Weird fiction, that endlessly defined sub-genre of horror and, to a degree, science-fiction, is usually attributed to writers like Lovecraft and Robert Aickman. Men writing uncanny, strange stories that blur reality’s edges, and unsettle the reader. When Mark Fisher defined the genre in his seminal book The Weird and the Eerie, he focussed on works by the likes of M John Harrison, China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, and David Lynch. His definition of the uncanny, as something that puts the “strange within the familiar” is a perfect description of the kind of writing that makes weird fiction such a fascinating genre to explore, but the book, and genre has been dominated by men.
Not so, argues Melissa Edmundson, who in her introduction to this brilliant anthology of women’s weird fiction, traces the origins of the word weird to the English “‘wyrd’, meaning ‘fate’, or ‘destiny’” Putting the word directly in connection with the Greek mythological figures, The Fates, weaving goddesses. The stories she has selected for this anthology are far ranging, dated between 1890 and 1940. They include pieces by Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Nesbit and others who may be less familiar.
Though the authors themselves are women, the stories are not all focussed on gender issues, though they certainly are present in amongst the pieces. It’s front and centre in Edith Wharton’s brilliant ‘Kerfol’, in which a controlling, abusive husband repeatedly murders dogs brought home by his wife and is possibly murdered by their spirits.
Many of them, including Francis Steven’s terrific ‘Unseen – Unfeared’, feel of a kind with MR James or Aickman. In Steven’s story, as with those two giants of horror fiction, a man encounters the unexplainable. Entering a museum promising to show him ‘the great unseen’, he is shown a photographic technique by the owner. “There was nothing in his words to inspire fear. It was a wearisomely detailed account of his struggles with photography,” our narrator says,
“Yet, as he again paused impressively, I wished that he might never speak again. I was desperately, contemptibly in dread of the thing he might say next.”
Elsewhere, Margery Lawrence and Margaret Irwin imbue household objects with paranormal powers. Lawrence’s haunted saucepan poisoning the dreams of those who eat or drink things cooked within it, and Irwin’s book bringing about a nasty end for Mr Corbett, who was just “in search of something more satisfactory to send him to sleep.” These stories find the horror in domestic spaces, the same way that Mary Butt’s story, ‘With and Without Buttons’, finds it in an article of women’s clothing – a pair of gloves. In her story, which ends the collection, two sisters decide to play a trick on a new lodger. They leave a glove out for him to find, and play dumb when confronted with it, bringing up a manufactured story of a ghost in the house. It’s only when he produces a second glove that he found, not left by the sisters that we’re left to question what’s really going on. Has one sister gone behind the other’s back? Has the lodger figured out their trick and decided to play one back on them in return? Or is something much more eerie afoot? It brings to mind the sibling relationship at the core of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and her dry sense of humour too.
The real gem of the collection though is Edith Nesbit’s ‘The Shadow’. Nesbit, best known for her novels The Railway Children, and Five Children & It, opens her story with as perfect a definition of weird fiction as I’ve yet come across,
“This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it, and there seems to be no reason why any of it should have happened. But that is no reason why it should not be told. You must have noticed that all the real ghost stories you have come close to, are like this in these respects – no explanation, no logical coherence.”
In ‘The Shadow’, a group of young women tell each other spooky stories after a lavish party, when they are interrupted by a housekeeper who is prompted to tell her own. Her story, in which she visits two former friends who married one another and encounters a strange shadow, “it seemed to sink down till it lay like a pool of ink in the floor.” The thing disappears quickly, folding itself into shadows in the room, but it becomes a shared fear between the husband and the storyteller, a secret they can never tell his wife. Is it linked to a kind of shared past the husband has had with our storyteller? She is certain that it is not a ghost. In the end, she describes it as “something black crouched…between him and me.” A thing impossible to describe and impossible to say, a truth perhaps that sits between them unspoken. The young women listening to her story understand this to varying degrees and so, Nesbit’s story becomes a kind of rumination on the point at which we become adults and that uncanny point of transition.
In fact, every story in Women’s Weird justifies its inclusion, and Edmundson’s terrific introduction does a great job of defining not only the weird, but shifting our view of history to centre women’s writing within the genre. The book feels entirely of the moment, and its selection of stories is completely perfect.
Any Cop?: An exceptional anthology, packed with brilliant fiction. In years to come this is going to be cited in essays as an essential part of the weird fiction canon.