First things first: “Adela’s House” is the best haunted house story I’ve ever read. It’s eerie and dark, enigmatic, and just a little bit bloody. Like most great ghost stories, it starts out in a quirky but fundamentally prosaic world and just…goes sideways. Real sideways. I love it, and for this story alone, I’d recommend Things We Lost in the Fire.
But the rest of this collection, by Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell) is nothing to ignore, either. I sought her work out after seeing her featured in a BBC special on women ghost story writers, but not all the stories in Things We Lost in the Fire are supernatural. Rather than a “ghost story writer,” I lean towards calling her a “writer of the macabre.” The stories in this collection, supernatural or not, are all uncanny, dark, “weird” in the sense that the VanderMeers use the term, and sometimes outright horror. Whatever you choose to call them, they are compelling and unsettling, and a really great read.
The trick or treat festivities may be curtailed for us this year, but that just leaves more time for reading! In time for Halloween, an All Hallows’ evening themed ghost story, by Ellen Wood (1814-1887), the long-time editor and eventual owner of Argosy magazine.
“Why, that,” said Harriet. “They believe that the dead are allowed to revisit the world after dark on the Eve of All Souls; that they hover in the air, waiting to appear to any of their living relatives, who may venture out, lest they should forget to pray on the morrow for the rest of their souls.”
Strictly speaking, Harriet is talking about the evening of November 1, not the evening of October 31, but if you interpret “Hallowe’en” to mean “All Hallows’ evening” rather than “All Hallows’ eve,” then we still have a Halloween ghost story, right?
Ellen Wood first published “Reality or Delusion?” in Argosy magazine in December, 1868. The story was then recollected into her short-story-cycle novel Johnny Ludlow (1874), the first of six such novels/collections. Johnny Ludlow is the narrator and attributed author of several stories that Wood wrote for the Argosy, starting in 1868; apparently she published anonymously to hide the fact that she was in fact the primary contributor to the magazine that she also edited. She acknowledged her authorship when she began to publish the stories in book form.
“Reality or Delusion?” is a nicely told ghost story on its own, and also an inviting introduction to Johnny Ludlow, his family the Todhetleys, and the village of North Crabb. The story teases more anecdotes from Johnny’s life, and I do plan on checking out the full collection (maybe several of them). More tales from Ellen Wood may be forthcoming!
In the meantime, enjoy this tale, and have a safe Halloween.
Not a lot seems to be known about Lettice Galbraith. She published two short story collections (New Ghost Stories, and Pretty Miss Allington and other tales) as well as a novel(?) (Spin of the Coin) around 1893-1894. A further story from her pen came out in 1897, and then, as far as I know, nothing. I suppose we don’t even know if Lettice Galbraith is the author’s real name.
I’m including Ms. Galbraith in my Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic series for New Ghost Stories (1893), a really delightful collection. The stories are crisp and well-paced, and are frequently more direct about unsavory topics like adultery, seduction, and suicide than one might expect in Victorian-era tales. The characters are generally well-fleshed out, and every story is quite different in its haunting, as well.
Another contemporary addition to my Women Writers of Folklore and Fantasy series: England-based Malaysian-born author Zen Cho. She writes science fiction and fantasy, and as she puts it herself, “stories positing that what the ordinary Malaysian believes about the world is true. This can sometimes lapse into the supernatural.” What a great quote!
I had been planning (and still am) to pick up Cho’s latest work, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, which sounds awesome, but then I discovered an ebook copy of her 2014 short story collection Spirits Abroad in my virtual To Read pile, so I started with that. I loved it! Why did it take me so long to get to it?
I saw Ms. Cho refer to this collection on Twitter as being “10 out of 10 on the Malaysian scale” (when compared to her other writings), and it certainly feels like a collection of stories aimed at Malaysian readers. The characters speak Manglish (Malaysian-English), and generally the Malaysian vocabulary and references to clothing or food go unexplained. I personally prefer this (as I’ve written before); the meanings and connotations are clear from context, and if you are really curious about some particular article of clothing or whatnot, well there’s always the internet.
What drew me to the collection is that the stories in Spirits Abroad are full of the creatures of Malaysian folklore (or its “lower mythology,” as Filipino folklorist Maximo D. Ramos called it), as well as figures from Chinese mythology: hantu, pontianaks, orang bunian, hungry ghosts, and so on. I didn’t recognize all the creatures, at least not under their Malaysian names, but Filipino lower mythology is sufficiently similar to Malaysian lower mythology that several of the creatures and their habits felt familiar. And of course some aspects of Malaysian culture and food and so on feel a bit “Filipino-adjacent” as well, which was nice.
I really like the humor in Cho’s writing, as her characters confront the ordinary travails of life — family relationships, friendships, love and dating, school — all complicated by various, often unwelcome supernatural twists. The dialogue crackles naturalistically, the characters are quirky, well-drawn and endearing (when they’re supposed to be), the relationships feel authentic. In fact, I was surprised how familiar the families in the stories felt to me, especially the feisty aunties and grandmas.
