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Illuminating Supernatural Fiction, Horror, and the Gothic

from Mary Shelley to H. P. Lovecraft

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E. Nesbit's Brutal, Feminist Ghost Stories: Oldstyle Tales' Macabre Masters

One of the most psychologically fascinating horror writers of her time, Edith Nesbit, perhaps more so than any of her peers, invested herself into her fiction. The woman who is today better known as a Victorian children’s book writer is often neglected as a powerful architect of the terrible and ghastly. It is tremendously fitting that Nesbit’s literary reputation should be so disparate (indeed, most lovers of her children’s stories are clueless about her horror oeuvre, and most fans of “Man-Size in Marble” have no idea that her fiction was inspirational to Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, The Chronicles of Narnia, and others). Her life was one torn between radicalism and conventionality, scandal and sobriety, defiance and compliance, and it largely orbited the actions of a cad named Hubert Bland, the man who would become her first husband.

 

Bland was a radical socialist and a militant misogynist. He exalted the rights of the working classes but denounced women’s rights as wrong-headed fantasy. He was politically modern and radical, but socially unevolved and ultra-conservative. He resented women, but – again contradictorily – was overwhelmed with fascination for them, and was a reprehensible Casanova throughout his life – a man guilty of dozens of affairs, date rapes, and seductions. Nesbit’s first biographer complained that “he could not by any effort of nature leave women alone.” Even in this era of de jure sexism, Bland was a monstrous walking scandal, known for entrapping young girls in sexual mind games before abandoning them. He was charismatic, loud, and authoritative, with an upturned mustache, parted hair, and an eyebrow-arching monocle that made him the very figure of a villain from an Edwardian melodrama.

 

In Nesbit he found a very strange partner: for all his hate of strong women, she was remarkably tall and beautiful with a distinct, Bohemian taste for fashion, and was renowned for smoking as voraciously as any man. She too was charismatic, commanding rooms, flooding her parties with personality, and yet able to sit down and write a chapter in the middle of a garden soiree without being distracted. She was a leading figure in their socialist club, the Fabian Society, and she almost single-handedly supported their family with her income as a writer when things were lean for her husband, but this did nothing to change his sexist convictions. Bland famously quipped that "Woman's metier in the world - I mean, of course, civilized woman, the woman in the world as it is - is to inspire romantic passion... Romantic passion is inspired by women who wear corsets. In other words, by the women who pretend to be what they not quite are." His wife, it would see, was one of these corset-shunning women who infringe of male-claimed stereotypes. He was, all-in-all, an egotistical conundrum.

 

Renowned biographer Claire Tomalin dressed him down on the matter of his wishy-washy lifestyle, groaning that "Bland [was] one of the minor enigmas of literary history in that everything reported of him makes him sound repellent, yet he was admired, even adored, by many intelligent men and women... He did not aspire to be consistent. He allowed his wife to support him with her pen for some years, but was always opposed to feminism... In mid-life he joined the Catholic Church, a further cosmetic touch to his old-world image, but without modifying his behaviour or even bothering to attend more than the statutory minimum of masses." But just as Nesbit turned a blind eye to her husband’s hideous behavior, so too Bland seemed oblivious to his wife’s modern Bland impregnated Nesbit as he would several others – out of wedlock. While we may shake our heads today, even in our 21st Century, sexually liberated climate, an unplanned pregnancy raises eyebrows and quickens pulses, but to the Victorians it was a horror. Nesbit was seven months along when she married Bland. 

 

 Bland’s lascivious lifestyle only increased with marriage, however, and while Nesbit bore him a toddling family of healthy children, he spent half of every week with his mother, even casually siring a child with her nurse, all without Nesbit’s knowledge. The most brutal treachery started in 1885 when he began an affair with Nesbit’s best friend, Alice Hoatson, the assistant secretary to the Fabian Society. Bland unabashedly invited Hoatson to enter their household, which immediately became a menage a trois, with no objections from his obedient wife. Nesbit assumed that she was protecting her family by allowing Bland to sip from his exotic appetite for sex, but it became another matter when Hoatson became pregnant in 1886 (perhaps not coincidentally the year that she began writing horror stories).

 

Nesbit was completely distraught, flew into a rage, and demanded that her husband’s pregnant lover not be allowed to live in her house and eat at the table with her children. Bland coolly informed her that he would leave her and the children if she stood by her objections. Hoatson gave birth to a girl whom Nesbit dutifully adopted. When Alice became pregnant again 13 years later, Nesbit raised no complaints, quietly adopting the little boy, and – like the victim of a cuckoo – she raised both children as if they were hers. Bland continue to be chronically adulterous, unapologetically sexist, and unrepentantly dismissive of women’s rights in spite of his wife’s unquestionable status as bread winner in their home. He died in 1914. What happened to Hoatson or when she died was not something I could uncover in my research.

