Two Centuries of Women's Supernatural Stories

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson


Over the last two decades, I've spoken with scores of women who at one time or another shared my interest in the horror story. After an initial fascination for, say, Shirley Jackson, they were soonafter disappointed with the difficulty in learning about other women who had excelled in this field. My own quest was more fanatical, therefore successful. Although my own pleasures are by no means met exclusively by authors with feminist concerns, the ghostly writings of women have become of particular interest to me. One product of my interest was the anthology What Did Miss Darrington See?: Feminist Supernatural Stories (New York: The Feminist Press, 1989). This volume has had the good luck to remain constantly in print because it is used in women's studies & other college & university courses.

Obsessively collecting first editions of short story collections (for women's work, these are all too often the only editions), it soon became clear that much the finest supernatural tales were little-known because absent from modern retrospectives. Additionally, collecting Victorian magazines (a dusty hobby, to be certain), it was quickly apparent that as much as 70% of the supernatural fiction therein was the work of women, the majority never reprinted in any form, & poorly preserved.

That women wrote well over half the supernatural tales of the 19th Century is due to the larger environment of women as the dominant presence in magazines as poets, essayists, story writers, & often enough as editors.

A critical vocabulary developed, subtly to undermine any sense of serious value. Such stories were "magazine sketches" as distinct from the literature of the short story to be found in books. The magazine contributor was a "magazinist," & if her stories or serials were per chance reprinted in book form, the critics were apt to fault the book as the work of a magazinist failing to rise above the level of magazine sketches! Even the concept of the "regional author" or "local colorist" was not coined until Hawthorne was dead & the majority of New England's leading authors were women whose scope had to be made to sound, by its regional setting, limited. In many ways the language of the critic trivialized stories of actual universal merit.

That women dominated magazines was the natural outgrowth of women being the greatest proportion of the readership. An interesting study on this subject can be found in The Feminization of American Culture (1977) by Ann Douglas, especially her thesis on "Ministers & Mothers." Douglas points out that 19th Century women had only two professional options: schoolteacher (and obscurity), or author. The latter was ever so much more attractive. Many tracts condemning "The Feminine 'Fifties" have noted rather contritely that this environment condemned Melville to relative neglect in his day, but upraised such as Fanny Fern to the pinnacles of success. Less often noted is that, without virtual control of the magazine arts, women's influence in her own behalf (in suffrage, & in other areas of reform, such as abolition of slavery & the safety of factory workers, who were frequently young girls) would have been more than halved.

The close environment of the magazinists' trade meant that these women knew of one anothers' writings, were supportive of one anothers' careers, & were not individually "reinventing in the dark." A sizable percentage were consciously feminist. Their supernatural stories amounted to a veritable school regarding which no one of this century has commented. "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892) has been treated as an exception, nearly the only feminist shocker in a genre considered by many to be inherently conservative. Few realized that Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic was only the best-known of an enormous body of fiction of its type & intent.

Conservative philosopher Dr. Russell Kirk was also one of America's better ghost story writers. His biases informed him that the ghost story was by its nature conservative. With the illusiveness of feminist stories in this area, his & others' assumptions have seemed consistent with the available evidence, although how one would negate the strength of a few noted examples by radicals (Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or socialist author Theodore Dreiser's "The Lost Phoebe") I can't imagine. "I venture to suggest," writes Kirk, "that the more orthodox is a writer's theology, the more convincing, as symbols & allegories, his uncanny tales will be" (ref. "A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale" in The Surly Sullen Bell, 1962). From my own wide ranging readings, a more sensible conclusion would be merely that good storytelling transcends issues of faith & politics. Conservative ghost story writers such as Kirk, Robert Aickman or M. R. James are neither inferior nor superior to feminists such as Mary Heaton Vorse, Joanna Russ, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Vernon Lee or Lisa Tuttle.

When I first undertook the task of compiling What Did Miss Darrington See? no anthology of its specific intent had ever been attempted. That is not to say women writers of the macabre have lacked for partisans; indeed no. Women's dominion over the ghost story of Victorian England has been widely acknowledged, although no one seems to have noticed this was true in America as well. What might without denigration be aptly termed "gentlewomen's ghost story anthologies" have appeared from time to time, nearly always edited by men without feminist concerns or viewpoint, but with a real love of the literature. The most recent examples of the gentlewomen's ghost story anthology formula are Richard Dalby's recommendable The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (1987) & The Virago Book of Victorian Ghost Stories (1988). Taken together, this pair of volumes is an impressive overview chiefly of British authors, which tends to be the case with gentlewomen selections. Of broader scope are the young adult volumes from the sister team of Seon Manley & Gogo Lewis, who delight in such subtitles as "Spectral Tales by the Gentle Sex." Recommendable are Ladies of Horror (197l), Ladies of the Gothics (1975), Sisters of Sorcery (1976) & Ghostly Gentlewomen (1977). Their choices tend toward randomness, but this has the beneficial effect of showing an extremely wide range of story types that just happen to be by women. Some lesser but still worthwhile examples of gentlewomen anthologies include Peter Haining's Gentlewomen of Evil (1969) & A Circle of Witches (1971), Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini's Witch's Brew (1984), & Alex Hamilton's The Cold Embrace (1967).

