Dear Dead Women: The weird stories of Edna W. Underwood
By Edna W. Underwood
Introduction by S.T. Joshi
Tartarus Press, May 2010
This volume collects together nine weird stories from the pen of Edna W. Underwood (1873-1961), a writer best known in her own day as a historical novelist and a translator from many languages, Chinese, Persian and Russian among them.
Some eight stories appeared originally in the collection A Book of Dear Dead Women (1911), while the remaining one, ‘An Orchid of Asia’, made its debut in Asia magazine in 1920.
The first story, ‘The Painter of Dead Women’, is about a serial killer of upper-class beauties, which makes a welcome change from lower-class prostitutes, I guess. Count Ponteleone kills them and then he preserves them (or he gets them in a coma first, I forget the M.O. exactly) and in that state he paints them. He has a nice line in necrophile spiel, this aristocratic precursor to Ed Gein:
Besides, when I love, I love only dead women. Life reaches its perfection only when death comes. Life is never real until then. (9)
There is a sensuous, decadent atmosphere to the story that I very much liked (and in fact it recalled the episode in Locus Solus where the dead come alive momentarily to enact the key event from their lives) but I found the ending to be rather perfunctory. As with many of the other stories, Underwood seems mainly concerned with exploring a stance or attitude towards life (usually involving beauty, art, love, death and other similarly significant abstract nouns) and seeing what moods and scenes she can conjure out of it, how far she can take it.
To my mind, ‘Sister Seraphine’ is the best story, from the 1911 batch at any rate. It is (on my reading) an ironic take on the myth of Narcissus: a nun is given a mirror to place in her room and she is slyly seduced from holy orders by her own beauty, by its capacity for pleasure. In this lush passage, typical of Underwood’s prose, we are given a description of the young nun’s mouth and lips:
In its colour alone were hidden all the sins of the earth. Such a colour might have been born from the conflagration of a world, or in the feverish brain of some sightless dreamer. In its curves there was all the restless languor of a medieval mondaine, or a voluptuous Roman woman who had idled in the villas of Baiae. Imagine, if you will, such a mouth beneath that ascetic brow! (59)
Sister Seraphine breaks out of the convent and into a world that is to be conquered and enjoyed, or at least where the fruits and bounty of life are all up for grabs; quite a contrast to the Greek myth where the beautiful youth – after a prolonged period of self-immersion – winds up with his head up his arse, the world nowhere in sight. What I like most about Underwood’s story is its sense of transgression, hedonism and freedom; as one character says: ‘Everyone has a right to happiness.’ Or as Frank O’Hara put it in that poem about his heart: ‘I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar.’ (Indeed, what is the point of art if it doesn’t lead to a heightened vitality?)
Another high point of the volume for me was the long short story, ‘An Orchid of Asia’, with the third quarter of it (about pages 209-220 here) being particularly powerful. A convalescent, one Jacques d’Entrecolles, attempts to cultivate a new species of orchid as a kind of therapeutic hobby, on the recommendation of his doctor. At length he succeeds but (untoward consequences, answered prayers and all that…) the newly made flower comes to dominate his being as it assumes the role of drug, vampire, predator, monster, invasive alien… One might almost say that the orchid becomes a kind of femme fatale, her addictive beauty and intoxicating perfume creating a craven dependence in d’Entrecolles, leading on to an enervating, erotic obsession. There is a terrific psychological subtlety to this story and Underwood makes you aware, as well, of the uncanny nature of flowers, their wonderful yet terrible beauty.
Some time ago I read a book called Sensory Exotica by Howard C. Hughes, which was all about creatures whose sensory systems are quite unlike our own. Though they are as real as we are, and live in the same world, their experience is beyond our ken, quite literally alien to us. The same kind of wonder engendered by Hughes’ book is present also in certain passages of ‘An Orchid of Asia’.
As for the rest of the stories, each has something remarkable about them, and Underwood’s prose is always sophisticated and stylish. I’d raise a qualm and a concern about ‘The King’, mainly on account of its anti-Semitic tenor (not untypical for the time, and even John Buchan flirted with anti-Jewish conspiracies in The 39 Steps). All in all, though, Dear Dead Women is a welcome set of stories from an accomplished writer who has been curiously neglected.
Further details of Dear Dead Women can be found here.