Summer of Unknown Writers: Mary Elizabeth Counselman

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Half_in_shadowWelcome to another edition of “Summer of Unknown Writers”, where Innsmouth Free Press explores those books, stories and writers that time forgot.

Mary Elizabeth Counselman was born in 1911, grew up on a plantation and began writing at a young age. Her name probably does not strike instant recognition in most readers of horror fiction. But she published extensively, including 30 stories in Weird Tales (Allison V. Harding, another regular staple at this magazine, might have been be more prolific, but Counselman sure was popular). Her short story, “The Three Marked Pennies” (1934), has been reprinted very often and is rumoured to be the second-most-popular story published in the magazine; it certainly generated a flurry of letters. Her stories were collected as Half in Shadow in 1978. No recent collections of her work have appeared, which means you’ll have to look in several places if you want to read her work. Luckily, she’s easier to find than Grey La Spina, owing to frequent reprints in all sorts of anthologies. Still, it takes a bit of detective work to pull some Counselman from the stacks.

weird_tales_seven_decadesCounselman was from Alabama and many of her stories take advantage of her knowledge of the area, often using a rural setting. One exception is “The Accursed Isle” (anthologized in Weird Tales: Seven Decades of Terror, and originally published in Weird Tales in 1933), about a group of men who land on a tiny island after surviving the sinking of a ship. One morning, they discover something tore one of the survivors’ throats in the middle of the night. The incident is repeated until there are only two men left. It is one of her least-effective tales for this reason. Counselman’s knack was for building slow tales set in the southern United States, where the horror brewed beneath the surface.

A more effective example is “The Shot Tower Ghost” (Weird Tales, 1949), which can be found in Civil War Ghosts. A woman remembers a day, many years ago, when her handsome cousin came to visit her family. A skeptic, he did not believe in the tales of the “tower ghost” they told him. To teach him a lesson, the woman and her family members decided to stage a fake haunting. It’s a nice story, even if the ending is predictable (the family encounters Mark after they’ve played the prank on him; they do not realize he has died in a riding accident, thus they have met a real ghost). The story succeeds because of its atmosphere, and the feeling that you’ve heard this kind of tale before does not affect the resolution: the familiarity adds charm.

Another Southern story, this one of magic and superstition, takes place in “Seventh Sister”. Anthologized in Tales of the Dead and Treasury of American Horror Stories, it’s the sad tale of a poor, albino African-American girl living in a rural environment. By virtue of being born a seventh child, and due to her odd colouring, she is feared and believed to be a witch. When someone tells you all the time that you are a witch, you’re bound to believe it, with tragic consequences. This is my favourite Counselman story due to its atmosphere, the child steeped in superstition and the overall sadness.

wt_1942_canada“Parasite Mansion”, published in Weird Tales in 1942, follows a professor of abnormal psychology as she tries to figure out if a house is haunted by a poltergeist. It’s not really a good story (too much Scooby Doo), but it was adapted for the 60s television series Thriller, and I’ve heard the adaptation is actually very good, taking all the atmospheric details and losing some of the bad stuff.

“The Monkey Spoons” (Weird Tales, 1950) concerns three young people who decide to buy three monkey spoons – Dutch spoons presented at funerals – from an antiquarian. Soon, their names have mysteriously appeared on each spoon, foretelling the date of their death. Some elements are over the top (a creepy, hunchback antiquarian!), and the characters are way too thick to understand they’ve been cursed, but it’s a decent example of American Gothic and American Gothic is what Counselman excelled at.

As you may have noticed if you clicked any of the links above, all of the anthologies I’ve mentioned are pretty old. Counselman seems to have slowly but steadily disappeared from bookshelves, another unknown writer who once was a household name.