Friday, September 21, 2012

The Shell of Sense

Olivia Howard Dunbar (1873–1953)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

In the June 1, 1905, issue of The Dial, the lead essay pondered “The Decay of the Ghost in Fiction.” Its author, Olivia Howard Dunbar, argued that “ever since literature began . . . what we call ‘the supernatural’ has been the staple material of the tellers of tales.” She discussed how ghosts were ubiquitous in English folklore and ballads and how, during the mid-1800s, ghost stories were commonplace in American magazines and especially in Christmas annuals. “But suddenly, and it must surely have seemed mysteriously, the magazine ghost vanished; nor were its eerie footprints traced.” She did note as an exception to this decline the stories of Henry James, particularly “The Turn of the Screw,” but “his work is probably too esoteric to stand as typical.” In sum, she hoped for “the renaissance of the literary ghost.”

Three years earlier, in 1902, Dunbar had quit her job as editor at The New York World; she would spend the rest of her life as a professional writer of stories and articles for leading American magazines. When she wasn’t writing fiction and essays, she was active in the woman suffrage movement, and in 1914 she married Ridgely Torrence, the future poetry editor of The New Republic. He would also become, in 1917, the first American playwright to feature an all-black cast in a non-minstrel production on Broadway: the seminal Three Plays for a Negro Theater. An ebullient James Weldon Johnson hailed Torrence’s staging of these plays at the Garden Theater at Madison Square Garden as “the beginning of a new era.” (Unfortunately, the production ended after only ten performances when America declared war on Germany.)

Olivia Dunbar’s hope for a revitalization of supernatural fiction was realized during the decades after her article appeared, as a number of writers—many of them women—published stories featuring phantoms of various kinds. She herself contributed to that renaissance, writing several psychological ghost stories that also display her interest in marriage roles and women’s lives. Appearing three years after her essay, “The Shell of Sense” is unique in that the narrative is from the point of view of the ghost, a dead woman who observes her surviving husband with both jealousy and concern. Jeffrey Weinstock, an expert on gothic fiction, notes in his study of supernatural tales that Dunbar’s story resembles “A Dead Vashti,” an 1877 tale by Louise Stockton; in both stories, the dead woman initially “feels stunned and betrayed by the course of events she observes.” But in Dunbar’s story the ghost’s realization that her marriage was not what it seemed results in greater acceptance and understanding of both her own life and her husband’s.

*   *   *
It was intolerably unchanged, the dim, dark-toned room. In an agony of recognition my glance ran from one to another of the comfortable, familiar things that my earthly life had been passed among. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.