Mistresses of Mystery is a sequel to a recent volume called Ladies of Horror, also compiled by the sisters Manley and Lewis. The Edward Gorey dust jacket features a candelabra clutched in a male fist glimpsed through a doorway, a man on the carpet suffering from the dagger in his chest, a skeleton ascending (?) to heaven with a bunch of roses, its pelvis modestly draped, and a primly pensive lady ... [Show full abstract] seated at a desk writing with a quill pen; her cool is one of the scariest things in the volume.
A few of the stories, Dorothy Sayers' fine "The Leopard Lady" and "Madame Slara," by L. T. Meade and R. Eustace, bump off unwelcome heirs. The Sayers story is superior precisely because it is not mysterious: its fulfillment of our expectation is what delights us, along with the wittiness of a "removals" company that specializes in removing people.
Edith Wharton's "All Souls" is another gem, again not because of its suspense (i.e., the pace of the movement towards resolution) but because of the terror of the protagonist who wakes in the night to discover her house is mysteriously empty. The revelation of witchcraft appears rational and trivial when compared with her distress.
Wit and psychological accuracy, then, are the hallmarks of the best of these stories. Even the play "Good-bye, Miss Lizzie Borden," by Lillian de la Torre, is absorbing less for the imposing figure of Lizzie Borden swinging her axe around than for the revelation that she's all along been shielding her neurotic sister Emma.
Most of the violence in these nine stories occurs off stage, with the possible exception of E. Nesbit's "The Head," a faintly silly story about vengeance accomplished through a waxworks dummy. The cleverest offstage violence is done in Jane Rice's science fiction "The Willow Tree," the most recent tale in the collection (which actually spans less than a century). It features a future civilization in which "pooskats" are extinct, except at Aunt Harriet's, who lives in the "past" where four children are relocated because the "present" has gotten too crowded. The violence has been done in a loop of time both before and after the story itself. Quite sinister, that one.
In other words, in the best of these stories scenes of violence on the one hand and the steps towards rational explanation seem irrelevant—as they always are in good fiction. The sex of the writers probably has little bearing on the fact that in most of the stories it is women who perform the nefarious deeds, for women have accepted stereotypes of their own deviousness. More important, sex bears no particular relationship to wit and psychological accuracy. Teenagers of both sexes would enjoy the collection.
Joan Joffe Hall, Ph. D., Stanford University, is a prolific reviewer for newspapers and magazines. She is very active in the Women's Liberation Movement and teaches courses in women in literature.