Text: Joan Burbick, “Haunted Women
Source: Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, June 1987, Vol. XX, No. 1, 20:20-22


[page 20:]

Haunted Women

Alfred Bendixen, ed. Haunted Women: The Best Supernatural Tales By American Women Writers. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985.

Reading the collection of short fiction in Haunted Women: The Best Supernatural Tales by American Women Writers is like entering a familiar Victorian room that has been tacked onto a modern house, one with harsher lines and more efficient spaces. Except for the first piece, “The Amber Gods,” by Harriet Prescott Spofford, all of the tales were published well after the Civil War when literary historians tell us our writers had tired of romantic fiction and had turned to the more pragmatic, socially alert literary movements of naturalism and realism. Indeed, most of the stories in this collection are from the 1890s and 1900s, when many American artists are said to have imbibed the documentary and, at times, sensationalist novels of Emile Zola.

Alfred Bendixen, who edits the volume, reminds us of this curious misalignment in the Introduction. “Most of the stories in this collection have been neglected, because American critics have been unwilling to acknowledge the importance of either women’s writing or supernatural fiction“(p. 9). But is this statement accurate? Certainly, women writers have been struggling for recognition from established critics for decades, but the literary status of supernatural fiction seems different from what Bendixen implies. Before the Civil War, the vogue of romantic fiction, dependent on often ambiguous supernatural events, was considered the dominant literary mode with, oddly enough, women writers often described as antithetical to the dark, obsessive probings of such figures as Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. As has been widely discussed in recent critical debate, women writers during the nineteenth century were frequently aligned with social reform movements and religious revivals, developing the immensely popular form of sentimental fiction. Thus, Bendixen leads us somewhat astray. Yes, the supernatural fiction of women at the turn of the century has been neglected, but supernatural fiction in general is unquestionably a “hallowed” part of the American canon.

A familiar room in an unfamiliar place. Or is it that the Civil War has too readily given a “shape” [column 2:] to our literary history that results in a paucity of categories, pushing all stray bits of literature into the bin of trivia or the dump of the perverse? In the recent Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert write that during the period between 1890 and 1940 the ghost story was at its peak in England with women intensely involved with the form.(1) In fact, their anthology contains two figures from the Haunted Women, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Edith Wharton. American literary history, with its need to tell the story of the rise and fall of romantic fiction and the final assertion of realism at the turn of the century, has often excluded not only droves of women writers, but also reduced to a few thin labels the essentially protean, osmotic, and paradoxical character of fiction during the nineteenth-century. As David Reynolds and Jane Tompkins have recently argued, fiction had many authors and many audiences. Anecdotal narratives persuaded large American audiences of moral and religious beliefs at the same time that the canonical novels of Hawthorne and Melville were ironically dismantling many of those same beliefs.

What also fascinates in Haunted Women is the multiplicity of voices and techniques used by women writers to create their fictions. Basically, the theme of love dominates, with marital bliss, disillusionment, and betrayal its inevitable variations, but the means to achieve these visions are significantly diverse. Often the “supernatural” elements of these stories are crimped and hesitant with only one areal” ghost appearing in the entire lot. Basically following what G. Richard Thompson has called the “ambiguous Gothic,” these stories more often question the possibility of that “other” realm of existence and more often than not probe the psychological states of intense longing, morbid attachment, and emotional manipulation.

Clumped as these tales are round the turn of the century, some critical questions naturally occur. Alfred Bendixen indicates that the “use of the supernatural empowered women authors to ask troubling questions about the nature of sexuality, love, and marriage” (p. 1). In general, supernatural writings (if we take that to mean a large umbrella for such works as gothic, fantastic, and even romantic) are often characterized as literary forms that utter the forbidden thoughts of society. The “irrational” becomes the repository of terrifying aberrations of normal, social life such as incest, obsession, and marital violence. Domesticity often becomes the scene of excruciating uncertainty and imminent betrayal. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” appearing in 1843, with its almost incidental [page 21:] axe murder as a consequence of marital airritation,” counterpoints well with the intense pieties of his historical period.

Also, we know from literary history that women were not new to supernatural fiction. In fact, Ellen Moers in Literary Women defines what she calls the “Female Gothic,” a tradition of writing familiar through the works of the British writers Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley and imported into the colonies. Cathy N. Davidson in Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America discusses further how gothic conventions were fused with reformist ideas in colonial America, warning against both the “aristocracy and mobocracy.” Women writers such as Rebecca Rush, the niece of Benjamin Rush, and Caroline Matilda Warren participated in the form with, however, the figure of Charles Brockden Brown dominating early American writings.

