The Uncanny Stories of Georgia Wood Pangborn
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Born 29 August 1872 in Malone, New York, Georgia Wood Pangborn was the daughter of George H. Wood & Mary Prentice Wood. She graduated from Smith College, married Harry Levi Pangborn in 1894, & for a time after the turn of the century lived on Wall Street at the center of the New York literary establishment. She died a widow on 17 April 1958 in Poughkeepsie, at age 85, of heart failure.
She was possibly the best American supernaturalist of her day. Yet she fell so far into obscurity after she withdrew from literary life in the middle of the 1920s, she has been totally unknown to modern anthologists of supernatural fiction, who in recent decades have mined British sources, or American pulps, missing the better part of what was written for the leading American magazines before pulps "ghettoized" supernatural stories.
There is a mystery about Mrs. Pangborn that I am sorry to say I cannot fully resolve. There are no memoirs, no autobiographical sketches, no personal letters, & no explanations for her vanishing from the pages of serial magazines midway through the 1920s. I corresponded with her daughter Mary Pangborn, herself an author of a few fine weird stories, but could not induce her to say anything about her mother, though I risked her anger by my insistence. I have spoken with two close friends of Mary's brother, the late science fiction writer Edgar Pangborn. His friends remembered long, personal, sensitive conversations with Edgar, who never once mentioned his mother, let alone that she too was a writer in a vein fantastic. There have been sealed orders on this matter such as the family would prefer never to be opened, & there has even been a touch of hostility toward her memory. I was for some long while left to wonder: Did Mrs. Pangborn at some point abandon her children, willingly or unwillingly? There is the evidence in her stories of madness & suicidal depressions, so that conceivably she struggled in ways that could never be discussed even within, let alone outside her family. My strongest suspicions were proven by her death certificate, which provided a line-entry after "significant conditions contributing to death but not related to the terminal condition." This was filled in with this tragic phrase: "Paranoia & Paranoid Condition over 27 years, 10 months." Hence the mystery of her sudden disappearance from magazine literature is resolved by so few words, as well as the refusal of her children to speak of her in any light whatsoever.
In lieu of further biography, I find that I must speak exclusively of the literature itself, a sufficient topic.
Though many short story artists in the mainstream of American letters dabbled at the supernatural now & then, Mrs. Pangborn made of it a veritable specialty. In 1917 the influential critic Edward J. O'Brien said of her work, "She shares with Algernon Blackwood that gift for making spiritual allusion real. What is specifically distinctive is her gift of selection, by which she brings out the most illusive psychological contrasts."
Her stories were strong attractions to readers of the leading magazines & she was to be, if briefly, a household name while at the height of her success, when short story art still mattered in America. Yet any fame predicated upon magazine appearances is ever apt to be ephemeral. When she ceased writing after about two decades of creative output, her fame soon evaporated. It may have been the pressures of family life that caused her to withdraw from literary society; or it may have been the changing nature of magazine content that left her no significant outlets after the 1920s. It is comprehensible in context but still a little brow-raising that one of the best & best known ghost story writers of the 'teens should be so utterly forgotten a decade later.
Her work has worn well with time, as is true of so many fine tales of the supernatural from Poe onward. Her approach was often innovative, tending to avoid the simple & the predictable. The strange situations were developed with rare pathos, subtlety, dramatic effect and, often enough, genuine scariness.
Her first short story, "The Gray Collie" (Scribner's Magazine July 1903), reversed many conservative clichÈs of terror tales. The customary setting of men's clubs, wherein cigar-puffing gentlemen tell each other some frightful adventure or another, as in Edward Lucas White's "Lucandoo" for a classic example, becomes with Mrs. Pangborn's story a group of women lounging in a dark house, serving up chocolate instead of brandy, while just such a tale unfolds. Was there a wry bit of "getting even" in this construction? A reply to those other kinds of stories in which women seem not to exist anywhere in the world?
Women & children figure prominently in her ghost stories. "Cara" (Harper's Monthly January 1914) is about two children & their invisible playmate. "The Substitute" (Harper's December 1914) is about the ghost of a young mother & her two orphaned children, seemingly the same children encountered in "Cara," based on Pangborn's own children. As a startling aside, the little boy of "The Substitute" states that, when he grows up, he wishes to become "a Nelly," a code word for homosexual & an odd bit of humor on Mrs. Pangborn's part, given the homosexual subtexts of much of the science fiction written many years later by her son Edgar. In "The Rescue" (Woman's Home Companion March 1912) a dead mother intervenes to save an infant; & in the far more satisfying, poetic tale of "Doubting Castle" (Bookman July 1906) a little boy lays emotional claim to a haunted ruin, the events leading to a strange reunion, & some intriguing philosophy of life & death & beauty.
