Monday, March 6, 2017

in which you, dear reader, must judge for yourself: The Statement of Stella Maberly, by F. Anstey

9781943910618
Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1896
171 pp

paperback

I am just in awe of the old, often forgotten books that Jay and Ryan, aka the Valancourt guys,  have decided to reintroduce into the modern reading world.  I haven't yet met a Valancourt book I didn't like, but this new release,  The Statement of Stella Maberly, is a book I absolutely loved, and I'm not exaggerating at all.  It has that wonderful ambiguity that I love in a novel, and I can honestly say that I can't remember reading anything quite like it.

When this book was first published back in 1896, the publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, decided to print it without crediting Anstey as the author. Instead, as Peter Merchant reveals  in his excellent introduction, it was released as The Statement of Stella Maberly, "written by herself," with different reviewers saying it should be read as a  "madness memoir," "a curious portrayal of the neurotic temperament," or an account of "a madwoman, who takes it into her head that an evil spirit is occupying her friend's body."  That all changed about six months later when Anstey was identified as the real author, at which point it could then be seen as "a carefully crafted thriller about demonic possession" or "based on a strong storyline idea suggested by the spirit world."

From somewhere in "a place of permanent confinement," Stella Maberly has "determined to make a full statement" of "circumstances" that led to her committing what she calls "an act that, in itself, would seem a crime deserving of nothing but condemnation."  Her memory has become "confused," so while she's lucid, she needs to get it all down, not just for herself but for those of us reading her statement.  Perhaps, she says, we will discover that once we know the facts, we might judge her to be "more to be pitied than blamed."  This is the setup for what turns out to be a most bizarre story, which as she also reveals, begins in Stella's childhood.

What follows is a strange, sometimes shocking account, and whether Stella should be "pitied" or "blamed" comes down to reader perspective.  The cover blurb reveals that Stella Maberly has been "forced" to make her own way in the world after her father's fortune is all but lost.  Stella writes an acquaintance about the possibility of acquiring a position as a governess, and to her surprise, she discovers that one of her old school friends, the lovely Evelyn Heseltine, has need of a companion. Evelyn, who suffers from a weak heart, hasn't been in the best of health, and has been abroad for a while. Now she's back, and  Stella takes the job.  For a while, everything is going quite nicely between the two young women, and Stella is beyond happy. But things change owing to circumstances which I won't reveal here, and one morning, eager to sit beside Evelyn and "wait until she awoke," Stella enters Evelyn's room, opens the curtains to "let in the light," and gets the first shock of the day:  when she sees Evelyn's face, she realizes that
"Nothing would wake her any more, no words of love and sorrow would ever reach her. She was dead."
The night before, she'd loaned Evelyn's aunt some chloral to help Evelyn sleep, and now Stella is wracked with guilt since chloral is not to be used for people with weak hearts, going so far as to  beseech God to "give me back my dead."  However, before she can "rouse the house," to let others know of Evelyn's death, she gets another shock --  Evelyn has come back to life. The surprises aren't quite over though, with the biggest one yet to come in the days that follow. It slowly begins to dawn on Stella that it is not
"...Evelyn's stainless soul that was gazing at me now through her eyes, but some evil, mocking spirit that my rash and blasphemous prayer had called to animate the form she had left."
The  events that follow set up the question asked on the cover blurb,
"Is Stella insane, or has a dark spirit actually taken possession of Evelyn's body?"
The Statement of Stella Maberly  is cleverly written, and as Mr. Merchant notes in the introduction, the book is nicely balanced, with the potential of becoming
"as much a Gothic encounter with embodied evil as a curious portrayal of the neurotic (or neurasthenic) temperament."
As I noted in my post title, it's really up to the reader to decide what's going on. While I have my own opinion as to what  the real story is here, I am not going to share, but instead let readers enjoy this excellent novel for themselves and make up their own minds.  I went through this book two times to explore these "competing possibilities," and the second time through, the story became a completely different experience. The devil, as they say, is in the details, and that is definitely the case here.  Reading it twice is something I would definitely recommend to anyone who decides to give it a try.

This short novel will certainly appeal to readers interested in Victorian fiction, to people who read "madness memoirs," and to lighter-fare horror readers interested in demonic possession. It may also appeal to some crime fiction readers as well.  Do not miss the texts that follow the story, and while the introduction is worth its weight in gold, it may be best to leave it until after finishing the book.

This book just may be my favorite Valancourt release yet, and considering how many I've read, well, that should speak volumes. Hats off!!!!



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