This is the second of two reviews of Wordsworth collections by women horror writers I’d never read before. The first review, of D.K. Broster, is here.
Marjorie Bowen is a guilty pleasure.
Walled-in women, “ruined” women, poisoning, strangulation, stabbing, crimes of passion and revenge, even a strange fish monster. The tales in The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories are sensational, pulpy, almost lurid, and occasionally melodramatic. They are very much in the spirit of late 18th and early 19th century gothic fiction. I’d call them over-the-top, but having read actual early gothic literature, I’d have to say that Bowen’s stories are restrained, compared to the real thing.
And I rather like them.
If Broster’s tales are the short story equivalent of the Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bowen’s are more like that old 1960s soap opera Dark Shadows — in sensibility, if not exactly in subject matter. In fact, Bowen’s stories remind me of 1960s-70s gothic horror in many ways. This isn’t usually my thing, but many of the tales left me oddly exhilarated on finishing them. I’d look up from the book, and think, Wow, I can’t believe she wrote that. I can’t believe I read that! What a trip….
Though written in the early part of the 20th century, almost all the stories are set sometime in the late 17th to mid 18th century — like Broster, Bowen was a historical novelist. There are a lot of unhappy marriages floating through the book (Broster’s parents separated when she was a child, at a time when this was a scandalous thing). “Rakehelly” (what a great adjective) wastrels marry aging gold-diggers, each believing the other is wealthy — this happens at least a couple of times, and it never leads to marital bliss. There are abused wives, possessive husbands, obsessed lovers….
With the first four (of twelve) stories, I could predict the ending by a third to halfway through, at least in general outlines. This isn’t always a bad thing, and a story like that can give pleasure in the journey, even when you know the destination. Only “The Fair Hair of Ambrosine” disappointed me by being almost completely predictable, and not all that fun. The protagonist was afflicted with a really irritating fatalism: despite being told to get out of the situation, which he could have easily done, he stayed, in spite of his almost paralyzing foreboding, because he felt “impelled” to. At this point, my primary reaction was that he deserved what he got…. This fatalism poisoned a couple more of the early stories, too. They were definitely the weakest stories in the collection.
After that, it improves. “Elsie’s Lonely Afternoon” is like an Edith Nesbit children’s story gone horribly wrong. Elsie is an orphaned and unwanted six-year-old living with her wealthy grandmother. She is so neglected it’s rather hard to believe. It’s not a happy story, but it does have a certain black humor to it. I liked it. “The Bishop of Hell” features another rakehelly scoundrel who seduces away the sheltered young wife of his mentor, just because he can. The ending reminded me a bit of something you might read in an old 1950s pulp horror comic. Silly, but delicious.
“The Grey Chamber” was disappointing. It’s marked as an anonymous work, translated from the French by Ms. Bowen. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly reads like one of those “fragments” that were a popular structure in early Gothic fiction. “The Adventure of Mr. John Proudie” relies a bit too much on the idea of foreigners — sinister Moors, mysterious Italian women — for its suspense. I suppose this is true to the original gothic spirit, but it doesn’t play so well today.
“The Scoured Silk” is my favorite. It has a nice twist at the end that left me with that exhilarated feeling I mentioned earlier. I suppose I should have guessed what would happen, but instead I finished up feeling pleasantly surprised, and a little dizzy. “The Avenging of Ann Leete” uses an unusual revenge technique, and finishes on a rather sweet note.
“Kecksies” has such a charming title (the local term for hemlock), and such a dreadful ending — “dreadful” in the horror sense, not the quality sense. It’s the kind of ending that would have made Frederic Wertham‘s head explode, if he’d found it in a comic. This one made me dizzy, too.
“Ann Mellor’s Lover” has an interesting conceit: the narrator is a modern-day bookseller with psychic tendencies who finds an 18th century sketch of a young woman in an old book. The sketch gives him psychic flashes, which reveal the narrative. The actual protagonist (possibly the narrator’s previous incarnation) is a creep, of the kind that was often the hero of 1980s bodice-ripper romance novels. But it’s 2014 now, and kidnapping is NOT an acceptable courtship technique. It’s hard to feel too sorry about the protagonist’s fate.
If you are a fan of classic gothic fiction, in all its moody, overwrought glory, you will probably enjoy this collection. As for the rest of us? Well, despite my quibbles about some of the stories, there’s no denying that they gave me a thrill, which is the whole point. So if my descriptions intrigued you at all, you might want to check out Marjorie Bowen. You might find her a guilty pleasure, too.
The collection that I have is from Wordsworth, available as paperback, and apparently as Kindle. Ash-Tree Press re-released their Bowen collection Twilight and Other Supernatural Romances, which has an overlapping but different selection of stories, as an ebook. (The title link is to the description of the out-of-print hardback, but the ebook can be found here).
And best of all, several of her stories (some in the Wordsworth collection, others not) are available at Project Gutenberg Australia.