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Five Children & Pennywise: Edith Nesbit, Horror Writer

This Halloween I am co-writing, co-producing and co-directing a show for the Edinburgh Horror Festival, adapting several of E Nesbit's horror stories into a play called The Shadow In The Dark, and so I'd like to talk a bit about those.

Though primarily remembered now as the children's writer responsible for The Railway Children and Five Children & It, a vast amount of Edith Nesbit's works were in other areas, with a third of her 60 books dealing with poetry, adult novels and articles dealing with her work as a social activist.

First published as a teenager in 1878 with a poem called "Under the Trees", it would be almost a decade before she turned to ghost stories, first publishing Man-Size in Marble in the December 1887 issue of Home Chimes magazine. The story is about a couple who move into a small house in the country and confront the legend of some living statues in a nearby church. Though it isn't her best story, at least in this writer's opinion, it would remain her most popular one, being both the most anthologised and the most adapted: not only is it one of only three of her non-children's stories to have been adapted, but it has received that treatment twice, for radio and television.

Though Nesbit's turn to horror may have been partly for financial gain, as indeed all her writing was, there can be no doubt that it built up from a lifetime of experience, having had a decades-long fear of the dark as well as contact with death from a very early age, in multiple ways. So other stories followed, albeit a few years later: 1891 saw “John Charrington's Wedding” in which a groom literally moves heaven and earth to get to his wedding; “Uncle Abraham's Romance” (Illustrated London News, 26 September) in which an old man tells the story of a supernatural love affair; and “The Ebony Frame” (Longman's Magazine, October), which is around a picture which fascinates its owner to the point of obsession. Then 1892 saw the titular “The Mass for the Dead” (Argosy) terrify those who heard it.

The following year in 1893, she was therefore able to publish a collection of Grim Tales, including all those previously mentioned, as well as "The Mystery of the Semi-Detached", in which a vision of murder comes tragically true; and "From the Dead" in which an errant husband is given another chance with his dead wife. Not only that, but by this point there was enough overspill to go into a second, ten-story collection, Something Wrong (most notably “Hurst of Hurstcote", from Temple Bar, June 1893, which similarly deals with lost spouses and death, though with a more body-horror angle) that same year.

Though arguably not her most productive or sustained period of horror writing, this would set the tone for following releases, in one way or another, as subsequent collections would either include stories from this period, or mix new ones with other material as Something Wrong had done. As well as her most famous short story, this phase would also include some other highly memorable ones, including “Uncle Abraham's Romance”, a version of which was featured in an early draft of our show; and “The Ebony Frame”, one of our directors' favourite Nesbit stories and itself a candidate for the show until it was set aside in favour for a full adaptation (hopefully) in 2024.

Going back to Nesbit, it would be six years before she returned to the genre with "The Letter in Brown Ink" which reveals the truth of an abusive family in Windsor Magazine, August 1899 and “The Haunted Inheritance” for the February 1900 Saturday Evening Post, which took a more light-hearted approach at a family ghost. It would be a further five before she returned to the genre with regularity, partly due to the children's books for which she is better remembered. The Bastable series began in 1899 and continued through two more novels and four short stories between then and 1905, the Psaemmead trilogy began with Five Children and It in 1902, and The Railway Children.

However Nesbit hadn't completely forsaken adult supernatural stories in this period. By the time The Railway Children and the last Psaemmead book came out, both in 1906, Nesbit had four new horror stories and an anthology in circulation. These included one of her best stories, and half the title of our show, “The Shadow” (published as “The Portent of the Shadow” in The Index, 1905) an inexplicable shape haunting a young couple, “The Followers” (1905), and “The Power of Darkness” (Strand Magazine, April 1905) of a night spent illegally in a waxworks' museum. This last story is notable, if for no other reason, as it began a relationship with Sherlock Holmes's The Strand Magazine, which would encompass at least eight of the eleven horror short stories which followed in the following decade. This would also be her most sustained period of horror writing, as there would not be a year between 1905 and 1911 when there wasn't a new Nesbit horror story of some kind.

“The Power of Darkness” would join “The Haunted Inheritance” and “The House of Silence” (March 1906, Windsor) in her 1906 collection, Man and Maid. “The House of Silence” is another of her most memorable stories, recounting the strange encounter had by a burglar in an abandoned mannor house, and together with “The Shadow”, probably represents Nesbit's deepest foray into the weird fiction that HP Lovecraft would later make famous. Further Strand stories included “The Head” in May 1907, another story involving waxworks and revenge; “The Third Drug” in February 1908 (often reprinted as "The Three Drugs") in which the narrator is non-consensually experimented on by a man he has taken refuge with; and “In the Dark” in Sept 1908, a Poe-esque story about murder with a grotesque display of guilt. This last tale is also another cornerstone of our show, half of its title, and one of three times Nesbit used the name, two of which can be found in our play.

In 1909 she published the first of two gothic novels with Salome and the Head (also known as The House with No Address), in which a lonely English girl becomes the prey of a designing fiddler who is later murdered. Then the following year, she published a new collection of horror stories, appropriately titled Fear, encompassing most of the horror tales from her two 1893 collections along with a half dozen newer stories, including “The Five Senses” (1909), which mixes the previously used ideas of scientific experiments and consciousness beyond death, “The New Samson” (1910) about an attempt to destroy a concert-hall, and “The Violet Car” (1910). This last tale, in which a nurse is hired by an old couple who each claim the other is insane, has one of the best set-ups of any of her stories, and an excerpt from which features in The Shadow In The Dark.

Fear was not a comprehensive collection of her horror tales though: “Number 17”, a fun little story from The Strand's June 1910 issue, and halfway between Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers and Stephen King's 1048, was skipped over.

The next year saw the publication of her second gothic novel, 1911's Dormant (renamed Rose Royal in the USA to match the novel's protagonist) which has been described as "A strange hybrid novel about the search for eternal youth by occult and scientific means" (Wilson, Neil; Shadows in the Attic, 2000) and "a feminist horror retelling of Sleeping Beauty crossed with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein." (Kat, Mirabele Dictu, 2015)

By this point, her fame and energy were ebbing. For the first time in a while, no Nesbit horror appeared in 1912, and only four (of sixty!) complete novels and a handful of short stories and poems would appear in the last 12 years of her life, only two of them horror stories: “The Haunted House” in 1913 and "The Pavilion" in 1915, both published in the Strand. Despite its title, the former eschews what seems a classic setup, going through several genres including vampire fiction and the favourite scientific experiment one, in just a few pages, while the latter includes thwarted love and a cursed pavilion.

These were her last horror stories. Nesbit died 9 years later in 1924, probably of lung cancer. Perhaps fittingly, one of her last ever stories, also published in the Strand, was her third and last one bearing the title In the Dark, this one a love story set in WW1.

Though her stories would live on, with at least 11 written re-tellings or sequels to her stories and over 30 adaptations for television, film, stage and radio, an overwhelming majority have been for her children's books, with her adult work getting four, including two adaptations of “Man-Size In Marble”. It first appeared as an episode of the radio anthology show Hall of Fantasy in 1947 and then in a very loose version in the CBS Radio Mystery Theater in 1977. The other adaptations would be of “Number 17”, for a 1965 TV film, and “The Shadow”, though the later may not count as it was only a reading on TV, as part of the 2001 series The Fear.

The Shadow In The Dark seeks to help redress this oversight and, nonsensically, cast a new light upon some of these great stories.

Thanks for reading.

And if you liked this and would like to know more about the show, you can find more information at:

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