Remember how much I enjoyed Handheld Press’s anthology of Weird fiction by female writers (review here if you missed it)? Well, there’s a second volume, and it’s just as fascinatingly eerie!
Book: Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937, ed. Melissa Edmundson
Read before: No
Publication date: 27th October 2020
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Handheld Press. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Death, including death of children; ghosts, hauntings, and the supernatural.
As with the first volume, this is a collection of thirteen Weird stories that sit on the lines between horror, science fiction, and Gothic fiction. Book 2 expands to look more closely at Weird fiction from across the world, and includes some writers who are not generally known for their stranger stories – who knew LM Montgomery (the author of Anne of Green Gables and other gentle slice-of-life books) had written spine-chilling tales too? As always with anthologies, not every story will be to a reader’s taste, but I enjoyed the selection just as much as the first book! There’s also a really interesting introduction, and a useful array of notes on each story – the whole thing is really well put together.
My absolute standout this time was a story that managed to genuinely scare me: ‘Outside the House’ by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor. The tale of a WWI soldier recuperating at his fiancée’s family home, it really ramps up the creep factor as he is constantly instructed not to remain in the garden after 5pm. His curiosity is piqued, and he endeavours to get out into the garden after dark to see what’s going on, which is when the more straight-forward horror elements start to appear, but what really stuck with me was how utterly unsettling the family’s behaviour is – a mix of acceptance and fear that creates a really chilling atmosphere – and how well the protagonist was realised, with all his trauma and the effects of his war experience. It made me uncomfortable to look into my own garden after dark! The introduction mentions that there is a large canon of supernatural WW1 fiction, which I’m definitely going to have to investigate (hint hint, Handheld, I’d love a collection of this!).
I also really enjoyed ‘The Black Stone Statue’ by Mary Elizabeth Counselman, which wouldn’t be at all out of place in one of the 60s and 70s science fiction anthologies I love, and ‘The Blue Room’ by Lettice Galbraith, which has a similar idea to The Haunting of Hill House, with young occultists investigating a haunted room only to discover more than they bargained for. The breadth of stories here is really impressive, and helps to show the immense range of styles that Weird fiction can encompass – there’s a great variety of forms, too, with some simple narratives, some epistolary tales, and some stories told through several layers, such a narrator reporting hearsay. I really enjoyed how social a lot of the stories are, with a real spirit of communal storytelling that feels essentially part of women’s experience – quite apart from the stereotypes of gossiping ladies, women have always needed to warn each other about real-world danger, so why should they not trade stories of supernatural danger too?
As with the previous anthology, it’s fascinating to see what subjects are tackled and how particular they are to the female experience. Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The House’ and Bithia Mary Croker’s ‘The Red Bungalow’ are very different, but both focus on the house as the repository for a woman’s dreams of a perfect family life, with tragic endings – you can definitely see how the pressure to be the perfect housewife begins to be translated into a supernatural antagonist. One of the most interesting stories in this respect is ‘Young Magic’ by Helen Simpson, a sort of proto-Matilda where a young girl, frustrated with the lack of outlet for her imagination, gains minor magical powers. I didn’t actually love the way the story ended or the ambiguity around the supernatural side of things, but I really enjoyed the depiction of Viola, misunderstood by the adults around her and frustrated by society’s expectations of girls. It’s a story that will speak to any girl who ever suffered from a surfeit of imagination!
This is a fantastic collection of stories that manages to add to the previous anthology perfectly – if you enjoyed the first, it’ll be a must read. Perfect for fans of Shirley Jackson and Mary Shelley, or for those interested in the ways women use speculative writing to explore their changing reality through the first half of the 20th century. As ever, read the enlightening introduction last, for fear of spoiling the twists! Unsettling, fascinating, and thoroughly enjoyable – five out of five cats!