Tag Archives: Short Stories

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton – subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined.

I have long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a fascination that started with Ethan Frome, Wharton’s brilliant yet brutal novella of the fallout from an intense love triangle. The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are favourites too, along with the New York Stories which I wrote about in 2019.

Wharton’s Ghost Stories – collected together in this beautifully-produced book from Virago’s Designer Collection – are probably closest in style to some of the more unsettling pieces in the New York book, characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety. Here we have narratives rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors – the fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul. As one might expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn – with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing.

The book opens with The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, one of the most unnerving tales in this excellent collection. Narrated by the maid herself, it is a classic ghost story in which the protagonist is haunted by the appearance of a spectre, the identity of which becomes clear as the story unfolds. There are several familiar elements here: a dark gloomy house; a feverish young lady of the manor; servants who refuse to speak of the maid’s predecessor; and a ghostly image that only the protagonist herself is able to detect. However, perhaps the most frightening element of the story is Wharton’s use of sound – the terrifying ring of the maid’s bell after hours, piercing the intense silence of the house as it rests at night.

Silence also plays a key role in All Souls, another highlight and possibly the most terrifying story in the collection. It tells the tale of a widow, Sara Clayborn, who believes she has spent a horrific weekend at her home, Whitegates, a lonely, remote house in the wilds of Connecticut. Having spotted an unknown woman heading towards her house, Sara breaks her ankle and is confined to bed for the night. On waking she discovers that the servants are nowhere to be found. The house appears to be deserted; an eerie silence having replaced the normal bustle of activity during the day. In this story, it is not the unexplained creaks and groans that strikes terror into the heart of the protagonist; rather, it is the ominous lack of any sound at all, especially as the house appears to be completely deserted.

More than once she had explored the ground floor alone in the small hours, in search of unwonted midnight noises; but now it was not the idea of noises that frightened her, but that inexorable and hostile silence, the sense that the house had retained in full daylight its nocturnal mystery, and was watching her as she was watching it; that in entering those empty orderly rooms she might be disturbing some unseen confabulation on which beings of flesh-and-blood had better not intrude. (p. 348)

It’s a tale in which Sara begins to doubt her own sanity and perception of reality, with time appearing to expand and contract before the servants finally reappear.

Afterward is another highlight, a vividly-imagined story that feels all too believable and real. The Boynes, and American couple living in England take a country house in Dorset as their home – a property already known to their friend, Alida Stair. When the Boynes enquire about the possible presence of a ghost, they are told by Alida that there is a ghost, although its appearance does not become clear to the house’s inhabitant until ‘afterward’, whatever that may mean. At first, the Boynes take this conjecture in their stride, laughing it off in a light-hearted manner. It is only once a mysterious figure is seen approaching the house that the supernatural happenings swing into action…

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long silent room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her shortsighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible presence she threw herself on the bell rope and gave it a sharp pull. (p. 91)

Once again, the fear of the unknown is crucial here, the abject terror that stems from the zealous nature of our own imaginations. Overall, this is a very nuanced story, one that alludes to a sense of retribution – a kind of reckoning for past misdemeanours and nefarious deeds.

Also very impressive is Pomegranate Seed in which Charlotte Ashby, a newly-married young woman, is haunted by the spectre of her predecessor – her husband having previously been widowed following the death of his first wife. In this piece, the haunting comes as a series of mysterious letters, always enclosed in grey envelopes and addressed in the faintest of hands. As a consequence, Charlotte is left shaken; it would appear that the first Mrs Ashby retains an unhealthy hold over her husband, something that Charlotte is determined to break. There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here, albeit with a more supernatural element. (Interestingly, Wharton’s story actually predated the du Maurier, first appearing in 1931, a good seven years before the publication of Rebecca.)

Finally, a mention for The Triumph of Night, which shares something with the opening story, The Lady’s Maid’s Bell. This is another story in which a spectral presence makes itself known to one individual in particular – in this instance, Faxon, a man who is offered shelter by a fellow traveller when his carriage fails to show. Over dinner with his benefactor’s family, Faxon realises that the ghostly figure is fixated on the young man, the very one who invited him to stay. As a consequence, Faxon’s hold on reality begins to slip, a development that is brilliantly conveyed in the following passage.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he [Faxon] could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room. (p. 162)

This is a very unnerving story, one that explores themes of guilt, manipulation and the preying on others’ weaknesses – a sobering tale with a tragic twist.

Other pieces in the collection feature mysterious individuals who are not quite what they seem; the dead seemingly brought back to life; and an eerie pack of dogs who reputedly appear on a certain day of the year.

These wonderfully chilling stories are subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, tapping into the darker side of American history and human relationships. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the collection conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. It’s a powerful and evocative read, enhanced considerably by Ortese’s wonderfully expressive style.

Evening begins with three fictional pieces – the first of which is A Pair of Eyeglasses, an excellent story in which a young girl, Eugenia, is eagerly anticipating her first pair of glasses. Eugenia lives with her parents, spinster aunt and two younger siblings in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. Partly in return for their basement-level accommodation, Eugenia’s parents are at the beck and call of the Marchesa, the rather demanding and thoughtless owner of the dwelling, who thinks nothing of doling out casual put-downs at various opportunities.

Ortese skilfully captures the inherent spirit of the neighbourhood, complete with a multitude of vivid sights and animated sounds.

When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. (p. 22)

Nevertheless, it’s an environment that Eugenia is unable to see clearly, particularly as she is virtually blind. Only with the aid of glasses is the true horror of the environment revealed – an experience Eugenia finds utterly overwhelming, shattering her previous perceptions of life in the bustling courtyard.

