Shadows on the Wall: Dark Tales by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman Ed by Mike Ashley
British Library, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
“Shadows on the Wall” is one of the British Library’s “Tales of the Weird” series, but this time instead of one of their very varied themed anthologies, which are always good value in introducing the reader to a story from a new (to them) writer; this time we have an entire volume devoted to the supernatural tales of Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman, born in 1852, who died in 1930. Freeman started off as a writer of poems and stories for children who graduated into writing for adults in a very prolific career chronicling life in New England in a very detailed and naturalistic way in several novels and many collections of short stories. Occasionally she ventured into the realms of the supernatural, producing a landmark collection in 1903 called “The Wind in the Rose-bush”, and the title story is included here alongside many other stories which appeared in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, and was collected in “The Wind in the Rose-bush”. Some of the stories were later reprinted by Arkham House in the 1970s in a collection called “Collected Ghost Stories”.
The stories within the “Shadows on the Wall” are very influenced by Freeman’s own life, mirroring events like marriage; children, or the lack of them; mistreatment by adults; relocation and dislocation; poverty; unrequited love, and spurned love. Born on Halloween in 1852, Mary Ella Wilkins (she changed her middle name after her mother died) came from a long line of Puritan families with an ancestor giving testimony during the Salem witch trials that led to those found guilty being executed. Mary had a hard life, ruled by overprotective parents, as all her siblings had died in childhood or later in their teenage years, leaving Mary alone to look after her mother and father and do all the household chores. But then her mother died suddenly, and her father moved away, leaving her alone. Without an income, she turned to writing and became rather successful. She probably didn’t need to marry the alcoholic Dr. Freeman at fifty, but she did and perhaps regretted it.
There are 12 stories collected here, bookended by two very short pieces – “Entrée. In the Marsh-land”, a short, weirdly religious piece, and closed by “Finale: Death”, concerning a house occupied by a dead man. In between, the stories are a mixed bag; the final one, ”The White Shawl”, was unpublished during Freeman’s lifetime as she wrote two endings. Here, editor Ashley chooses what he thinks is the best ending, which makes me wonder how bad the other one is, as this ending comes slightly out of left-field concerning the shawl belonging to an old woman whose husband is dying on the night of a terrible snowstorm when the prospect of a terrible rail disaster looms large. What is very effective and is evident through several of the stories is the use of dialogue rather than description to drive the tale.
More effective is the second-last story, “The Jade Bracelet”, concerning the discovery of a discarded bracelet of oriental origins, which has a terrible effect on the wearer and, even worse, one when they take it off. The difference this bracelet makes on the bearer and those he encounters could have been more developed, but I thought it was an original tale despite the clunky ending. Not all of Freeman’s stories involve objects, but concern places, such as “The Vacant Lot”, where it is not the house that is haunted but rather the empty space behind it as events start to unfold, which become increasingly more alarming. Likewise, there are stories of houses and deaths which occurred in them – “The Shadows on the Wall” and “The Southwest Chamber” – and the strange events that start to occur after the deaths that the existing tenants or newcomers must endure. There are ghosts here, and their stories are sad and disconcerting instead of chilling, although there is something which might pass as a vampire in another effective story.
All in all, this collection is a bit of a mixed bag. There are a couple of undeniable classics, and some have a twist at the end which doesn’t quite come off, but I’m glad to have met Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and accompanied her into some rather strange places.