Book Review: A Phantom Lover (William P. Simmons ed., Shadow House Publishing, “Horror Hall of Fame Novellas”, Sept. 2020)

Shadow House Publishing presents

A PHANTOM LOVER, by VERNON LEE, is a nightmarish narrative of the malignant past and uncontrollable desires. Lee’s mastery of psychological terror, obsession, and ambiguity is as refined as Henry James and captures the sublime beauty of gothic horror.

“Faustus and Helena” is included as a supplement, an essay on art and the supernatural that reflects Lee’s theories regarding the aesthetics of ghostly fiction.

About the Editor: William Simmons is a supernatural fiction author, critic, & journalist. Seven of his stories earned Honorable Mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. By Reason of Darkness was praised by Publisher’s Weekly, All Hallows & Cemetery Dance. Graham Masterton, Hugh B. Cave & T.M. Wright endorsed his fiction. He has interviewed such authors as Richard Matheson, F. Paul Wilson & Caitlin Kiernan.

HORROR HALL OF FAME NOVELLAS Series: “Horror hundreds of years in the making!” This series presents classic and rare supernatural, horror, and weird novellas.

Book review

by Bronte Schiltz

For fans of Vernon Lee, whose Gothic stories, despite a steady increase in critical attention since the 1950s, remain unknown even to lovers of the macabre, nothing could be more welcome than a truly enthusiastic new edition of her work. Shadow House Publishing’s fourth installment in their Horror Hall of Fame Novellas series, Lee’s A Phantom Lover: A Fantasy, or Oke of Okehurst, certainly doesn’t want for zeal. Editor William Simmons’ love of the novella radiates from his introduction to this new release, in which he explains how, stumbling across it as a young adult, he “devoured it in one setting” [sic], finding it “unique, special…dangerous”. When it comes to selling Lee’s virtues to new readers, he does not disappoint.

Unfortunately, this edition features some minor factual inaccuracies. While the publication history page informs us that “A Phantom Lover: A Fantasy, or Oke Of Okehurst, was originally published in Hauntings: Fantastic Stories (London: Heinmann, 1890)”, it was in fact originally published by W. Blackwood in Edinburgh four years prior, titled A Phantom Lover: A Fantasy at that time and appearing later as Oke of Okehurst in Hauntings. Simmons also makes the common error of downplaying the significance of Lee’s chosen name, describing it as “the name she chose when writing her ghost stories”. This misconception has appeared in numerous recent editions. Mike Ashley’s introduction to the British Library Tales of the Weird’s A Phantom Lover and Other Dark Tales by Vernon Lee (2020) describes Lee’s “pen name” as being “chosen because it was vaguely androgynous but more likely to be accepted as male” (9), while Baileys’ controversial Reclaim Her Name series (2020) publishes A Phantom Lover under Lee’s birth name, Violet Paget, as part of their campaign of “putting [writers’] female name on their work for the first time”. Lee’s adoption of her name was partly rooted in misogyny – first assumed in 1875 for the publication of her critical work, she complained in a letter three years later that “no one reads a woman’s writing on art, history or aesthetics with anything but mitigated contempt” (Vernon Lee’s Letters  1937, 59). However, Vernon was also the name by which she was known to her friends, suggesting not only literary but also personal significance. In the nineteenth century, androgyny and homosexuality were often conflated, including by the first wave of sexologists, and the adoption of masculine names by those we would now describe as lesbians forms an established pattern – infamous diarist Anne Lister, for instance, was known to a lover as Fred. As Simmons describes Lee as a “lesbian art critic” and draws attention to her stories’ queer subtext – signaled in the very first line of A Phantom Lover, in which the haunted and haunting Alice Oke is described as wearing a “boy’s cap” – the reduction of the significance of her chosen name is an unfortunate oversight.

The introduction also sometimes leaves the reader with the sense that Lee’s intent with A Phantom Lover has been obscured. Simmons begins by stating that “[t]he traditional ghost story was primarily concerned with one thing: showing readers that ghosts, in fact, existed.” This somewhat contentious generalisation is, however, undermined by the inclusion of Lee’s 1880 essay, “Faustus and Helena: The Supernatural in Art” – an excellent editorial decision, illuminating the preoccupation with the impossibility of representing the fantastical that pervades A Phantom Lover – as an appendix. Within this remarkable essay, Lee clarifies her position on the occult:

We none of us believe in ghosts as logical possibilities, but we most of us conceive them as imaginative possibilities … By ghost we do not mean the vulgar apparition which is seen or heard in told or written tales; we mean the ghost which rises up in our mind, the haunter not of corridors and staircases, but of our fancies.

That being so, however, Simmons succeeds in emphasising the “psychologically penetrating” nature of Lee’s most famous Gothic tale, perfectly encapsulating the brilliance of her work when he writes that “[w]hile there is nothing wrong with a story that focuses on the wailing, angry dead, Lee goes further and challenges our assumptions of reality and sanity, time and space.” His observation that the novella presents “a life where the dead may be more animated than the living men and women sleep-walking through their sterile environment” is equally astute, and his description of Lee’s most potent phantoms as “alienated human beings” reveals the striking relevance of her work in a world in which late capitalism and the restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic combine to turn us all into lonely ghosts. As he aptly notes, the tale is “surprisingly modern.”

            Yet equally modern, and perhaps the most interesting element of this edition, is the manner of its promotion, which is more suggestive of romance than of horror. “Only the past could own her heart, only the dead could quench her desire!” reads the tagline attached to what Shadow House calls “the weirdest love triangle in literature”, with a (rather unfulfilled, or at least unactualised) promise of “uncontrollable desires”. While such decisions may come as a surprise to those familiar with the story, they will not to those familiar with the marketing of Gothic fiction over the course of the 21st century. In “Gothic, Grabbit, and Run: Carlos Ruiz Zafón and the Gothic Marketplace” (2014), Glennis Byron notes that “in western popular culture, Gothic may well have begun to function very much like a brand” and that “[w]ith brands, we buy not the product but the story that is offered with the product” (72-3). Her case in point, “the now notorious HarperCollins’ reissuing of a number of classic texts to capitalise on the popularity of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series”, is particularly pertinent here (74). Through Shadow House’s publicity, A Phantom Lover is transformed from a contemplation of hauntings of the mind characterised by frustration and disaster into a dark love story of the kind that has become increasingly popular following the publication of Twilight in 2005. This may be said to do the text a disservice – as Fred Botting notes in Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions (2008), “Romance, as it frames gothic, seems to clean up its darker counterpart, sanitizing its depravations” (1). Those who read Simmons’ introduction, however, will quickly be released from any such misconceptions, and if this demonstrably successful marketing technique brings new readers to Lee’s magnificent tales, such theatrics may be said to have earned their keep.