Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts ~ Mrs H. D. Everett

Mrs Henrietta Dorothy Everett (1851~1923), who wrote under the nom de plume 'Theo Douglas', began her writing career at the age of forty-four. During the next twenty-five years, from 1896 to 1920, twenty-two books appeared bearing the name Theo Douglas, published by seventeen different publishers. Her true identity wasn't revealed until 1910.

The Death-Mask and Other Ghosts was first published in 1920 by Philip Allan & Co., and it is one of Mrs Everett's only books to omit the name ‘Theo Douglas’. It is an extremely rare book, and I've never seen a copy, let alone been given the chance to buy one. Two stories from the book were republished by Philip Allan in 1932: 'The Death-Mask' in Shivers, and 'The Crimson Blind' in Shudders. Both were also included in Philip Allan's Creeps Omnibus in 1935. However, most of Mrs Everett's tales then remained out of print until the complete collection was republished by the Ghost Story Press in 1995 (see the cover image on the right).

In the first story of the collection, 'The Death-Mask', Tom Enderby is asked by his dying wife, Gloriana, to make her a promise: once she is dead, he must cover her face with a particular handkerchief. A few days after her death, just prior to the undertaker's closing her coffin, Enderby carries out his wife's wishes.
'I spread it out and laid it over the dead face; and then what happened was rather curious. It seemed to draw down over the features and cling to them, to nose and mouth and forehead and the shut eyes, till it became a perfect mask. My nerves were shaken, I suppose; I was seized with horror, and flung back the covering sheet, hastily quitting the room. And the coffin was closed that night.'
As poor Enderby soon discovers, Gloriana, a rather severe woman who dominated her household when alive, has found a sinister way to make sure that her husband lives as she expects him to, despite the fact that she is dead and buried.

In 'The Crimson Blind', sixteen-year-old Ronald McEwan goes to stay at the home of his uncle, Reverend Sylvanus Applegarth, in Swanmere. His two cousins, poking fun at his Highland roots and belief in ghosts, take him to visit a neglected house that is said to be haunted. A large flat window on the first floor, overlooking the garden, is completely screened by a wide blind of faded red, and that is where the ghost is said to appear. Intending to play a prank on Ronald, the two cousins persuade him to return there after dark. Aware that he is to be the butt of some joke, Ronald agrees, with the condition that his cousins accompany him. Returning after midnight, all three boys get more than they bargained for.

'Fingers of a Hand' is a lighthearted tale about two unmarried aunts, Sara and Grace, who take their young charges, Dick and Nancy, on a seaside holiday to Cove while their father is in India. The group have been in their seaside lodgings for two weeks when Grace discovers a message scrawled on a piece of sketching paper: 'GO - by itself at the top of the sheet; and the same words repeated twice below, followed by GET OUT AT ONCE.' More messages appear as the days pass, and Grace sets out to discover their true meaning.

In 'A Water Witch', Robert Larcomb's sisters are disappointed when he marries Frederica - a woman of little fortune, 'a delicate little shrinking thing well matched to her fanciful name'. Freda gives birth to a baby boy, who does not survive, and she suffers a severe illness, so convalescence in Roscawen is decided upon. Mary, the narrator of the story, grudgingly agrees to stay with Freda, while Robert goes off to shoot things in Shepstow. In his absence, the two women are subjected to strange drippings, and poor neglected Freda's nerves are unsettled by news of a recently drowned cow, an overly amorous doctor and a local legend about a white woman who was buried at a nearby crossroads (which may sound a mishmash of ingredients, but it all comes together in the story).

Although set predominantly at the beginning of the twentieth century, Mrs Everett's stories are closer in style to those of the great lady writers of the Victorian period, such as Amelia B. Edwards, Mrs J. H. Riddell and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. To my mind, 'The Death Mask' and 'The Crimson Blind' are the best tales of the collection. I'm going to type up 'The Death Mask' and post it here in the next few days.

As I said before, this book is extremely rare. I've never seen one for sale, so I have no idea what the cost of a first edition would be. The Ghost Story Press edition, which added two further stories to the collection - 'The Whispering Wall’ and 'The Pipers of Mallory’, which originally appeared in Novel Magazine, in February 1916 and May 1917 - goes for about a hundred pounds (that's about $160 at the moment) in fine condition, but it's not a terrible common book. There is, however, a Wordsworth paperback, entitled The Crimson Blind and Other Ghost Stories, that includes the same stories as the Ghost Story Press edition, and it is available for only a few pounds.

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