Monday, 18 September 2017

The Cold Embrace

Alex Hamilton (ed)
Corgi Books

There are two fields of the arts where I think women have truly overcome the belittling misogyny that would devalue their contributions, have made their presence felt and stand shoulder to shoulder with their male contemporaries. Happily for me they're two fields I like very much indeed; experimental music - oh the glory of Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Pauline Oliveros, Else Marie Pade to name just the first four to come to mind - and as tellers of stories of the macabre and the supernatural. Why these two in particular? I don't know. Perhaps it's just my taste bias spotting immensely talented women in the fields to which I'm most drawn, perhaps it's a willingness by fans of these fields to accept diversity, perhaps other fields have a more ingrained misogyny, perhaps all of these, perhaps none.

Shirley Jackson
The reason I bring this up is that this here anthology is staffed almost entirely (Editor Alex is sole exception) by women and there are some of the greats here too, Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Bowen & Edith Nesbit amongst them. Storywise though there is one tale here that stands head and shoulders above the others, Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' a classic piece of witty and terrifying writing. That's not to say that others fall far short it's just that it really is that good.

E. Nesbit
Of the others M.E. Braddon's story - from which this book takes it's name - is a regular in these anthologies and for good reason and Sheena MacKay provides the delightfully ghastly 'Open End' as a grieving widow finds an outlet for her emotions. Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover' is another staple with a story of an unavoidable and terrifying fate whereas Agatha Christie's 'The Seance' allows a bereaved mother one last opportunity to see her child.

The book takes a dip with Marie de France's tediously folkloric 'The Werewolf', Margaret Irwin's idiotic 'The Country Gentleman' and Mary Coleridge's 'The King is Dead' before we're back on familiar territory with E. Nesbit's 'John Charrington's Wedding' which for me isn't one of the lady's best but is certainly both readable and a favourite of anthologists.

Hortense Calisher is a new name to me but her body horror tale 'Heartburn' is an enjoyably frivolous beastie worthy of further reads. Scheherezade's 'The Cenotaph' on the other hand is a Robert E. Howard story in most respects full of deceitful women and ancient magic.

Elizabeth Jane Howard
I first came across Elizabeth Jane Howard's 'Three Miles Up' a few years ago and it became one of those stories that stick fast in your head. The tale of two canal riding holidaymakers and the mysterious lady that joins them is a gently unsettling and ultimately deeply eerie read.

Unfortunately the high point delivered by Howard's tale is somewhat short lived by Margueritte de Navarre's 'The Confessor' a tedious piece of folkish drivel and Janet Frame's teeny tiny tale 'The Press Gang'.

Flannery O'Connor's story of sickness, homesickness and family ties tells of a rural man uprooted by family to the city and wishing to return home to die, It's a fabulously grimy and uncompromising tale which would sit proudly in a collection alongside folk such as Harry Crews or Barry Gifford but here it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The books ends on a bit of a low as Elizabeth Gaskell's 'The Doom of the Griffiths' has too much of the Victorian melodrama about it and Elizabeth Taylor's interestingly creepy but ultimately disappointing story felt too much in debt to 'The Turning of the Screw'.

So what we have is the very definition of a mixed bag; one classic tale, a personal favourite, a few solid, reliable old favourites and more than a few page fillers but that's a pattern I can live with for as the good ones really do shine out and that one classic is always worth the price of admission.

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