[GUEST POST] Daniel Mills on 5 Short Masterpieces by the Women of Horror’s Golden Age
Daniel Mills is a Vermont-based author of weird/horror fiction. Revenants, his first novel, was published in February 2011 by Chomu Press and later selected by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Historical Novels of 2011. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Black Static, Shadows & Tall Trees, A Season in Carcosa, Fungi, The Grimscribe’s Puppets, and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 23. His latest book is The Lord Came at Twilight from Dark Renaissance. Follow Daniel at his website and on Goodreads.
by Daniel Mills
Fandom is changing. Recent dust-ups within the SFWA have sparked a number of important conversations concerning systemic racism and misogyny within the world of science fiction & fantasy. The horror community, it seems, has fared little better, despite the success of events like Women in Horror Month, which has helped to bring some well-deserved publicity to the newest generation of female horror writers. It’s a terrific event, and a necessary one, but nonetheless regrettable because it is necessary. Certainly the work of female authors has been every bit as fundamental to the development of the modern weird/horror story as that of their male counterparts. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, laughable.
But of course all things are not equal, meaning that many of our finest horror writers, past and present, remain unacknowledged. Yes, there is misogyny in horror, as in any other community, but lately I have come to believe that the marginalization of women writers within the horror genre has less to do with institutional prejudice (though, again, this is not absent) and more to do with a prevailing lack of interest in the genre’s roots.
This ignorance extends not only to the horror’s female practitioners but to its Golden Age of roughly 1880 to 1930. During this time, the ghost story form was perfected and the modern weird/horror story born out of it. This was the period in which many of the genre’s greatest writers produced their finest works: Vernon Lee’s Hauntings (1890), MR James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1905), Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams (1907), William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908), Oliver Onions’ Widdershins (1911), May Sinclair’s Uncanny Stories (1923), and so on.
And yet for many readers, writers, and would-be list-makers, an awareness of the horror genre begins with Bradbury and Matheson and ends in the present day with only a few token nods to Poe and Lovecraft or Shelley and Jackson-that is, if they remember to include any women at all. These are important figures, yes, but the history of the genre is far richer than this kind of tokenism might lead you to believe.
So here are five short masterpieces you may not have read (stories that were influential on my own writing), penned by the women of horror’s Golden Age. As horror stories, they have rarely been equaled, never eclipsed, and their beauty and power remains as striking now as in the years in which they were written.
Enduring love. While traveling in Italy, a Polish academic finds himself beguiled by the story of one Medea da Carpi, a long-dead seductress with some similarities to Lucrezia Borgia. Like MR James, Lee understands that the appeal of the ghost story is one and the same with that of our shared history and the hold it exerts upon us. Viewed in this light, the story becomes even more poignant given the century that has elapsed since it was written. The Victorian era has vanished into history, as has Lee herself, though she returns to us through her work as a kind of ghost, as fascinating and complex in her own right as Medea da Carpi.
This short story by the now forgotten D’Arcy first appeared in the infamous Yellow Book. It relates the experience of a family in mourning who pay a visit to the titular villa in the south of France. They are searching for a holiday rental but soon find themselves afflicted by inexplicable feelings of dread. In the end, the family departs the Villa Lucienne without closure or resolution, and the reader-like the family-is left only with fragments: the faint impression of an annihilating terror or of a sorrow too deep for words.
A young gentleman goes out at night to walk along the Strid, a deadly stretch of rapids and waterfalls on the River Wharfe in Yorkshire’s West Riding. His dear friend has been missing for several days and our protagonist finds himself unable to sleep for worry. Then he spots a man struggling amidst the rapids…
This marvelously efficient story, scarcely 2,000 words in length, builds to a breathless climax then ends it all with a single shattering sentence. Also notable is the story’s obvious gay subtext, characteristic of many ghost stories penned during the period wherein repressed emotion reveals itself via supernatural means.
In this tale, “two young esquires… riding from Canterbury” are forced to take shelter in the house of a poor old woman. By coincidence the woman is preparing the corpse of an old acquaintance and former romantic rival for burial. The funeral, we learn, is to take place that very night.
All of Bowen’s ghost stories are terrific and worth seeking out, but this is perhaps the most memorable. Without question it is her nastiest story and by some distance the nastiest tale on this list. The ending is brutal-shocking even by today’s standards.
Sinclair is best known today as a reviewer and early critic of the imagist and modernist movements, but her supernatural fiction ranks among the very best we have, ranging in tone from the gently ironic to the simply harrowing.
“Where Their Fire is Not Quenched” belongs to the latter category. The narrative traces the course of its protagonist’s lifetime, ending with her descent into hell. What emerges is a vivid portrait of religious guilt in which Sinclair re-contextualizes notions of Eden and Original Sin so as to portray the hell of the protagonist’s beliefs: the hell in which she believes and the hell those beliefs become.
This particular story was a favorite of Borges and one of only a handful of perfect short stories in English. Unforgettable.
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