Uncanny Stories, by May Sinclair

Sinclair Uncanny Stories cvr

This 2006 Wordsworth edition reprints May Sinclair’s 1923 collection Uncanny Stories, appends an earlier story from 1911, and begins with a useful essay by the volume’s editor, Paul March-Russell.  What follows is a description of each story, with some commentary.

‘Where their Fire is not Quenched’ follows Harriott (sic) Leigh from the age of 16 to her death at 52.  Her first love having died, and her second having chosen someone else, she fills the next few years with an empty affair with a married man, Oscar Wade (and while the reader may suspect an echo of Oscar Wilde in the name, it is more likely a distracting coincidence).  The affair finally peters out, he dies shortly afterwards, and Harriott finds religion as a deaconess, though she experiences an illicit attraction to the priest.  After her death she finds herself reliving the past backwards, but instead of encountering the other significant people in her life, including her father, it is always Oscar who takes their place.  Having made little of her life, she finds she is condemned to repeat it with Oscar, someone who had bored her (as she had him) but who was nevertheless the most significant person in her life.  Even when she reaches her earliest memory she knows that she cannot escape Oscar.  As she is attempting to grasp what is happening to her he says: ‘You think the past affects the future.  Has it never struck you that the future may affect the past?’  We are responsible for acts we have not yet committed, and they carry their influence into the afterlife.  It’s a depressing thought, and the story ends with the prospect of the pair locked together in their ennui for eternity.  Oscar tells Harriott that they are in Hell, and if Hell truly is other people, then Harriott has it in ample quantities; we do not need punishment to make a situation intolerable, even a bland one will be that if it persists long enough.  Rather than Hell, Sinclair may have been thinking of Spiritualist literature’s Summerland and wondering what it would really be like to have to associate with those one knew on earth for ever.  Would that and Hell be any different?

‘The Token’ concerns a repressed and stubborn Scotsman, Donald, who is incapable of expressing his love for his ill wife Cicely, and perversely dresses it up as indifference. She dies after he is particularly nasty to her, not knowing whether he loved her or not, but comes back to try to determine whether he did.  Significantly he cannot see her; only his sister Helen, who also loved her, can.  It is a reversal of Laura Mulvey’s idea of the male gaze – Donald is blind to Cecily’s presence, and she looks steadily at him night after night while Donald sits passively in his chair doing nothing.  It is Helen who makes the breakthrough by telling Donald that Cecily is present, forcing him to acknowledge his love for her.  There is a clear implication that Helen’s Scottish heritage has conferred the gift of second sight on her, a gift denied to her insular immature brother.  The token of the title refers to a small Buddha which had been given to Donald by George Meredith and which Cicely thinks he considered of more worth than her.  Eventually he proves his love for Cicely in a most dramatic way, destroying the figurine, and she can be at peace.  Even at the climax he is only aware of her presence for a moment, enough for an embrace, before she vanishes, content in the knowledge that despite appearances he did love her.  By destroying the Buddha Donald demonstrates that emotional values are of more worth than material possessions.  The project Donald was working on, ‘Development of Social Economics’ remains unfinished at the story’s conclusion, perhaps an indication that such terrene matters are now of little importance given the knowledge he has acquired from the wife he failed to value during her lifetime.

