D.K. Broster’s Couching at the Door

This was one of two collections I found while browsing Borderlands Books a few weeks back, by women horror writers that I’d never read before. How could I resist?


Dorothy Kathleen Broster is best known for her romantic adventure style historical novels. The Jacobite Trilogy, set in mid-18th century Scotland, are apparently the most famous; according to Belinda Copson, they were quite popular as young adult novels even through the 1990s. The stories in Couching at the Door, all set in contemporary times (that is, some time in the first four decades of the twentieth century)ย are another thing altogether. They’re rather like Edith Wharton ghost stories: most of them start quietly and ordinarily enough, with hints of the strangeness creeping in slowly; suspenseful, rather than outright scary. I liked them.

The nine stories in the collection are all quite different. Six are supernatural, one (“Juggernaut”) is possibly supernatural, depending on how you interpret it — I prefer a non-supernatural interpretation. Two (possibly three) are what the back cover of the book calls “psychological” stories, about the lengths a person will go for what they love.

The title story tells of a Decadent poet, Augustine Marchant, who has quite a bit of first-hand knowledge of the hedonistic (and occult) topics that he writes about. At first I thought the story was going to be an M.R. James type “icky spider demon” tale: the story opens with a mysterious piece of fluff chasing him around his library and summer-house. But no. All the coy hints, without explicit descriptions, of Marchant’s transgressions — his occult dabblings, his quest for sensation, his “transcendence of morality” — make the story feel like it really was written in 1898 (it was written in the ’30s, I think). Also the titles of Marchant’s works are delicious. The Pomegranates of Sin, anyone? As the story goes on, though, it’s clear that behind the slightly silly references to all this Aleister Crowley business lurks something very dark, from a morality point of view, not just the occult. What Marchant does to exorcise the thing that haunts him is darker yet. Though I do have to admit the ending was just a little (unintentionally) silly, too.

“The Window” and “The Pestering” are straightforward ghost stories, both fun. “The Promised Land” and “The Pavement” are non-supernatural examinations of women without much in their lives, and that little about to be spoiled. “The Pavement” was particularly poignant; “The Promised Land” would have been at home in a golden age issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

“From the Abyss” was an interesting weird tale about a different kind of split personality. Someone in blogland (I can’t remember whom) pointed out the similarity between “From the Abyss” and the movie Carnival of Souls. The resemblance didn’t occur to me when I read the story, but now that’s it’s been pointed out, I can see why someone could think Broster’s story might have influenced Herk Harvey — though it seems unlikely he would have read it. There’s a mention of conflict in the relationship between the narrator and his fiancee. She was (maybe unconsciously) ambivalent about the engagement, but bowed to his pressure, and society’s. Broster wasn’t a feminist writer; her historical novels apparently focused mostly on conflicted friendships between men. But she never married, living many decades with another woman friend, and she was apparently estranged from her family. I can’t help wondering if “From the Abyss” was at least in part her way of dealing with the frustrations of a woman’s position in society at that time.

“Clairvoyance” starts slowly and then bursts into breathless, bloody violence. Its structure reminded me of Saki’s “The Easter Egg“, which also just ambles along and then allofasuddenPOW! Saki’s story is better, but “Clairvoyance” is pretty good, too. It also had some detailed technical discussions (which sounded correct to me, though I’m no expert) about samurai swords; I wonder if Ms. Broster had been researching a planned novel set in Japan? Anyway, I liked the story a lot.

“Juggernaut”, as I mentioned above, can be interpreted either as a ghost story or a psychological tale. It features a respectable late-middle-aged maiden lady who writes pulpy potboilers under a male nom de plume, along with nice dose of writer’s humor. I would totally read Death Swamp or Tiger or Dagger.

