Half in Shadow by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
In my review of Jessie Douglas Kerruish‘s The Undying Monster, I warned readers away from the British publishing outfit known as Flame Tree 451, because of the company’s slapdash manner of proofreading and editing its products. But just as there are some publishers that should be avoided, there exist others whose books might be safely recommended just by virtue of the company’s imprint itself. Such a one, for me, is Arkham House, which, for 76 years now, has shown infinite care in the production of its publications. Originally founded in 1939 by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to preserve the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, the firm has remained consistent in bringing to market meticulously curated editions, featuring beautiful artwork on the dust jackets, erudite introductions… and nary a typo to be found anywhere. My half dozen or so Arkham editions are all treasures in my personal collection, and I usually jump when I see an old Arkham title on sale for $25 or less… which they rarely are. Happy day for me, then, when I spotted the 1978 Arkham edition of Half in Shadow, selling for $20 at NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand. I grabbed it immediately, even though the author of this short story collection, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, was one I’d never even heard of before. And a smart purchase it was, too, as things have turned out.
Half in Shadow just happens to be a marvelous collection consisting of 14 eerie pieces, all but one of which originally appeared in that most famous of all pulp magazines, Weird Tales, from the period 1934 – ’53. Most of the stories are in the style known as Southern Gothic, many of them set in northern Alabama, “in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains” (Counselman herself was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1911), and all are exquisitely written little gems. To my great surprise, this is one truly excellent collection of fantastic fiction, from a woman whose definition of “fantasy” is as good a one as any I’ve ever come across. In her introduction, Counselman tells us that “Fantasy is man’s magic key to the creaking door of that Other World that is the misty, imaginary spiritual counterpart of what some choose to call ‘broad daylight’ in our workaday experience. It is, perhaps, a poet’s-eye-view…”
As for the stories themselves, Half in Shadow kicks off in a big way with “The Three Marked Pennies.” Originally appearing in the 8/34 issue of Weird Tales, Counselman’s first story for the magazine later proved, over the decades, one of the most popular in the publication’s history! In it, a small town is notified of a very strange contest that is about to begin. The three persons who are in possession of the three differently marked coins on the morning of April 21 will each receive either $100,000 in cash, a trip around the world, or… death! But how to know which penny (the one with the circle, square or cross) signifies what? This marvelous, allegorical piece builds to a triply ironic ending with nary a wasted word, and has understandably become a perennial favorite.
In “The Unwanted,” a female census taker (many of the stories’ protagonists ARE, refreshingly, women) in those Blue Ridge foothills encounters a family with no less than 11 children… all of whom the hillbilly Mrs. has seemingly wished into existence! (The initial appearance of this prolific mother, standing “Half in Shadow, half in clear mountain sunlight,” is one source of the book’s title.) This is a sweet and lovely little fantasy, just dripping with Southern atmosphere… the same atmosphere as can be found in “The Shot-Tower Ghost,” which takes place at an actual such tower in Wythe County, Virginia. Here, the legend of a Confederate soldier’s spirit is used to play a practical joke on a Northern cousin. But as events proceed, it would seem that a new ghostly legend is about to be created in this memorably spooky offering.
Ms. Counselman obviously suffered the loss of someone near and dear to her as the result of a reckless driver, because in “Night Court,” such a menace to society, after killing his third innocent victim, is put on trial by the mangled spirits of those who have thus lost their lives. This is easily one of the eeriest tales in the entire collection, culminating with an effective jolt of an ending. (I love that Counselman puts the word “pony tails” in quotes here; this 1953 story appeared only two years after the expression was first used.)
“The Monkey Spoons” is up next, in which a hunchbacked antiques dealer sells a trio of 300-year-old spoons to three young people… spoons that just happen to be cursed, bringing death to their owners. This surprisingly downbeat story again builds to one socko ending.
In “The Smiling Face,” a jealous archaeologist in the wilds of Brazil (the REAL Deep South!), laid up with crushed ribs, grows increasingly suspicious of his missing, beautiful wife, and sends a gang of Amazonian tirbesmen to bring her back. But things get a tad “lost in translation” in this horrific tale, easily the grisliest of the bunch.
From the horrific back to the charming, “A Death Crown for Mr. Hapworthy” gives us another collector of antiques; an atheist expert on amulets, talismans and assorted curios. But when Mr. Hapworthy goes to the home of a poor mountain family in his quest to obtain still another treasure, his preconceived notions regarding spirituality are given quite the shake-up, indeed.
