Ghosts, Vampires, and l'écriture-femme

Clay-Shuttered Doors

by Helen R. Hull

Secret Chambers

by Mrs Wilson Woodrow


The Gospel

by Josephine Daskam Bacon

Date: Sun, 18 Jan 2004
Subject: [Womenwriters] Ghosts and gothics

I agree it would be good to read more vampire and horror stories by women. I've been finding some of the stories in 'Restless Spirits' blurring into one another in my mind, because so many of them seem to deal with the first/second wife haunting, a theme which May Sinclair in a way turns upside down in "The Nature of the Evidence", and also with mental illness.

Yesterday I read a rather different story in Restless Spirits, 'Clay-Shuttered Doors' by Helen R Hull, which stands out to me. This is one which I found really creepy and frightening - but, at the same time, I didn't think it was a true ghost story, more of a horror tale with hints of vampire about it. I was interested to see that it was written in the 1920s, like Sinclair's story.

It has made me want to read more by Hull - has anybody come across her work? The note in Restless Spirits makes her sound interesting: "Helen R Hull (1888-1971)

Helen Rose Hull distinguished herself as both an author and an educator. Born in Michigan, she was educated in the Midwest, then embarked on a teaching career at Wellesley College, Barnard College and finally at Columbia University, where she was a professor of creative writing for forty years. Concurrent with this, she published twenty novels, two collections of short stories, and two novelettes. Although early in life she had been active in radical politics, she later became somewhat politically reticent - a fact that has been attributed in part to her publisher's reticence that her lesbianism would be detrimental to her career. Hull's fiction often explores women's options in marriage, career and parenting. Indictment of the nuclear family on both personal and economic grounds, given such horrifying form in 'Clay-Shuttered Doors', is a frequent theme in her fiction. The May 1926 issue of Harper's is the original source of this tale."

All the best,

Re: Helen R. Hull's "Clay-Shuttered Door"

On the strength of Judy's posting on this one I read it tonight. It has the same eerie power of Sinclair's "Nature of the Evidence."

Creepy is a good word; it's not an uncanny story, and, if we take the definition of a ghost story narrowly (as we have been doing), not a ghost story. No one comes back from the dead; rather the heroine is herself dead and keeps her corpse going for a while. An element of horror is strong in the story -- maybe the necrophilia and quiet seething hatred in "The Nature of the Evidence" is analogous. In this one Thalia is not seething with hatred so much as steely dread. When Mary first returns to visit Thalia and her husband, Win, ten years later, I felt in the narrative hints that Win is a physically violent husband; that he abuses and threatens her and she has been badly cowed. This terror of his bullying, partly probably also emotional seemed to be at the heart of her response to the accident. At first I thought she would turn into a vengeful figure (like the woman in "The Nature of the Evidence") and was waiting for the news that something terrible had happened to them in the cab. But instead she and the husband emerge and she's a frozen made-up corpse.

Her one consolation is her congenial -- similarly tempered sensitive and intelligent -- son. She has to withdraw herself from him, for he feels she is a corpse. His dread of her flesh communicates itself to us.

As the story went on, my sense of its meaning is that she didn't dare die. Here is a woman so paralyzed by the life she's been forced to lead with this man that she doesn't even dare to die.

There were quiet implicit touches. Such as her heavy make-up, her luxurious clothes, the jewels, all of them feel perverse, like a sickness and part of her prison.

I had never read anything by Hull before and there is nothing by her in my other anthologies (admittedly I don't have that many). I would read more by both her and Sinclair, e.g., Mary Olivier.

The Gale Database has very little on Hull; some of the basic data of birth, death, schooling, prizes, no critical remarks at all. But they do list her texts of which I cite a few:

* Quest, Macmillan, 1922.
* Labyrinth, Macmillan, 1923.
* The Surry Family, Macmillan, 1925.
* Islanders, Macmillan, 1927.
* The Asking Price, Coward, 1930.
* Heat Lightning, Coward, 1932.
* Uncommon People (short stories), Coward, 1936.
* Candle Indoors, Coward, 1936.
* The Flying Yorkshireman, Harper & Brothers, 1938.
* Frost Flower, Coward, 1939.
* Through the House Door, Coward, 1940.
* Landfall, Coward, 1953.
* Wind Rose, Coward, 1958.
* (Editor with Michael Drury) Writer's Roundtable, Harper, 1959.
* A Tapping on the Wall, Dodd, 1960.
* Close Her Pale Blue Eyes, Dodd, 1963.
* Last September, Naiad, 1988.

As to the other ghost stories in Restless Spirits from the same era, the Gale Database had nothing under Anne Page. I'll see if I can read Mrs Wilson Woodrow's "Secret Chambers" tomorrow night. The allusions to Udolpho and Rebecca interest me.

I don't know that it really means that much that we can't find out much about the women who wrote these stories. We might find a similar gap in information on male contemporaries writing in a similarly partly despised genre which might also be taken as revealing the unacceptable thoughts you had. Like people on the Net today, magazine writers of the period who wrote gothics would use pseudonyms sometimes (Alcott did that); I've noticed this for gothic writers up to the 1930s. Charnas wrote her less respectable gothics under another name than Charnas. Today too there are writers like Hull who don't want to divulge anything about themselves. Elizabeth Walters' entry in Gale is very curious: it lacks even minimal dates; basically there's a paragraph which tells you she doesn't want anyone to know anything about her, and then you get a list of stories and books.

