Book Reviews

Review: From the Abyss by DK Broster

This might be my favourite collection of Weird tales yet – a great mix of stories and subjects, with incisive character work.

Book: From the Abyss by DK Broster, edited by Melissa Edmundson

Publication date: 9th August 2022

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

Content warnings: violence, injury, and death, including murder and suicide.

D K Broster was one of the great British historical novelists of the twentieth century, but her Weird fiction has long been forgotten. She wrote some of the most impressive supernatural short stories to be published between the wars. Melissa Edmundson, editor of Women’s Weird, Women’s Weird 2, Elinor Mordaunt’s The Villa and The Vortex and Helen Simpson’s The Outcast and The Rite, all published by Handheld, has curated a selection of Broster’s best and most terrifying work.

This is an interesting and well put-together collection of stories which provides a great showcase of DK Broster’s Weird fiction, ranging from the merely macabre to the outright magical. Weird fiction is a little bit difficult to pin down; I personally like it best when it tends to the more fantastic side of things, but even the stories that deal with more mundane horrors can be entertaining – think dark, strange stories that make you a little bit uncomfortable even if you don’t know why. Handheld Press have been collecting lesser-known Weird authors for a little while now – check out my reviews of their first two Women’s Weird anthologies here and here. From the Abyss might well be my favourite so far.

Possibly my favourite story in this collection was ‘The Window’, a story set in the First World War which deals with a picturesque ruin of a house and a young man who feels drawn to it and its current owner. There’s a wonderfully evocative tale of revenge beyond the place – I love a house with feelings, and the main action of the story is nicely chilling. I also loved ‘Fils D’Émigré’, a surprisingly sweet story about a young boy who just wants his father to return from war – the supernatural element is minor, and yet crucial, and it’s a nice portrait of filial love and has a very enjoyable feel to the characters. ‘The Promised Land’ is a masterpiece of character work that had me gripped by its deeply, visibly unreliable narrator, and I also really enjoyed the glimpse into the scary yet believable obsession of ‘The Pavement’ – neither of these two stories has an overtly supernatural element, but both are very atmospheric and have the vibes of a true Weird story. ‘The Taste of Pomegranates’ and the titular ‘From the Abyss’ are much more openly speculative – whether you put it down to magic or science, the twists here are very much in the fantastic realm, and were very enjoyable.

I did also really enjoy ‘Couching at the Door’, a claustrophobic horror story about a poet beset by a physical embodiment of sin, but the shine was taken off it a bit because it had previously been included in Handheld Press’s collection Women’s Weird (the second story that has been duplicated between their Weird books, along with Helen Simpson de Guerry’s ‘Young Magic’). I see why it was included in both collections – it’s great, for a start – but it’s a little disappointing for readers who own both, which doesn’t seem unlikely for fans of the genre, since both books are quite slim with not a huge number of stories. I hope this repetition isn’t a trend that continues across future collections!

For the most part, the stories are horrifying for their effects on the people they involve, rather than for the actual supernatural elements – which is not to say the Weirdness isn’t effective and entertaining, because it is, but there’s a deftness of character and a very intense way of description that makes you really empathise with the characters. ‘The Window’, which I mentioned above, has a really intense emotional aspect to it, and in ‘Clairvoyance’, while I was fascinated by the mechanics of the clairvoyance itself, I was more strongly affected by the very clear, elegant descriptions of the horror that ensues (though do go carefully on this one for some dated racial generalisations). The mundane characterisations are brilliant too – Ellen, the beleaguered companion in ‘The Promised Land’, is easy to empathise with as her cousin ruins her longed-for visit to Italy. It’s a wonderful portrait of a poor relation, equal parts resentment and gratefulness, affection and hatred. Even in the few stories that didn’t float my boat as much as the others, there was always a clear sense of personhood to even the minor characters that kept my attention – Evadne from ‘The Pestering’, frustrated by the demands of offering ‘teas’ in the tourist season, is a great portrayal of a middle class woman and her concerns about work and class that wouldn’t be out of place in a social satire.

If you’re a fan of Weird fiction or early 20th century women’s writing, then I highly recommend this collection. As always with Handheld, you get an interesting introduction (though read this last, it spoils some twists!) and a section of notes at the back which offer explanations on language that may not be familiar, and the book itself is just a nice weighty, quality-feeling object. I’ll certainly be looking up DK Broster’s other work, because her characters are just marvellous. Five out of five cats!

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