Sunday, October 11, 2015

More American Fantastic Tales by Women: Spofford, Jewett, Gilman and Wynne

In my last blogpost I wrote about stories written by major female American authors that are included in The Library of America's American Fantastic Tales Volume I, edited by Peter Straub. For this post I read stories from the book by women whom I don't think are quite as famous as Chopin, Wharton and Cather: Harriet Prescott Spofford, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Madeline Yale Wynne.  I decided to read these four stories largely because of their evocative titles.  Could this be a good strategy for sniffing out good fiction?  Let's see.

"The Moonstone Mass" by Harriet Prescott Spofford (1868)

One of the ideas I had when I decided to blog about stories from this anthology, an idea I haven't follow through on, was to assess if and how the stories were peculiarly American.  Could these stories have been written by someone from another English-speaking country?  Did the distinctive culture or attitudes of the people of the United States shine through each story?  If we look at the stories this way I think it may be significant that many of them have something to do with business and money; perhaps this makes sense, if we think of the society of the United States as a peculiarly individualistic, democratic and bourgeois one, a place where everybody thinks of himself as middle-class and people are often defined by their work and their income.

Harriet Prescott Spofford's story fits into this mold.  Our narrator has a "certain weakness" in common with his ancestors, "the fear of dying in poverty."  And so he goes on a dangerous adventure: sailing into the Arctic in hopes of discovering, or disproving the existence of, the Northwest Passage.  His uncle, a man very interested in this topic, promises to pay him a pile of money for participating in the voyage.

"The Moonstone Mass" reminded me of Poe's 1841 story "Into the Maelstrom," which I admit I read like ten years ago and do not remember well.  Spofford's narrator's voyage is a disaster, with our hero the only survivor.  Alone he rides a chunk of ice along some current, witnessing odd meteorological, electrical and magnetic phenomena.  Spofford's speculations as to what is going on in the unexplored areas around the North Pole reminded me of 20th century science fiction writers' speculations about conditions on the moon or Mars, but also reminded me of the Romantic Movement: our hero doesn't do anything, he just lies on a moving ice floe and is alternately awed and horrified by what he sees (like "a lance of piercing light" that shoots up into the heavens) and feels (like a magnetic force that holds him in place on his ice floe.)  Finally he sees the "Mass" of the title, a huge hunk of moonstone, which he realizes is very valuable.  The current carries him past this treasure, and the memory of it haunts the rest of his days.

The plot of this story is good, but the passages about the natural wonders are too long and boring; the long sentences made my eyes glaze over.  Spofford doesn't develop any human relationships between the narrator and anybody on the doomed ship, and the north where much of the story takes pace is desolate of all life.  I have to give "The Moonstone Mass" a marginal thumbs down, and admit I thought the "Mass" of the title was going to be a ritual attended by witches or Satanists.

The most memorable thing about the story may be that Spofford employs some words we don't hear very much in the 21st century, like "pelf," "niggard" and "diablerie."  If things are a little boring at the office tomorrow, sprinkle your vocal contributions to a meeting or your section of a report with these fine words--there's a good chance you will generate an excitement your colleagues will appreciate.

 "In Dark New England Days" by Sarah Orne Jewett (1890)

The two unmarried Knowles sisters, who are both over sixty years old, have just lost their father, a former sea captain, to a stroke.  Now they can finally open his sea chest, the chest into which he has been putting all the profits of their farm as well as his voyages.  The chest is full of gold coins!  Good news!  But that night a burglar sneaks in and steals the treasure! Bad news!  Why don't you old bags own a dog!?

The sisters accuse Enoch Holt, a business associate of the dead sea captain's, of the theft.  Holt and Captain Knowles had been on bad terms for years after the old sailor had accused Holt of cheating him out of his fair share of the profits of a business partnership.  There is no evidence Holt is the burglar, and so he is acquitted.  Enraged, in front of half the town one of the sisters curses Holt and his descendents.
"You stole it, you thief!  You know it in your heart!" 
"I swear by my right hand I never touched it."
"Curse your right hand then!" cried Hannah Knowles...."Curse your right hand and all your folks' that follow you!"
The rest of the story flashes forward some decades, and consists mostly of dialogue between gossipy women, in which it is related that Enoch Holt and his descendents all broke or lost their right hands in accidents and wars, while the Knowles sisters lived as wretched recluses, perhaps accompanied by the ghost of their father, Captain Knowles.  I think you can say the story has a subtle feminist spin: Captain Knowles, instead of allowing his daughters to "grow up" and pursue their own lives, dominated them psychologically in such a way that they remained children into their sixties, so that they could not lead happy lives nor contribute to the community.

