Book Review:

Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923, edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger 

Reviewed by Rebecca Soares

Arizona State University

Review of Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923, edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger, Pegasus Books, 2020. xiii + 360 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1643134161).

In Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 mummy tale, “Lost in a Pyramid, or the Mummy’s Curse,” the curious and naïve Evelyn pleads with her betrothed, Paul Forsyth, to tell her about the mysterious seeds he has unknowingly brought back with him from his adventures in Egypt. When Evelyn asks about the origins of the foreign pips, Paul replies, “That is a weird story, which will only haunt you if I tell it” (39). While Evelyn insists that she “like[s] weird tales,” adding that “they never trouble [her],” this very story will ultimately result in her doom: living out the rest of her days in a catatonic state, she is cursed by the ancient Egyptian sorceress whose mummified corpse her fiancé disturbed and destroyed while lost in the underground labyrinths of a pyramid (39). Although Alcott’s story is just one of many supernatural imperial tales that titillated periodical readers during the Egyptomania craze on both sides of the Atlantic during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, its emphasis on the power of the “weird story” to haunt, entertain, and ultimately trouble listeners is a particularly apt inclusion in this collection. The editors not only strive to evoke similar reactions in its readers, but also seek to demonstrate how such tales were often used by women writers to disrupt, challenge, and “trouble” the social milieu in which they lived.

Curated by best-selling and award-winning anthologists and horror fiction aficionados Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger, Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers, 1852-1923 presents a brilliant and wide-ranging selection of stories. Many of them have never been anthologized, and all of them, in their productive juxtapositions, challenge literary scholars and popular readers alike in new and exciting ways to see connections and tensions in and across the genre of the supernatural story. Addressing a notable gap left by horror, fantasy, and ghost story anthologies that traditionally focus on works by male authors—with the exception of Mary Shelley, whom Morton and Klinger designate as the mother of the horror tale—this collection not only brings to light many texts that have been nearly lost to the archives, but also demonstrates the expansiveness of the supernatural as a literary genre. As Klinger and Morton note in their introduction, although ghost stories are perhaps the most commonly discussed subset of the genre, “[w]omen were also writing stories of mummies, werewolves, mad scientists, ancient curses, and banshees. They were writing tales of cosmic horror half a century before Lovecraft ever put pen to paper, and crafting weird westerns, dark metaphorical fables, and those delicious, dread-inducing gems that are simply unclassifiable” (x).

Placing beloved and canonized British and American female authors, such as Marie Corelli, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, alongside the more obscure and seldom studied Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, Harriett Prescott Spofford, Ellen Glasgow, and Mary Austin, Morton and Klinger make great strides towards rediscovering and recuperating what Margaret Cohen famously coined “the great unread.”[i] Rejecting traditional disciplinary divisions in terms of national canon and time period, Morton and Klinger push beyond the confines of transatlantic literature. Including works by South African novelist Olive Schreiner, Irish poet and sculptor Dora Sigerson Shorter, and the German-born Jewish mystical writer Regina Miriam Bloch, they provide a more global perspective on the genre. Even within the American literary canon, Klinger and Morton assemble a variety of regional local color writers, with Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman presenting traditional New England lore, while Mary Austin and Ellen Glasgow find inspiration in the landscape of the American Southwest and the South of the Reconstruction, respectively. Covering an expansive and untraditional timeframe that encompasses the heyday of the Victorian period, the entire Edwardian era, and the first two decades of literary Modernism, the collection enables the reader to not only trace a genealogy of popular women’s horror and fantastic fiction, but also to follow the formal and stylistic shifts that accompanied the transition into each literary period.

Beyond rediscovering forgotten female authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Morton and Klinger’s editorial decisions allow readers to see celebrated authors in a new light, nuancing our understanding of writers who have come to be defined by their most popular works. While most readers know Louisa May Alcott for the charming children’s novel Little Women (1868-1869) and Frances Hodgson Burnett for the childhood classics Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885-1886), The Secret Garden (1911), and A Little Princess (1905), both women published lurid and sensational tales. Alcott even claimed that she preferred her “blood and thunder” tales to her domestic dramas (39). Reading Burnett’s “In the Closed Room” (1904), a sinister and haunting tale of childhood games and friendship, alongside her much beloved and adapted novels presents hers as a talent that was not, and should not be, understood as limited to a single defining genre. Likewise, the collection demonstrates the flexibility of nineteenth century realism by showcasing the supernatural stories of social-problem fiction writers like Elizabeth Gaskell and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps who infuse even their tales of mesmeric trances and ghosts with the plight of the working poor.

Many of the women writers featured by Morton and Klinger employ aspects of the fantastic and otherworldly as strategic cover for more radical social and political arguments. They render the quotidian and domestic horrific in order to interrogate gender norms and expectations, as well as class and economic struggles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of these authors, such as Clemence Housman, Olivia Howard Dunbar, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, were active in the suffrage movement on both sides of the Atlantic. Their tales dramatize the very real anxieties that haunted late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theories of motherhood and femininity. For example, while Gilman’s “The Giant Wisteria” (1891) examines the ghastly result of the stigma against female sexuality and unwed mothers, Dunbar’s 1904 story “The Dream-baby” imagines the fate of motherless women and spinsters who are haunted by the unborn. Several of the pieces even reimagine or revise male-authored texts and male-dominated narratives in order to interject a feminist perspective. Olive Schreiner’s “In a Far-Off World” (1890) presents a brief dream-like tale that almost reimagines a primitive Eden complete with blood sacrifices and direct communication with mysterious divine forces that paints women as sacrificing happiness for the sake of men. Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Gray Man” (1886) is read by Morton and Klinger as a feminine response to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Gray Champion,” and Dora Sigerson Shorter’s “Transmigration” appears to have been inspired in some ways by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Perhaps most interestingly, Regina Miriam Bloch’s occult-inspired “The Swine-Gods” (1917) directly connects the onset of WWI and technological advancements in military weapons with demonic rituals.

While the collection offers only brief historical and cultural context for each individual author and story, its value lies in bringing these texts together and making them available to a wider reading public. This collection will be a valuable resource for scholars in the field who continue to explore and unpack the cultural and historical significance of weird stories, a genre that proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Weird Women reveals the ways in which the genre both reflected and contested ideologies about gender, sexuality, race, imperialism, class, and other axes of difference.

[i] See Margaret Cohen, “Narratology in the Archive of Literature,” Representations 108.1 (Fall 2009): 51-75.

-25 Nov. 2020