The stories in Haunted Women represent, perhaps, a resurgence of interest in the supernatural tale when Social Darwinism, naturalism, and realism might have restricted certain fictional visions for women, in particular, experiences about domesticity that sentimental fiction was no longer able to convey . For example, Edith Wharton’s “Pomegranate Seed” tracks carefully the illusory line between the ancient obsessions of the soul and modern American life. Her major character, Charlotte Ashby, returns home to find a mysterious letter waiting for her husband from what turns out to be his dead, yet lingering, first wife. As Charlotte Ashby enters her home, she thinks: “The contrast between the soulless roar of New York, its devouring blaze of lights, the oppression of its congested traffic, congested houses, lives, minds and this veiled sanctuary she called home, always stirred her profoundly” (p. 243). But the sentimental power of the aveiled sanctuary” turns out to be a labyrinth of marital doubt and dread. As she watches her husband succumb to the letters, Charlotte realizes that she is helpless against her husband’s morbid attachment to his dead wife.

All of the stories in Haunted Women in a sense break the mold of sentimental power and probe the dark side of domesticity. Perhaps to have done so in America earlier would have been too dangerous; even Melville has Ahab at the eleventh hour wondering if he should return home to his waiting wife and family. Louisa May Alcott, who is oddly absent from this collection, makes the point more directly. As the cause célèbre of sentimental fiction, Alcott disguised her other voice as a writer of thrillers. She had gained power, fame, and fortune [column 2:] through her writings on the March family. In 1877, she published A Modern Mephistopheles in a No Name Series, and ten years later when she revealed her identity as its author, her audience, let alone her friends, found it hard to believe.(3) No woman could write stories that could at one moment validate domestic felicity and at the next violate it. This artistic flexibility, particularly as it was connected to the immensely popular style of sentimental fiction, was potentially limiting to particular women writers. After all, Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe stood for much more than a handful of books. No matter how much we attempt as critics to understand and appreciate their literary visions, the ideological expectations of their audience were immense and could, at times, severely influence the shape of their art.

In contrast, five of the authors in Haunted Women, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Edith Wharton, experimented with a wide range of fictional subjects and techniques. Even though a direct treatment of sexuality was still fairly difficult for these women (remember the negative critical reception of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in 1899), they were able to explore the restrictions of marriage and domesticity. In addition, the supernatural tale gave them an indirect, yet paradoxically bold method to discuss sexuality. Further their aesthetic experimentation was eclectic: journalism, satire, utopian novels, life-after death narratives, urban reform novels, narratives of high-society and small town manners, and, of course, the supernatural tale all received their attention.

In specific, what is depicted in the supernatural tales of these women is highly dangerous to the cult of domesticity. For example, in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s two fascinating stories, “Luella Miller” and “The Lost Ghost,” female evil permeates motherhood and the role of the sweetly, dependent wife. In the first tale, Luella Miller, a “doll-baby” who manipulates two husbands and many relatives and friends to take total care of her, ends up with all these loyal devotees dying around her like flies. The motto seems to be: Take care of Luella and you die. The helpless female becomes the deadly companion. But the story is further complicated by the narrator informing the reader that practically all the information about Luella is from one person in the town, the elderly but radiantly healthy Lydia Anderson who was an early “friend” of Luella’s first husband, Erastus Miller, one of the first victims to expire. As Tobin Siebers in his work The Romantic Fantastic points [page 22:] out, the fantastic lie and narrative unreliability are part of supernatural storytelling. Is Lydia Anderson telling a fantastic lie? If so, female evil is indeed complex in small town New England. Both doll-babies and elderly female storytellers may not be what they seem.

In “The Lost Ghost,” a chilling story of maternal neglect, a female child haunts her home looking for her mother who has, as it turns out, abused and abandoned her. Freeman mixes the emotions of fear and compassion in this tale as we witness one of the female characters, Mrs. Bird, succumb to the need to fulfill the child’s need and become her mother, a feat accomplished only by going through the door of death to join her “adopted” daughter. Told within the frame of a conversation between two women friends, the tale intricately blends feelings of bonding and intimacy with the sadness and dread of abandonment.

Freeman’s tales in themselves make the volume important and would, I hope, spur critical interest in her excellent collection of ghost stories, The Wind in the Rose-Bush. Taken together, however, the stories offer even more of a challenge to American literary historians. The development of the female gothic in this country needs careful analysis as does its relationship to the literary conventions of the supernatural. Studies by Tobin Seibers, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Tzvetan Todorov have opened up fictions of the “uncanny” and “unreal” to wider literary interpretations, but much work remains before we will understand the compelling use of this form by women writers.

Joan Burbick, Washington State University


[page 9, continued:]


1 - Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert, eds., The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), pp. xiii-xiv.

2 - Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), p. ix. See also Ch. viii, “Early American Gothic: The Limits of Individualism.”

3 - Louisa May Alcott, A Modern Mephistopheles, intro. Octavia Cowan (New York: Bantam, 1987), p. IX.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]