Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women

Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women

Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women

Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women

Synopsis

Scare Tactics identifies an important but overlooked tradition of supernatural writing by American women. Jeffrey Weinstock analyzes this tradition as an essentially feminist attempt to imagine alternatives to a world of limited possibilities. In the process, he recovers the lives and works of authors who were important during their lifetimes and in the development of the American literary tradition, but who are not recognized today for their contributions.

Between the end of the Civil War and roughly 1930, hundreds of uncanny tales were published by women in the periodical press and in books. These include stories by familiar figures such as Edith Wharton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, as well as by authors almost wholly unknown to twenty-first-century readers, such as Josephine Dodge Bacon, Alice Brown, Emma Frances Dawson, and Harriet Prescott Spofford. Focusing on this tradition of female writing offers a corrective to the prevailing belief within American literary scholarship that the uncanny tale, exemplified by the literary productions of Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, was displaced after the Civil War by literary realism.

Beyond the simple existence of an unacknowledged tradition of uncanny literature by women, Scare Tactics makes a strong case that this body of literature should be read as a specifically feminist literary tradition. Especially intriguing, Weinstock demonstrates, is that women authors repeatedly used Gothic conventions to express discontentment with circumscribed roles for women creating types of political intervention connected to the broader sphere of women's rights activism.

Paying attention to these overlooked authors helps us better understand not only the literary marketplace of their time, but also more familiar American Gothicists from Edgar Allan Poe to Shirley Jackson to Stephen King.

Excerpt

“The Premonition” is a strange little tale of the supernatural published by an American woman named Lurana W. Sheldon in Godey’s Lady’s Magazine in 1896. Within the tale, a new bride, Evelyn, dreams weird and lurid dreams about her artist husband, Armand. As she sleeps, ghostly women visit her and reveal the cause of their demise: they were all models poisoned by Armand so that he could paint scenes of their deaths. Forewarned by these spectral sisters of her own impending fate, Evelyn, upon awaking, questions her husband more closely concerning his past. Armand, however, dismisses her concerns as simply the conjurations of an overly rich meal. the story ends leaving the reader uncertain as to the veracity of Evelyn’s oneiric “premonition.”

Taken on its own terms, “The Premonition” is a perfect example of the Female Gothic—that category of literature in which female authors utilize Gothic themes in order to address specifically female concerns. in Evelyn’s dreams, matrimony transforms into a dangerous descent into isolation, disempowerment, and potential death. If her premonition provides a true glimpse of her future, then she will join the ranks of Armand’s dead models, murdered for his art. and even if her premonition turns out to be false, her husband’s withholding of information and dismissive attitude toward her concerns at the end of the story forecast a future together defined by an inequitable distribution of power within the relationship. Regardless of whether she poses for her husband’s death scenes, she will end up being a “model wife,” obedient to her husband’s commands and secondary in relation to his art. While not literally a ghost, she nonetheless will suffer a form of figurative death as she fades from his view, relegated to the margins of his vision.

I begin with this brief overview of a sinister tale by an obscure American female author because the idea of a ghostly sisterhood of dead women that warns living women about the dangers of marriage and patriarchy eloquently condenses the primary theme of this study: the use by American . . .

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