 

During this time of shame, humiliation, and stifled rage, Nesbit pored herself into two very distinct genres of writing that suited two distinct parts of her already polarized life – children’s literature and supernatural horror. The Railway Children is her most famous contribution to world literature – a series that follows a group of children and their mother who have adventures in the countryside while their father is wrongfully imprisoned. The Story of the Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods also concern young families of middle-class standing who have suffered financial hardship. The theme of an absent father, money trouble, and a stiff-upper-lip mother who represses her sorrow to save face for her children is hopelessly autobiographical, but what these stories allowed Nesbit to do was to render a world of companionship, laughter, and quirky realism that shooed away the crushing embarrassment and alienation that she suffered with Bland.

 

Her children’s books served to nurse her dark feelings with promises of goodness, family, and emotional vulnerability. J. K. Rowling constantly refers to Nesbit in interviews as a literary inspiration, calling her “a groundbreaker” for featuring “very real children” rather than the well-behaved caricatures of Victorian morality stories. “I identify with the way she writes,” Rowling has said, and to those who are acquainted with the Harry Potter mythos, this endorsement is telling. But there was another part of Nesbit’s soul that needed voice – a submerged, tortured part that demanded license to pour out its venom and rage, to enunciate its injuries and vent its anxieties. This need was met with horror.

 

It is perhaps unsurprising that Nesbit found solace and voice in writing tales of terror when one accounts the various traumatizing incidents of her childhood that would later be resurrected in her imagination when faced with traumas of a more personal kind in her adulthood. For a writer of cheery children’s novels, hers was a neurotic and apprehensive youth, riddled with recurring nightmares, phobias, and anxieties. One perennial phobia was a terror of being buried alive – peculiarity she shared with one of her literary inspirations, Edgar Allan Poe. This was reportedly inspired by the near escape of an uncle who had been noticed twitching in his coffin during his funeral and revived just in time to avoid being laid in his grave alive.

 

Throughout her life this event plagued her imagination, and several of her stories (“The Five Drugs” and “The Third Drug” in particular) concern persons who are either paralyzed or otherwise restrained and threatened with a slow, agonizing death by thirst or suffocation. Nesbit also claimed to have lived in no fewer than two houses which were haunted by ghosts, and suffered a peculiar terror of the revivication of corpses – so deftly handled in “John Charrington’s Wedding” and “Man-Size in Marble.” This specific terror seems to have been rooted in a traumatic incident from childhood where her parents took her to the burial pits at the Church of St. Michel in Bordeaux, France. The cellars had a particular atmosphere that mummified the corpses stored there, creating a macabre tourist attraction. For young Edith, however, the thrill was entirely overcome by deep terror. As an adult she described the encounter with death in stunning detail:

 

 “[They were] skeletons with the flesh hardened on their bones, with    their long dry hair hanging on each side of their brown faces, where the skin in drying had drawn itself back from their gleaming teeth and empty eye-sockets. Skeletons draped in mouldering shreds of shrouds and grave-clothes, their lean fingers still clothed with dry skin, seemed to reach out to me. I was paralysed with horror… not daring to turn my head lest one of those charnel house faces should peep out at me… On the wall near the door I saw the dried body of a little child hung up by its hair…  it is to them, I think, more than to any other thing, that I owe nights and nights of anguish and horror, long years of bitterest fear and dread. ”

 

Nesbit’s horror stories are very particular and very unique for their time. They are perhaps most inspired by the stories of Rhoda Broughton (Behold it Was a Dream!, Nothing But the Truth), Elizabeth Gaskell (The Old Nurse’s Story, Lois the Witch), and Margaret Oliphant (The Open Door, The Library Window) which regularly feature innocent people in mortal peril from wicked and merciless supernatural forces. Across the pond she was influenced by Poe’s work, which she duplicated to the point of graceful homage in several of her tales, particularly indulging in themes of cursed families, live burial, decadent aristocrats, doppelgangers, and the corrupting influence of seclusion.

 

 To some degree she may also have been inspired by Charles Dickens’ few truly grim ghost stories, like “The Signal-Man” and “To Be Read at Dusk” (“John Charrington’s Wedding” is partially inspired by the latter and partly by Broughton’s “The Man With the Nose”). But what she did with these earlier Victorians’ legacy was something unique and powerful: she invested it with a raw, white-hot emotion. Broughton and Oliphant in particular fueled their ghost stories with pathos and psychological vulnerability, but Nesbit’s level of agony is truly crushing in many of these stories. David Stuart Davies aptly describes the connection between fiction and biography in Nesbit’s supernatural writing, using “Man-Size in Marble” as an exemplar:

 

   “Stylistically she was ahead of her time, for her tales are fierce, engaging and told in a modern fashion that demands attention… One interesting aspect of these exercises in terror and in a sense one that is typical of the woman and her background and beliefs is her ability to touch upon the deeper currents of eroticism and moral ambiguity involving her characters. Man-Size in Marble is probably the best known and most anthologized of Edith Nesbit’s stories… it epitomizes why she was so successful at the demanding art of telling a ghost story… The story is unremittingly savage, the prose is sharp and unfettered by overblown circumlocution and the ending is cruel and unhappy. There is an awful inevitability about the climax that one sees early on but we are held by a strange fascination to see where the narrative will take us. Nesbit never shirked from leaving the reader shocked, dismayed and abandoned. Life is cruel, she seems to be saying; you have no right to expect a happy ending. She may well have been applying that ideology to her own situation.”