Changing her authorial style a bit, Counselman, in “The Black Stone Statue,” demonstrates that she could write a tale every bit as pulpy as her Weird Tales colleagues. In this one, another explorer in the jungle depths of Brazil captures an alien, star-shaped blob that has been turning the jungle to stone. He manages to capture it and bring it back home, but things don’t go quite as expected, in this deliciously juicy tale.
“Seventh Sister” has been called Counselman’s finest story, and it certainly is a beautifully written one. Here, an albino girl is born into a poor black family living on the Alabama-Georgia border. Because she is a seventh sister, the child is deemed to have special abilities and voodoo-like powers, but the author manages to keep things deliberately ambiguous, so that the reader is never quite sure whether Seventh Sister (yes, that’s what the family has named her) has supernatural leanings or not. Another downbeat ending caps this charming little story, replete with perfectly rendered Southern patois.
Half in Shadow next offers up what is, at 30 pages, the longest story in the collection, as well as this reader’s personal favorite. In “Parasite Mansion,” a student-professor wrecks her car during a rainstorm and is taken in by the residents of a very unusual household: an alcoholic doctor, his homicidal kid brother, a crone-like hag of a grandmother, and a young girl who seems to be the focal point of the Mason family curse: namely, a violently aggressive poltergeist. This spooky story has atmosphere to spare, wonderfully drawn characters, a surprise ending and even a hint of romance; a tour de force by Ms. Counselman. “Parasite Mansion,” I might add, was televised in 1960 as one of the episodes of the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller anthology show, and it is a remarkably faithful adaptation, even reproducing entire chunks of dialogue intact. The TV adaptation makes some minor changes to the story (such as some of the characters’ names, for some reason, as well as that old crone’s ultimate fate) but still makes for one extremely frightening episode of television; the hag makeup on Jeanette Nolan is especially scary! (I am currently in the process of watching all 67 episodes of Thriller on DVD and may have more to say about this fine old program in the future.) Counselman again writes in true pulp fashion in this one; thus, we are given the line “The wind had risen, whining under the eaves like a leprous beggar.” I love it!
Up next in this collection is “The Green Window,” in which those haunted panes are reputed to be able to foretell which occupant of a Colonial mansion will die… and how. We meet the modern-day occupants of this abode, who disbelieve and pooh-pooh the old legend… to their regret!
In “The Tree’s Wife,” a social worker and her female friend (who may well be Mary Elizabeth herself) visit a mountain woman; a single mother whose husband had been killed during their wedding and buried beneath an old white oak. The woman had later been married by the local preacher to the tree as a sort of proxy husband, and now, to the two visitors’ stunned disbelief, the tree certainly does seem to exhibit human qualities! Another lovely fantasy, really.
In “Twister,” a newlywed couple comes upon a town in which all the residents live in mortal fear of an imminent tornado. And for good reason, as it transpires. A very well-done ghostly outing!
Finally, in “A Handful of Silver” (the only tale here not to have initially appeared in Weird Tales, this one rather saw its first publication in the 1967 Derleth-edited horror anthology Travellers By Night), a woman who is almost certainly the author herself encounters a very unusual man in a bar on Christmas Eve. This short tale ends with yet another fine twist ending as it bids fair to become a Yuletide classic. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this story, however, is the notion of our pregnant narrator doing some serious drinking as a regular in that dive bar. Now THAT’S scary!
So there you have it… 14 tales of the macabre, ALL of them worthy of being transformed into an old episode of Thriller or The Twilight Zone. A reading of this collection will likely convince anyone that Mary Elizabeth Counselman was indeed a 20th century horror master. I’d love to read more of her work, but this collection, unfortunately, would seem to be all that is immediately obtainable. Guess I’ll have to try a little harder. There is supposedly a volume from 1977, called African Yesterdays — a collection of her pulpy jungle stories — and another 1978 collection, this one of her newer stories, entitled New Lamps For Old. I’m on it…
Great review Sandy. I am not familiar with her work but will now try to track some down.
Thanks for the kind words, CTGT. Hope you enjoy this one as much as I did….
She sounds interesting! It sounds like she went to Brazil at some time in her life.
…OR did a boatload of research and matched it with a wonderful imagination….