The heroine of “The Long Arm” is one Miss Sarah Fairbanks, who is, like many of Wilkins’ protagonists, an unmarried schoolmarm. Sarah has a sweetheart, one whom her father objects to, for some reason. He berates Sarah loudly about her sweetheart one night during Sarah’s visit home for the summer vacation. The next morning, Sarah discovers her father’s body in his bed, murdered. Soon, Sarah is the only plausible suspect.
Like Lizzie Borden, Sarah is arrested, put on trial, and eventually acquitted–but not in the public mind. Unlike Lizzie Borden, Sarah decides to investigate the case herself, and she does a pretty good job, up to a point. Will Sarah be able to clear herself?
It’s an interesting short story, and Sarah is a strong protagonist (as are the majority of Freeman’s heroines), with a highly analytical mind. Freeman wrote the story for an anthology called The Long Arm and Other Detective Stories (1895), which is available in its entirety at the Women’s Genre Fiction Project, though the other three authors are men. The rest of the anthology is enjoyable as well. I particularly like “The Twinkling of an Eye” by Professor Brander Matthews.
Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) was an American writer probably best known today for her supernatural short stories, which combine “domestic realism and supernaturalism” (as Wikipedia says), generally in a New England setting. Her stories have a feminist sensibility, and tend to feature self-reliant, often unmarried women as their protagonists. M. R. James spoke favorably of Freeman’s collection Wind in the Rosebushin a letter to Nico Davies, saying “I like it.”
I shared Freeman’s excellent vampire story “Luella Miller” in my previous post, and I thought I’d share another one today. The narrator of “The School-Teacher’s Story” is a retired schoolmarm, financially comfortable, strong-minded, and perhaps not terribly maternal or domestic (it seems Freeman wasn’t terribly domestic, herself). She’s exactly the type of person that ghost stories shouldn’t happen to (so many ghost story protagonists are). And yet, there was that one student….
The living vampires from my last post were active predators who sought out their victims. Luella Miller is passive, more like a parasitic vine that wraps itself around a healthy plant and clings to it until the plant dies.
She had blue eyes full of soft pleading, little slender, clinging hands, and a wonderful grace of motion and attitude.
Luella doesn’t need to hunt down prey; they come to her willingly, men and women alike, and gladly sacrifice themselves to care for their “helpless” friend. In Luella, Wilkins-Freeman describes a real-life type of abusive personality, what people call a “psychic vampire” or “energy vampire,” and though there seems to be a supernatural element to Luella’s fascination, in many ways it isn’t the point of the story.
I joined a “Classic Ghost Stories” interest group recently (It’s called “The Classic Ghost Story Tradition” on Facebook, if you’re interested); the group focuses on “classic” ghost stories, those from the mostly British tradition written around the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Authors from this tradition include M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Aickman. Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a few of these, too.
I’ve enjoyed the discussions, and gotten a few good recommendations. But I realized that while I very much like the authors and the stories that tend to come up, they aren’t the stories that have struck me the most, in my reading.
It’s got me thinking about what I like in a good ghost story.
They don’t have to be scary (though a little frisson is nice: just one scene, or even just a single image that makes me gasp or my pulse to skip a beat will do it). The ghost doesn’t have to be malevolent or evil. The story shouldn’t be gory or bloody, but a touch of gruesome is okay.
The stories that have really stuck with me — I won’t call them my favorites, but rather the stories that have crept into some corner of my mind and stayed there — aren’t always the best known stories by their authors. They aren’t always the stories by those authors that I think are the scariest, or even the best written. But for whatever reason, they haunt me.