‘The Flaw in the Crystal’ is the longest story in the volume, originally published as a separate novella in 1912.  It features Agatha Verrall, who has been endowed with a healing gift, the ‘crystal’, through which she can assist others who are suffering mental anguish.  She loves Rodney, but he is unhappily married to Bella, and their marital strife is causing both of them to suffer nervous illness.  Agatha uses her ability to maintain Bella and Rodney’s equilibrium, which helps Rodney’s mental state,  The system works well until Agatha’s friend Milly and Milly’s husband Harding come to live close by.  Harding has suffered a complete mental collapse and is potentially dangerous, but Milly refuses to give up and have him put away.  Out of her love for Milly, Agatha extends the crystal influence to Harding, but finds that it is a two-way street, and in her vulnerable state Harding comes to influence her as much as she does him, the powerful turmoil in his mind eventually creating a state of terror in her which traps her as she is subjected to his dreadful inner torment.  When through huge effort she finally manages to escape from his mental orbit, Harding immediately suffers a relapse.  Agatha eventually realises that the flaw in the crystal is her love for Rodney and that for it to work she needs to be pure.  In that state the gift works perfectly for the benefit of anyone to whom she extends it.  The answer is plain: she must give up Rodney to remove the flaw.  By maintaining the link with Bella, now back in love with Rodney, Agatha can ensure that the couple will be happy together, but the price for the restoration of the crystal is the breaking off of her own relationship.  It is a story that might be seen as the depiction of a neurotic delusion, but Agatha convincingly demonstrates that the healing effect is synchronised with her use of the gift.  What is curious about it is the choice of Agatha’s surname.  Sinclair became a member of the Society for Psychical Research in June 1914, but even before that she may have been aware of the Verrall family – Arthur and Margaret and their daughter Helen, who were significant figures in the Society, Margaret and Helen as mediums.  It may not be coincidence that Sinclair chose this name for her main character who can establish a psychic link to assist those who suffer.  The early SPR was an unusual scholarly body in that women were prominent, and it is possible that Sinclair is paying tribute to the contributions they had made in understanding the psychic realm.  However, the implication of the flaw in the crystal is that a psychic link is not necessarily without its dangers, and that negative feedback can prove harmful to the sender if the receiver fails to be passive.

After the slow pace of ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’, ‘The Nature of the Evidence’ is the brisk tale, told by an unnamed narrator, of Marston, deeply in love with his wife Rosamund, who is utterly bereft when she dies.  Despite this he decides to marry again (well, a man has needs) but finds there is a problem.  He cannot consummate his marriage to Pauline because the deceased Rosamund keeps popping up and preventing Marston’s access to the marital bed.  Pauline initially thinks there is something wrong with her husband because she cannot see Rosamund, that is until she feels her predecessor in bed with her one night while poor old Marston is sleeping in a chair.  She is reduced to sleeping in Marston’s single bed.  It’s a kind of Blithe Spirit but in reverse.  Rather than a sexy dead wife supplanted by someone blander, as in Coward’s play, here Rosamund possesses ‘a curious, pure, sweet beauty, like a child’s’ and it is Pauline who is the sexy one, a divorcée with a rackety past, whom Marston physically desires.  Curiously, at one point Pauline comes to Marston in the night wearing a transparent chiffony gown, an image reminiscent of shrouded ghosts, looking to him ‘uncanny and unnatural’.  By contrast, the dead Rosamund seems to be more real to him than the living Pauline.  Having Pauline feel Rosaumnd in bed seems a misstep because it suggests that Rosamund is more than a figment of Marston’s imagination; Marston delusional would have suggested that he was unable to cope with Pauline’s overt sexuality and preferred Rosamund because she did not pose a threat to his fragile masculinity.  The narrator is only able to hint at what resolved the situation but something happened one fateful night, in the library, and the implication the reader draws is that it involved a resumption of Marston and Rosamund’s sexual union.  Whatever it was it sees Marston and Pauline separate, the worldly Pauline beaten by Rosamund’s tough ghost, afraid that her dead rival might get still more forceful in her efforts to rid the house of Pauline if she stays.  Ironically, it is the ghost who is doing the exorcising.  For Marston, Pauline has less passion than Rosamund because as he tells the narrator, you have to get rid of your body to know what true passion is, something Rosamund has shown him.    But this is a tale told second-hand, and we only have Marston’s word this is how it occurred.  Who knows, perhaps the truth was that Pauline represented more woman than he could handle and he created the fiction that Rosamund had returned to explain Pauline’s departure for the narrator’s benefit.  March-Russell notes that we cannot rely on what we are told, but his description of Pauline as a ‘predator’ is a misogynistic way to describe Pauline’s not unreasonable desire to have sex with her husband, however self-centred she is.