…the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. (p. 33)

The contrast here is particularly striking, pitting Eugenia’s blurred, almost rose-tinted impressions of her surroundings against the brutal reality of the situation. It’s a memorable story, effectively setting the tone for the collection as a whole.

In Family Interior – probably my favourite of the three stories – we meet Anastasia Finizio, a successful shop owner, who has worked tirelessly to support her mother, spinster aunt and younger siblings for several years. At thirty-nine, Anastasia is vaguely aware that her life is slipping by – a realisation brought into sharp relief when she hears news of the return of Antonio, a man from her youth. This development rekindles dormant feelings within Anastasia, prompting her to dream of the kind of life she might have had – and may still to be to have? – with Antonio.

What Ortese does so well here is to convey the power dynamics within the family, particularly in relation to Anastasia’s mother who sees the danger in any disruption to the present equilibrium.

It seemed to Signora Finizio, sometimes that Anastasia wasted time in futile things, but she didn’t dare to protest openly, for it appeared to her that the sort of sleep in which her daughter was sunk, and which allowed them all to live and expand peacefully, might at any moment, for a trifle, break. She had no liking for Anastasia (her beloved was Anna), but she valued her energy and, with It, her docility, that practical spirit joined to such resigned coldness. (p. 48)

In truth, Signora Finizio is a selfish woman, one who takes a perverse satisfaction in hurting Anastasia – effectively humiliating her to keep everything in check. It’s an excellent story, subtle and nuanced in its exploration of Anastasia’s position, highlighting the tension between familial responsibility and personal freedom.

After The Gold of Forcella – a vividly-realised story of a pawnshop in the heart of Naples – the focus shifts to non-fiction pieces, essentially conveyed in a reportage style. The Involuntary City is the most powerful essay in this section – a candid account of Ortese’s visits to Granili III and IV, a sprawling shelter for those made homeless by the devastation of war. Initially intended to be a temporary solution for the displaced and dispossessed, The Granili is ‘home’ to some 3,000 individuals (approximately 570 families), with an average of three families per individual room. The conditions are horrific – damp, cramped and filthy – particularly on the lower floors of the building where the most impoverished residents are housed.

In a few homes someone was cooking: smoke, which had the density of a blue body, escaped from some doors, yellow flames could be glimpsed inside, the black faces of people squatting, holding a bowl on their knees. In other rooms, instead, everything was motionless, as if life had become petrified; men still in bed turned under grey blankets, women were absorbed in combing their hair, in the enchanted slow motion of those who do not know what will be, afterward, the other occupation of their day. The entire ground floor, and the first floor to which we were ascending, were in these conditions of depressed inertia. (pp. 86-87)

There is a sense of desperation about the existence in these squalid, smoke-ridden conditions, almost as if the building’s lower echelons are representative of a race’s demise following the destructive impact of war.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a form of class structure has developed within the Granili, separating the displaced into different social strata, largely according to status. Some of those on the higher floors have jobs – consequently their days are structured, and this sense of order tends to be reflected in the immediate surroundings. In short, these individuals have adapted to reduced circumstances without giving up their sense of decorum. Nevertheless, there is a widespread understanding of the precarious nature of this situation. On occasions a random stroke of bad luck, such as an illness or the loss of a job, will force someone on the third floor to give up their lodgings and descend to a lower one, usually to move in with another family member. For the most part, these people are destined to remain in their relegated positions, despite harbouring hopes of regaining their previous status.

In the final section of the book, Ortese recounts a series of journeys to visit former colleagues from Sud, the avant-garde cultural magazine where she worked in the late ‘40s. There is a melancholy, elegiac tone running through these pieces, a sense of alienation from those who have become indifferent or embittered.

In summary, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a fascinating collection that blurs the margins between fiction and reportage to paint a striking vision of post-war Naples, vividly capturing the city’s resilience in the face of poverty, suffering and corruption. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

The collection comes with an excellent introduction by the translators which outlines the reactions to Ortese’s candid (and sometimes brutal) vision of Naples following the book’s initial publication – the author was subsequently banned from the city for several years. Also included is the preface from the 1994 reissue, in which Ortese reflects on how her disoriented state of mind may have influenced her picture of post-war Naples, as captured in the original book.

In short, this is very highly recommended indeed – particularly for fans of Elena Ferrante, who has cited Ortese as a key influence on her work. My thanks to Pushkin Press and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories

As if you weren’t fed-up of seeing books-of-the-year lists by now, here I am, back again with another instalment of my own! But before we get to the books themselves, a little explanation… My original intention, with these annual round-ups, had been to post two pieces – the first on my favourite novellas and non-fiction from a year of reading and the second on my favourite novels. Nevertheless, as I was looking back at my choices earlier this week, I noticed that I had neglected to include any short stories in my final lists. Not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut – I read some truly excellent collections in 2020 – but for some reason they’d been squeezed out, mostly by other, more prominent books.

So, in an effort to redress the balance, here are my favourite short story collections from a year of reading – all highly recommended indeed. While a couple of these collections are relatively recent publications or reissues, the vast majority of the stories themselves hail from the mid-20th-century – a pattern that reflects my general reading preferences. A longing perhaps for a simpler, less manic world, despite many of the difficulties encountered by women in those less enlightened times.

As ever, I’ve summarised each book below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links. Hopefully, you’ll find something of interest in the mix.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

A collection of seventeen of Jackson’s stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. As the title suggests, the tales themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society. Confinement and entrapment are recurring themes, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity. In some respects, Jackson was highlighting the relatively limited roles woman were allowed to play in society at the time – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. An excellent selection of stories with a serious message.

