Graeme Davis is an editor who clearly likes women. More Deadly than the Male: Masterpieces from the Queens of Horror is dedicated to his wife: “who proves to me every day that women are amazing.” To put it simply, the sentiments of Mr. Davis had me at hello. His compilation, which features 26 stories by female writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, explores the times in which the tales were written, shedding light on their historical periods. In the book’s introduction, Davis espouses the notion that female horror writers of the era intentionally diverged from their male counterparts: “Writers like Poe, Lovecraft, and M.R. James tended to stay within their genre, assiduously feeding the audiences who brought them fame and fortune; many of the ladies whose work graces these pages wrote whatever they pleased, crossing boundaries and blending genres as each story required. If they refused to be confined by social ideas of feminine gentility, they were equally reluctant to embrace the literary restrictions of genre and market. They just wrote damned good stories.” There are elements of this premise that seem a tad shaky, such as using the facile phrase “fame and fortune” regarding Poe and Lovecraft, whose financial circumstances were precarious. And it can be argued that women writers of the time pragmatically wrote for diverse markets as a means of increasing their chances of being published. In any case, the chronologically arranged stories in the volume are of keen literary interest. They helped pave the way for the likes of Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, and Joyce Carol Oates.
The first tale, “The Transformation,” was written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. As in her magnus opus Frankenstein, Shelley concocted a work in which the male protagonist’s hubris leads to an epiphany of (literally) monstrous proportions. The plot concerns a profligate man who spirals into poverty and despair. A chance meeting with a shipwrecked creature offers a way out, and a devil’s bargain is made: the man and the hideously deformed creature will swap bodies for three days. Published in 1830, “The Transformation” is a cautionary tale that asserts actions have consequences.
Another well-known name in literature is Louisa May Alcott who is represented by her splendid story “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse” (1869.) Alcott’s prose greatly relies on dialogue between two betrothed lovers to propel the narrative. The bride-to-be extracts an explanation from her fiancé regarding the contents of a mysterious golden box he brought back from an Egyptian exhibition. On their wedding day, the groom discovers that his defiant bride didn’t heed his admonition about the box’s contents. In a tragic coda, he remains true to their nuptial vows despite the curse upon them.
A devoted male spouse also appears in the frequently anthologized “The Yellow Wall Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but this one’s attentiveness has a controlling aspect. Told from the unhinged wife’s point of view, the tale is profoundly impactful. Confined and sequestered, she becomes obsessed with patterns in the bedroom wall paper. Her early assessment of a pattern displays a deranged wittiness: “It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off in outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.” As time goes on, the images she sees in the patterns become more sinister. First published in 1892, “The Yellow Wall Paper” remains a searing portrait of a woman whose desperate despondency isn’t taken seriously enough.
A wayward wife who has a dalliance is harshly punished in Edith Wharton’s “The Duchess at Prayer” (1900.) There’s a distinct Poe-vibe to the story; the husband’s retribution includes a punishment found in several of Poe’s writings. Wharton’s voice, however, is distinctly her own. The opening lines of the narrative transport the reader to an old Italian villa, where the action is set: “Have you ever questioned the long shuttered front of an old Italian house, that motionless mask, smooth, mute, equivocal as the face of a priest behind which buzz the secrets of the confessional?”
Marital discontent is also featured in the book’s final tale “The Readjustment” (1908) by Mary Austin. A helpful female neighbor plays mediator between a man and the ghostly spirit of his recently deceased wife. The intermediary coaxes the widower to talk to the apparition. He confesses having felt inadequate as a husband, which somewhat appeases the spectral spouse, though she longs for more introspection from him. The different stances of the couple are nicely delineated by the author.
Austin is but one of the less eminent female writers of horror fiction spotlighted in the compilation. In several cases, the brief biographies that editor Davis includes about them are more intriguing than the selected story. For example, Annie Trumbull Slosson, whose “A Dissatisfied Soul” appears in the volume, was better known in the field of entomology: three insect species bear a variant of her surname.
More Deadly than the Male, published by Pegasus books, is a fine reminder that even when literally and/or figuratively corseted, women could express themselves by putting pen to paper. The book’s February 5th release date is appropriately in sync with Women in Horror Month.
By Sheila M. Merritt
Sheila M. Merritt writes horror film essays for Scream Magazine. Her articles and reviews have been published in Mystery Scene Magazine and Diabolique. She was a member of the U.K.-based Ghost Club, and fondly remembers an embarrassing encounter with Christopher Lee at a department store in Los Angeles.