‘If the Dead Knew’  is another triangle, this time between a man of 35 who still lives at home, his widowed mother, and the woman he wants to marry.  Wilfred Hollyer is torn because he has been so close to his mother, but at the same time he wants his freedom.  Unfortunately he thinks he would not be able to afford to keep Effie on the meagre salary he earns as a church organist.  He was never able to do anything else because of some unspecified delicacy in youth that would have rendered more adventurous pursuits dangerous to him.  Now stuck, his mother is only 60 and in robust health, so it may be a long time before he is able to inherit sufficient means to marry.  Then Mrs Hollyer develops pleurisy, and the doctor’s prognosis is not favourable.  However, Nurse Eden, brought in to help, believes she has a healing gift, much like Agatha’s in ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’, and that because of this, Mrs Hollyer tends to rally at night when Nurse Eden is on duty.  She tells Wilfred of this ability and urges him to add his willpower to hers in order to assist his mother to recover.  The problem is that he is ambivalent about her return to health: on the one hand he loves her, on the other her death would clear the way for his marriage.  In the event Mrs Hollyer dies and Wilfred is able to marry Effie.  Unfortunately but predictably he comes to believe that subconsciously he had caused her death, may even have killed her, by his desire for her to die in order for him to be able to marry, and this causes him intense feelings of guilt.  Effie considers Mrs Hollyer to have been wonderful to him, but Wilfred justifies his wish for her death by focusing on her overprotectiveness when he was young, which he thinks may have prevented him from making more of himself.  One day he tells Effie that he thought his mother had been selfish in holding him to her, even if it had been done through love, thinking that now Mrs Hollyer was dead it no longer mattered what he said.  But then he sees the ghost of Mrs Hollyer, looking upset at the things he had said about her, and he realises that the dead do know what we say about them, and it does matter, both to them and the living.  The shock of her appearance, and the realisation that he has hurt her deeply, unmans him and he resumes sleeping in his old single bed.  In his intense regret at his attitude he yearns for her return, and return she does.  Mother and son are reunited, and the story concludes with Wilfred’s awareness that he was once more hers, and they never would be put apart.  Where this leaves Effie is unclear but it is safe to say that with three of them in the marriage it would be a bit crowded.  There is a hint of incestuous feelings while Mrs Hollyer is alive – at one point Wilfred assures her that he will never marry because ‘You’re all the wife I want, Mother’.  Mrs Hollyer is shown to be a lovely person about whom nothing negative could be said, however she tells Wilfred that had she had not kept him safe from the world he would have been dead by twenty, yet the doctor after her death assures him that there was nothing really wrong with him (Wilfred seems to have been somewhat lacking in curiosity about his ailment), and his early weakness would have been overcome if his mother had been prepared to take a risk,  That she didn’t is ascribed to a ‘mistake’, but there is a lurking suspicion that she manipulated him in order to prevent her from having to live alone.  On the other hand, Wilfred may well have been misled into an exaggerated belief in his own weakness, but he had made no effort to forge an independent life, passively assuming that he would never be fit for anything other than a third-rate organist, without attempting to see what else he might do.  Now without his mother’s support, the possibility exists that he has conjured her up as an outlet for the feelings of grief at his disloyalty and that she has no objective existence.  Intriguingly Effie’s father had been against the marriage, calling it ‘folly’, but we never learn why.  Perhaps he understood that Wilfred was at heart a mother’s boy, and would never be a proper husband to Effie.  If so he was right.