After Rain by William Trevor

Once again, William Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. Here we have stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crushed hopes and dashed dreams. Moreover, Trevor writes brilliantly about the sense of duty or stigma that guides his protagonists’ lives. Like much of the best short fiction, these pieces leave enough space for the reader to bring their own reflections to bear on the narratives, opening up the possibilities beyond the words on the page. What is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed. A superb collection of stories, possibly up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness as an all-time favourite.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier

A characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide. She also excels at building atmosphere and tension, a style that seems particularly well suited to the short story form.

The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant

In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Central themes include the failings of motherhood, the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment. These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War

A fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end). When viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. Includes pieces by Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym and many more.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness. Moreover, there is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye.

Saturday Lunch at the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

Mortimer drew on some of her own experiences for this collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relation – many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of domestic life. There are similarities with the Shirley Jackson and the Daphne du Maurier, particularly in the opening story, The Skylight, where much of the horror in this chillingly tense tale stems from the imagination. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these stories, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment. Nevertheless, Mortimer also has a sharp eye for humour, something that comes through quite strongly. In summary, these are pitch-perfect vignettes, subverting traditional images of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision.

So that’s it from me for 2020. I wish you all the very best for 2021, wherever you happen to be.

Barbara Pym – Unfinished Novels and Short Stories

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Civil to Strangers, an early novel by Barbara Pym – written in 1936 but published posthumously in 1987. My copy of the book also contains three novellas/unfinished novels (edited down by Pym’s biographer, Hazel Holt) and four short stories.

In this post, my aim is to give you a flavour of the unfinished novels and stories – the former run to around 40-50pp each while the stories clock in at 10-15pp per piece. Even though some of these pieces are minor works, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

Unfinished Novels/Novellas

My favourite of these pieces is Home Front Novel, a story set in a small-town community at the beginning of WW2. This is textbook Pym, a delightfully comic sketch of individuals adjusting to the arrival of a group of evacuees for the duration of the war. As is often the case with Pym, the vicarage is the centre of the community, with the ladies diligently practising their Red Cross demonstrations.

Spinster cousins Agnes and Connie share a house together and will be taking in four evacuees. While Connie is meek and subservient, Agnes is bossy and controlling, traits that soon become apparent as the cousins consider the practicalities of the situation.

“It will mean a lot of extra work, having evacuees here,” said Agnes. I think I’ll tell Dawks tomorrow to dig up the front lawn.”

“Whatever for?” asked Connie.

“To plant vegetables, of course. Now, let me see. The vicarage has a very big lawn and there is that herbaceous border at the Wyatts’.”

By the time they had finished their work in the kitchen, Agnes had already, in imagination, commandeered all the gardens in the village and planted them with vegetables. “Oh God,” prayed Connie that night, “don’t let there be a war.” But at the back of her mind was the thought that a war might be rather exciting. It would certainly make a difference to the days that were so monotonously the same. (pp. 225–226)

What a pity Pym didn’t develop this novel further as the opening is full of potential. There are hints of love blossoming between the charming spinster, Beatrice Wyatt, and the local curate, Michael Randolph. Moreover, the cast of idiosyncratic supporting characters points to some trouble ahead.

So Very Sweet sees Pym dipping her toes into spy story territory, as Cassandra Swan – an excellent woman in typical Pym fashion – follows a trail of clues left by her friend, Harriet, a brilliant individual who works for the Foreign Office. The plot is quite absurd, but no less enjoyable for that – a little bit like the Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), with upstanding ladies practising their bandaging skills for good measure.

Perhaps the slightest of these unfinished works is Gervase and Flora, a story of unrequited love set in Finland amongst the British ex-pat community. There are hints of something autobiographical in this story of Flora Palfrey, a young woman who has been love with Gervase Harringay, an English lecturer from Oxford, for the past few years.

Flora often wondered what would become of her. She had been in love with Gervase for so long that she could not imagine a life in which he had no part. Nor, on the other hand, could she imagine a life in which he returned her love. That would somehow spoil the picture she had made of herself. It was an interesting picture, very dear to her, and she could not bear the idea of it being spoilt. Noble, faithful, long-suffering, although not without its funny side, it was like something out of Tchekov, she thought. (p. 192)

Short Stories

I’ve already written about Goodbye Balkan Capital as featured in Wave Me Goodbye – a marvellous anthology of short stories about WW2, all by women writers. However, this is such a great piece that it warrants another mention here. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, the protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle, another early work.

As Laura listens to news of the war on the radio, she is reminded of a night spent in the company of Crispin, a dashing young man who captivated her heart at a ball back in her youth. While Laura has not seen Crispin since that event, she has followed his successful career in the Diplomatic Service over the years, his most recent role having taken him to the Balkans.

As reports of the Germans’ advance across Europe come in, Laura envisages Crispin fleeing his office at the British Legation, possibly travelling to Russia and beyond via the Trans-Siberian Express. The excitement Laura experiences vicariously by way of these imaginings contrasts sharply with the mundane realities of her life in the village. Nevertheless, her role as a volunteer in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) unit makes Laura feel useful and valued and – much to the annoyance of her sister, Janet, always the more formidable of the two. In fact, the sight of Laura in her new tin hat proves almost too much for Janet to bear…

Janet seemed rather annoyed when she saw it. It made Laura look quite important and professional. “I should think it must be very heavy,” she said grudgingly. “I’ll leave the thermos of tea for you, though I suppose you’ll get some there.”

“Well, expect me when you see me, dear,” said Laura, her voice trembling a little with excitement. Going out like this and not knowing when she would return always made her feel rather grand, almost noble, as if she were setting out on a secret and dangerous mission. The tin hat made a difference, too. One felt much more splendid in a tin hat. It was almost a uniform. (p. 349)

There are some lovely scenes of ordinary folk pulling together here – disparate individuals brought together by the camaraderie of ARP duty, sharing tins of biscuits and slabs of chocolate with their night-time cups of tea.