This story is OK, no big deal.  It feels a little long.  Worse, it is afflicted by one of my pet peeves: the dialogue of many of the characters, for long stretches, is written phonetically, with lots of apostrophes, to indicate their accent and/or dialect:
"Why on airth don't ye git somebody to git some o' your own wood an' season it well so 't won't warp, same 's mine done, an' build ye a new one?"
I realize this is a device employed by the author to build character and a sense of time and place, but I find it obstructive and annoying.

"The Yellow Wall Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

After the labored and archaic Spofford and Jewett stories this one was like a breath of fresh air!  In its clarity and directness, use of an unreliable narrator, and feminist ramifications, it feels very modern, and I mean that in a good way.

Our narrator is an educated woman, married to a physician.  Her brother is also a physician.  These doctors think she is mentally ill in some way and requires rest, and so forbid her from working, even from simply writing--the husband actually has a schedule for her to follow, covering every hour of the day!  The narrator repeatedly admits that he does this out of love for her, but to the reader it is obvious she is treated like a child or a prisoner!

The couple has rented a big old estate for three months.  The husband decides they shall use a top floor as a bedroom, a room once used as a sort of nursery and as a gymnasium when the estate was a school.  There are bars on the windows, and a hideous yellow wall paper on the walls of this room.

The narrator, who spends most of her time in the bedroom, becomes obsessed with the wall paper, and her interpretation of its design evolves over time.  Eventually she comes to think that the wall paper depicts a woman, or women, creeping about, trapped behind bars, and she endeavours to aid the prisoner in her escape.  At the end of the story she identifies with the liberated wall paper woman, thinking she herself has escaped from the wall paper.  Her husband faints when he sees her creeping around the room and hears her bizarre repetitive speech.

The story is open to several interpretations.  Perhaps the woman is a nut, maybe suffering from postpartum depression (she gave birth shortly before they moved into the rented estate but never sees her child) and the wall paper has a negative effect on her mind.  Maybe the woman is normal, and the estate is haunted--there is some physical evidence that the yellow wall paper has driven other people insane, and the couple was able to get the estate cheap, as if the place has a bad reputation.  Maybe a ghost woman has even escaped the wall paper and invaded the narrator's mind! Obviously many elements of the story--women as prisoners, a woman kept from doing productive or interesting work, a woman treated as a child, a woman separated from her own baby--can be interpreted as symbolism of the way women are treated by men and by society.

A very good psychological story, thought-provoking, clear when it should be (lots of sharp images of the sinister room and estate) and mysterious when it should be (is the woman crazy? is there a ghost? should we trust this woman's descriptions?)  Thumbs up!

"The Little Room" by Madeline Yale Wynne (1895)

I like fictional descriptions of rooms, Proust's description of the seaside hotel room in In Search of Lost Time, for example, or the rooms in Ballard's "Billenium."  I have lived a more or less sedentary life, and spent lots of time in rooms, and having moved every two or three years since leaving New Jersey for New York in the '90s, I've lived and worked in many different rooms.  I've spent a lot of time tracing with my eyes the grain of woods, cracks in plaster, and wallpaper patterns, and thinking about the relationships between bookshelves and doors and windows and moldings and pictures.  Like a city street, where the buildings are all put up by different people but live in a relationship with each other, a room is a collective work of art--somebody designed and built the room, placing windows and doors, but generally somebody else decides where the furniture goes, what kind of pictures and curtains to hang.  A room builds up a character, a personality, in the minds of the people who spend time in it, because of how it looks and because of the good or evil things that have happened in it.

I was totally into the descriptions of the room in Gilman's "The Yellow Wall Paper," and started Wynne's "The Little Room" with hopes of a similar experience.  And I was not disappointed!  This is a great little uncanny story which includes a vivid description of a room, a room with great emotional resonance.

In Vermont live two wealthy old ladies, sisters, in a large house.  Sometimes relatives come for brief visits, or to stay for a season.  On the north side of the house, between the front and back rooms, is a door.  Some visitors to the old house vividly recall a little room being behind the door, while others remember a china closet being there. Both schools of opinion can describe the room and its furniture or the closet and the china in great detail, and people who saw a room think the closet viewers must be putting on an elaborate hoax or suffering some delusion, and vice versa.  Most shockingly, some individuals who saw a room as children are distressed to find the room gone when they visit as adults.

Two young people who recently visited the house separately, one who saw a room and one who saw a closet, set off together to solve the mystery once and for all, only to find the house has just burned down.

I love the plot, and the style; Wynne writes economically, something I strongly appreciate, and really paints an image in the reader's mind of the little room which may or may not be there.  She also does a good job conveying the reactions of the characters to this weird phenomenon.  Thumbs up!


I can strongly recommend "The Yellow Wall Paper" and "The Little Room" to readers of horror and weird fiction, and to those interested in women writers of speculative fiction.  American Fantastic Tales is shaping up to be a quite good anthology.

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