 

The cold brutality of fate is not limited to “Man-Size in Marble,” nor the theme of a romance dashed on the rocks of a universe indifferent to love, hope, and mercy. In “From the Dead,” a woman with good intentions is thrown out by her husband, and while his reaction is understandable, he is cast as a villain when she dies hours before he finally locates her. In “John Charrington’s Wedding,” Nesbit’s second most famous work, we learn that love can overcome death, but that by the transitive property, death can overcome life, and that the heart of love may be possessive and selfish, bordering on rapacious.

 

“The House of Silence” teaches a robber that a home lush in trappings and possessions is not worth breaking into if it happens to be a Bluebeard’s castle where a beauty is wooed, bedded, and made food for the flies in short order. “The Ebony Frame” returns to the theme of love overcoming death, with a hideously disappointing and cynical conclusion interwoven with vicious irony. “Uncle Abraham’s Romance” is a soft and heartbreaking story of two misfits who find love beyond the grave, and – like so many of Nesbit’s protagonists – lose it to a twist of bad timing and miscommunication. While investigating “The Mystery of the Semi-Detached,” a man involved in a scandalous affair sees a vision of his lover with her throat cut, strewn across her bed in a sexually suggestive way. “The Power of Darkness” marginally addresses the inhuman lengths that two men will go to in pursuit of a pretty girl, treating the loser’s insanity (driven to madness by a prank in a wax museum after hours) as a matter of life, a pattern repeated in the even more insidious plot of “The Pavilion,” where a vampiric plant stars as the murder weapon. And there are more.

 

“The Shadow,” “The Violet Car,” and “In the Dark” are perhaps her three greatest ghost stories other than “Man-Size in Marble,” and each are beset with the specters of doomed love, bitter hearts, and inescapable fate. Failed romance seemed to be Nesbit’s favorite theme, and the harder the fall, the more she appeared to invest in her writing. The weakest of her stories usually involve a successful romance, although even the strongest are haunted by her regrettable penchant for sentimentalism. “From the Dead” suffers particularly from this trend to victimize a wronged woman to the point of sappy martyrdom (“The Shadow” also lingers here), with tertiary characters being illogically brutal to the husbands and rivals of misunderstood wives and middle-aged women, though Nesbit’s ire and thirst for justification is natural and easy to understand. Nonetheless, it is a blight on her otherwise excellent canon of ghost stories.

 

The scholar Robert Hadji commented on this flaw and its ultimate redemption as a glaring weakness in an otherwise powerful oeuvre: “Nesbit’s work is at times crudely sensational and even vulgar, yet it is redeemed by its emotional sensitivity, its alienated female perspective, and the lyrical clarity of her prose style which is simple and sincere.” Indeed, Nesbit seems to have suffered at times to reconciled the two sets of voices crying out to be heard in her work: the optimisitic desire for family and community which could sometimes veer towards the maudlin and sappy, and the cynical rejection of hope and mercy which was prone to drifting towards the brutal and heartless. More often than not, however, her stories met in the middle, resulting in an emotionally rich, spiritually haunting stew of pure feeling.

 

Also printed here are some science fiction tales that flirt with the legacies of Dr Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll, and Dr Moreau: blood-sucking vines, superhuman drugs, diabolical genetics, labs filled with the bodies of experimented-on victims, science-based vampirism, and even a feeble-minded lab assistant in the vein of the Universal Films’ hunchbacked Igor. These are, admittedly, the weakest of Nesbit’s stories – fraught with sentimental moony-ness, laughable plots, and ludicrous science – but they are fascinating studies of early science fiction, especially by a woman. Nesbit also offers us two stellar Gothic farces – ghost stories that turn out to not be ghost stories, and lighten the mood of her overall grim collection – but I won’t spoil which two they are for you.

 

Nesbit’s writing is absolutely crisp, evocative, and touching, and her legacy as both a children’s writer and a master of horror is well deserved, if not far overdue. The stories in this book can best be described as raw – emotionally wringing, cruel, and richly ironic – but they are at times very tender, even in the harshest of her stories. While her worldview is largely cynical – at times even Lovecraftian – there is no doubt that at the core of her horror beats a heart – tremendously bruised, horribly misused, and shamefully denied a voice. But Nesbit’s tales give voice to that heart, and its fleshy beat can be detected in the sorrow of “Man-Size,” in the regret of “The Shadow,” in the loss of “The Violet Car,” in the twisted devotion of “John Charrington,” in the vulnerability of “In the Dark,” in the human revulsion of “The House of Silence,” in the helplessness of “The Semi-Detached,” in the heartbreak of “Uncle Abraham’s Romance,” “The Ebony Frame,” and “From the Dead.” So as you turn this page and step into Nesbit’s universe, anticipate a world of painful loss, anticipate a world of emotional vulnerability, and anticipate a world of hate, jealousy, love, affection, anxiety, guilt, and fragile hope – anticipate a world of terror and dread, of sex, violence, anticipate a world of supernatural aggression, predatory spirits, and intimate horror – anticipate the world of Edith Nesbit.

 

You can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Nesbit's best ghost stories HERE!

 

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