Friday, October 14, 2022

Friday Night Frights 1: New England Interiors--The Ghostly Fiction (with more than a spot of crime) of Mary Wilkins Freeman

I hosted a Friday Night Fright blogging series in October of 2020.  We didn't do it last year, for some reason, although I did my own spooky postings.  This year I mentioned in my mystery groups doing it again and I got one taker, my friend Bev Hankins at My Reader's Block.  So I don't know what that says about my expanding popularity in the blogging community, but thank you, Bev! Perhaps we frightened the others away!  Anyway, please accept these offerings of two little witches.  Here's Bev's post:

Witches, Ghosts & Mummies, Oh My!

Mary Wilkins Freeman

For my first Friday Fright post this month, I thought I would look at the celebrated New England regionalist writer Mary Wilkin Freeman (1852-1930), among whose prodigious output are some ghost stories, six of which were collected in a small volume, The Wind in the Rose-Bush (1903), which is considered a landmark in supernatural literature.  

As I wrote last year, I was attracted to classic horror literature by the British Victorian/Edwardian ghost story writer M. R. James, to whom I was introduced around 1990 in a James collection with an introduction by the late crime writer Ruth Rendell, a huge admirer of James.  In the 1980s I had read some Stephen King and HP Lovecraft, the latter of whom I regrettably decided, frankly, was kind of cheeseball.  

Of course horror expert S. T. Joshi loves Lovecraft, so what do I know?  He goes in for that whole "cosmic" horror thing associated with writers like Lovecraft and usually doesn't think so much of mild ghost stories, or so I thought.  

Well, guess who wrote the introduction to Lost Ghosts, this 2018 volume by Hippocampus Press of, apparently, the complete supernatural fiction of Mary Wilkins Freeman?  You guessed it: S. T. Joshi!  And Joshi is pretty favorable to her work, although he is also gratuitously dismissive of a prior Freeman collection by Arkham House.

I have mentioned in the past that when I read Agatha Christie's At Bertram's Hotel as a preteen, I hated it, despite loving Christie, and I didn't like Freeman's work back when I read it in the 1990s.  I found both dull, but I realize now that I was too young to appreciate the richness in the portraiture of the interior milieu.  It's a drab world Freeman depicts, the dying rural New England of the 1880s and 1890s, a world of spinster women, single schoolteachers and widows, always sewing, sewing, sewing; but it's so richly and powerfully evoked.  Freeman is remarkable adept, as Joshi notes, at using supernatural trappings to advance her messages about the lives of women and children in New England at that time.  

Men often don't appear in these tales at all, or are decided back numbers.  That's the case with some of the first and earliest stories in the collection, which are not what I would call "classic" ghost stories but are interesting nonetheless.  "A Symphony in Lavender" (1883) is about a premonition a woman once had about a man who was courting her and so too, really, is the very poignant "A Far-Away Melody" (1883), about two spinster sisters who live together in mutual contentment, until one of them starts to hear the far-away melody of the title.  "A Gentle Ghost" (1889), about women and little girls (men are present but never notice anything), ultimately is a faux ghost story.

Mary Wilkins Freeman house

These and other early stories are good, but not quite the real thing.  The heart of the book really is the six stories collected in The Wind in the Rose-Bush, which means while this current volume is worth reading, you won't suffer over much, I think, if you just track down an old copy of Rose-BushAcademy Chicago, for example, reprinted the book back in the 1980s.  It's a better quality volume than the Hippocampus one, though the latter has a niftier cover illustration.

The six stories in Rose-Bush are the title story (1902), "The Vacant Lot" (1902), "Luella Miller" (1902), "The Shadows on the Wall" (1903), "The Southwest Chamber" (1903) and "The Lost Ghost" (1903).  All the stories, with the exception of "Luella Miller," are mostly subtle tales of hauntings, where the frights some from accumulations of domestic details that are not quite right. "Luella Miller," a fascinating story, has been classified as a vampire tale, and it is about a woman who draws others to serve her and waste away.  There's something quite unnerving about it.

Of the others, the weakest is probably "The Vacant Lot," but it's also the most "fun."  It's about a family from the country who got a great deal on a house in Boston and of course the house turns out to be haunted.  I was reminded of the early Eighties Spielberg film Poltergeist.  The determination of the thrifty New England father (one of the rare major male characters) to stay on in the house he ostensibly got such a good deal on is amusing, but this story seems more superficial than the others.

