Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 edited by Melissa Edmondson

Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Winter is a time for ghost stories, Christmas in particular. M.R. James, the doyen of the English ghost story, traditionally read a new story by candlelight to friends who eagerly gathered in his study on Christmas Eve. But James wasn’t the only one writing ghost stories. During the period covered by this book, there were many women publishing ghost stories that equalled if not surpassed those of James and his male contemporaries. As long as publishers have been producing anthologies of ghost stories, women writers have featured in them: during the 1980s, Virago produced several excellent anthologies of ghost stories by women writers. This latest collection, edited by Melissa Edmundson, is a welcome addition to the shelf. 

Book Cover: Women’s Weird. Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 edited by Melissa Edmundson

I’m sidestepping the ‘Women’s Weird’ of the title for now, for reasons I’ll come back to later in this review. Instead, I turn to the first story, Louisa Baldwin’s ‘The Weird of the Walfords’. It is a conventional example of period ghost story writing – the narrator believes that his family is blighted by a curse attached to an ancestral family bed and destroys it despite being warned not to. It gives away nothing to say that the curse will strike again. What is notable, however, is that the story is narrated by the Squire himself. And this is not the only story with a first-person male narrator: of the thirteen stories, only two first-person narrators are identifiably female, while most of the third-person narratives also use a male viewpoint figure. 

There are many reasons why women might write from a male viewpoint, but it is not difficult to imagine that in some cases it reflects the fact that men often had greater access to the world and its contents, whereas women could follow only in the imagination. In Baldwin’s case, I wonder too if she has not used it as a sly way to comment on how men infantilise women: the narrator refers more than once to his ‘little wife’, as well as blaming her for the death of their son because he acquiesced to her request to turn the room that once held the cursed bed into a nursery.

There are stories here of a woman whose freedom is circumscribed by her husband’s jealousy (Edith Wharton’s ‘Kerfol’), a woman who is drawn into an inexplicable haunting while loyally taking care of a friend’s daughter (E. Nesbit’s ‘The Shadow’), and a more traditional story of a wrong righted when a lost child’s body is finally discovered (‘The Giant Wistaria’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman). Other stories are more formally experimental, such as May Sinclair’s ‘Where Their Fire is Not Quenched’, where the haunting persists beyond the mortal plane. 

Continue reading Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 edited by Melissa Edmondson”

The Man With Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Muriel Jaeger, known to her friends as ‘Jim’, was a member of the ‘Mutual Admiration Society’, a writing group formed by half a dozen young women at Somerville College, Oxford in 1912, including Dorothy L. Sayers. Jaeger’s own career as a writer, however, was rather less successful; her novels did not, for whatever reason, capture the public fancy, while, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Jaeger ‘had an extremely combative response to criticism’. And yet, if the British Library reissues of her first two novels are anything to go by, Jaeger’s writing shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, even if it wasn’t actually great science fiction.

Her first novel, The Question Mark (1926), a response to the utopian fiction of an earlier generation, showed a world divided between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘normals’, exploring the potential consequences of such a division. Like many utopian fictions, it lacked much in the way of a plot, but Jaeger’s prose was clean and vigorous, and she was clearly sympathetic to the predicament of women in such a setting.

The Man With Six Senses (1927) is a rather more accomplished work, though it would be stretching things to say it’s truly science fiction. The plot ostensibly focuses on Michael Bristowe, a young man with an extraordinarily well-developed skill as a dowser. Or, rather, he experiences everything around him in a completely different way to the rest of us: the sixth sense of the title. Socially awkward, sickly, with only this ill-defined skill to his name, Bristowe has no idea what to do with himself in a post-war society that valorises soldiers returning from France. 