So, Some Tempestuous Morn is another favourite, a charming story of matchmaking and romantic introductions featuring three characters from Pym’s late ‘30s novel, Crampton Hodnet. The individuals in question are the formidable Miss Doggett, her paid companion, Jessie Morrow, and her nineteen-year-old niece, Anthea. Miss Doggett is on the lookout for a suitable young man for Anthea, however previous candidates have fallen somewhat short of the mark.

Anthea would marry, naturally, but it must be a suitable marriage. There had already been one or two disappointments, not only in Anthea’s failure to impress the young men, but in the young men themselves. Canon Bogle’s son had turned out to be a grubby young man in corduroy trousers; Lady Dancy’s nephew was too small and apparently interested in nothing but archaeology. That had been a great disappointment; even Miss Doggett could see that there was little future in dry bones and fragments of pottery. (p. 334)

In The Christmas Visit, two friends who were at Oxford together meet up again after thirty years, having taken radically different career paths in the interim. It is a story of uneasy reunions, the awkwardness of people with little in common coming together to spend Christmas under the same roof.

The collection is rounded off with Finding a Voice, a transcript of a radio talk given by Pym in 1978, in which she reflects on the development of her literary style. It’s a fitting end to a delightful collection of works.

My hardback copy of Civil to Strangers was published by Macmillan, but the book is currently in print with Virago. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield (1922)

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? I loved working my way through this short volume, reading one or two pieces on a daily basis.

A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness.

There is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye. Almost one hundred years on, the writing still feels fresh and vivid, focusing as it does on the inner lives of Mansfield’s characters. These pieces, many of which end rather suddenly, pinpoint the significance of small moments in our existence, highlighting the profound in day-to-day life.

Grief, loneliness, isolation and longing are all common themes, possibly reflecting Mansfield’s state of mind at the time of writing. (Having received a diagnosis of tuberculosis, Mansfield must have known by the early 1920s that her time was strictly limited.) Unanticipated thoughts or realisations punctuate several of the pieces – for example, Miss Brill, in which a lonely woman’s fragile sense of self-esteem is shattered when she overhears a thoughtless conversation.

There are some wonderful examples of Mansfield’s style here, passages of literary impressionism that capture the rhythms of life and the natural world.

Ah– Aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again; and there was the splashing of big drops on large leaves, and something else – what was it? – A faint stirring and shaking, the snapping of a twig and then such silence that it seemed someone was listening. (p. 1)

Precision plays a significant role, too – not a word out of place or misjudged along the way.

Alongside the modernist prose style, there is a willingness on the part of Mansfield to explore progressive (and potentially controversial) views in her fiction. In At the Bay, one of the standout stories in this remarkable collection, a mother expresses a lack of love for her children. And yet, despite this potentially shocking revelation, Mansfield portrays Linda (the protagonist), in an insightful, compassionate way, enabling the reader to sympathise with her position – to some degree at least.

But the trouble was – here Linda felt almost inclined to laugh, though Heaven knows it was no laughing matter – she saw her Stanley so seldom. There were glimpses, moments, breathing spaces of calm, but all the rest of the time it was like living in a house that couldn’t be cured of the habit of catching on fire, on a ship that got wrecked every day. And it was always Stanley who was in the thick of the danger. Her whole time was spent in rescuing him, and restoring him, and calming him down, and listening to his story. And what was left of her time was spent in the dread of having children. (p. 18–19)

It’s a story that flits from character to character, allowing us to see certain situations from more than one point of view – including that of Linda’s husband, Stanley.

Other vignettes focus on a young girl’s experiences of her first ball, with the mix of nervous and excitement this entails; a teacher’s rapidly changing emotions as her forthcoming marriage appears to be in jeopardy; and a patriarch’s weariness and isolation as he ponders the cumulative effects of providing for his family.

These are marvellous stories, beautifully expressed. I adored them.

The Garden Party is published by Penguin Books, personal copy.

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

The British writer and journalist Penelope Mortimer is perhaps best known for her 1962 novel The Pumpkin Eater, a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s breakdown precipitated by the strains of a fractured marriage. Mortimer also drew on her own experiences for Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, a collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relations, many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the surface veneer of domestic life. First published in 1960, this excellent collection has recently been reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books – my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

In The Skylight, one of the standout stories in this volume, a mother and her five-year-old son are travelling to France for a family holiday in a remote part of the countryside. The weather is stiflingly hot, conditions that make for a tiring journey, leaving the woman and her child anxious to arrive at their destination (a house they have rented in advance). On arrival, they find the property all locked up with the owners nowhere in sight. The only potential point of access is an open skylight in the roof, too small for the woman to squeeze through but just large enough for the child. So, with no other option at her disposal, the woman proceeds to instruct her son on what to do once she drops him through the skylight. (Luckily, there is a ladder to hand, making it possible for them to reach the open window.)

This is a brilliantly paced story, shot through with a mounting sense of tension as we await the narrative’s denouement. In a tale strongly reminiscent of the work of Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson, much of the horror comes from the imagination – our own visions of what might be unfolding inside the house once the young boy has entered through the skylight. Sound plays a particularly important role here; for instance, the torturous sound of a dripping tap serves to accentuate the intense feeling of unease…

In the silence she heard, quite distinctly, a tap dripping. A regular, metallic drip, like torture. She shouted directions to him, waiting between each one, straining to hear the slightest sound, the faintest answer. The tap dripped. The house seemed to be holding its breath. (p. 21)

Children appear in many of the stories, partly as a way for Mortimer to highlight some of the challenges of motherhood. Interestingly though, it is often the knock-on responses of the fathers to their offspring that precipitate crises for Mortimer’s female protagonists, rather than the actions of the children themselves. In the titular tale – another highlight of the collection – we gain an insight into the lives of Madge and William Browning, two writers who live with their daughter, seven-year-old Bessie. Also living in the house are Melissa (15) and Rachel (9), Madge’s daughters from a previous marriage. The story opens with what appears to be a commonplace domestic setting – a family waking up at home on an ordinary Saturday morning. However, the apparent mundanity of the scene is swiftly undercut by Mortimer’s pin-sharp observations on the underlying tensions at play.