None of these volumes could be construed as feminist per se. But another anthology did appear while What Did Miss Darrington See? was in press. This was Alfred Bendixen's splendid Haunted Women (1985), exemplary in its choices & theoretical discussions. That Professor Bendixen's selection overlapped my own in only a single story is testament to the vast number of such stories extant.

Though accumulatively in two decades there have come & gone a noticeable number of "gentlewomen's" ghost story selections, & one other first-rate feminist selection, the actual accessibility at any given time has never been hopeful. More typical is the situation reflected in the so-called "definitive" anthology, Herbert A. Wise & Phyllis M. Fraser's Great Tales of Terror & the Supernatural (1944), influential because perpetually in print, which in over one-thousand pages manages to find room for only four women. This may have been partially excusable in the 'forties, but Jack Sullivan's Lost Souls (1983) – an American's choice of British ghost stories, an area hugely dominated by women – also nearly excludes women.

Among British anthologists the problem is only slightly less severe, for there are at least a larger number of women anthologists to improve the ratio. England's long tradition of women ghost story anthologists has provided us a significant legacy of stories by women that would not otherwise have been commissioned or published. The anthologies of Lady Cynthia Asquith, Mary Danby, Christine Thompson & Rosemary Timperley would by themselves fill a five-foot shelf. In the United States, it remains typical for "leading" anthologists, nearly all male, to exclude women altogether.

Some unfortunately typical examples, randomly chosen, reflect the usual ill-representation of women: Alan Ryan's Halloween Horrors (1986) has a 0:13 ratio of men only, a very sadly typical compilation for him, which is especially unfortunate given that he apparently enjoys dead women's horror stories enough to have compiled a "gentlewomen" selection, Haunting Women (1988), as servicably done as similar books listed above. J. N. Williamson's Best of Masques (1988) has a 1:15 ratio; Dennis Etchison's Cutting Edge (1986) a 3:17 ratio, an improvement for him. Charles L. Grant's Terrors (1982) has a 2:16 ratio, although the later volumes of his Shadows series are not so obnoxiously typical in their ratios. Karl Edward Wagner's Year's Best Horror (1986) with a 3:18 ratio, makes him, absurdly, one of the fairer judges of good work. William Winter's Prime Evil (1988) has a 0:13 ratio & David Schow's The Silver Scream (1988) a 1:18 ratio.

Only from England's women anthologists have I ever seen a general volume of supernatural stories (as opposed to "gentlewomen" selections) in which women "just happened" to outnumber men, though the inexcusable ratios shown above are never reversed. Bare in mind, as well, that England still regards the ghost story as an important aspect of the national literature, whereas in America such stories are all too often relegated to all-night grocery book racks rather than bookshops. The dichotomy is largely justified, given that American horror writers have at their apex, & as their exemplars, the self-styled "splatterpunks" (who I think of as "splatterhippies" given their actual generation) whose influence is bad movies, not fine writing, & for whom the quotation of rock & roll lyrics is the height of artistic expression.

Women have been overlooked by many means, so that if you set out to find tales of strangeness & terror by women, you would have a difficult time of it. This is no place for a synopsis of Joanna Russ's brilliant How to Suppress Women's Writing (1983), but the fate of women's supernatural & horrific writings could have provided textbook cases for all her points. Mention Mary Higgens Clark or V. C. Andrews & be told, "Yes, but their gothicisms are not ultimately supernatural, so they don't count." Mention women's dominance in Victorian ghost stories (Riddell, Molesworth, Oliphant, Broughton, Wood, ad infinitum, not to mention the neglected American portion) & be told, "Yes, but those are not always horrific in intent, & that's a long time ago, so it doesn't count." Mention the horrorific fiction of Ruth Rendall & Patricia Highsmith, it's "But only a little of their output is supernatural & they're really closer to mysteries." Mention Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's vampire tales & be told, "Yes, but these are more romance than horror; they don't count." Mention Russ or Tiptree or Charnas & a dozen other moderns who've written first-rate horror, & it's: "They're better known for their science fiction, so we can't count them." Mention Kathryn Ptacek & it's, "But she was helped by a husband, Charles Grant, the real star of the family" (as there was only one Browning?). How about Shirley Jackson, the real beginning of the modern horror genre without whom Stephen King would have found no road paved for his success. According to the naysayers, "She was an anomaly & anyway she didn't produce that much overall."