Aware of this, Hilda Torrington, a well-educated young woman, determines to help him, for the simple reason that she believes in his ability, and thinks it may prove of value to society in the future. So far, so good, but Jaeger actually tells the story from the point of view of Ralph Standring, the antithesis of Michael, self-assured, successful, and intent on marrying Hilda, not because he loves her, but because it has always assumed by both his family and hers that they would inevitably do so. But Ralph is disturbed at the changes that university seems to have wrought in Hilda. She treats him as an equal, has views of her own, and wants to discuss his writing with him critically rather than admiringly. She has a flat of her own, a job she likes, working as a secretary for a Mrs Hastings, ‘one of the political women who hoped to be in the next Parliament’ (p. 22), and no inclination to abandon any of this for marriage to Ralph. 

Indeed, when Hilda does eventually marry, she chooses Michael, because she believes she should have his child and carry his unusual skills forward into a new generation. It is a calculated decision on her part, rationally considered, a very modern moment. And that, I think, is the key to the novel. While Jaeger may genuinely be interested in exploring the idea of extra-sensory perception and the possibility of a better future for humanity, somehow this recedes into the background as the novel unfolds, even despite Hilda’s devotion to promoting Michael’s abilities. Instead, the reader is treated to the full horror of Ralph’s assumptions about an educated woman’s role in society, as a suitable companion for an educated man, to be interested in his work and not her own. There is something almost comical in his nonplussed response when Hilda finally turns him down, even though it’s perfectly clear all along that Hilda knows precisely what she wants from life. 

And that is what makes this novel so fascinating: the crisp, sympathetic and utterly uncompromising portrayal of a young woman determinedly making her own decisions about her life, not as an act of defiance but because she does know what she wants.

Copyright Maureen Kincaid Speller. All rights reserved.

Looking Back: 2010-2020

By Maureen Kincaid Speller.

To be honest, the last ten years have been such a blur I’d barely registered the fact that we have arrived at the threshold of a new decade. But here we are (or not, depending how pedantic you’re feeling – I’m happy to be guided by common usage), and it’s a useful moment for thinking about what I’ve read in that time. Or not, because, along with time passing at a speed that seems indecent, it turns out that this last decade was one in which I either didn’t read much (being a recovering postgraduate will do that to a person) or else a lot of what I did read somehow didn’t find its way into my long-term memory. 

Except that, once I looked at a few lists, I realised that, actually, I had read quite a lot during that period but the effort of moving forward had somehow subsumed it into an amorphous space called ‘the recent past’. Also, I am hopeless at remembering dates of publication: last week, last month, last year, some time ago, whenever. 

But I can tell you that in 2010 I was very excited about Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. I was and am a huge admirer of McDonald’s work, and at that point also deeply preoccupied with Orhan Pamuk’s writing (still am), so the Turkish setting intrigued me, as did the presence (or indeed, mostly, absence) of a mellified man, reflecting my interest in the strange, the offbeat, the peculiar. But I also appreciated the novel’s densely layered portrayal of a near-future society with a very complex cultural identity. Looking back I can see now that The Dervish House has set the tone for a lot of my reading since then. 

Continue reading “Looking Back: 2010-2020”

Maureen’s 2018 Round-Up

Maureen Kincaid Speller for our 2018 Round-Up feature.

In 2018 I forgot for a while how to read fiction. Or, to be more precise, I forgot how to find pleasure in reading fiction. For someone whose daily existence has been defined by the written word since she was five, this was devastating, to put it mildly. While I carried on trying to read, it was as though my brain could no longer accept the existence of fiction in a world that was on a daily basis so bizarre no editor would believe it. Eventually, and I know I’m not the only person who did this, I settled for reading non-fiction and biding my time until the desire to read fiction returned of its own accord. Which, eventually, it did.

I’m not here to offer a redemptive story about the novel that saved me, because there was no one novel. Instead, I want to talk a little about what I learned from my year of not quite reading. I am, I discovered, done with genteel dystopias. I keep seeing them described as ‘feminist dystopias’, perhaps because they’re mostly written by women, but I find very little about them that is ‘feminist’ in the ways I understand the word, and too often the dystopic element is a performative means to an entirely different, generally stylistic end. In the past, I never really thought of myself as needing plot, but it turns out that fine writing – oh-so-very-fine writing, in some instances – is not sufficient in and of itself if the plot is practically invisible.

