While most readers think of Louisa May Alcott as the writer of classic family stories such as Little Women and Little Men, she had a darker side that appeared under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. These stories were Gothic thrillers that explore madness, revenge, and jealous passion. As is to be expected, they helped pay the bills, though Alcott did not acknowledge the stories as her own till the end of her life.
I have to confess to having only read bits and pieces of Little Women, so I did not really have a preconceived notion of her style or really any expectations about the book. I came away, though, with the thought that Alcott can certainly tell a story that draws you in and does not let you get away. These are not fast-paced thrillers, filled with gore and action. Rather, they are psychological studies of good and evil and particularly of the way that evil intent is often shrouded in a seemingly pleasant countenance.
This collection starts with “The Modern Mephistopheles,” which tells the story of a young writer desperate to be published (desperation is always a bad sign in these sorts of stories). Who should appear at the door but Mr. Helwyze (hmm, no foreshadowing there!), offering a deal. Book deals, broken hearts, and tragic romances ensue, all with an air of the supernatural.
Then there is “The Abbot’s Ghost,” another Christmas tale of hauntings. Here, an ancient family curse, wandering spectral monks, and a vast inheritance form the plot for a chilling narrative.
In all of these stories, Alcott deftly mixes romance, thrills, and generally at least a hint of the uncanny. Whether you have never read Alcott before or you know her only as a writer of children’s tales, these powerful explorations of the human heart will surprise and delight.
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