The recurrent figures of mothers & children can be explained in large part by the national situation in the two decades before Suffrage in the United States, & by the fact that magazines were bought chiefly by women. Women to great degree dominated supernatural fiction until the 1920s, for they dominated magazine fiction in general. A few, such as Madeleine Dahlgren whose ghost stories were collected as The Woodley Lane Ghost (1899), were fanatical conservatives working to see that women did not obtain the vote. It was far more common to support liberal issues & women's rights. In England such ghost story writers as Violet Hunt, Marie Belloc Lowndes, May Sinclair, & Clemence Housman the author of the extended prose-poem The Werewolf (1896), were feminist activists. In one pro-suffrage "window-bashing" march through a London business district, among those arrested was W. W. Jacobs, author of "The Monkey's Paw," & a member, as was Clemence Housman's brother Laurence, of Men for Women's Suffrage.
In America, unlike in England, feminist rampages rarely reached the point of throwing oneself in front of horses or busting all the windows on a street. But an even larger number of American feminists, moderate or otherwise, wrote ghost stories: Alice Brown, Gertrude Atherton, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Annie Trumbull Slosson, Anna Nicholas, & Josephine Dodge Daskam Bacon -- whose representative collections for readers of uncanny tales are, in the order named above: The Flying Teuton (1918), The Bell in the Fog (1905), The Wind in the Rose Bush (1903), Men Women & Ghosts (1869), Dumb Foxglove (1898), The Making of Thomas Barton (1913), & The Strange Cases of Doctor Stanchon (1913). Some were active in labor politics, or with socialist groups & pseudo-anarchist writers' clubs. Unlike their British counterparts, who literally laid down their lives in violent protest & Gandhian starvation tactics, it's difficult to call most of the American camp "radicals" per se, unless Mark Twain was a radical for his mouthy involvement with socialist groups & women's rights. It was, simply, the tone of the times, & at the same time the nature of New York's left-leaning bohemian society.
Georgia Wood Pangborn was probably not involved politically with any particular group or cause; or such was the opinion of her daughter Mary. Yet in a couple of her last love stories of the 1920s, she takes for granted that certain naive heroic types are "bolsheviks" at heart, & certainly she conformed to the general artistic leanings, possibly because her own leanings were the same, or possibly because the magazines that paid the best for short stories wanted them to appeal to those American women who bought most of the copies (a marketing attitude reversed in the soon-to-rise pulps). Hence it is not unusual that women figure so keenly in these stories, or that themes so often feel modern in their social awareness.
Thus we have "The Haunted Coat" (Collier's November 10, 1906), a veritable prose-poem, & a young woman's coming-of-age fable. Its inverted sequel "The Ice Storm" (Women's Home Companion March 1918) is about a woman experiencing the decay of all her life that has gone before. Bixby's Bridge" (Harper's March 1917), a widely noted story at the time, tells us much about the bitterness & confused love of a mother for her pitiful, petrified son. The most wholeheartedly feminist story is probably "The Substitute," by which I gained my suspicion (without sufficient evidence) that Mrs. Pangborn may not have raised her own two children, explaining their later silence about or hostility toward her, a natural result of feeling abandoned. The mother in the story has literally worked herself to death, yet returns from beyond the veil to visit her girlhood friend, now a lonely spinster. They trade opinions regarding their lives & both are found lacking. It is a sad tale of women's limited choices; although it attempts, in the end, to locate an acceptable balance of glorified motherhood & personal liberty.
Women & madness is also a recurrent theme in Mrs. Pangborn's fiction, as is suicide. "The Fourth Watch" (Bookman November 1905) & its companion piece "The Ghost Flower" (Bookman November 1908) look at suicidal women, one successful at her sad objective, the other with a change of heart. In a minor, nonsupernatural story, "The Boulder" (Holland's Magazine December 1925), the heroine remains crazily "cheerful" while perched at cliff's edge, finally falling not to her death, but into the arms of a handsome savior. That particular story is rubbish yet in seeking a reason for it to have been written, I can only imagine the author felt personally unbalanced on a precipice between doom & salvation. The heroine of "Andy MacPherson's House" (Romance March 1920) is a young eccentric who suffers from physical & mental exhaustion & needs peace & rest if she is to recover. She is never shown to have been really "cured" yet finds happiness nonetheless. "The Intruder" (Harper's June 1907) takes place in a rest home or mental institution & embodies many of Mrs. Pangborn's strongest themes. In the first place, these institutionalized women clearly are not insane (a revelatory contention in itself), reminding us that in the first half of the 20th Century, many women were institutionalized merely for expressions of iritation, anger, depression, & not uncommonly for a variety of eccentricities that would in our own day no longer be regarded as indicative of the slightest degree of mental illness (even if Mrs. Pangborn's recurring personal experiences in-&-out of asylums was soundly & medically founded, she would certainly have observed many other women who were less reasonably locked away). Also in this story, the mother/child relationship recurs in the protective way the older woman strives to aid the dream-haunted younger woman.