Continue reading “Maureen’s 2018 Round-Up”

Vector 267

Go away for a week, and all sorts of things happen! Vector 267 arrived while I was traveling. Most people seem to have received their copies on Saturday, although a fair minority of those were partially soaked from the ongoing rains.

This quarter’s mailing includes, in addition to Vector, a booklet of Maureen Kincaid Speller’s writings, edited by Jonathan McCalmont and laid out by Martin McGrath.

This issue contains a broad assortment of intriguing and (I hope) thought-provoking content, including a few pieces, including Sam Mardon’s elegant cover, in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Arthur C Clarke Award.

Cover of Vector 267 by Sam MardonTable of Contents

Matrix: A Magazine out of Time, Ian Whates
Introducing The BSFA Review, Martin Lewis
Sci-Fi London in 2011 in REview, Alys Sterling
Against Utopia: Arthur C Clarke and the Heterotopian Impulse
Homer’s Odyssey: The World’s First Fantasy Novel?, Juliet E McKenna
An Interview with Samuel R Delany, Roz Kaveney
Avatar: The New Fantastic Horizons of Oneiric Justice, Roberto Quaglia, trans. Teo Popescu
Kincaid in Short, Paul Kincaid
Now and Then, Terry Martin
Resonances, Stephen Baxter
Foundation Favourites, Andy Sawyer

The BSFA Review, edited by Martin Lewis
Reviews

The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sheryl Vint (Routledge, 2009) – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
The Mervyn Stone Mysteries: Geek Tragedy, DVD Extras Include: Murder and Cursed Among Sequels by Nev Fountain (Big Finish, 2010) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
Sci-Fi London Film Festival: Dinoshark (2010), Sharktopus (2010), One Hundred Mornings (2009), Zenith (2010), Gantz (2011) and Super (2010) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
Ignition City, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Gianluca Pagliarani (Avatar, 2010) – Reviewed by James Bacon
Twin Spica: Volume 1 by Kou Yaginuma (Vertical, 2010) – Reviewed by Nick Honeywell
Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata, translated by Edwin Hawkes (Haikasoru, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
Gantz (2011) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Harper Voyager, 2010) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
The Broken Kingdoms by NK Jemisin (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor, 2010) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
The Wolf Age by James Enge (Pyr, 2010) – Reviewed by A.P. Canavan
Blood and Iron by Tony Ballantyne (Tor, 2010) – Reviewed by David Towsey
The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton (Pan MacMillan, 2010) – Reviewed by Martin Potts
Point by Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
Embedded by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter

Vector welcomes letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

June BSFA London Meeting: Gillian Polack Interview – 30th June 2011 – Free entry

On Thursday 30th June 2011 from around 7pm:

GILLIAN POLACK (Australian writer of speculative fiction, editor and historian) will be interviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller (Critic and reviewer).

Note that this meeting is on the fifth Thursday of the month.  There is no BSFA London Meeting on Wednesday 22nd June.

Venue:

Upstairs Room
The Antelope Tavern
22, Eaton Terrace
Belgravia
London
SW1W 8EZ

Nearest Tube: Sloane Square (District/Circle)
Map:here.
All welcome! (No entry fee or tickets. Non-members welcome.)
Interview will commence at 7.00 pm, but the room is open from 6.00 (and fans in the downstairs bar from 5).
There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

FUTURE EVENTS:

27th July 2011 – SOPHIA MCDOUGALL interviewed by Roz Kaveney

24th August 2011* – KIM LAKIN-SMITH interviewed by Paul Skevington

28th September 2011 – JO FLETCHER: interviewer TBC

* Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.