At a World Fantasy Convention (this was before the advent of Poppy Z Brite) I had the unpleasantly comic experience of viewing from the audience a panel exclusively of men addressing the problem of "Why Women Don't Write Horror." The possibility that they mightn't publish women's stories if given the chance was denied. The likelihood that their limited world-views left them incapable of recognizing excellence in women's horrific imaginings was not broached. The possibility that the misogynic nature of their own writings & editing tastes had turned many talented women to other arenas was not thought part of the trouble. The fact that women do manage to publish a good deal of excellent horror in spite of the blockades was not mentioned. That none of their own works sell as well as those of Ann Rice or Shirley Jackson was outside the realm of their discussion. At the heart of their combined belief, though poorly expressed, was the idea that exceptions prove the rule & women basically have nothing horrible to express.

Yet such stories do abound, forgotten in rare single-author collections, languishing in old magazines, or in the occasional good anthology ill-promoted & soon out of print. An important point to reiterate is that, when turning to the last two hundred years of fiction from all possible sources in English language, it is soon evident that supernatural literature has been predominantly a women's literature. The problem has not been so much getting published, as staying in print. By attrition, women vanish, men do not. This is not to say all of these women were feminists; but conservative women have not commonly fared better in having their work kept before the public eye.

In my Feminist Press anthology, I avoided, for the most part, those few well known examples such as Virginia Woolf's "Lapin & Lapinova," Edith Wharton's "Afterward," Gilman's "Yellow Wallpaper," Shirley Jackson's "The Daemon Lover," May Sinclair's "Villa Disiree," though I could not resist Helen R. Hull's "Clay-Shuttered Doors" or Freeman's "Luella Miller." I brought together, instead, the rarest of the best horror tales I could find with strong feminist concerns. I then appended a long list of further reading, for one large anthology by no means exhausted the best examples.

My research alone is insufficient to redress the neglect & misunderstanding of this important aspect of women's writings. No complete understanding of supernatural fiction is possible without an understanding of women's central importance to its development, from the early gothics of Clara Reeve & Ann Radcliffe to the faggot-identified perversities of Ann Rice & Poppy Z Brite. Nor is a full understanding of women's fiction in general very likely without an awareness of the supernatural stories that have been such an important aspect of women's creative expression, from grandmothers' instructive fairy tales of oral tradition to the science fiction of Ursula LeGuin.

So do me a favor. Steal, don't buy, anthologies with asinine ratios of l:13 or worse favoring men's stories.

Afterthoughts to the 1989 essay. It might go as a footnote that in the decade after this essay's first version was published, two more feminist retrospective selections have appeared, besides a small spate of anthologies of new tales by modern women writers of horror. One retrospect was A. Susan Williams' The Lifted Veil (1992) which I reviewed at length for The New York Review of Science Fiction. Because it draws exclusively from post-1972 anthologies, reissues & facsimile reprints, it is devoid of original scholarship & not, overall, well-chosen; plus it includes an hysterically bad introduction. Still, it compares favorably with some of the less feministly intended "Gentlewomen's" selections of the past. Of greater interest is an all-out feminist selection with many important rarities therein, Catherine Lundie's Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1876-1926 (1996). This otherwise faultless anthology so slavishly & lazily follows recommendations from Professor Bendixen's & my own anthologies, down to the anthologist having provided her publisher with photocopies of some stories straight out of our books, that it must be admitted that awareness of this literature has not been broadened, though happily several more tales brought to public attention in Miss Darrington's "further reading list" have been made available. There are other researchers whose intended anthologies I would like to see published, as their discoveries are not just a rehashing of what has already been revealed. Susan Carpenter leaps to mind, who has co-edited a fine selection of essays on this subject, Haunting the House of Women. And both Professor Bendixen & myself would like to provide follow-up anthologies of this kind, there being so much more uncovered in the meantime. Still & all, despite being void of original research, Restless Spirits is a startlingly good selection, as well it should be, being based almost exclusively on my & Bendixen's research! If I sound slightly annoyed by that, I'm not really; I'd just like to have seen the boundaries stretched; & I should've been sent a complimentary copy of the darned book since it wouldn't've existed without me!

This is a revised, archival presentation of an essay that first appeared in David G. Hartwell's New York Review Of Science Fiction 8 1989, & partially based on my preface to What Did Miss Darrington See? Feminist Supernatural Stories first issued that same year. As this anthology is still in print, you may obtain a copy through your local bookseller; or, if you'd like a signed copy, check the Catalog link in the navigation bar below.

Site Navigation:
| Art Gallery | Essays | Bibliographies | Special Interests |
| Announcements | Home |
| Catalog | Contact Violet Books |

Visit Also:
| My Film Review Website |
| My Temperate Gardening Website |

Copyright 1989, 1998, by Jessica Amanda Salmonson