Our next horror master is Mary Eleanor Wilkins-Freeman (1852-1930). I think it is fair to call her a ‘minor’ horror master, simply because horror was not her primary fiction focus. An early feminist writer, she penned numerous novels and short story collections, and was the first recipient of the William Dean Howells Medal for Distinction in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Her goal in writing ghost stories seems less motivated to scare than to highlight or illustrate the lives of contemporary women, but she still manages to produce a number of stories of significant power.
There are a remarkable number of excellent women horror authors of the late Victorian/early Edwardian era. I suspect this happened in part because the growing education and independence of the women of the era allowed them to observe the injustice in their societal status (in the U.S., women’s suffrage only occurred in 1920) and gave them the need to address it, sometimes indirectly.
Mrs. Wilkins-Freeman, born Mary Wilkins, had a life of some hardship herself. Born in Randolph, Massachussetts, in the 1870s her father’s dry goods store failed, her younger sister died, and her mother ended up working as a household servant to make ends meet. Mary began writing fiction to help support her family, and met with rapid success. She married late in life, at age 49, to Dr. Charles Freeman, but he turned out to be a man plagued by alcoholism and a legal separation ensued after twenty years of marriage.
The whole of Wilkins-Freeman’s supernatural work consists of little over a dozen short stories. Her stories exclusively focus on women, often in uncertain societal positions (widows, ‘old maids’), dealing with supernatural encounters that strain their resources and threaten their livelihood. Neglected children are also a common feature in her works.
Most of her supernatural stories are listed below, with a short synopsis of each:
- The Shadows on the Wall. Her most effective and terrifying tale. A family is recovering from a rather mysterious death in the family when a distorted shadow, with no apparent source, appears on the wall. This is by far the best tale of the bunch, and a true classic.
- The Hall Bedroom. A first-person narrative, describing events associated with a hall bedroom in a boarding-house: a bedroom in which boarders tend to vanish without a trace.
- Luella Miller. The tale of lovely Luella Miller, who has a deadly draining effect on all those who dare to come close to her. A subtle, unconventional vampire tale.
- The Vacant Lot. A traditional ghost story, with some nice images. The Townsend family moves into a large house in the city, but are soon plagued by apparitions that emanate from the adjoining vacant lot.
- A Far-Away Melody. A simple, not scary, story about the last years of life of a pair of sisters.
- A Symphony in Lavender. A tale of a woman’s premonition, and the effect it has on her life.
- The Wind in the Rose-Bush. Rebecca Flint travels to Ford’s Village to claim her niece Agnes, who is living with her stepmother. On arrival, Rebecca finds the stepmother, and townsfolk, evasive, and Agnes is nowhere to be seen. This is a commonly anthologized story.
- A Gentle Ghost. A mysterious child is seen wandering the local cemetery. A sentimental and not scary story.
- The Southwest Chamber. A long tale about mysterious happenings in the southwest chamber of a boarding house. Numerous boarders attempt to endure the events in the room, and each in turn surrenders.
- The Lost Ghost. A tale both touching and highly disturbing. A woman recounts her encounters with an unnamed spirit of a dead child. It touches well upon both real-world and supernatural horrors.
- The Jade Bracelet. A man returning home from work finds a jade bracelet of oriental provenance lying in the snow. Picking it up out of curiosity, he finds himself the victim of what may or may not be a curse. He visits his friend Dr. Van Brunt for help, but someone will be dead before the story ends. Van Brunt had the potential to be another psychic detective of the sort I’ve posted about earlier.
A pair of other stories, The Little Maid at the Door and The Twelfth Guest, can be found at The Literary Gothic.