Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856-1934) — better known by his pen name F. Anstey — once ranked among England’s most celebrated writers. Never heard of him, you say? Well, you know his novels, or at least the central ideas that drive their plots. Before turning to “The Statement of Stella Maberly,” Anstey’s neglected tour de force of psychological horror, let me tell you about some of his more characteristic work, his humorous fantasies.
In 1882, Anstey— only in his mid-20s — published his first novel, “Vice Versa.” In it, the stout, conventional businessman Mr. Bultitude and his 14-year-old son Dick discover that an ancient talisman has inadvertently caused them to exchange bodies. Most of the action involves Mr. Bultitude and his horrible experiences at a boys’ boarding school, as he tries desperately to undo the transformation. Dick, however, would really prefer to let things stand: After all, he now possesses the money, leisure and opportunity to indulge every boyish whim. The result is one of Victorian England’s great comic classics, the source for several later topsy-turvy novels, plays and movies, most notably “Freaky Friday.”
The 1960s sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie ” derives, in part, from Anstey’s “The Brass Bottle” (1900), in which a well-meaning “Jinnee”— an elderly fellow named Fakrash — causes all sorts of mischief and havoc in the life of hapless architect Horace Ventimore. In “Only Toys” (1903), a bored brother and sister are shrunk to Lilliputian size by Santa Claus. Irene and Torquil discover that not only are their toys alive but that the dolls, tin soldiers and other playthings regard themselves as completely human. Myriad adventures and mishaps ensue. At one point the miniaturized siblings are haled into court for boarding a train without tickets. The judge is utterly gob-smacked when he hears the charge: “No! I can’t — I can’t believe it. Whatever you may be, Prisoners, tell me you have not sunk to that!” Eventually, Irene and Torquil are acquitted when their brilliant lawyer, a jack-in-the-box, proves that the pair aren’t really “human,” that they are “only toys.”
As these examples show, Anstey’s imagination was both fertile and charming. However, my own favorite of his books — besides “The Statement of Stella Maberly” — is “Tourmalin’s Time Cheques” (1891). On board a ship called the Boomerang, Peter Tourmalin wishes the time would pass more quickly. A mysterious fellow passenger duly tells him about the Anglo-Australian Joint Stock Time Bank, in which one can deposit unwanted minutes and hours. Whenever subsequently required, increments of time can be withdrawn through the use of special “cheques.”
Tourmalin sets up an account and, months later, when he needs respite from his sternly intellectual fiancee — “Sophia discouraged rapture; but on the other hand, no one was better fitted to inspire and sustain an intelligent interest in the wonders of Geology” — he gradually uses his cheques to escape back to the Boomerang. During these periodic quarter-hour visits to an unrealized past, Tourmalin discovers that he would have grown entangled in two increasingly delightful, then dangerously serious, shipboard flirtations. Eventually, what “might have been” and present “reality” begin to collide. As well as being an important early example of time travel, Anstey’s little novel is as silly and wonderful as vintage P.G. Wodehouse.
That said, there’s nothing in the least bit silly about “The Statement of Stella Maberly” (1896). Like so much horror fiction, it turns on the subtle question of how much one can trust the narrator: What is real? What is imagined?
In her very first paragraphs, Stella Maberly confesses that she has decided to set down the circumstances leading up to some unnamed, but obviously dire act because “there may come a time when, as has been the case before, my memory grows confused and I begin to wonder whether, after all, I may not have been mistaken.” Mistaken about what?
Stella first admits that since childhood she has been prey to sullenness and jealousy, but that at boarding school she made one friend, the wealthy and fragile Evelyn Heseltine.When her own family loses its money, the grown-up Stella is rescued from poverty by Evelyn. Before long, the two women — in truth, a couple — are living devotedly, happily together on a rural estate.
Until, that is, Hugh Dallas starts to pay regular visits. Why? Is this handsome caller in love with the fair-haired Evelyn, as everyone assumes, or the darkly beautiful Stella?
At a moment of crisis, Stella allows her beloved friend to be given a sleeping draught, having temporarily forgotten that chloral can be fatal to those with weak hearts. The next morning Evelyn appears cold and still in her bed, as Stella realizes that she has become an inadvertent — or perhaps advertent? — murderer. But then unexpectedly, miraculously Evelyn awakes, albeit strangely confused about everything around her. Gradually, Stella comes to believe that her friend did die in the night and that an evil spirit has reanimated her body.
Could this actually be so? Or is Stella suffering a delusion brought on by jealousy and growing insanity? Yet how is it that Evelyn now appears so much more vivacious and even duplicitous? The second half of Anstey’s novel adds one horror to another, as Stella finds herself coldly manipulated by what she takes to be a fiend in human form.
In some ways, “The Statement of Stella Maberly” could be construed as a typical Ansteyan conceit, given a very dark twist. In this welcome new edition, editor Peter Merchant includes, besides an introductory essay, draft material that shows how Anstey himself viewed his disquieting story. In the end, however, this shocker — contemporaneous with Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw ” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper ” — remains a chillingly ambiguous masterpiece.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday for Style.
Read more: 37 books we’ve loved so far
By F. Anstey. Edited by Peter Merchant
Valancourt. 171 pp. Paperback, $15.99