The Flaw in the Crystal and Other Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair (British Library Publishing, 2023)
Review by Warner Holme: The Flaw in the Crystal and Other Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair represents a wonderful author-specific collection from the British Library Tales of the Weird series.
“The Flaw in the Crystal” is long enough that it could have been published as a standalone volume with little complaint. Dealing with questions of psychic and mystical influence, there is a building oddity and atmosphere to this tale. Agatha Verrall allegedly has a certain level of mystical gift, something undefinable, which she claims to be treating a young man who is at the center of the story with. The debates over the wisdom of this, the more mundane attempts to solve his psychological issues versus her supernaturalist ones, are the keys to the text.
With the use of magic circles and protective wards, there is much about this book that will remind readers of a current urban fantasy. On the other hand the layers of ambiguity lend away from this, and instead to a critique of alternative medicine. A slightly uneven read by today’s standards, the slow start might put a few off.
“The Villa Déserée” is one of the shorter pieces in the collection, and an excellent example of both the author’s style and ability to imbue tails with both supernatural and metaphorical significance. In it a young woman is going to visit friends and staying at a villa belonging to her fiancé, a widower. Her friends discourage her from staying in the place, not the least because the man’s previous wife had died there. While in many ways the plot could be seen as an exquisitely condensed version of a gothic novel, the basics of it feel fresh and well written.
The turn on this story, exactly what the disturbing manifestation is and what caused the death of the first wife, help to remind the reader that May Sinclair was a feminist first and foremost. The idea of a man’s sexual desire preceding him to the bedroom and resulting in death is, in a way, absurd. At the same time supernatural ideas of astral and personal projection are nothing new, even at the time of the writing. Furthermore the basic idea of a man’s sexual desire destroying a woman, even without his exact presence, would be something not only possible but unfortunately familiar to many people.
Unlike collections with short stories by multiple authors in the series, this volume does not feature a brief introduction to each story about the author. Instead there is a nice detailed introduction at the beginning of several pages, written by the editor and discussing May Sinclair’s life and her particular connection to the Supernatural and stories related to it. Indeed there is a wonderful anecdote about her use of the word “uncanny” as well as specific Freudian interpretation thereof.
This is another wonderful collection, and one of very few ways a current reader is going to get the collected supernatural stories by one of the premier feminists of her era. Ranging from short and clever to more ponderous and novella length, the contents will entertain anyone who likes a good old spooky yarn.