‘The Victim’ is a neat twist on the idea of a ghost returning to haunt a wrong-doer, and also continues the theme of wishing someone dead and feeling guilty afterwards.  Steven Acroyd is jealously possessive of his sweetheart, Dorsey.  Both work for Mr Greathead, Steven as the chauffeur and general factotum, Dorsey as housekeeper.  After Steven assaults Dorsey’s cousin for being familiar she says she is afraid of Steven, and after talking to Mr Greathead leaves his employment.  Steven hears the tail-end of their conversation, blames Mr Greathead for Dorsey’s departure, thinking that he had advised her to go, and decides to murder him in his hatred of the old man.  This he does, dismembers and disposes of the body, and by a mixture of luck and guile completely covers his tracks, making it appear that his master has disappeared during a visit to London.  Unfortunately his conscience begins to play on him and he becomes obsessed by a particular stain which he compulsively scrubs.  Time passes, and the murder begins to feel like a dream.  Then, still living in the house as caretaker, he sees the apparition of Mr Greathead.  This unnerves him and, afraid he will make a confession through funk, he shuts himself away until he falls ill,  Dorsey looks after him and wants to marry him, but Steven is overcome with remorse.  Mr Greathead appears once more; or does he?  Steven is with Dorsey, implying that the figure of Mr Greathead is an hallucination, and not a veridical apparition.  The possibility is raised that Steven is effectively talking to himself, not to his late employer.  This time Mr Greathead speaks to him, but what he says undercuts Steven’s – and the reader’s – expectations that he has returned for revenge.  On the contrary, he says that Steven need not fear him, and explains that Steven has in fact done him a favour as he was in failing health and had money difficulties.  From his perspective the manner of his death is trivial, and he feels more alive than Steven, who should therefore feel no guilt about his actions.  He adds that he did not advise Dorsey to abandon Steven but the reverse, that she should stick with him to hold him in check, but that she had been afraid of the hatred she had seen in his face before he attacked her cousin, and hatred, not murder, was his ‘blunder’.  Steven concedes that he no longer hates Mr Greathead, and had he known that the advice to Dorsey was to stay with him, he never would have committed the crime.  Thoroughly ashamed, Steven asks Mr Greathead if he should give himself up to the police, but Mr Greathead replies that his death was unimportant, though that view is something a jury would not understand, and that he should not confess but rather he should marry Dorsey.  Steven does not see how he can do this now, living with knowledge that he must keep from Dorsey.  Mr Greathead drops the real bombshell, that Dorsey does know and has known all the time, at which he vanishes completely, we assume for the last time.  It’s a superb moment, throwing conventional notions of morality into the air by emphasising that our values on earth are narrow and do not represent those of the wider existence in the afterlife.  The dead still know what we say, and do, but whereas Mrs Hollyer was upset by what she heard said by her son, Mr Greathead shows that actually, the dead couldn’t care less.  The real victim of Steven’s actions, it transpires, was not Mr Greathead, but Steven himself.  It is a modern take on the traditional ghost story, with the external threat from the dead replaced by the internal threat from ourselves.

The final entry in the original volume of Uncanny Stories is ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, a story which exhibits Sinclair’s interest in Kantian and Hegelian philosophy to the detriment of any dramatic pace.  Like ‘The Victim’, it shows an afterlife whose inhabitants have transcended the petty business of earth.  It deals with Mr Spalding, whose wife Elizabeth runs off with an Imagist poet, Paul Jeffreson.  A keen student of philosophical systems, he is heartbroken on a personal level, but the experience has also destroyed his belief in the Absolute because he cannot see how it could contain their adultery, as that would outrage his moral standards.  At the same time he appreciates the irony that had he not been so consumed by his philosophical preoccupations, Elizabeth might never have left him.  The desertion was particularly puzzling to him because Jeffreson was not an upright character, indulging in heavy drinking and drugs, so he could not see how the situation could prove a happy one for his wife.  In time Jeffreseon and Elizabeth die, and finally Spalding too passes away.  Finding that his consciousness continues, he is surprised to meet Jeffreson and Elizabeth; the former he had expected to be in the Other Place but Jeffreson informs him that his salvation had come not from his actions, but from his genuine love of beauty, while Elizabeth had been saved by her sincere love for him.  Earthly notions of morality, rewards and punishments are indeed irrelevant in the greater scheme.  Bearing out the Kantian idea that the world is an illusion, it is only once Mr Spalding has died and been inducted into the new life that he can see how narrow his ideas were before.  They were that – merely ideas – whereas now he can experience directly the full nature of reality as he comes to an understanding of the Hegelian Absolute and approaches God.  Mr Spalding may have lost his wife, but he has found the Absolute, which seems a decent exchange, even if it turns out to be more than he had dreamed in his philosophy.  The story moves ponderously while Mr Spalding absorbs and tries to make sense of the conditions in his new state, and the suspicion arises as it proceeds that it is essentially a spoof (a suspicion reinforced by making Jeffreson a specifically Imagist poet, evoking a dilettantish individual, as the movement was easily satirised).  Descriptions of heaven could have been drawn from Spiritualist literature, in all their wish-fulfilment implausibility; yet Mr Spalding has a long serious conversation with Kant himself in which he is told that contrary to his supposition, the Absolute is not unchanging, and references to Einstein and physics suggest that this new state, so different to the life left behind, has some kind of logic after all.  Depicting Jeffreson as an Imagist is not after all satirical, as March-Russell notes that Sinclair was friends with several poets of that school, and defended the movement.  Finally Kant himself shows Mr Spalding a glimpse of the inner structure of reality, a state words cannot do justice to, a transcendent realm in which he is part of the Absolute, a gigantic ever-changing jigsaw puzzle set by God where earthly concepts of space and time have no meaning.  Mr Spalding is filled with ‘unthinkable bliss’, his earth life forgotten.  Here Sinclair seems utterly serious in her intent, but as an attempt to use the medium of popular fiction to discuss idealist ideas and the possible nature of the afterlife, it may leave the reader confused as much as enlightened.