Madge never went down to breakfast. She refused, out of a strong feeling of self-preservation, to acknowledge its existence. William’s temper was unreliable in the early morning, and particularly on Saturdays, with Rachel and Bessie lolling about in a holocaust of cornflakes and burnt toast, the German maid reading letters from home while the coffee boiled dry and the neighbouring children, small, ugly and savage, standing in a row outside the french windows watching him eat, a curiosity which they observed once a week, swarming over the low walls dressed for holiday in feathers, jeans and their mother’s broken jewellery. (pp. 34–35)

Rachel in particular in a source of irritation for William, prompting an eruption of violence as the story progresses. While Madge tries to hold it together for the family, desperately clinging to a false picture of domestic stability she has constructed for herself, William succeeds in undermining her efforts, forcing a confrontation between the couple – this despite Madge’s desire to shield the children from witnessing their marital conflicts. It’s an excellent story, full of telling insights into the presumptions William has made about Madge’s role as primary caregiver within the family.

In other pieces – Such a Super Evening being a case in point – Mortimer demonstrates her eye for sharp humour. The story is narrated by a modest married woman, the wife of a barrister, who is delighted by the prospect of having the infamous Mathiesons over to dinner. Philip and Felicity Mathieson – again, both writers – are a kind of literary power couple, often called upon to comment on various topical issues from childcare (they have eight children) to household management to cultural affairs. They appear to have it all – the perfect marriage, successful careers, remarkable children – in short, the whole shebang.

As the dinner party progresses, the scene becomes increasingly surreal, particularly as the Mathiesons begin to talk so openly about their lives. Gradually, throughout the evening, the ‘perfect couple’ reveal themselves to be money-grabbing, self-centred individuals, dismissive of many of the values they appear to project in public. It’s a deliciously amusing story, relayed in a gossipy style that works perfectly with the satirical subject matter. Another standout piece in this subversive collection.

Miriam’s earrings were quite still, petrified with shock. I cleared away and brought in the Tocinos del Cielo. I’m very proud of these, and perfectly happy to explain how I make them. However, no one seemed to want to know. They were all beginning to look as though they were at a funeral, except for Philip. He was talking about getting away from it all. (p. 67)

One of things that strikes me about this collection is how relevant these stories feel, sixty years after their initial publication. In addition to the topics outlined above, other themes include infidelity, the oppression of women, mental illness, unwanted pregnancies and the use of children as leverage in a marriage.

In the haunting story Little Miss Perkins, a mother – recovering in hospital following the birth of her baby – is sharing a room with a young woman at risk of miscarriage, their beds separated by a flimsy curtain. At first, the narrator assumes her roommate is traumatised at the thought of potentially losing her baby; but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this mother-to-be has other, more pressing priorities on her mind. Once again, there is a touch of Daphne du Maurier about this tale which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1960. It’s another story that blends flashes of dark humour with the underlying emotions of horror and tragedy. I couldn’t help but highlight this passage about the young woman’s doctor, complete with his slick appearance and patronising manner.

Her doctor, a Mr Macauley, was better dressed, slightly more suntanned than mine; otherwise, like all successful obstetricians, he looked like a one-time matinée idol who, in early middle-age, had struck oil. (p. 120)

In summary, this is a sharply devastating collection of stories – pitch-perfect vignettes that subvert the supposed idylls of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these tales, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment… Very highly recommended indeed.

Thieves and Rascals by Mavis Gallant – a post for the #1956Club

A few months ago, I wrote about the first six stories in The Cost of Living, an excellent collection of early pieces by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant. (If you missed it, you can read it by clicking on the link here.) The post covered stories from 1951 to 1955; something that brings us rather conveniently to 1956, which is the subject of Simon and Karen’s latest ‘Club’ week (more details here). So, for my contribution to the #1956Club, I’m going to focus on one story from the collection: Thieves and Rascals, which first appeared in Esquire magazine in 1956.

Gallant is particularly perceptive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. It’s something that comes through in Thieves and Rascals, a story featuring Charles and Marian Kimber, a married couple who live in New York.

As the story opens, Charles – an emotionally-absent lawyer – learns that his teenage daughter, Joyce, is being sent home from her respectable boarding school for spending a weekend in a hotel with a young man. Rather than expressing anger or concern for his daughter’s welfare, Charles seems more puzzled than anything else, particularly as he considers Joyce to be rather plain and gauche.

His mind could not construct the image of stolid Joyce, in the moccasins, the tweed skirt, the innocent sweaters, registering (as she surely had) in a shabby hotel on a side street in Albany. He wondered not so much how it had happened, but that it had happened at all. Joyce, as far as he knew, didn’t know any young men, except, perhaps, the brothers of her classmates. And why, he wondered, would any young man, even the most callow and inexperienced, pick Joyce? There are so many girls her age who are graceful, pretty, knowing, and who have weekends here and there written all over them. (p. 117)

Marian, by contrast to her husband, is fragile, brittle and highly strung. Somewhat unusually for a married woman in the mid-1950s, Marian has a career; but as a successful high-end model, she is objectified by men, admired for her undoubted poise and beauty above any other qualities.

