Marjorie Bowen – The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories (1949)

Review by Justin Tate

A “major influence” to Graham Greene and described as a “superb writer” by the New Yorker, Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952) might be one of the most popular authors you’ve never heard of. Her extensive bibliography is an endless list of novels and short stories, mostly within the romance and horror genres, but also includes history and biography.

In 1949, near the end of her life, she gathered a humble collection of her favorite eerie tales and had them published as The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories. Now newly reprinted under the “Monster She Wrote” banner, celebrating women writers of the macabre, Bowen’s words find a new generation of enthralled readers. Here’s my review of each story:

The Fair Hair of Ambrosine
A man’s ex-girlfriend, Ambrosine, was murdered. At the time it didn’t seem like a big problem. He didn’t like her that much. Had, in fact, forgotten all about her. Then he starts having reoccurring dreams of someone murdering him outside the same house that she was murdered in. “I hate her,” he admits. “Why won’t she keep quiet in her grave and leave me alone?”

Fearing that the reoccurring nightmare is a prophecy, he plots ways to change details of the dream so that the vision will not come true. As if often the case, it’s ill-advised to test fate.

The Crown Derby Plate
A trio of mature gentlewomen sit around the fire, talk of ghosts and auction sales from thirty years ago. Martha Pym recalls purchasing china at such a sale and, in need of more plates to match the set, determines to revisit the same house from several decades before in hopes of getting lucky.

At the eerie house, Martha encounters an eccentric and vaguely sinister china collector. This aged woman never leaves the house in fear someone will steal her precious china, and she still harbors great resentment for the set that got away those thirty years earlier. She had been trying to hide all the china before any could be lost in the auction sale, but failed that one set.

Will Martha complete her china set? Or will the eccentric crone reclaim what she feels is rightfully hers? Will there be blood?!

Bowen’s slow start makes this story seem insignificant at first, but soon enough her language is a delicious blend of impending doom and the domestic trifling over plates. There is silliness in tone, but the characters take their china so seriously that it all feels rather life-or-death. A little spooky and a lot of fun!

The Housekeeper
Classic ghost story involving a bitter marriage and the mysterious death of an ex-wife. An eerie build-up leads to a Poe-inspired conclusion. Though not especially original, the classic formula is well-handled by Bowen’s component hand.

Florence Flannery
Another domestic situation involving loveless marriage. The husband realizes that he knows very little about his wife and the matter gets more complicated when it is revealed she shares the same name with an ancestor, born three hundred years earlier. Then there’s also a blood-thirsty fish supervised by a creepy caretaker that terrifies her. I struggled to understand connections between these two mysteries and found the overall presentation overly daunting with excess characters and a lacking focus. Not terrible, but definitely not a highlight.

Elsie’s Lonely Afternoon
In 1933, London’s The Guardian described Bowen as “most at home when she is invoking the unhappy, far-off centuries.” Though this story has an ambiguous time period, it certainly delivers a heaping dose of unhappy. There is an offbeat and slightly comical element mixed with the woe that makes it satisfying, however.

Told from the perspective of a mistreated six-year-old girl, the reader is left to wonder which ghosts are real and which are manifested from a naive mind. The poor child is punished for anything and everything, with her one goal being to unlock a cupboard so she can fill her half-starved tummy with jam. When the opportunity arises, she faces off with an alleged ghost to get her wish.

Thus far, this is my favorite story in the collection. The way Bowen describes ghosts, death and the macabre in such flippant manners is a triumph. The dying grandmamma and young Elsie make a fabulous pair. Both are mirrors of different extremes. The child lacks understanding of the world, while the wizened lady is likewise out of touch for different reasons. The “happy ending” is a remarkable achievement of surprise and disconnect. On one hand, Elsie is thrilled by the outcome, on the other it is an absolute climax of woe. I don’t think I’ve read anything that could achieve so many emotions simultaneously. Bravo!

The Bishop of Hell
Set around the time period when The Monk (1796) was published, this Gothic tale includes familiar themes from Matthew Lewis’ novel. Notably, sexy religious authorities whose sinful horniness knows no bounds. A major dilemma surrounds the seduction of a reputable married woman and the awful events which follow.

In the tradition of the best Gothic narratives, it’s a scandalous, soap opera tale that jumps from one shock to the next. A touch of supernatural at the end delivers a knockout finale worthy of the salacious build-up.

The Grey Chamber
A short chiller about a bed chamber haunted by vengeful and romantic ghosts. It is presented as an anonymously written French story “translated” by Bowen. I’m almost certain that’s not true, but the gimmick recalls early Gothic novels and chapbooks which added authenticity by pretending to be an old “found manuscript”. It’s a fun technique that adds character to an otherwise simple and stilted work of prose. Not a highlight of the collection, but still a lovely dish of spooky.

The Extraordinary Adventure of Mr. John Proudie
This is a 5/5! Set in 1690, it’s a classic Gothic thriller with eerie masked characters, midnight dwellings, and all manner of moonlit mysteries unfurling as death becomes more and more certain. Delicious!

The Scoured Silk
Arranged marriage, mysterious murder, infidelity, insanity, torture and trap doors — this story has it all! The pacing is weak, perhaps, and the characters are only okay, but gotta love all that juicy melodrama!

The Avenging of Ann Leete
A complicated tale of physical and ethereal romance. Not sure that I understood it very well. I imagine the premise is innovative if I could put my finger on what it’s trying to say.

Another head-scratcher. I think it’s about two young men who are caught in a storm and find themselves in the cottage with dead bodies and possibly inhabited by a witch. At some point they decide to throw out a body into the nearby weeds and play a joke by taking the place of the corpse at the funeral? (I think). But then, the jokester dies too? I’ll have to read this one again at some point. There’s a LOT going on and while it all seems delightfully macabre, I couldn’t follow the plot.

Ann Mellor’s Lover
An antique bookseller is clairvoyant, not for the future but for the past. Occasionally he feels a spiritual-like connection to old things, and never has this been more extreme than at the discovery of a small sketch of a woman. Suddenly he is divinely driven to a grave and other artifacts belonging to the sketched girl. Then his mind is literally placed into the body of a man who pursued the girl from many years earlier. This allows him to solve the mystery of who she was and how she died.

I imagine Bowen placed this story last because it seems personal to her. She clearly prefers to write fiction set hundreds of years in the past, and probably considered herself to be somewhat clairvoyant for history like this protagonist. In any case, it encapsulates the collection nicely and is a solid work on its own.

OVERALL: It took me a long time to finish this collection, so I wouldn’t describe it as something that will keep you glued to your seat. That said, every story is good. Rarely superior, but all good. Even the few confusing ones. Bowen has a unique style that mashes up a variety of Gothic archetypes. She’s much more of a premise writer, however, and doesn’t seem to focus much energy on characters. I think they would all be stronger if the characters had more drive and personal investment beyond being in thrilling situations. Still solid recommended reading.

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