It does signify something but I'm not sure what it is fully.


Date: Mon, 19 Jan 2004
Subject: [Womenwriters] Helen R. Hull's "Clay-Shuttered Door"

Ellen wrote:

On the strength of Judy's posting on this one I read it tonight. It has the same eerie power of Sinclair's "Nature of the Evidence."

I'm glad that Ellen liked this story too. I've been finding that the stories in Restless Spirits seem to vary enormously and some are far more powerful and memorable than others. I did like the other story Ellen mentioned, 'Secret Chambers' by Nancy Wilson Woodrow - it does have similarities with Rebecca, but the difference seems to be that the second wife increasingly sympathises with the first wife and wants to be possessed by her, and starts to see the husband as destroying both of them in turn.

My least favourite was 'The Gospel' by Josephine Daskam Bacon, who for some reason has two stories in the collection even though she must be one of the weaker writers featured - I suppose she has been included because her stories fit into the themes chosen by the editor. This one doesn't have much ghostly or Gothic content and its message seems to be that women can be saved from depression or mental illness by turning housework, especially cookery, into a sort of religion.

Thanks to Ellen for the information about Helen R Hull from Gale - I had looked for information on the web but found little except that she taught Carson McCullers, which I thought was interesting. I'm hoping to keep on reading Gothic stories over the coming year, and would be up to read some Daphne du Maurier tales here some time - she is a writer I find very compelling.

At the moment I'm reading a novel by Margaret Oliphant, Kirsteen, which is a realistic novel, so far set in the Scottish Highlands and nothing like 'A Beleaguered City', except that it is very good.

All the best,

Re: "Clay-Shuttered Door," "Secret Chamber," "The Gospel"

I managed to read "Secret Chamber" last night -- after we returned from a mildly entertaining but intelligent rewrite of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio.

I did like it except as in several other cases in this volume (not the Dalby which had none of this sort of thing) we had what I would have called a hopelessly sentimental ending a few minutes ago, but will now opt for different wording: it was fake, fake happiness, fake sweetness, fake reconciliation. Fake is a good word and not enough used today -- it's strong. Sentimental is really a polite word for fakery which fools because human beings like to pretend to be happy and to believe in happiness. Richard Hoggart whose The Way We Live Now (a sociological study) which follows on from his sociological classic The Uses of Literacy [and the Media] boldly uses the word fake for what mass popular media does for the "lonely" crowd (now I turn to another sociological classic): people go to the movies and will sit through boring trash because through other media they are persuaded they are now part of a group, a community and get the "delusions of fake intimacy".

However, until we got to the ending "Secret Chamber" was compelling.

It may not be connected to DuMaurier: the incident of a housekeeper showing the heroine the previous wife's untouched boudoir and corridor is old clichéd stuff: Jane Austen was using it in Northanger Abbey when Eleanor Tilney shows Catherine her mother's bedroom and takes her through her mother's garden. The housekeeper taking the heroine deep into the bowels of the house to reveal secrets (or not) moves from Udolpho to Consuelo (where we go into labyrinthine tunnel) and spreads everywhere.

However, depiction of the first wife as insidiously evil with the implication that the husband killed her, and the use of the picture begins to be too much of a coincidence. The implication Judy suggests that the husband was killing both of them is also in Rebecca. This is subtle in the story and the ending for the common reader would blunt or blur or destroy it. Rebecca ends with the wife in slavery to the husband's depression and despair; she is now a servant to him as she was to the hideous American bully she began with. Rebecca rebelled against Max. Several places in the book this parallel and conclusion is made: he tried to devour Rebecca and she would not be his handmaid; he murdered her out of sexual rage and possessiveness and as a capitalist-landlord archetype because she was going to foist a false son on him.

I was thinking that another thread in "Clay-Shuttered Doors" is brought out by Mrs Wilson Woodrow's "Secret Chambers." Not only is the wife there afraid to die, intimidated out of dying. What does she live for? Well we see her networking for her husband's career, throwing dinners, a party, the great corpse-like make-up glittering exquisitely well dressed hostess. She is allowed to get into her coffin after that last party when she clinches some effect he wanted.

This is a funny apt summing up of "The Gospel:"

"This one doesn't have much ghostly or Gothic content and its message seems to be that women can be saved from depression or mental illness by turning housework, especially cookery, into a sort of religion."

If we look at the volume as a whole it had an agenda which attacks "the feminine mystique" as first defined by Betty Friedan. The volume has also valuable for showing us typical women's magazine fiction. That Lundie understood she was doing that may be seen by her choice of illustrations; that she included them at all is significant. I was noticing how ambiguous they are -- we have not been discussing them but they are worth looking at in the same way as cover illustrations meant to sell a book widely are.

I wish I knew more about Hull's work -- because one might try to guess if it would have reached DuMaurier and partly in reaction against this story's ending, a Rebecca could begin to emerge. It is interesting that she taught Carson McCullers. McCullers is tough perverse stuff, particularly Reflections Through a Golden Eye. I have taught her The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. I chickened out twice on Golden Eye -- I ordered it and then retracted my order. As I recall there's a woman in it who has part of her nipples cut off -- to get back at her military husband. It leaves you quivering over what their sex life must have been and is.


Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 12 February 2005