Actually several stories might be deemed simultaneously supernatural stories and crime stories and I couldn't help thinking how Mary Wilkins Freeman could have given Anna Katherine Green a run for her money as a mystery writer, especially seeing how good writing was not Green's forte.  But then maybe Freeman couldn't have stuck it on plotting a mystery!

In any event, the title story, "The Shadows on the Wall" and "The Lost Ghost" make pretty nifty crime stories too.  In the title story, retired schoolteacher Rebecca Flint returns from Michigan to New England to take her pretty young niece Agnes back home with her, but Agnes' stepmother, Emeline Dent, is curiously reticent about Agnes' whereabouts....

In "The Shadows on the Wall," which I recalled from a 1970 episode of Night Gallery, a sort of Greek chorus of three sisters comments on the conflict between their late brother Edward and their other brother Henry and that shadow that won't seem to leave the wall....I find this a really creepy tale which takes full advantage of the insularity and confinement of those old New England houses.

I will have to watch the Night Gallery episode again, which you can find on Youtube.  It's called Certain Shadows on the Wall and starred Agnes Moorehead, Louis Hayward, Grayson Hall and Rachel Roberts.  Quite  a cast, but the plot is considerably changed.  "The Lost Ghost" has a plot concerning criminal wickedness that could have have been ripped right out of headlines from the day and is unnerving and moving too, a very strong portrait of people in dying New England.  

Finally, I quite liked "The Southwest Chamber," about two New England spinsters and their niece who move in to the old family home, recently inherited from the sisters' late aunt.  This story has a quite persistent and malevolent spectre at work!

Definitely recommended.  You'll be reminded of some of the ghostly fiction of Edith Wharton, if you have read that.  And if you haven't read that, you should!


  1. Excellent recommencement! I have been fighting off the most recent flu, hence even more quiet than usual as blogger and Fber, but I have been writing up some vintage horror and relaed material from the late '50s:

    And can recommend to your readers, among others, the offerings of Jerry House;

  2. NIGHT GALLERY had an unfortunate tendency to take excellent literary work and film it in the most clumsy manner they could...his is not helped by the syndicated package's re-edits to make the oddly-timed anthology segments fit a "half-hour" (22-or-so-minute) slot. Oddly enough, they did do some of the best Lovecraft adaptations so far.

    1. I loved Night Gallery as a kid, when I watched it in syndication, but watching some of the episodes now, I have to admit they are kind of...lame. What are your favorites? Somehow Twilight Zone has held up so much better, not just in the writing but the sets too. NG all too frequently looks really cheap.

    2. Well, it was ground out by Universal TV folks of widely varying degrees of talent and commitment; also, producer Jack Laird, who wrote some of the most inane comedy sketches used in the series, was also a producer who particularly made as many writers very much including Serling as uncomfortable as possible, and presumably made sure some budgets were lighter than they shoul'd've been. Aside from "Pickman's Model" and "Cool Air", among the better episodes I recall are "The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes" (from Margaret St. Clair's story), "The Little Black Bag" (somewhat softened from C. M. Kornbluth's short story), Serling's original script "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar", "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" (definitely Not improved by re-editing) being a so-so-to-no-bad rendering of the major story by Fritz Leiber (the first post-pilot film segment, "The Dead Man", even before re-edits, was a remarkably goofy botch of another major Leiber story), and I remember "Camera Oscura" (based on a story by Basil Copper) as being rather good (and butchered in syndication). I would like to look again at the original versions of at least "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" (from Conrad Aiken's story) and "Marmalade Wine" (from his daughter Joan's story, though perhaps too much like Evelyn Waugh's "The Man Who Loved Dickens"), among a few others, and recall "The Ring with the Red Velvet Ropes" as being not the worst possible adaptation of Edward Hoch's story.

      The worst thing, for me, about the weaker original TWILIGHT ZONE episodes was how thin their concepts could be (even if they might strike a TV/kid audience as The Coolest Thing Ever), but even the videotape episodes were shot with professionalism, while the prints on some NGs looked muddy on first broadcast. And the better TZs, including some of Beaumont's, whether his work or in uncredited collaboration (as his tragic early dementia kicked in), some of Matheson's, the Manly Wade Wellman adaptation, the French Bierce short film rented for the final season...well they were simply fine, About the only consistently good aspect of TNG was from the Universal music-score department, filled with jazz greats and some classical and other composers of note. In the pilot film, the middle segment, directed by a young Spielberg, is woefully overpraised by nearly everyone.