Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937, edited by Melissa Edmundson

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women 1890 -1940 was a standout book from last year – it’s still genuinely one of the most unsettling anthologies I’ve read; not so much because of how horrible, or otherwise, the stories in it are, but because they had a predominantly domestic setting. These are tales that invade the sanctuary of your home and sometimes even the bed you sleep in. That’s seriously unsettling; the monster under the bed carried into the adult imagination can really sink its claws in. It’s also a collection which showcases what a good editor can do.

Given how good Women’s Weird was, I’ve been genuinely excited to see what the second collection would do, and the short answer to that is that it travels further. Literally, the writers cover a far wider geographical spread and so do their settings. There’s still an emphasis on the domestic but it’s evolved, and so has the definition of weird, which is a slippery thing anyway; it’s something that straddles genres rather than being defined by one. 

There’s a useful discussion of this in the introduction which provides some helpful definitions. This is certainly a collection that finds stories allowing us to ‘vicariously experience fear and danger’ in safety, ‘come to terms with our shared sense of fear’, and help us understand ‘that the supernatural does not alienate us, but instead it connects us’. In doing that Edmundson makes some really interesting choices – stories which have happy endings bring a measure of comfort, and a welcome balance to the expectations that a ‘Weird’ collection brings with it.

One story, ‘A Dreamer’, doesn’t have a specifically supernatural element to it at all, but Edmundson is undoubtedly right to consider it weird. It certainly taps into fundamental fears and is a prime example of how something uncanny draws people together. It’s a not quite ghost story of the sort we’ve all heard, told, and believed, which gives it a particular power.

The home still poses a threat in a couple of instances – Marjorie Bowen’s ‘Florence Flannery’, and Lettice Galbraith’s ‘The Blue Room’ do it amusingly with more than a nod to the Gothic. Bithia Mary Crocker’s ‘The Red Bungalow’ has a real sting to it, both as a horror story and for the uncomfortable questions it raises about colonialism. Here, the incomer won’t listen to the locals with terrible consequences. Crocker was the Anglo Irish wife of a soldier; ‘The Red Bungalow’ is set in India, but there’s something reminiscent of Irish folk tales in it too, as both elements raise the problem of who belongs where.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s ‘The House Party at Smokey Island’ is a personal bonus as far as I’m concerned. I love Montgomery at all times but it’s a rare treat to get her writing primarily for an adult audience. Her Emily books have weird/supernatural moments in them, but this is a good old-fashioned ghost story and particularly enjoyable. I was vaguely aware that she had written this kind of thing, but unfortunately the last collected edition was in 1990 and is prohibitively expensive second hand. ‘The House Party at Smokey Island’ suggests that we’re missing out. It’s perhaps the most traditional ghost story here, with just the right blend of humour and horror to amuse. Along with Stella Gibbon’s ‘Roaring Tower’ it shows the weird in a more benign light. 

It’s as strong a collection as I expected (13 tales included, and again I consider this a nice touch), and arguably more entertaining than volume 1 – which I found genuinely unsettling at times. This one is safe to read late at night – although Helen Simpson’s ‘Young Magic’ has burrowed into my imagination and stuck there (like a slug in an apple). Nothing especially bad happens in it, but it’s all very disquieting and again it has the air of a story that people will occasionally tell you as fact, and which if you don’t really believe it, you don’t doubt that they do.

Quite apart from the entertainment factor the introduction, bibliography, notes, and biographical details are a real bonus. They’re one of the things that raise Handheld books well above the ordinary and make them really good value. As collections to read just for the fun of the thing I absolutely recommend both books, but the scholarly element makes them something more whilst still feeling entirely accessible. 

If you buy the books directly from Handheld Press they will arrive beautifully wrapped in brown paper which is nice. Order Women’s Weird (Volume 1) directly from them between now and 30th November 2020 using the coupon code WEIRD and you’ll get £1.99 off.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Melissa Edmundson, Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937 (Handheld Press 2020). 978-1912766444, 262pp., paperback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P).

Melissa Edmundson, Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women 1890-1940 (Handheld Press, 2019). 978-1912766246, 298pp., paperback original.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P).