Friday, 7 December 2018

Recommendation: An Obscurity Of Ghosts (ed. J.A. Mains)

An Obscurity of Ghosts: Further Tales Of The Supernatural by Women 1876 - 1903 is a sequel to the anthology A Suggestion of Ghosts (which I reviewed here). Once again, editor J.A. Mains has collected together a set of Victorian ghost stories by women and which even the most well read horror fan is unlikely to have read before. These are tales culled from old journals and newspapers that have long since ceased circulation; they are pieces published as competition winners in the trade magazines of tea makers and candle purveyors. In short, they were printed wherever women of the 19C could get them printed. The fascinating and valuable introduction by Melissa Edmundson examines how women from this period used supernatural writing as a way of writing, of escaping the strictures that women should be 'angels in the house' and little else. 

Some words about my favourites stories here. 'A Live Ghost' by Ellen MacKubin, opens the book and has itself a great opening: a man returns from a two year trip to 'darkest Africa' to find everyone he has ever known at home thinks him dead. He has no access to his funds, is refused access to his club, is cast out from his old life. It almost feels like the start of a modern, ambiguous piece of weird fiction, although the story soon becomes more conventional. Nonetheless, it's a piece that lingered long in my mind after reading it.

'The Pin Ghost' by E.T. Corbett is a more light hearted tale, but with a central ghost whose manner of 'haunting' people who deserve it ("I put pins in his old pleasures, his old pursuits, until he can glean nothing from them, and is fain to become a dissatisfied grumbler for the rest of his life...") is unique: feeling to the reader at once both metaphorical and creepily physical, as the titular pin-ghost tells how she pricks and scratches those who don't meet her high standards...

Finally I'll mention 'Not Exactly A Ghost Story' by Mrs Molesworth, a children's author who crafts here a supernatural tale that is uncanny enough to unsettle modern adult readers. The ghost here isn't malevolent or threatening, but the way it is introduced, to both the reader and the central character is unsettling and ambiguous. As is the lingering doubt about whether the figure was a ghost, or something more conventional, or not even present at all outside of the narrator's mind. This gives it a a more modern feel compared to most of the other pieces here. It also seemed to me the best written story, the best crafted, by an author one senses knew the ghost story tropes of her contemporaries inside out, and knew how to twist them to express her own vision.

And that's what's important about this book, and its predecessor. These stories are women expressing their visions via supernatural tales, and those visions, these voices, have been unseen and unheard for too long. While not every story here was one I loved, every one was an obscured voice worth recovering from the past. 

And if two books isn't enough for you, a third volume, A Finality of Ghosts, is to be published next year.

An Obscurity of Ghosts: Further Tales Of The Supernatural by Women 1876 - 1903 is published by Black Shuck Books.

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