Couching at the Door was Broster’s only collection of macabre tales. It was published in 1942, during British wartime paper shortages, and never reprinted. There were also a few macabre stories in Broster’s 1932 short story collection A Fire of Driftwood. Ash Tree Press published twelve of her short stories in hardback, in 2001; I don’t think it’s still in print (and it’s pricey, if it is). I’m hoping that they release it in ebook form, as they have with some of their other titles.

The Wordsworth edition is quite reasonably priced though. Look out for it, and give it a try.

Next up: Marjorie Bowen.

If you are interested in Ms. Broster’s other work, Belinda Copson’s Appreciation at the Collecting Books and Magazines site is a good survey, though a bit old (it was written in 2000).

13 thoughts on “D.K. Broster’s Couching at the Door

  1. Very enticing. Since you commented on “The Pomegranates of Sin” title, you might be interested in a wonderful poem by Harrison, “A Kumquat for John Keats.”

      1. Glad you liked it. I thought the poet was able to do something quite miraculous: walk the line between the dark and light part of life without losing his balance.

  2. Although, indirectly mentioned, this is the third Saki reference in the blogosphere I’ve read this week. I’ve not read him and I need to get on it. (I’ve been reading this newish blog you might also like, too–> https://grotesqueground.wordpress.com/). I think my favorite ghost stories (or horror, in general) are those that do that quiet creep: start of mildly and then get a whole lot weirder. These stories sound great.

    1. Haha! That blog just went in my feedly (it’s just you and me right now, I think).

      Jay from Bibliopholis read “Easter Egg” for Easter and tweeted about it (“NOT what I was expecting…”), which put it back in my mind. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and it went with this post, so… O Henry is supposed to be the master of the short story, and I like him, but to me, Saki writes perfect gems. I’m not too crazy about most of his “Clovis” and “Reginald” stories (same character, different names, IMO) — but his little dark character sketches and horror/macabre stories are excellent.

      I have this volume, from the Book Depository. Quite affordable.

      1. Thank you, Acid Free Pulp, as always you are very kind to mention my blog. And thank you for following me, Nina! Glad to have you two on board ๐Ÿ™‚
        I didn’t know about D.K. Broster, I must check her out, as I like Edith Wharton’s stories.
        Your blog is great, so many new recommendations of ghost stories to read! It also reminded me that I still haven’t read Alexandre Dumas’s “One Thousand and One Ghosts” collection that I bought some time ago. Do you know if it’s any good?

        1. Welcome aboard! I’ve not read Dumas’s collection — I’ll have to check it out, too! But I did see that you posted about Holy Mountain recently, and I’ve bookmarked it. Have you seen the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune” yet? You must. After seeing it, I got in a discussion with someone on Twitter about Jodorowsky’s movies; I’ve not seen any yet, but I’m intrigued.

          1. Thanks! I didn’t, but I think I must! So many bloggers mentioned the title. I loved Herbert’s “Dune” and I’m curious what plans Jodorowsky had in mind. If you want to see some of Jodorowsky’s movies, it’s good to start with “Holy Mountain” or “El Topo”.

      2. Thanks for the recs, Nina. I’ve been on a sort of grotesque/macabre kick lately (just in time for summer, I suppose). Perfect. I’ve been looking for a more affordable collection. This has been the best price yet. Although, my searching was minimal and done on my phone.

        1. Yeah, I think Book Depository might have their own house publisher for collections of older short story writers. I’ve seen that style cover on several books on their site, and nowhere else. They’re a really great deal.

  3. Thanks for Posting your thoughts on this collection. I’m making a note of it and hope to pluck a couple of its stories for my “Deal Me In” short story reading project for next year. I wonder… does “Ash Tree Press” take its name from the M.R. James story (that you indirectly referenced ) ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Yes, I think Ash Tree Press is named after the James story. They specialize in golden age ghost story and macabre authors, some well known, others not. They also have an annual, which showcases stories from different golden age authors. Beautiful, beautiful hardcovers, but pricey and with limited runs. Thankfully, they are putting out some of their popular and out-of-print volumes as ebooks — way more affordable, and they don’t go out of print….

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