THE DEATH MASK
THE DEATH-MASK by
Mrs Everett (1851-1923) was a highly popular and prolific novelist in a variety of genres, and for most of her writing life used the ambiguous pseudonym ‘Theo Douglas’. She is more or less forgotten today, except for this, her last published book - a batch of fourteen uncanny tales which originally appeared under her own name in 1920. The Death Mask became something of a collector's item among ghost story aficionados largely due to praise (almost a decade later) from the sagacious M.R. James. James mentioned the book's lower-key approach and found some of the stories "excellently conceived".
This is a fine new edition, then, of a previously rare book (and two additional, uncollected ‘Theo Douglas’ macabre stories are also included). Though Mrs Everett was a typically Victorian upper-middleclass lady of blameless character and morality, she was unconventional enough, in certain of these stories at least, to remain well worth reading today. Richard Dalby comments, in his enthusiastic and as ever informative introduction, that she "was really the last in a distinguished long line of gifted Victorian novelists who knew how to grip their readers, and used a classical method of narration". He seems to concur here with Robert Aickman's view that "The element of form in the ghost story is...crucial. Hence the fact that so many of the best ones derive from the period, at the end of the last century and beginning of this, when form was a particular and conscious literary preoccupation." Mrs Everett's stories are indeed formally skilful, all the more effective and convincing for being somewhat matter-of-fact in their narrative tone. She may not be in the very top league of women supernatural specialists - such as Vernon Lee, Mrs Riddell or Edith Wharton - but her work has scarcely been anthologised and should therefore prove as welcome as it is unfamiliar.
Late-twentieth century readers should not expect shudders or nastiness. They may well consider Mrs Everett's premonitions and apparitions occasionally predictable, her understatement and plainness altogether too tame for these cynical and violent times. That would be their loss, however... But begin at the beginning, with the memorable title-story: that's about as creepy as its author gets. I rather liked, too, 'Parson Clench' (which put me in mind of a sparer, quieter Anglicised Le Fanu), and 'Nevill Nugent's Legacy', an unsentimental narrative about the ghostly return of a maltreated and murdered boy. Another haunting child appears in 'Anne's Little Ghost', while the longest story – ‘The Next Heir’, with its panic-stricken protagonist far from relishing his inheritance - is a nice, gruesome subversion of materialist Victorian values. 'Beyond The Pale', set "in the wilds of Western America" comes off surprisingly well, despite featuring an Injun witch-doctor and a severed hand. A few of the other stories have dated, but have charm and are nonetheless readable.
The collection, as usual with GSP productions, is handsomely designed (a very appropriate black jacket with a striking death-mask illustration by Stephen Stapleton) and is limited to 350 copies, A further reason for recommending this very enjoyable book to All Hallows readers.