Happy Halloween! I’ve got a review of an appropriately spooky book for you today – a collection of Weird short stories by female writers that, in my opinion, is a must for anyone who likes a good supernatural scare…
Book: Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940, ed. Melissa Edmundson
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Handheld Press. All opinions my own.
Not exactly Gothic (though some are) and not exactly horror (though some are), this collection of Weird stories is a brilliant introduction to the women writing in a genre of strange, creepy happenings that you might have thought belonged to HP Lovecraft. If you’re a fan of classic horror that falls between the supernatural and the psychological, like the work of Shirley Jackson, then this would be a great read; similarly, if you’re interested in the crossover between fantasy, early science fiction and horror, a la Frankenstein, you should take a look at this book.
There are thirteen stories in this collection, appropriately, and as always with anthologies, there are some that will speak more to an individual reader than others. Standouts for me were “The Weird of the Walfords” by Louisa Baldwin, “The Haunted Saucepan” by Margery Lawrence, and “The Book” by Margaret Irwin, but I think all the tales here are well selected and well-organised into a cohesive view of the genre. “The Haunted Saucepan”, in particular, amused me, because it manages to bring the drama of a haunting to a very mundane (and female-used) object, without losing any of the terror that the protagonist experiences. The explanation, too, centres the female experience, though I won’t spoil it for you! My other favourites both focus on men who lose control of their family life (in two very different ways), and I very much enjoyed the side-eye cast at their attempt to hold onto the role of patriarch at the expense of their lives and sanity. There’s an undercurrent of this dark, wry humour behind several of the stories that feels very much a female creation.
The stories are, necessarily, of their time, and there are notes on some of the language used at the back, but I didn’t find these particularly necessary as I’m fairly familiar with writing from the turn of the century – if you’re not, this would probably be really helpful. More egregious is some of the racism and sexism expressed by some of the characters – though usually those who get some supernatural comeuppance! It’s also interesting how much of the horror is based around concepts of sin and evil that are heavily based in the Christian tradition. But all of this helps to build up a picture of the stifling social rules that may have preoccupied women at these times, and which they are exploring breaking through fiction. There are gender issues here, and class issues; some stories rely on the punishment of sinners, and some on the persecution of those who simply overstepped social boundaries. There’s a lot that can be said about real life through the medium of genre fiction, and these stories really showcase that.
This collection only scrapes the surface of what is a rich tradition of Weird and wonderful writing by women, and it should definitely be used as a springing-off point for readers to discover more works by these authors. That being said, it also achieves something I find unusual in anthologies: it is a satisfying read that feels complete in and of itself. Though I had my favourites among the stories, there isn’t a single one I would remove, and the stories are really well-arranged so that you sweep through the different styles and emotions effortlessly. If you’re new to the stories, I recommend reading the introduction last; it is very insightful, but of course cannot help but spoil some of the stories in discussing them. Overall, Women’s Weird is a brilliant addition to my shelves, and to the preservation of women’s contributions to this fascinating genre. Five out of five cats!