News of Joyce’s indiscretion reignites memories for Marian – reflections on an impetuous relationship from her own adolescence, something that caused a rift within the family at the time. As Marian begins to talk about the situation with Charles, a mistrust of men is revealed – both in general and more specifically with Charles himself.

They can’t own up. They can’t be trusted. They can’t face things. Not at that age. Not at any age. I think it’s getting a little far to say you can’t trust any man, at any age, said to Charles. I don’t know any, said his wife. Well, he said, there’s me for instance, when she did not reply, he said: well it’s a fine time to find out you don’t trust me. The question isn’t whether I do or not, said Marion. I have to trust you. I mean, I live with you, and keep the thing on the tracks, or I don’t. So then, of course, I have to trust you. (p.124)

This development offers a revealing picture of the couple’s relationship. Charles, with his lack of emotional investment in the marriage, isn’t terribly good at empathising or reading the nuances of the situation. (Or maybe he does understand the true meaning of what is being said but simply chooses not to acknowledge it.) There is also a mistress in the background, a secretary named Bernice, whose company Charles finds straightforward and ‘restful’. Bernice, for her part, places few demands on Charles, seemingly content with the two evenings a week she spends cooking dinner for him at her apartment.

As the story draws to a close, we sense that Marian is fully aware of the limitations of her marriage, a common situation for American women in this period. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mad Men’s Betty Draper at this point.) And Charles? His primary concern seems to be the avoidance of any kind of ‘scene’ with Marian, stressing her upcoming modelling commitments as a reason to stem the tears…

Along with several other stories in this collection, Thieves and Rascals leaves the reader with much to consider as they try to read between the lines and imagine what might happen next. This is another richly textured story from this marvellous collection, lovingly reissued by NYRB Classics (personal copy).

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War, Part 2 – Barbara Pym, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Olivia Manning and more

Earlier this week, I posted the first of two pieces on Wave Me Goodbye, a fascinating anthology of stories by women writers – most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end).

Viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period. We see individuals waiting anxiously for the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the home front are vividly conveyed through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tension in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer.

In this second post, I’m going to cover some more highlights from the remainder of the anthology, particularly the more humorous stories and those conveying a strong sense of place. (If you missed my first post, you can catch up with it here.)

Several of the stories I covered on Tuesday were rather poignant or heartbreaking, with their explorations of loss, grief and mismatched expectations. However, there are some wonderful flashes of humour in this anthology too – pieces by Barbara Pym, Beryl Bainbridge and Margery Sharp where the comedy ranges from the dry to the mordant to the engaging and amusing.   

Goodbye Balkan Capital is quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed story of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, the protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from this author’s early novel, Some Tame Gazelle. As Laura listens to news of the war on the radio, she is reminded of a night spent in the company of Crispin, a dashing young man who captivated her heart at a ball back in her youth. While Laura has not seen Crispin since that event, she has followed his successful career in the Diplomatic Service over the years, his most recent role having taken him to the Balkans.

As reports come in of the Germans’ advance across Europe, Laura envisages Crispin fleeing his office at the British Legation, possibly travelling to Russia and beyond via the Trans-Siberian Express. The excitement Laura experiences vicariously by way of these imaginings contrasts sharply with the mundane realities of her life in the village. Nevertheless, her role as a volunteer in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) unit makes Laura feel useful and valued – much to the annoyance of her sister, Janet, always the more formidable of the two.

Janet ought really to have been the one to go out, thought Laura, but she had resigned from ARP after a disagreement with the Head of the Women’s Section. It had started with an argument about some oilcloth and had gone on from strength to strength, until they now cut each other in the street. And so it was Laura, always a little flustered on these occasions, who had to collect her things and hurry out to the First Aid Post. (pp. 99–100)

This is a bittersweet story of romantic dreams and unrequited love, in which the petty slights and disagreements between the two women are captured to perfection.

In Beryl Bainbridge’s Bread and Butter Smith, a couple are plagued by the appearance of an intrusive man named Smith, who clings onto them like a limpet, forever popping up when they least expect it. This is a very funny story, shot through with the author’s characteristically black sense of humour.

When we said we wouldn’t be available on Boxing Day, he even hinted that we might take him along to Belmont Road. I was almost tempted to take him up on it. Mr Brownlow was argumentative and had a weak bladder. Constance had picked him up outside the Co-op in 1931. It would have served Smith right to have had to sit for six hours in Constance’s front parlour, two lumps of coal in the grate, one glass of port and lemon to last the night, and nothing by the way of entertainment beyond escorting Mr Brownlow down the freezing backyard to the WC. (p. 310)

Margery Sharp’s Night Engagement is another delight. In this marvellous story, told in a wonderful gossipy style, we meet Doris, a respectable girl who is on the lookout for a nice young man amidst the swathes of Londoners taking cover in the air raid shelters. When Doris finds herself thrown together with Arthur following an explosion, romance begins to blossom – something their respective mothers are all too willing to encourage.  

Elsewhere, there are stories with a palpable sense of place. Pieces like Elizabeth Bowen’s Mysterious Kôr, in which a couple’s fantasies of an ideal land contrast sharply with the ghostly images of London at night.

The two sets of steps died in opposite directions, and, the birds subsiding, nothing was heard or seen until, a little way down the street, a trickle of people came out of the Underground, around the anti-panic brick wall. These all disappeared quickly, in an abashed way, or as though dissolved in the street by some white acid, but for a girl and a soldier who, by their way of walking, seemed to have no destination but each other and to be not quite certain even of that. (p. 167)

Finally, fans of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy will find much to admire in A Journey, her account of Mary Martin, a journalist who travels from Bucharest to Cluj to cover the Hungarian occupation of Transylvania.

