“With and Without Buttons”

This is week’s subject of weird fiction discussion over at LibraryThing. For those wondering why you don’t get one every week, I’ve already blogged about some of the stories we discussed and others I wasn’t able to get a hold of at an acceptable price.

Review: “With and Without Buttons”, Mary Butts, 1938.

This is one of those English ghost stories you could say is subtle or you could say it’s vague and unsuccessful. I’m afraid I’m more in the latter category though this story was my nomination because I wanted to read something by Butts.

The story has a buildup that makes promises it doesn’t really deliver on.

We start with this from our unnamed narrator:

It is not only true, it is comforting, to say that incredulity is often no more than superstition turned inside out. But there can be a faith of disbelief as inaccurate as its excess, and in some ways more trying, for the right answers to it have not yet been thought up. 

The narrator and her sister inhabit a cottage across the fence from Trenchard, a man of the world who has been to Africa.

Trenchard, it seems, is one of those rather boorish and tedious proselytizing atheists and thoroughgoing materialists:

“He had known and done a great many things, but when he came to give his account of them, all he had to say was a set of pseudo-rationalizations, calling the bluff, in inaccurate language, of God, the arts, the imagination, the emotions. That is not even chic science for laymen today. He might have thought that way as much as he liked, but there was no reason, we said, to try and prove it to us all one hot, sweet, blue-drawn summer, in a Kentish orchard; to sweat for our conversion; to shame us into agreement. Until the evening I told him to stop boring us with his wish-fulfilments, for they weren’t ours, and saw his healthy skin start to sweat and a stare come into his eyes.”

And so the narrator and her sister (who also never gets a name) decide to teach him a lesson. The sister decides to give Trenchard a scare, and she concocts a subtle, clever plan to make Trenchard think his cottage is haunted by the ghost of Miss Blacken. To do this, subtle hints and the planting of single gloves – said to be a trademark of Blacken’s appearance – will be employed.

The odd thing is, though, that said gloves start showing up by themselves in both cottages. And there really is, perhaps unknown to the sister when she suggested it, a local legend about Blacken. She is said to have haunted the house which was split into the two cottages the women and Trenchard live in.

Adding to the strangeness, Trenchard says the gloves and his loft remind him of the smell of skin. Blacken is said to have been a grimy old woman, but she always kept her hands clean with glove.

In the conclusion, various things of Blacken’s are set on fire in an attempt to extirpate Blacken’s spirit, and Trenchard is almost suffocated by one of the gloves mysteriously blowing into his mouth.

I did find the conclusion anticlimactic, but I did like a couple of aspects.

First, the women are almost depicted as the sort of young girls who are the focus (whether through fraud or genuine paranormal powers) of poltergeist events. As the narrator says, “our greed and vanity in devising this had evoked this”

Second, I thought their motive, besides vexing Trenchard, was interesting:

Not because we did not like him, because we wanted to have power over him, the power women sometimes want to have over men, the pure, not erotic power, whose point is that it shall have nothing to do with sex. We could have made him make love, to either or both of us, any day of the week.

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