Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women

By Truffin, Sherry R. | Gothic Studies, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women


Truffin, Sherry R., Gothic Studies


Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women, by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 228pp, £ 44.95 hb; ISBN 978-0-8232-2985-7.

Scare Tactics, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock's analysis of supernatural tales written by American women between 1850 and 1930, represents an important contribution to the growing critical literature on popular and fantastic literary genres. In this book, Weinstock succinctly and elegantly reviews major concepts in the study of supernatural and Gothic literature and brings those concepts to bear on a body of work that has been largely ignored. He argues persuasively that supernatural tales produced by American women during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, far from being culturally disengaged or escapist in nature, comprise a coherent body of feminist literature that surveys the damage wrought by patriarchal society, portrayed as a network of forces that marginalize, confine, and haunt women, rendering them ghostly presences that, in turn, haunt houses, husbands, and communities in search of recognition, fulfillment, or retribution.

Weinstock's introduction, 'The Unacknowledged Tradition', reviews the critical landscape examining nineteenth-century ghost stories (both British and American) in general and the Female Gothic tradition in particular. Along the way, Weinstock summarizes and appraises various theories about the popularity of the supernatural tale and its relationship to such historical factors as the rise of interest in Spiritualism and the occult, the critique of or backlash against Enlightenment rationalism, the emergence and development of psychoanalysis, the increasing tendency to view supernatural phenomena as products or features of the human mind, and the American fascination with death and mourning. Further, he points out that women were the primary producers and consumers of the supernatural tale in America, in part because writing was one of very few money-making ventures available to white middle-class women of the period. Many of these writers read and admired each other's work, and some maintained a lively correspondence with one another. Their stories often appeared or were favorably reviewed in well-respected periodicals such as Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and the North American Review but were later forgotten or devalued. Weinstock argues that these tales demonstrate significant engagement with both male and female authors and literary works and with important social issues of the day. He identifies two broad strains in the literature on (mostly British) supernatural tales by women, one that sees such tales as expressive of an internalized fear or hatred of the female and ultimately a legitimation of patriarchy, and an alternative view of these tales as radically critical or subversive of the status quo. He situates his book in the second camp, following commentators such as Catherine A. Lundie, Barbara Constance Patrick, Alfred Bendixen, Allan Lloyd-Smith, and numerous others in regarding the supernatural as an indirect and, therefore, socially acceptable way for female writers to confront unspeakable or taboo subjects such as domestic violence, the dark side of westward and capitalist expansion, sexuality in general and same-sex desire in particular, and anxieties about female authorship.

Chapter One, 'The Ghost in the Parlor: Harriet Prescott Spofford, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna M. Hoyt, and Edith Wharton', argues that supernatural tales by American women both known and unknown give voice to anxieties about male control over women and, in some cases, children. The plots of such tales hinge on the confinement, emotional and physical abuse, and even murder of women, and ghosts appear as figures of female marginality, disempowerment, disruption, or justice.

The second chapter, 'Queer Haunting Spaces: Madeline Yale Wynne and Elia Wilkinson Peattie', looks at the gendering and haunting of domestic space in supernatural tales by American women. …

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