The strange town was full of the movement of a break-up. There was a tenseness and suspicion in the atmosphere. The shop windows had their shutters up against riots. Some were shut, others had their doors half open on the chance of somebody at such a time giving thought to purchase of furniture, shoes and books. Women crowded round the grocery stores asking one another when life would be organized again and bread, milk and meet reappear for sale. Only the large café on the square that baked its own rolls, was open. A waiter stood at the door holding the handle and only opening for those whose faces he knew. Curiosity persuaded him to let Mary in. (pp. 80–81)

Like The Balkan Trilogy itself, A Journey feels inspired by some of Manning’s own personal experiences of the region. The story ends with a terrifying train journey, reminiscent of Yaki’s escape from Bucharest in The Spoilt City, as individuals try to latch onto the moving carriages in their desperation to get away.

In summary, Wave Me Goodbye offers a remarkable range of insights into women’s experiences of the Second World War, both on the Home Front and abroad. The diversity of perspectives is hugely impressive. Very highly recommended for readers with an interest in 20th-century fiction about these aspects of our social history.

Wave Me Goodbye is published by Virago Press; personal copy.   

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War, Part 1 – Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Rose Macaulay and more.

Much as I love novels, there are occasions when I’d rather read a complete story in one sitting, particularly if time is short or my attention span is brief. Recently reissued by Virago, Wave Me Goodbye has proved to be a godsend in this respect. It’s is a fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end).

Viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. 

As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each piece in detail – there are twenty-eight of them in total! Instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily, there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price of the collection alone. (This is the first of two pieces about this anthology, with the second to follow later this week.)

I’ve already written about two of my favourite stories included here. In Elizabeth Taylor’s Gravement Endommagé a married couple – Richard and Louise – drive through the war-ravaged countryside of France, the destruction of the buildings around them only serving to mirror the damaged nature of their relationship. This excellent story appears in Taylor’s collection Hester Lilly, which I can highly recommend.

Goodbye My Love by Mollie Panter-Downes is another familiar piece. Here, a young woman must face the agonising countdown to her husband’s departure for war, only for the clock to be a constant reminder of their rapidly diminishing time together. This excellent story comes with a sting in its tail. Just as the woman is coming to terms with the absence of her husband, something unexpected happens – and what should be a happy occasion is instead tinged with anxiety. You can find this and more of MPD’s excellent stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven – another stellar collection of fiction from WW2.

In Rose Macaulay’s Miss Anstruther’s Letters, we are plunged straight into the titular character’s pain as she must come to terms with the loss of her most treasured possession – a collection of letters from her lover of more than twenty years, the papers now charred and turned to ashes following a bombing raid in the Blitz.

Miss Ansthruther, whose life had been cut in two on the night of the 10 May 1941, so that she now felt herself a ghost, without attachments or habitation, neither of which she any longer desired, sat alone in the bed-sitting-room she had taken, a small room, littered with the grimy, broken and useless objects which she had salvaged from the burnt-out ruin round the corner. It was one of the many burnt-out ruins of that wild night when high explosives and incendiaries had rained on London and the water had run short; it was now a gaunt and roofless tomb, a pile of ashes and rubble and burnt, smashed beams. Where the floors of twelve flats had been, there was empty space. (p. 50)

In the days following the bombing, Miss Anstruther embarks on a search for any remaining traces of the letters, desperately scrabbling around among the ashes and rubble, but to very little available. Other, less precious items have been salvaged, but not the missives she so badly desires. As this heartbreaking story unfolds, we realise the depth of her loss – not just for the letters themselves, but for the life they once encapsulated.

Jean Rhys’s I Spy a Stranger is another standout, a story that highlights the damaging effects of suspicion, prejudices and small-town gossip, issues that remain all too relevant today. In this brilliantly-executed story, Laura has returned to England to stay with her cousin, Mrs Hudson, Laura’s former life in Europe having been decimated by the war. Partly as a consequence of her ‘foreignness’, and partly because she is emotionally damaged, Laura is viewed as a threat by the locals, someone to be feared and despised. Suspicion is rife – slurs are cast, arguments erupt, and poison-pen letters are pushed through the door. There comes a point when the townsfolk cannot take any more, especially when there are residents’ reputations to consider.

[Mrs Hudson:] “…Somebody has started a lot of nasty talk. They’ve found out that you [Laura] lived abroad a long time and that when you had to leave – Central Europe, you went to France. They say you only came home when you were forced to, and they’re suspicious. Considering everything, you can’t blame them, can you?” “No,” she [Laura] said, it’s one of the horrible games they’re allowed to play to take their minds off the real horror.” That’s the sort of thing she used to come out with. (pp. 110-111)

This is a powerful, distressing story of the hidden trauma of war. As ever with Rhys, the technique is masterful. The tale is relayed by Mrs Hudson to her sister following the outcome of events, with a gradual reveal of the full tragedy of Laura’s history and subsequent situation.

The return home on leave is a recurring theme in a number of the stories here. Dorothy Parker’s The Lovely Leave is a great example of this, as a young wife battles with her conflicting emotions during her husband’s lightning visit. On the one hand, the woman knows she must try to make the most of their brief time together, while on the other, she is jealous of the companionship and camaraderie her husband is experiencing among the air corps. In truth, these feelings are born out of a sense of fear or insecurity, a natural consequence of a disrupted marriage.

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Poor Mary, the traditional marital roles are reversed as a conscientious objector husband (now working on the land) awaits the return of his wife from her role in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). It is four years since these two individuals have seen one another, a gap that has magnified their differences rather than diminishing them in any way. 

