Book review

Scare tactics: Supernatural fiction by American women, by Andrew Jeffrey Weinstock

Germán Gil-Curiel

University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China

[0.1] Keywords—Historical analysis; Literary criticism; Women writers

Gil-Curiel, Germán. 2010. Scare tactics: Supernatural fiction by American women, by Andrew Jeffrey Weinstock [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.


Andrew Jeffrey Weinstock. Scare tactics: Supernatural fiction by American women. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008, hardcover, $50 (228p) ISBN 978-0823229857.

[1] Weinstock states as the main objective of this book to "establish the existence and argue for the importance of an American literary tradition that has received very little scrutiny"—namely, the supernatural tale by women in the United States written between 1850 and 1930. Pointing to the existence of this subgenre and bringing the work of these neglected writers to the forefront constitute the main contribution of this book to the field.

[2] The existence of this distinctive subgenre of literature is established by Weinstock on the following basis: about 70 percent of ghost stories in this period in the United States were written by women, and these stories often had specific features, such as the presence of less horrific or sinister ghosts, and the rendering of a relationship between the natural and the supernatural worlds that is depicted as a continuum rather than as a binary opposition, with the latter being more often the case in stories written by men. The book thus sets out to offer explanations why this might have been so, and to redress the neglect these writers have experienced by discussing their work in six chapters organized by theme. Each chapter pairs a well-known woman writer—even if not necessarily well known for her supernatural tales—with a lesser-known author who has written on the same topic, then analyzes both tales comparatively.

[3] Chapter 1, "The Ghost in the Parlor," with tales by Harriet Prescott Spofford, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna M. Hoyt, and Edith Wharton, foregrounds tales on the control and abuse of women; chapter 2, "Queer Haunting Spaces," with tales by Madeline Yale Wynne and Elia Wilkinson Peattie, on haunted spaces; chapter 3, suggestively entitled "Ghosts of Progress," with tales by Alice Cary, Mary Noailles Murfree, Mary Austin, and Edith Wharton, on the expansion of capitalism; chapter 4, "Familial Ghosts," with tales by Louise Stockton, Olivia Howard Dunbar, Edith Wharton, Josephine Daskam Bacon, Elia Wilkinson Peattie, Georgia Wood Pangborn, and Mary E. Wilkins, on family, marriage, and motherhood, chapter 5, "Ghosts of Desire," with tales by Rose Terry Cooke, Alice Brown, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, and Helen Hull, on transgressive sexuality; and chapter 6, "Ghostly Returns," with stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gertrude Atherton, and Josephine Daskam Bacon, on the rewriting of the male Gothic tradition. Weinstock's main argument is that gender is absolutely central to the rise of this subgenre.

[4] Among this book's strengths is a thorough introduction that succinctly summarizes the existing literature on the topic, including literature that seeks to elucidate whether supernatural tales are inherently subversive (Breton 1937; Jameson 1981) or conservative (Summers 1974) (note 1). More to the point, it also crucially addresses a number of explanations that would account for the rise of ghostly tales written by women during this period in the United States, ranging from those that focus on form—that is, that ghost stories express anxieties that are hard to articulate or have been repressed (Cavaliero 1995, 23), and that they allow "exploration of forbidden psychosexual themes" (Kerr et al. 1983, 5) and of thorny social issues (Lundie 1996, 3)—to historical reasons, such a religious crisis in the face of the Enlightenment and nostalgia for the past in the face of modernity.

[5] Without denying or contesting the accuracy of these reasons, Weinstock prefers to focus on explanations centered on gender. The book thus makes one of its key arguments: that the features specific to ghostly tales by American women writers of the period can be accounted for by the disadvantaged social conditions in which they lived and which they, through their literature, wished to overcome. Rather than joining those who have put it in terms that the women felt like ghosts themselves, with no real material existence (Patrick 1995), Weinstock sides with those who remark on the power of ghosts to intervene in the course of events, to act as agents for justice or protection, and to scare others. He thus concurs with Rosemary Jackson's (1981) famous contention that these supernatural tales define a literature of desire; they can be conceived of as wish-fulfillment fantasies—tales about what is missing and lacking, about absence and loss. This would be the reason, Weinstock contends, that ghosts in tales written by women tend to be less horrific, because "far scarier than the ghosts…are the forms of violence to which women are subject: confinement, loneliness and varying degrees of physical, sexual and psychological abuse" (21). These arguments are particularly convincing in chapter 1's analyses of Edith Wharton's "Kerfol" (1916) and Harriet Beecher Stowe's "The Ghost in the Cap'n Brown House" (1872). This also explains why in supernatural tales by women space is often a source of horror, unstable and queer, because even "home" could turn out to be a dangerous place for a woman. This view is analyzed in chapter 3, which examines Elia Wilkinson Peattie's "The House That Was Not" (1898) and Madeline Yale Wynne's "The Little Room" (1895). Weinstock contextualizes the ghostly tales he presents while making the case that they should be regarded as a genre that "developed out of, responded to and in many instances critiqued" (2) the roles of women in the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

