tower roars, like you can hear.'
'But what is it? What makes that awful sound?'
Again there was silence. The other villagers were looking curiously at me; a few of them drew slowly near to our little group, but no one attempted to answer me.
At length, from the back of the group, a man's doubtful voice volunteered:
'They say it's the water under the Tower, miss. There's a great cave under the Tower, so they say, and when the tide gets into it it makes that noise.'
There were one or two half-hearted assents to this.
But I was not satisfied; the explanation was plausible and yet unconvincing. But the uneasy manner of the villagers and their inquisitive eyes repelled me, and I hastened to leave the spot.
* * *
25 January 2020
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