Invisible ink no 259: Female short story writers


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The Independent Culture

Nowadays editors are conscious of striking a diverse balance when they select writers for short story collections, but if you look back at past anthologies you’ll find many volumes without a single female voice. Bothered by this imbalance, the writer Maura McHugh and I once ran a gender-blind short story competition and discovered that 65 per cent of the winning tales we selected were by previously unpublished women.

Not all editors were male-centric. Herbert Van Thal’s popular Pan Book of Horror Stories series proved that when it came to provoking nightmares, women were every bit as devious as men. Lesser known were John Burke’s Tales of Unease volumes, which were published in 1966 and 1969. In the first, Virginia Ironside, the journalist and agony aunt, penned the sardonic, Saki-like “The Young Squire”. Andrea Newman wrote the controversial novels Three Into Two Won’t Go and A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, a frequent theme being the disintegration of the family unit, and her story “Such a Good Idea” is one of the simplest revenge tales ever written. In it, Sarah, the protagonist, turns a key in a lock and changes her life forever.

A lock of another kind sparks the plot of Penelope Mortimer’s “The Skylight”, in which a mother and son find themselves shut out of a French summer home as it starts to grow dark. Ms Mortimer co-wrote Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing and knew a thing or two about domestic suspense. The prolific Elizabeth Lemarchand, the mistress of misdirection, unfolds a terrific scenario in “Time To Be Going”, and never have drawers full of blankets appeared so ominous. In Christine Brooke-Rose’s “Red Rubber Gloves” the titular household items become instruments of death viewed by a neighbour, and in Cressida Lindsay’s “Watch Your Step” a drunken night out tips one young couple’s life out of balance when they discover their room the wrong way around.

These authors were able to locate unease in the most mundane domestic settings. Their shortform fictions were set in ordinary homes, and resonated with many wives who found themselves back behind the ironing board after a war in which they performed tasks equal to men. Consequently the tales often have a claustrophobic, trapped atmosphere in which heroines are treated dismissively by husbands. Several authors have been rescued from obscurity in the excellent collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman, which collects 14 psychologically disturbing tales from the 1940s to the 1970s.