"The Fourth Watch," the only tale of genuinely crippling insanity, is the only one with a mad man instead of woman. The story focuses & confirms many themes of alienation & mental disorder & egoism seen in other of Mrs. Pangborn's stories. "The Fourth Watch" elaborates many of her ideas &, while some of the other stories are more purely entertaining, this one provides many keys to deeper understanding of the rest. The supernatural may be meant literally, or as a dream, or as an allegory. The object is to confirm that madness & the supernatural are the same. The things known only by the mad are unknown to the rest of us. Those that live on the margins of sanity, where so many of Mrs. Pangborn's characters reside, are closest to the fantastic.
It could go as a footnote that her greatest concession to commercialism was her love-romance tales akin to "The Boulder" mentioned above. These are mostly light adventures of little interest today, & fortunately their themes do not hinder her supernatural output, having been kept mainly to a separate category. "The Intruder" ends on an almost mystically romantic note that is entirely effective. Only in "The Ring of the Great Wish" (Forum May 1914) is romantic love interwoven with supernaturalism, in a manner that works fairly well.
Commercial necessity also worked nicely in the case of "The Twilight Gardener" (Touchstone June 1917). It was written for an arts magazine that ran a great deal of material on gardening, to which a story about a garden ghost was obviously tailored. In the last five or so years of her career, however, ending in 1926, with the demand for love-romances & light drama that marked the decline & close of America's golden age of magazine fiction, Mrs. Pangborn was positively stifled. For all intent & purpose, her best work is before 1918. Only "Andy MacPherson's House" from 1920 recaptures the excellence & concerns of her earlier works. And sadly that story was relegated to the pulp magazine Romance, showing that Mrs. Pangborn certainly could have made the transition to the pulps, but it would have been unprofitable.
Most of her later stories were polished but unimaginative & were consigned to second-string magazines or daily newspapers. She rarely bothered to waste good plots or remarkable incident in them. Among her poor final tales is "The North Wind" (Chicago Tribune literary supplement December 16, 1926). It pushes sentimentality to slobberiness, & interest cannot be salvaged by the minor "soundtrack" effect of a ghost, possibly imagined, playing a violin. Such feature stories in newspapers were a sorry come-down for an author previously used to the prestige of Harper's, Scribner's & the Bookman.
Mrs. Pangborn published a good many poems, some of them rather too sweet, about children, Christmas, & other sentimental topics. But she aspired to serious lyric poetry & often incorporated the supernatural into her finest pieces. (She was also a fair artist, having published at least one color illustration; I have no indication that her artwork otherwise survives.)
I've selected only the very best of her poems of the supernatural to include alongside short stories to which they seem poignantly addressed. "The Lady Senbtes" (Scribner's November 1908) is a good commentary on the tale of "The Ring of the Great Wish." "The Watch of the Gods" (Current Literature May 1906) is curiously apropos of the watchful, wandering spirit of petrified Bixby. "The Dead Maids & the Daffodils" (Scribner's April 1919), "Earth-Bound" (Cosmopolitan March 1906), "An October's Verse" (Collier's October 20, 1906), "A Walk on the Moor" (Poetry June 1915), & "The Ghost in the Snow" (Everybody's March 1907) each prefaces a story on which it incidentally comments. "The Wall of Winds" (Scribner's October 1906) provided the title of the present collection, embedded in its lines.
She wrote a single novel Roman Biznet (Houghton Mifflin, 1902) as her literary debut. It flirts with supernatural ideas but is not occult. That she never again worked at this length may have contributed to the transient nature of her popularity. Only a few writers manage to hold their own on the basis of short stories alone, regardless of the superiority of short story art. After the one novel she was to concentrate exclusively on short fiction & poetry. Though this output was featured in the leading magazines, the fact remains that each story was, as a rule, available to the public for only one month out of one year, & not reprinted.
