With Halloween nearly upon us, it is time for a review of spooky short stories written in interwar Britain. Although Halloween was not celebrated in the modern sense during the interwar period, All Hallows Eve was a longstanding feature of the Church calendar, originating out of pagan Samhain celebrations. Short stories were an immensely popular format in the interwar years, with many short stories published in newspapers and dedicated magazines such as Strand Magazine. Many journalists and authors worked in the genre, which could be lucrative.
In recent years, the British Library publishing arm has re-issued many original stories of the 1920s and 1930s in various edited collections. Spooky short stories of the period often crystallise contemporary fears about technology, alienation, and modernity. They can also address social inequalities in a pointed way. For example, F Tennyson Jesse’s story ‘The Railway Carriage’, published in Strand Magazine in 1931, hinges on the third-class railway carriage as a democratic space that forces together people from wildly different backgrounds.
The story’s protagonist, a young woman named Solange, finds the closed nature of the railway carriage oppressive: ‘she would have given a great deal to be out of that little third-class carriage, to be in a modern corridor train, to be – this, above all – away from her travelling companions.’ The design of the train means that Solange cannot change carriages whilst the train is in motion, heightening her feeling of being trapped with two unusual companions. Solange ‘had to stay with them whether she would or no. It was really an outrage, she thought to herself, that such a thing as a non-corridor train should still exist.’
Solange is a modern, somewhat entitled young woman, who by the end of the story has to accept that there are things beyond the rational realm and that she cannot always control the world around her in the way she would like. When the train crashes, Tennyson Jesse introduces a supernatural element to the story and meditates on the justness of capital punishment, a practice that was under much debate during the interwar period. Despite the introduction of a possible ghost, the true horror of the story lies in the very real judicial practices of interwar Britain.
Another story which effectively conveys the terror that the proximity of strangers can bring is E.M. Delafield’s ‘They Don’t Wear Labels.’ It also demonstrates how the anonymity of the big city can be exploited, and how patriarchal structures can put women in danger. The story’s protagonist is Mrs Fuller, a boarding house keeper, who takes in a couple, Mr and Mrs Peverelli. Mr Peverelli is very charming, but his wife is sickly. From the moment the couple enter the house, Mr Peverelli plays on sexist stereotypes which Mrs Fuller is very happy to accept. He implies that his wife’s ailments are nervous disorders; Mrs Fuller then tells Mrs Peverelli ‘shed’ a good deal to be thankful for, with her husband in a good job, and always ready to do what would please her.’
When Mrs Peverelli tries to tell Mrs fuller that Mr Peverelli is forcing her to eat and drink things against her will, and that she thinks her husband is trying to poison her, Mrs Fuller naturally rubbishes the suggestion. E.M. Delafield neatly demonstrates the pervasive assumptions about domestic violence: ‘If you really believed it, why – you’d left him. It’s surely the very first thing you’d have done’ huffs Mrs Fuller. ‘You don’t understand’, responds Mrs Peverelli. ‘I love him.’
Shortly thereafter, the Peverelli’s move on, the wife looking ‘worse than ever – sallower and more frightened.’ The true horror of Mr Peverelli’s designs is revealed at the close of the story, when Mrs Fuller realises he has ground up a Christmas bauble and fed the powdered glass to his wife. Murder by ground glass was, incidentally, one of the ways in which Edith Thompson suggested murdering her husband in her letters to her lover Freddie Bywaters. E.M. Delafield had followed the Thompson-Bywaters case closely, and is surely referencing it in this story. Mrs Fuller, and the reader, are confronted by their willingness to believe strangers at face value, and to believe men over women. The horror here is not supernatural, but rather the by-product of an inherently unequal society.
A final female-penned, London-based, spooky short story appeared slightly after the interwar period, at the close of the Second World War. In 1945, Elizabeth Bowen published the (very short) story ‘The Demon Lover’. It effectively uses the bombed-out locales of war-torn London. Bowen’s protagonist, Mrs Drover, is checking up on her Kensington house after an extended stay in the country, away from the Blitz.
Things take a dark turn when Mrs Drover discovers a mysterious letter from a past lover, which warns her that today is ‘our anniversary, and the day we said. (…) I shall rely upon you to keep your promise.’ It transpires that Mrs Drover had a soldier lover during the First World War, who went missing. In fear of him, she decides to get a taxi as quickly as possible before the man can come to the house and claim her. Yet rather than a means of escape, the taxi becomes her prison, as she realises too late that the man behind the wheel is the very man she is fleeing from.
As in ‘The Railway Track’, in ‘The Demon Lover’ a means of transport traps a woman rather than give her freedom. The latter story also includes ample reflections on ageing and the compromises made by women: marriage, children and a big house in Kensington versus the excitement of a passionate love affair. Like Mrs Peverelli, Mrs Drover ultimately is unable to escape masculine power. The scariest thing for women turns out to be the patriarchy itself.
All of the stories and books mentioned in this post are available to purchase through the British Library online shop.
 F Tennyson Jesse, ‘The Railway Track’, in Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (London: British Library, 2018), pp. 267-286
 Ibid., p. 272
 Ibid., p. 277
 E. M. Delafield, ‘They Don’t Wear Labels’, in Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (London: British Library, 2015), pp. 265-273
 Ibid., p. 268
 Ibid., p. 270
 Ibid., p. 273
 Elizabeth Bowen, ‘The Demon Lover’, in Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales from the Weird City, edited by Elizabeth Dearnley (London: British Library, 2020), pp. 81-91
 Ibid., p. 85