Thursday, October 29, 2020

Queens of the Abyss, Lost Stories From the Women of the Weird - Edited by Mike Ashley

I'm reading quite a lot of weird short stories at the moment - as readers have probably noticed. I considered calling it a day and finding a change of subject after 'Queens of the Abyss' but then started another British Library Weird collection - 'Into The London Fog' because they're just that good. They're collections which suit my current mood, the season, and the general uncertainty of this year, and there's some really good stuff in them.

I was always interested in how 'Queens of the Abyss' would stack up with Handheld's Women's Weird collections (there is a discount of £1.99 off the first collection with the code WEIRD until the end of November if you order directly from Handheld Press) but think the most pertinent thing to say might be that there's no cross over. The second is that whilst Melissa Edmundson has curated collections that explore specific themes in Women's Weird, Mike Ashley has chosen stories for their relative obscurity.

He also points out that all the women represented had experienced poverty at some point in their lives and managed to write their way out of it. That feels particularly pertinent in the case of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'Christmas in the Fog' - which has strong parallels with the current debate about providing free school meals for children during school holidays. 

'The Secret Garden', and 'A Little Princess' were childhood favourites, I've read the Persephone reprints of the Making of a Marchioness and 'The Shuttle' along with a couple of other less satisfactory things and basically enjoyed them all. 'Christmas in the Fog' is FHB at her least appealing. It's part of a series of incidents that she wrote down using an alter ego of herself that she calls the Romantick Lady. 

There's nothing supernatural about this story, but as a great ocean liner is stranded in a fog on the Mersey for 3 days over Christmas it's undoubtedly eerie. The Romantick lady realises there must be children in steerage. She arranges a collection for them so that they will all have a cash gift for Christmas, and to take into their new lives in America. Right at the end she wonders if her charity has been misplaced and will make confirmed beggars of them. There's a lot I found uncomfortable about this, but it was undoubtedly interesting.

Happily everything else was far less troubling, much more enjoyable, and covers the whole range from terrifying (E Nesbit's 'From The Dead'), surreal (Leonora Carrington) science fiction territory (Margaret St Clair's 'The Island of the Hands, and Sophie Wenzel Ellis' 'White Lady') stories where the supernatural is benign, and others where it is not. Some are stopped from being really scary by a particularly pulpy mood (Greye La Spina's 'The Antimacassar' is really chilling until the last page, which is maybe for the best, 'White Lady' is similarly over the top).

Altogether it's a wonderfully varied collection, and easily one of the most enjoyable that I've read from the point of view of pure entertainment. I don't want to be scared silly, so the emphasis on atmosphere here really appeals to me, as does the more obscure nature of the stories. It's frustrating to open a hotly anticipated new title and find it's full of things I've already read - however good they are, and however interesting it is to consider something through a different lens.   

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