Book Reviews

Review: The Outcast and The Rite by Helen de Guerry Simpson

An intriguing, but ultimately frustrating, collection of semi-supernatural short stories, brought back into print in a lovely edition.

Book: The Outcast and The Rite by Helen de Guerry Simpson

Publication date: 10th May 2022

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Handheld Press. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: Death and afterlife; violence; mentions of suicide; fatphobia; racism (more of the patronising kind than the aggressive).

The Australian novelist and playwright Helen de Guerry Simpson (1897-1940) published many supernatural short stories. This new edition selects the best of her unsettling writing, adding some little-known stories to her 1925 collection The Baseless Fabric.

Featured stories include:

‘An Experiment of the Dead’, in which a visitor comes to visit a woman in the condemned cell.

‘Good Company’, in which a traveller in Italy becomes temporarily possessed of a hitchhiker in her mind.

‘Grey Sand and White Sand’ is the horrifying story of a landscape artist who sees and paints a different view.

‘The Outcast’, in which a soldier left for dead in the War takes his revenge on his village.

‘The Rite’, in which a discontented woman enters a wood, and emerges transformed.

I was so excited to read this book, having loved Handheld Press’s previous books of supernatural women’s writing (click through for my reviews of Women’s Weird and Women’s Weird 2); one of Helen de Guerry Simpson’s stories, ‘Young Magic’, was one of my favourites from the second anthology. Unfortunately, that story being reprinted here as well, it remained my favourite – I found myself disappointed by many of the stories here. The issue I had, I think was that I went into this anthology expecting it to be a similar style of Weird fiction to what I’d read before, with heavy supernatural elements and some real creep factor to it. Instead, the majority of these stories are just lightly supernatural, or perhaps not at all; they seem to be more literary depictions of moments of madness, rather than outright Weirdness.

The most effective stories, for me, were the ones where the magic was the most apparent. ‘Young Magic’, which I mentioned above, is a story of a young girl with a supernatural companion struggling against her family’s expectations. I thought ‘The Pythoness’, a tale of a medium seized by a possession during a dinner party, had a dark humour about it that reminded me of Roald Dahl. I enjoyed ‘As Much More Land’ for its interesting question of whether the famous haunted room it depicts is really the site of something supernatural, or if the student who spends a night in it is simply scaring himself with his imagination – this story in particular had some wonderfully creepy writing. ‘The Man Who Had Great Possessions’ was an interesting spin on an author’s muse, while ‘An Experiment of the Dead’ is a predictable, but well-written take on possession.

My very least favourite in the collection was ‘Grey Sand and White Sand’, which is a shame as it opens the collection! This story felt very literary, telling the story of an artist’s breakdown, and the supernatural element is so vague as to be totally opaque; I’d believe you if you told me there was nothing magical about it at all. This theme of vagueness carried through many of the stories for me; ‘Good Company’, the story of a woman possessed by a saint, was one I was really looking forward to, but again it seemed questionable as to whether anything happened at all that wouldn’t have been the same without the removal of the supernatural part. Both of the title stories disappointed me for similar reasons. ‘The Outcast’ was a very short story with an interesting concept – a memorial tree that won’t grow because the dead man it represents is unburied – but does nothing with it, while ‘The Rite’ contains no Weird element at all, only a girl walking through a wood, pondering her marriage options, and then getting scared of the gloom. Well-written literary pieces they may be, but as supernatural fiction, they underwhelmed me.

I think that’s my issue with this collection all over, really; it’s underwhelming if you’re looking for something overtly speculative. Very few of the stories had satsifying resolutions to me; many felt like snippets of a larger literary novel rather than self-contained, supernatural stories. They are sketches where you have to fill in the blanks to gain any sense of creep or Weirdness; very few of them have memorable twists or concepts, which is a shame because the ones that do are excellent. This is still a beautifully put-together book in terms of aesthetics, with an interesting introduction; I’m certain there will be those who appreciate the extremely subtle, open-ended nature of these stories, and I do recommend them to those who enjoy literary vignettes, but I found them a step down from the spooks and scares of the wonderful Women’s Weird collection. Only two and a half out of five cats for me, I’m afraid.

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