Today’s featured author is Mary Amelia St. Clair (1863-1946), who wrote under the name May Sinclair. She was a novelist, poet, and literary critic; also a feminist who was actively involved in the suffrage movement. She wrote and critiqued works in the modernist tradition, and is credited with having coined the term “stream of consciousness” in a literary context.
She was also greatly interested in philosophy and psychoanalysis, interests that permeate the writings that I’m highlighting today. She wrote extensively on the Brontë sisters, and it seems to have been her Brontë scholarship that led to her interest in the supernatural. Several of her ghost stories and metaphysical tales were published together in 1923 as Uncanny Stories.
I first came across Sinclair’s writing in the excellent Boris Karloff/Edmund Speare anthology And the Darkness Falls. Her story “Where the Fire is Not Quenched” is a dark and dread-inducing description of Hell, with an almost Twilight-Zone vibe. It’s also a great example of Sartre’s maxim “Hell is other people” — written at least twenty years before Sartre wrote No Exit in 1943.
Uncanny Stories went into public domain in the U.S. just before I discovered Sinclair, and I’ve had the collection on my “to read” list ever since. This series gave me the perfect motivation to finally pull it off the list, and I’m glad I did.
These stories feel considerably more modern than much of the writing I usually discuss on the blog; Sinclair is upfront, without being explicit, about sexual relationships both in and out of wedlock. Her protagonists are complex and psychologically plausible. Unlike traditional Victorian ghost stories, where the supernatural is the point of the narrative, Sinclair uses the supernatural more as an excuse to explore themes around problematic aspects of human psychology and personal interaction.
Some of her stories are also direct explorations of Sinclair’s philosophical and metaphysical ideas. I personally liked this latter type of story the least, but they are still of some interest.
- Uncanny Stories is online at Project Gutenberg, here.
The Project Gutenberg version includes some charming illustrations Jean de Bosschère, from the original edition. Overall, this is an excellent collection.
Here’s my take on the individual stories:
Where the Fire is Not Quenched: In my opinion, the strongest story in the collection. Harriott Leigh is thwarted in love, twice, before she finally settles into a squalid affair with a married man. Settling isn’t always such a great idea, and choices have consequences. As I noted above, this tale is Sartre, before Sartre. Quite dark.
The Token: Donald Dunbar loves his wife Cicely, and she loves him. But Dunbar isn’t the type to show his emotions, and he’s got a perverse way of expressing affection. He doesn’t realize how badly this hurts his wife, until it’s too late.
“The Token” can be read as a cautionary tale about toxic masculinity: how culturally imposed restraints against masculine emotionality are damaging to men and to the people that they love. Or maybe Donald Dunbar is just an asshole. A classic ghost story, either way.
The Flaw in the Crystal: Agatha Verrall has a gift, a psychic/spiritual ability to heal other people’s emotional ills. But when she tries to use her gift to heal her friend’s mentally disturbed husband, Harding Powell, she discovers her gift has limitations.
This story is primarily an exploration of Sinclair’s (and maybe Jung’s?) ideas about how the spiritual realm might work. It’s long, meandering, and too full of tell-not-show. I stopped reading and started skimming about a third of the way in. There is one section, where Powell’s psychosis actively pursues and tries to possess Agatha, that was genuinely creepy. But the rest of it: meh. Your mileage may vary, of course.
The Nature of the Evidence: Edward Marston’s beloved wife Rosamund dies. He eventually remarries the seductive divorcee Pauline; a straightforward marriage of mutual lust. Rosamund does not approve.
I’m not a huge fan of jealous ghost wife stories, and I’m even less a fan of pure fair-haired women being juxtaposed against sinister dark-haired ones. Nonetheless, this is not bad. The ending is especially interesting.
If the Dead Knew: Wilfred Hollyer is torn between his devotion to his mother, who helps support him, and his love for Effie Carroll. But he feels he can’t marry Effie while his mother is alive. Then his mother falls seriously ill from complications after a flu. Just what does Wilfred want? Can you wish a person to death?
This interesting sketch of a good but weak man explores themes of the body-mind connection in health, and how easily love and dependence can be intertwined. Plus, the opening of the story is an impressive example of veiled erotic writing, as Wilfred plays the organ for Effie, “pedalling passionately.”
The young girl who stood beside him drew in a deep, rushing breath; her heart swelled; her whole body listened, with hurried senses desiring the climax, the climax, the crash of sound. Her nerves shook as the organist rocked towards her…
I wonder if it was as obvious one hundred years ago as it seems today.
The Victim: Steven is hot-tempered and violent, and intensely possessive of his sweetheart Dorsy. But when he nearly kills Dorsy’s cousin in a fit of jealousy, Dorsy runs to their mutual employer Mr. Greathead for advice. The next day, Dorsy breaks up with Steven and leaves town. Steven blames Mr. Greathead, and plots his revenge.
This was the second best story in the collection for me. Steven is well-drawn and frightening, and I found myself cheering Good for you, Dorsy! when she leaves him. The murder is brutal, and the haunting quite creepy. Sinclair manages to slip in more of her metaphysical theories, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. I’m of two minds about the ending, but overall this is a strong, solid tale.
The Finding of the Absolute: This is another metaphysical exercise; you might call it “philosophy fiction.” Sinclair creates a vision of the afterlife influenced by her own ideas about poetry, art and ethics, by the writings of Kant, and by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s not among my favorite pieces in the book, but it’s crisper than “The Flaw in the Crystal,” and kind of fun.
According to Wikipedia, Sinclair wrote a second collection of supernatural tales, The Intercessor and Other Stories (1931), but that won’t go into public domain for a while. I haven’t yet read it, though I see a few copies for sale online.
There is also a now out-of-print Ash Tree Press collection of May Sinclair stories, taken from the above two collections as well as from the 1930 collection Tales Told by Simpson. While the collections themselves aren’t in the public domain, several of the stories included were first published prior to 1924, and therefore are in the public domain (in the U.S). Some of these are online, and a little research will dig them up. I definitely plan to read them.
EDIT 4/24/20: Hippocampus Press recently put out a collection of Sinclair’s supernatural fiction (I think it’s selected stories, not a complete collection): If the Dead Knew: The Weird Fiction of May Sinclair, edited by S. T Joshi.
You can also read more about May Sinclair at the May Sinclair Society website. Judging by even the tiny bit of her writing that I’ve read, she’s a writer who deserves to be better known.
Featured Image: May Sinclair (center) standing in front of the Kensington Women’s Social and Political Union shop, 1910. Source: Wikimedia
Other images: Illustrations by Jean de Bosschère for Uncanny Stories. Source: Project Gutenberg