She did have one collection in her lifetime. Interventions (Scribner's, 1911) gathers mainly her non-supernatural tales. It did include her very first story, the terror tale "The Gray Collie"; a borderline piece "A Dispensation" (Everybody's September 1906) about an old woman's curse that plunges a successful man into morosity & desperation; & the ghostly "Broken Glass" (Scribner's August 1911). Otherwise, this collection so pointedly overlooks her best & weirdest tales before 1911 that one can only surmise that a collection specifically of uncanny stories was planned, but never came about.
Mrs. Pangborn's fame was not exclusively in the supernatural. Her "family" stories somewhat mawkish tales of hard luck children were popular as well. For such as these she won large cash prizes from both Scribner's and Collier's magazines. The best of them can be found in Interventions.
It is difficult to fully evaluate & precisely place Mrs. Pangborn's position in the development of the American ghost story. On the one hand she was not an influence on the pulp authors of the generation that followed hers, for her stories became too difficult to obtain & were no longer widely known, for all that she was once regarded as an American Algernon Blackwood. She is better considered as something of an end-product, one of the last of the supernaturalists whose artistic & commercial impetus, whose inspirations & restraints, grew out of America's great flourishing of magazine literature, a flourishing that was ending as the pulps moved into the vacuum.
Another author from this closing period was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Glasgow. In England there were such as May Sinclair & Oliver Onions. This was the flowering of "psychological" ghost stories in the aftermath of Victorian chain-rattlers & Edwardian embodiments of pure evil. Ellen Glasgow is the purest example of the American portion, her tales collected as The Shadowy Third (1923). Georgia Wood Pangborn was part of this small, intense though brief, & refined period of supernatural writings that were first remarked upon & defined as a newly rising phenomenon by Olivia Howard Dunbar in the June 1, 1905 issue of the Dial. Given that Mrs. Pangborn's short work was appearing by 1903, while Miss Glasgow's perfected examples occurred mostly about 1920, it must therefore be that Mrs. Pangborn helped originate & develop the form & nature of this inward-looking type of uncanny fiction, even while failing always to epitomize the type. An indirect influence on today's psychologically complex supernaturalists, through the line of Onions & Glasgow, can be inferred to Mrs. Pangborn. At all events, her position has to be placed higher than her later obscurity might at first indicate.
Regardless of her historical importance, strong or not, the stories themselves are among the finest of their period. As near as can be discovered at this point, the present volume gathers together all of Mrs. Pangborn's significant supernatural writings. On the strength & brilliance of "The Substitute," the pure weirdness of "The Intruder," & the pathos of "Bixby's Bridge" it will be seen that here is rediscovered a major writer. Other stories such as the eerie "Twilight Gardener," the carefully wrought "Cara," poetic "Haunted Coat" & the prettily strange "Doubting Castle" will please the reader with their lasting power. Some readers will find their personal favorites among such experimental flights of fancy as "The Ring of the Great Wish" or perhaps "The Ghost Flower" with its assortment of eccentrics. The least effective stories ("The Rescue" that is too sentimental & "The Ice Storm" that continues too far beyond its climax) yet have saving graces, & are offered for the sake of the completeness of the edition. Certainly no story is an embarrassment to the author's own ghost, & several are clearly works of genius. Now that they have at long, long last been collected into one volume for your perusal, everyone will have the opportunity to assess Mrs. Pangborn's talent & importance.
-Jessica Amanda Salmonson
The published version of this essay as it appears in The Wind at Midnight (Ash-Tree Press, 1999) was an earlier draft. Ash-Tree Press received a corrected version dated as newer but alas a draft they received months earlier was the one that ended up in print, including the wrong date of her death & lacking important information about her final years.
That leaves the on-line version the only definitive version of the article, a mild tragedy that in no way reflects on the excellence of Mrs. Pangborn's tales that fill a book that is otherwise a complete delight. To see this important ghost story writer finally in book form rather than scattered about rare magazines was my final goal in doing this kind of reasearch.
The Wind at Midnight by Georgia Wood Pangborn is limited to 500 copies finely bound with illustrated dustwrapper by Deborah McMillion-Nering. Besides the earlier draft of my Introduction, there is additionally a preface by Patricia McKillip & 25 of Mrs. Pangborn's weird tales & poems. The collection may well be "complete" for her weird tales, though it would be marvelous if something else someday turned up in a magazine I missed.
I've squirreled a few copies away so check out the catalog link in the navigation bar below to check on what's available.
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