[6] Weinstock provides a balanced view of the authors he engages because he acknowledges that their interventions were not always necessarily progressive: they tended to be more aware of oppressive conditions faced by white middle-class women. Many of the tales were blind to issues of ethnicity and class, if not positively reactionary. Weinstock argues that taken together, "these ghostly tales demonstrate the ways in which nineteenth and early twentieth century American female authors deployed familiar conventions of the supernatural…to critique not just the disempowered status of women in American culture but also the expanding capitalist system that is shown to underlie gender oppression" (22). In this, the book succeeds admirably.

[7] Nevertheless, Weinstock's approach is ultimately reductive. With its narrow focus on gender and nation, it contracts rather than expands the context for and the suppleness of the criticism and engagement with the supernatural tales he has chosen to discuss. Although the book does mention that the tales are inscribed "within the larger tradition of American and British supernaturalism more generally" (23), it does not acknowledge the extent to which what has been termed "British" traditions are in fact constituted by what might be called versions of French and German supernatural. Important women writers, including Clara Reeve, Sophia Lee, and Charlotte Smith, were translators themselves, and research has drawn attention to the effect that this had in their own writing (Horner 2002). Indeed, to Terry Hale, the English Gothic was shaped "in the crucible of translation" (Hale 2002, 23). Thus, although Weinstock's book will, I hope, bring welcome broader attention to the work of a number of writers hitherto little known, by its focus on the "Americanness" of the writers, it negates the cross-fertilization that has been central to the genre and misses a wealth of intertextual readings.

[8] More importantly, defining this literature through its criticism of patriarchy and its fantasy-fulfilling aspects is a profoundly dismissive stance. Rather than arguing that because these authors were disempowered women, their literature must be thus be understood as a protest and a source of consolation, it has always seemed to me that that their literary achievements lay in transcending boundaries—not least the boundaries of gender and of nation. The supernatural tales by the host of writers introduced by Weinstock matter, and they should be studied not because their writers were American women, but because they were human beings able to go, through words, literally beyond, and to take their readers along.


1. Those arguing that supernatural literature is subversive focus on the way supernatural tales dare think of another, alternative world, touch on transgressive social issues, and refuse to settle difference. Those arguing that it inherently conservative point to the way the different is rendered monstrous, with the other world invoked so that our world can ultimately be restored.

Works cited

Breton, André. 1937. Limites non frontières du Surréalisme. Nouvelle Revue Française 48.

Cavaliero, Glen. 1995. The supernatural and English fiction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hale, Terry. 2002. Translation in distress: Cultural misappropriation and the construction of the Gothic. In European Gothic: A spirited exchange, 1760–1960, ed. Avril Horner, 17–38. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press.

Horner, Avril. 2002. Introd. to European Gothic: A spirited exchange, 1760–1960, ed. Avril Horner, 1–16. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press.

Jackson, Rosemary. 1981. Fantasy: The literature of subversion. London: Routledge. [doi:10.4324/9780203328446]

Jameson, Frederic. 1981. The political unconscious. New York: Cornell Univ. Press.

Kerr, Howard, John W. Crowley, and Charles L. Crow. 1983. Introduction to The haunted dusk: American supernatural fiction, 1820–1920, ed. Howard Kerr, John W. Crowley, and Charles L. Crow, 1–10. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press.

Lundie, Catherine A. 1996. Introduction to Restless spirits: Ghost stories by American women, 1872–1926, ed. Catherine A. Lundie, 1–26. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press.

Patrick, Barbara Constance. 1995. Lady terrorists: Nineteenth century American women writers and the ghost story. In American women short story writers: A collection of critical essays, ed. Julie Brown, 73–84. New York: Garland.

Summers, Montague. 1974. The supernatural omnibus. London: Causeways Books.

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