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) 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).