Review: the supernatural stories of Gertrude Atherton

Atherton's picture from her 1905 collection of short stories, "The Bell in the Fog"

Atherton’s picture from her 1905 collection of short stories, “The Bell in the Fog”

After reading an anthology of Victorian-Era ghost stories by women writers, I decided I would read through a volume of supernatural stories by one of the authors with whom I was less familiar. As it turns out, I’ll be reading three volumes, because I found three I couldn’t resist!

First up is The Caves of Death and Other Stories, a slim volume edited by S. T. Joshi (yes, the Lovecraft scholar) of the supernatural stories of Gertrude Franklin (Horn) Atherton. Atherton (1857-1948) was a native Californian and a distant relation of good old Ben Franklin. From Joshi’s essay and Wikipedia, it sounds as if she made her career writing controversial novels on either sensational or feminist topics, sometimes both. Joshi argues in his afterword to the volume that Atherton deserves to endure as a regional novelist and writer of supernatural tales.

"Death and the Woman" is also a common artistic motif. Sebald Beham (1500-1550) tackled it at least twice, once chastely . . .

“Death and the Woman” is also a common artistic motif. Sebald Beham (1500-1550) tackled it at least twice, once chastely . . .

Caves includes nine short stories. Two Joshi says were previously uncollected; five come from her 1905 collection The Bell in the Fog (which includes five non-supernatural stories as well). Atherton was on friendly terms with both Ambrose Bierce and Henry James (to whom Bell was dedicated), and it shows. A great deal of her supernatural horror is psychological, more akin to Bierce than James in its simplicity. “Death and the Woman,” which features a young wife sitting up alone with her husband on her deathbed, is a prime example; “A Tragedy,” featuring a woman who wakes up after being rejected by a suitor to find that things have changed a great deal, is another.

Despite voicing opinions that would align her with materialists, Atherton was fond of using spiritualism as a starting place for supernatural stories. These can range from simple considerations about the survival of the soul, as in the very effective “The Striding Place,” in which the protagonist tries to save someone from drowning, to the elaborately allegorical, as in the “The Caves of Death,” a description of the afterlife.

. . . once less chastely. Which one do you think more effective?

. . . once less chastely. Which one do you think more effective?

Despite the conventionality of the spiritual views she offers in these stories, Atherton was both a feminist and social critic. Unfortunately, neither shows up well in Caves. Oh, there are touches of satire in “The Caves of Death” and “When the Devil Was Well,” and “The Dead and the Countess” is primarily a satire on the old Christian view of burial, but none of these are very striking. To see Atherton really take on the shibboleths of her time, you have to turn to the non-supernatural stories in Bell: “A Monarch of Small Survey” makes fun of the self-important rich, while “Crowned With One Crest” disposes of the notion of there being just one and only one person you can ever truly fall in love with. Which makes it perversely funny that another piece in Bell, “A Prologue (To an Unwritten Play)” features every stupid romantic trope of its time.

Overall, I liked Atherton’s work, but it only mildly impresses me. In these stories, she exhibits a narrow range of ideas, and for that, shorter is better, So it’s the shorter short stories that work best, such as “The Striding Place, ” which goes lightly on the metaphysics, and “A Tragedy” and “Death and the Woman,” which don’t run her psychological suspense beyond her abilities. Heavy-handed metaphysics weigh down stories such as “The Caves of Death,” while the psychological horror of “The Greatest Good of the Greatest Number” is carried on longer than Atherton can sustain interest.

The one exception to this is the final story in Caves, “The Bell in the Fog.” Atherton’s protagonist is a complex psychological study, a man who may or may not be dealing with a ghost, or maybe reincarnation. There’s enough here to sustain reader interest in what is in fact the single longest story in the volume. And you’ll come out of the story still wondering exactly what happened. It’s good enough that it makes me wonder if there are any other similar stories by Atherton lurking out there, uncollected. If so, here’s a belated request (Caves was published in 2008) for a follow-up volume.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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3 Responses to Review: the supernatural stories of Gertrude Atherton

  1. Elan Mudrow says:

    Nice review, well written.
    check out:

  2. crimsonprose says:

    Whence the time to explore all these books, AND write, AND read how many blogs AND teach, AND go for bike rides? If time is elastic, it would seem yours is stretching quite nicely, while mine is in a perpetual state of shrinkage (I put it down to all this dance and walking and other exercise!)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I think it’s actually the recovery after two months of having parental care take up much of my time. Though the bike ride gets in there in part because I, too, need the exercise.

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