Thursday, December 18, 2014


Dorothy Kathleen Broster (1878-1950) was best known as a historical novelist, if she was known at all. Her work is largely forgotten today and didn't seem to make much of an impact at the time. However, she published a collection of macabre short stories in 1942, Couching at the Door, which for a very long time was a very expensive and hard-to-find collector's item. Now, thanks to the good people at Wordsworth, it is now back in print.

These stories aren't very antiquarian or Jamesian, but they are interesting and sometimes surprisingly original. They depend a lot on psychology and at times are strongly reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, especially as some of the stories aren't really supernatural, but deal more in a Rendell-like psychological vein when you see a hideous act about to take place.

It's a slim volume, just under 200 pages, and there's only nine stories. The title story is regarded as a minor classic, in which a man who was a long seeker of sensual delights (with hints at participation in black magic), who is haunted by a ghostly feather boa. It seems an almost absurd premise, but there's real menace as the thing keeps showing up, and you can assume it's a spiritual relic of some woman whose death the man was responsible for. He tries to shift the burden to others, and tries to escape, but it always tracks him down. It's a chilling, effective story, all the better for a fresh discovery and not anthologized to death. Familiarity does breed contempt.

"From the Abyss" deals with spiritual doubles and predestined doom, and "Clairvoyance" is a very interesting story of a psychic experiment with a Japanese katana...and how the savage personality of the katana's previous owner takes over the mind of the experimenter.

"The Window" is a fairly standard romantic tale of haunting resolved by modern sensitivity. "The Pestering" starts off slow, with a couple purchasing an old home, making a tea-room of it, and being annoyed by a persistent ghost who shows up, trying to get in...but it takes a very dark and macabre black-magic twist at the end that almost makes up for the slowness of all that came before. It's a tale that's far longer than it needs to be and the payoff at the end is almost too late. "The Taste of Pomegranates" is a rather romantic tale of time-slippage.

There's some nonsupernatural tales included..."The Pavement" is a twisted psychological tale of a woman's obsession with a Roman mosaic located on her property, and her sense of stewardship toward it. "Juggernaut" tells a tale of a pusher of wheelchairs at a seaside resort who is haunted by the guilt of a dreadful act he committed. "The Promised Land" is probably her best, a tale of a woman dominated by an overbearing cousin, who finally takes a dream vacation to Italy, only to be still bossed around. It has a classic theme of a woman's desire for self-determination, but there's the conflict with the reality that she's not equipped to deal with things on her own.

This collection has its ups and downs. Some stories, like "The Pestering" and "Juggernaut," are longer than they need to be and sometimes meander unnecessarily. Some are unremarkable and standard, like "The Window" and "The Taste of Pomegranates." But the title story alone is worth the purchase price, and "The Promised Land" is also quite good.

So, it's up to you. Thankfully, it's back in print after being obscure and lost for too long.

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