The final story, added to this edition, is ‘The Intercessor’.  It is a more traditional tale of a haunting set in Yorkshire.  Mr Garvin is working on a county history, and seeks a quiet spot in which to write up his research, in particular he wants lodgings where he will not be bothered by children.  He finds a house that looks suitable, inhabited by a couple, the Falshaws, and their niece.  The family is unfriendly and grudging, but the spot is perfect for his needs.  Mr Garvin soon realises though that there is something amiss in the house, an eerie atmosphere, and the Falshaws are frightened of something that they will not talk about.  One night he hears a child crying.  Assuming it belongs to the niece and is being kept out of his way, he is outraged at the apparent neglect it is suffering.  However, he slowly comes to realise that the crying is not coming from a living child but from a ghost, and is the cause of the intense fear experienced by the Falshaws.  Eventually he sees the child, Effy, but more than that, she takes to coming into his room and cuddling him at night.  Unlike the Falshaws he is not afraid, but compassionate towards her, and as a consequence he experiences a kind of benign possession by Effy so that he is able to penetrate to the heart of the secret.  Once they realise his link to the child, the Falshaws’ attitude towards him changes to one of respect.  He pieces the story together and finds himself in a position to intercede between the two sides.  Effy, was the Falshaws first, but she was rejected by her mother when Falshaw took up with another woman who had been brought in as housekeeper while his wife was slowly recovering from childbirth.  Mrs Falshaw blamed Effy for having been born and setting off the chain of events.  Three years before Mr Garvin’s arrival the neglected Effy had fallen into a water tank in the garden and drowned.  Despite her poor treatment she still seeks her mother’s love, which Mrs Falshaw cannot give.  To complicate matters, Mrs Falshaw is pregnant, and is depressed because she feels that her baby will die.  The sceptical local doctor attributes the problem to a psychological cause rather than a supernatural one.  Into this emotional stalemate Mr Garvin brings resolution.  The baby does die, but Effy is able momentarily to take its place in Mrs Falshaw’s arms. She finds the love from her mother which was all she ever wanted, and she can finally be at peace.  While it features a ghostly child, the story adopts a modern approach because even here the haunting comes from within, depending on the attitude one takes to the visitant.  Mr Garvin sees it because he does not fear it but the family, because of their terror, do not, even though Effy pities them for their fear.  They effectively haunt themselves until they take their cue from Mr Garvin, when, rather than ignore Effy, they too can experience her presence by discarding their fear and reaching out.  No longer earthbound, Effy can move on while the Falshaws too can come to terms with their loss, acknowledging their daughter’s brief life with love.  It is a poignant tale made more so because, as March-Russell notes in his introduction, it echoes Sinclair’s own difficult relationship with her mother, one in which May came a distant second to her dead elder sister, and she sought in vain for maternal affection.  What Sinclair could not achieve in life she managed to achieve vicariously through her fiction.

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