Three hours earlier the bed had not seemed his own, now his living-room was not his either, but some sort of institutional waiting-room where two people had made an inordinate mess of a meal. (p. 236)

That’s it for today, but I hope this post has whetted your appetite for this wide-ranging collection of women’s fiction from WW2. Join me again later this week when I’ll be covering some of the other stories in the collection, including pieces from Barbara Pym, Beryl Bainbridge, Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Bowen. I can promise you flashes of dry, darkly comic humour in some of these stories, particularly those by Bainbridge and Pym. 

American Midnight – short stories by Edith Wharton, Shirley Jackson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and many more

American Midnight is a wonderfully chilling short story anthology released by Pushkin Press in 2019 (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). The collection comprises nine tales of the dark and supernatural, all penned by American authors and originally published in the 19th or 20th century. One of the best things about it is the diversity of styles across the range. From the gothic folk horror to the classic ghost story, there’s something for virtually everyone here.

As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each piece in detail; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily, there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price of the collection as a whole.

I’ll start with The Eyes, a brilliantly unsettling story by the marvellous Edith Wharton. It’s a classic ghost story, one of those atmospheric tales by the fireside on a dark, chilly night. One evening, a group of friends are gathered together for a dinner hosted by Culwin, a somewhat reserved older man. At the end of the meal, the guests start to recount their own ghost stories, brushes with the spectral and the supernatural and suchlike. Finally, it is time for Culwin to reveal his tale, one that harks back to a time in his youth when his nights were haunted by the appearance of a terrifying pair of eyes.

I sat up and strained my eyes into the darkness. The room was pitch black, and at first I saw nothing; but gradually a vague glimmer at the foot of the bed turned into two eyes staring back at me. I couldn’t see the face attached to them – on account of the darkness, I imagined – but as I looked the eyes grew more and more distinct: they gave out a light of their own. (p. 63)

They were the very worst eyes Culwin had ever seen, and the cumulative effect of being observed by them soon became intolerable. The story reveals much about Culwin as a character, particularly as these visions occurred at significant times in his life – instances when he had been wrestling with his conscious over matters relating to others.

It’s an unnerving, multilayered tale, one that explores themes of guilt, conscience and complicity in a highly compelling way.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a superb story, noted for its arresting portrayal of societal attitudes towards women’s mental health in the late 19th century.

The story is related through a series of journal entries by an unnamed woman; her husband, John – a rather controlling physician – has rented a large mansion for the family to occupy over the summer. As the narrative unfolds, it soon becomes clear that the woman is suffering from severe depression, probably postpartum following the birth of her baby. She is confined to an upstairs ‘nursery’, a truly oppressive room with bars on the windows, rings on the wall and noticeable gouges on the floor. Many passages in the story are devoted to descriptions of the wallpaper in the room; its colour a dirty, repellent yellow, its appearance torn and ragged.

I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions. (p. 165)

The degree to which John is controlling his wife is also steadily revealed. The woman is not allowed to pursue her work as a writer; nor must she indulge in any form of mental stimulation. Instead, she will rest, eat well and get plenty of fresh air, all with the aim of aiding her recovery from ‘temporary nervous depression’ or tendencies towards ‘hysteria’.

I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try. (p. 168)

The longer the woman remains trapped in the room, the more she begins to see patterns in the wallpaper, ultimately convincing herself that a woman is trapped behind the bars of the design – someone who really ought to be released and set free.

This utterly terrifying story, charting a woman’s descent into insanity, reflects something of the author’s own personal experience. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, one that has much to say about the oppression of woman and the shattering impact of their mistreatment by society and the medical profession at the time. A truly chilling piece that taps into some of our deepest anxieties and fears.  

Shirley Jackson’s story, Home is another favourite, very much in the style of her Dark Tales collection which I wrote about earlier this year.

Ethel Sloane and her husband, Jim, have just moved into their new house (previously occupied by the Sandersons) which they are now doing up. As Ethel goes about the local town, buying groceries and materials for the home, she wants everyone to take note of her. By nature, she is a rather boastful, self-important individual, qualities that Jackson highlights from the start.

Ethel Sloane liked having bought the old Sanderson place, and she liked walking the single street of the village, and most of all she liked knowing that people knew who she was. (p. 120)

One day, when the weather is atrocious, the locals warn Ethel not to take her usual road to the house; but being stubborn and self-reliant, she promptly ignores them and goes ahead as planned. On the way home, Ethel sees an old woman and child by the roadside getting soaked in the pouring rain, so she stops and offers them a lift home. The barefoot boy is wearing pyjamas and wrapped in a blanket – discoveries that make Ethel furious with the woman for neglecting the child’s welfare in this way. Once they are all in the car, the woman tells Ethel that she wants to go to the Sanderson place – the house that Ethel and Jim now own.

It would be unfair of me to reveal what happens next, save to say that it is truly creepy. An excellent story that exposes some of our fears and failings to excellent effect.

I also really loved The Mask by Robert W. Chambers, a writer I hadn’t come across before. This is a deeply affecting story of loss, sadness and unrequited love, set amongst the artistic world of 19th century Paris. The writing is beautiful, really elegant and graceful; and while the story itself is a melancholic one, it ends on a note of renewal and optimism.

Other stories include Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an exploration of the forces that drive susceptible people towards sin and evil (fans of folk horror will likely enjoy this one); Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, a tale of passion and revenge that combines realist and occult elements; and The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe, a chilling little story about the stealthy advance of a deadly plague (suitably timely).

In short, American Midnight is a wide-ranging selection of unsettling stories, shot through with striking imagery and a palpable sense of unease. A fascinating collection that explores some of the mystery and darkness in America’s chequered past.