REVIEW: “The Ghost of Little Jacques” by Ann M. Hoyt

Review of Ann M. Hoyt, “The Ghost of Little Jacques”, in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 55-84 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

There was very little in this story to arouse sympathy in the reader. Christine is a serving woman for a loveless family where “the death of a child was no very solemn or very uncommon thing” (p. 58), where death was “the very best thing that could have happened” (p. 59) to a child. Though she likes to think of herself a philosopher, her actions throughout the book are pragmatic, aimed at preserving herself at the expense of the truth. There are two theories as to how little Jacques came to die (for if his death were not in some way unnatural there would have been no reason for him to return in ghostly form) and both of them are distasteful.

Baker in her introduction to the story quotes a contemporaneous review of it, which was not especially favorable, and attempts to provide a different account of it. I, alas, come down on the side of the anonymous New York Times reviewer: This is a story the reader may very well question why they read it.

(First published in Atlantic Monthly, 1863).

REVIEW: “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Review of Elizabeth Gaskell, “The Old Nurse’s Story”, in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 25-52 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The old nurse of the title narrates to her young charges a story of their mother, whose upbringing she also had in her care. Through Gaskell’s deft facility with language we are given a clear picture of the nurse’s class and character; her voice is extremely vivid. The story she tells is one of prejudice, bitterness, and hatred — and, of course, a ghostly child –, and pretty much all of the major characters come across as thoroughly unsympathetic — no mean feat!

(First published in Household Words in 1852.)

REVIEW: “The Dead Daughter: A Tale” by Henry Glassford Bell

Review of Henry Glassford Bell, “The Dead Daughter: A Tale”, in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 13-23 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Baker chose this story as the one to kick off the collection because it is “one of the first literary sources in English to utilise the ghostly revenant child as the source of terror and grief” (p. 13).

This isn’t the only distinct characteristic of the story. It is also told in beautiful prose that is extremely effective at evoking all required emotions, not just terror and horror. In the opening when we are introduce to Adolphus Walstein and his young daughter Paulina, it only takes Bell a few paragraphs to draw the reader into deep sadness with the awareness that Paulina will eventually die — the outrageous sadness that a child should ever not outlive their parent. The rest of the story capitalizes on this sadness, and turns it to horror with brilliant deftness. An absolutely smashing story, would easily fit into any 21st C horror canon.

(Originally published in The Edinburgh Literary Journal, 1831.)

REVIEW: Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth edited by Jen Baker

Review of Jen Baker, ed., Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth (British Library, 2021) — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Do you like ghost stories? Do you like haunting stories about dead children? Do you like to delve into the history of speculative fiction! This is the anthology for you! Jen Baker has collected thirteen (of course) Anglo-American and Irish stories (most written by women!) first published between 1831 and 1925 (and accompanied by a bibliography of sources cited and further reading, in case you want a bit more on the academic side of things.)

The genre of “dead children literature” is pretty popular in that era — unsurprising given the high child mortality rates — but Baker (an academic at the University of Warwick) draws a distinction between the Gothic horror of the stories in her collection with the more common “twee” (her word, p. 7) approach of many poems and elegies of the era. In these stories, the ghostly children are not returning to console or comfort their parents, but for more sinister and strange purposes. But to say more would be spoiling things!

Each story is accompanied by brief biographical information about the authors, and the original publication history of the story. As usual, we’ll link the reviews of the individual stories back to this post as they are published!

REVIEW: “Diamond Cuts” by Shaoni C. White

Review of Shaoni C. White, “Diamond Cuts”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

The first person protagonist of “Diamond Cuts” is magically forced to perform in a two-person play where they must act out real, physical harm. When their former partner dies, their new partner, a hasty replacement with more knowledge of the outside world, makes a plan to break the spell and leave the theater. But his plan might be more likely to kill them than save them, and even if they succeed, it will have far-reaching consequences…

The story begins with a sparkling, visceral paragraph about the narrator eating a star: plucking it from the sky, biting down, and spitting out “shards of glass coated in spittle and blood.” It is terribly beautiful and remains my favorite part of the piece. From that point on, I was a little disappointed in the main plotline of the story and particularly in its conclusion. I was getting ready for an expansive space opera narrated by some sentient heavenly body that could (masochistically) consume stars, but I was given a play about magic, a story trapped within the four walls of a theater house. This subversion of expectations feels deliberate: it brings the reader into the magic of the theater for a moment, since they assume the events of the play are a real part of the story. Still, that opening set up an expectation that I felt wasn’t quite fulfilled. While the physical pain and danger of our narrator’s acting comes up throughout the piece, I wanted more exploration of what it meant to them and why it had to exist in this world. 

Without giving away the exact events of the ending, it leaves many possibilities open and revolves around a theme that doesn’t have a lot of relevance to the rest of the story. It’s just classic; you’ve likely read some version of it before. I wanted more.

REVIEW: “Embracing the Movement” by Cristina Jurado

Review of Cristina Jurado, “Embracing the Movement”, Clarkesworld Issue 177, June (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Myra Naik.

A fantastical tale of a strange sort of first contact. Things don’t go the way you may anticipate. There’s delicious buildup about existence in outer space and the different kinds of lives people live. It also features a very creepy payoff.

Different sorts of living spaces, structures and communication types exist in our universe. We have barely begun to understand this universe, and stories like this throw that fact into sharp relief.

A subtle queasiness exists throughout the story. If you enjoy feeling creeped out, this one will be right up your alley.

REVIEW: “The Scarlet Cloak” by Karen Bovenmyer

Review of Karen Bovenmyer, “The Scarlet Cloak,” Luna Station Quarterly 24 (2015): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content note: Bullying, abuse, & harassment; murder ideation; cannibalism; references to rape.

One thing that’s interesting about reading the back archives of a journal is seeing which stories age well (or don’t age at all!) and which don’t. I feel like this one ends up in the latter category: A story where the central heroine is part of the police force is a bit harder to swallow in 2021 than it may have been in 2015.

Then again, I’m not entirely sure I would’ve appreciated this story when it first came out: It is too gruesome, too violent for my tastes.

(First appeared in The Crimson Pact Volume 3, 2012.)

REVIEW: “The Graveyard” by ​​Eleanor Arnason

Review of ​​Eleanor Arnason, “The Graveyard”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

When Magnus Thorvaldsson, a Lutheran Icelandic-American, profanes a pagan graveyard with a Christain cross, the angry ghosts come clamoring to haunt a nearby farmer, Atli. Will he be able to appease the ghosts? More importantly, will he be able to appease Magnus as well?

This contemplative and humorous ghost story was a nice light read after some of the more tear-jerking and action-packed stories in this issue. While it is a little formulaic, it holds hidden gems: sprinkles of Icelandic culture, history, and literature that support the story and weave in unique elements. Between Atli’s droll, practical comments and the slightly bratty ghosts, it put a smile on my face many times. 

The story is told from the perspective of an Icelandic-American narrator rediscovering stories about her ancestral homeland, yet it features a stereotypical wealthy, meddlesome Icelandic-American character. Indirectly, it asks interesting questions. How are people raised in privileged America perceived when they try to learn about their ancestral cultures? Is there a way to do this appropriately and respectfully? While the story only hints at answers to these questions, the judgemental voices of Atli’s distant ancestors provide a fascinating backdrop for this exploration.