The ebook version of Spirits Abroad contains additional stories and other bonus material not included in the print version, so I recommend you get that. I enjoyed all the stories, but here are a few that stood out for me:
Today’s featured author is Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930): writer, journalist, editor, poet and playwright. From approximately 1902 to 1904, she was the editor of Colored American Magazine, one of the earliest literary and cultural journals aimed at an African-American readership (“a magazine Of the Race, By the Race, For the Race“). She was also the magazine’s most prolific contributor, serializing several novels within its pages, and often writing pieces for the magazine, both fiction and non-fiction, under various pen names.
I’m featuring her today for her gothic adventure-romance Of One Blood; or The Hidden Self, which was serialized over eleven issues of Colored American Magazine. However, she is also a germinal figure in one of my other favorite genres: detective fiction. Her short story “Talma Gordon,” published in the October 1900 issue of the magazine, is said to be the first published mystery by a black author [citation]. Her novel Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice is “the earliest-known African American novel to feature a black detective” (two of them, actually) [citation, but see note1 below]. I’ll talk about all three of these works (with links to read them!) in this post.
Hopkins is an important figure in Black American literature, but for a long time she was obscured by other black literary figures of her era. A 1972 Phylon article brought her back to public (or at least academic) notice. Since then, there’s been a fair bit of Hopkins scholarship. I’ll also point you to some interesting articles from that literature stream, as well.
Two more translations! One by Juana Manuela Gorriti, and one by Emilia Pardo Bazán. This is a kind of matched pair: two stories about the tension between rational explanations and the desire to believe in the supernatural.
Many marvelous-seeming phenomena in the world are really quite natural; Sir Walter Scott dedicated an entire letter from his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft to debunking ghost stories of this type. One such example is the tale of the dead club president’s ghost, which has a perfectly rational explanation.
As a story, though, the supernatural explanation is far more satisfying. And that may be the case with Gorriti’s and Pardo Bazán’s stories as well.
Featured Image: Mandrake. Folio 90 Folio 90 from the Naples Dioscurides (7th century). Source: Wikimedia
Today’s featured writer Kristine Ong Muslim is a native and resident of Maguindanao province, southern Philippines. Her uncanny fiction, poetry and translations of other Filipino writers have been widely anthologized, and her most recent book is the collection of apocalyptic short fiction, The Drone Outside (2017).
My introduction to Ong Muslim was her short story “The Pit,” in the uncanny fiction anthology Uncertainties, Vol 4 (editor Timothy J. Jarvis), from Swan River Press. It’s short, unsettling, and ambiguous. There is much for the reader to reconstruct between the lines–as is generally true of the type of fiction that shows up in the Uncertainties anthologies. It’s the kind of story that will work for some readers, and not for others. I was intrigued; I wanted to find more.
Ong Muslim writes on a variety of dark themes, with a mixture of horror, science fiction, weirdness, and allegory. Not all of her tales are necessarily “weird,” but there’s always at least a trace of the uncanny in her prose. In the last few years especially, much of her fiction has had a decidedly apocalyptic theme running through it, and a deep pessimism about human nature. I won’t lie; a lot of her stories are hard to read, at this time, in the present pandemic situation. But they’re beautiful.
Much of her work is available online, and here are some stories that I especially liked. This is more links than I usually share, but many of these, even the “longer” ones, are quite short. The longer pieces are in roughly chronological order.
Switching back to a couple of contemporary Filipina writers for the next couple of posts, each of whom are featured in a collection from one of my favorite publishers!
Yvette Tan is a freelance writer who has written about many topics for magazines and other media sources. The supernatural is one of her special interests, and her fiction was brought to my attention by a fellow member of the Facebook Classic Ghost Story Tradition group. Unfortunately, the short story collection he recommended to me was in Filipino (which I don’t read); she also has an English language collection called Waking the Dead, which looked interesting, but seems to be out of print/only available in the Philippines. Darn!
As far as I can tell, most of Tan’s fiction has been published in Filipino collections that don’t always make it to the U.S., or at least not for very long. However, some internet searching uncovered her personal blog and a few stories as well. They fall more directly into the horror category than the ghost stories and weird tales that I usually talk about (two of them do, at least), but I love their quirky dark humor.
Today’s authoress of the fantastic is Henrietta Dorothy Everett (1851-1923), who wrote under the name Theo Douglas. Though mostly forgotten today, she wrote some 22 novels, at least half of which were fantastical or supernatural. There isn’t a lot known about her life, but from the descriptions in both the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Wikipedia, her novels look worth digging up, if you are into quirky pulpish stuff .
Today, however, I’ll talk about Everett’s ghost stories, mostly collected in The Death Mask and Other Ghosts (1920), published under her real name. The Death Mask drew notice from both M. R. James (“of a rather quieter tone on the whole, but with some excellently conceived stories”) and H. P. Lovecraft (“though adhering to very old and conventional models, [she] occasionally reaches singular heights of spiritual terror”).
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….