Remembering the Forgotten First Lady of Horror, Cynthia Asquith

Though out of print today, Lady Cynthia Asquith was one of the best at evoking the terrifying "long littleness of life."

by Colin Fleming
Nov 1 2016, 4:29pm

Lady Cynthia Asquith. Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Unless you're a long-standing reader of ghost stories, it's easy to fall victim to various untruths that line readerly expectations like bogeyman on some dimly moonlit path. For instance, one might think of masters of the medium like M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Ambrose Bierce, and Oliver Onions and conclude that most horror fiction was written by men. But picture the Reaper extending a long bony finger in your direction as a means of caution, for you, dear reader, would be gravely mistaken.

The classic era of the ghost story—ranging from Victorian times through World War I—was dominated by female authors with a knack for scaring everyone out of their minds. Ghost stories were written for publication, for amusement among friends on bridge night, in informal neighborhood contests, and just as something to do, an avocation that bore spectral fruit, with Marjorie Bowen, Charlotte Riddell, and Margaret Oliphant numbering among the master harvesters, you might say.

But if we're talking canonical masters of the ghost story form, we have to talk about the veritable first lady of horror, Cynthia Asquith, a writer little read today who deserves her bow as one of the finest propitiators of the dark muses.

Born in autumn 1887 to the 11th Earl of Wemyss, Lady Cynthia had one of those varied careers that today would be problematic for lacking a clear-cut brand, as she was just incredibly versatile (she's also maddeningly out of print; a little help here, present-day publishers?). She composed children's books, memoirs, a diary to rival anything by Pepys, a range of short fiction, works on royalty, while also cultivating a raft of literary friendships. (J.M. Barrie was a close friend and left her huge chunks of his estate, minus Peter Pan, as was D.H. Lawrence, plus horror fiction masters like Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Hugh Walpole.)

What she was really best at, though, was scaring the motherfuck out of you through her writing. She had a number of ghost story collections, but the acme of that output came later in her career, with 1947's This Mortal Coil. It contained "The Follower," a proto– Twilight Zone offering on the very short side that is typical of Asquith's writing: We have an everyday scene of a woman, Mrs. Meade, in a nursing home. She's had some heart problems. We like her. The story feels companionly, like we're hanging out by her bedside, and may even be asked to play a game of checkers.

Mrs. Meade has been having hallucinations of a man she used to see—or thought she saw—following her in a black slouch hat. Her therapist arrives for his normal consultation, a touch on the early side, having come from a costume ball, still attired in his get-up and mask, which he starts taking off as their session begins.

Our elderly friend describes coming home one day and seeing a crowd gathered where a young girl had been run over, and there the man with the hat was again. Later, Mrs. Meade needs an operation and drives to a hospital, where the man is on the other side of the door, causing her to flee. The therapist is sympathetic and takes off his mask, revealing himself to be the man the woman fears. She dies of heart failure.

There is no monster in the human imagination to touch upon the horrors of the perpetuation of the past, and Asquith knew this as well as any ghost-story writer.

Alongside writing stories, Lady Asquith gathered them too, putting the call out to her writer friends to send along their best ghost stories, which she collated into 1927's awesomely named The Ghost Book.

It's a towering anthology, a literary abattoir where the dead dance eternally and fairly rock the joint with their ministrations. Blackwood, Machen, Lawrence, and Onions are all here, and if you wanted to shortlist a single anthology as the best horror has ever produced, you'd have to start here.

A second volume followed in 1952, with a third helmed by Asquith in 1956. For those, she wrote the concluding stories. "One Grave Too Few" concerns a newly married couple in the full blush of happiness expecting a child and buying a house where two young pregnant women have had some setbacks in the form of horrible early deaths.

A passing character describes the situation as "a perpetuation of the past"—and really, what haunts all of us more than the idea of one's former painful experiences always charging ahead into an increasingly bleak future? Other writers had the obvious bogey monsters, gross-out techniques, and demons. Asquith manages to be just as chillingly entertaining while also giving you horror in capsule form—she is a master, for instance, at pointing out how that seemingly commonplace detail of your everyday life might be the horror waiting to destroy you, if only you'd stop and notice it properly—such that her terrors continue to dissolve into your bloodstream long after you've read a given story.

Her anthologies work the same way, which is a feat, as though the writers she knew had invariably picked up some of the qualities that defined her own fiction (or else were edited so that they did). We're talking about some truly potent, terrifying stuff here: Asquith helped make something like the doubting of one's own senses or motives every bit as powerful as the demons one encounters in, say, M.R. James or Lovecraft. Sadly, she wouldn't have their influence, but it's not too late to discover and read her for ourselves (albeit secondhand). Still, if people in fiction can come back as ghosts, why can't great, forgotten writers come back as presences in our lives, too?

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Better still is the tale "Who Is Sylvia?" If you think about your favorite ghost stories, they almost always have two things going for them: One, you can reach out and practically run your finger over the atmosphere. Two, there's a framing gambit that is one of those "Why the hell didn't I think of that?" types of ideas.

In "Who Is Sylvia?" that involves a woman in love with a man, who dumps her for the title character. The spurned woman, Susan Small, is frumpy; her rival is effortlessly attractive. After an evening of cards, an odd, scary guy relates a disturbing tale of once murdering two people by writing their names on a piece of paper and sticking them in a drawer.

Partly as a joke to herself, Susan does this with her rival Sylvia's name. Then Sylvia dies. The next time Susan opens the drawer, she finds a piece of paper with Sylvia's name on it, written in Sylvia's hand, and it goes on like this for a while. Which is scary enough. But then she starts to fall in love with Sylvia, there's this lesbianic, beyond-the-grave kind of affair transpiring, followed by suicide, which doubles as what we might think of as a ghost's version of simultaneous orgasm.

"Could I live through all the long littleness of life?" Sylvia asks a friend in what is tantamount to her suicide note, but also a reminder of the real powers that be, terror-wise: the banal, the life marked not by how deeply one lives, but how passively one exists. In the hands of the great Lady Asquith, sometimes doing nothing can be the scariest fate of all.

Colin Fleming is the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, a regular guest on NPR's Weekend Edition, and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance.

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