Birthday Reviews: Margo Lanagan’s “The Proving of Smollett Standforth”

Birthday Reviews: Margo Lanagan’s “The Proving of Smollett Standforth”

Cover by Alamy.com
Cover by Alamy.com

Margo Lanagan was born on June 5, 1960.

Lanagan has won the World Fantasy Award in four separate categories. She won her first awards for her collection Black Juice, which included “Singing My Sister Down,” which won for Best Short Fiction. Her novel Tender Morsels tied with Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year, and she won her most recent World Fantasy Award for the novella “Sea Hearts.” Black Juice and “Singing My Sister Down” also won the Ditmar Award, and the story earned the Aurealis Award and Golden Aurealis Award. Lanagan’s other Ditmar’s were for the short story “The Goosle” and the novels Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts. Lanagan has also received the Aurealis Award for her short stories “The Queen’s Notice,” “A Fine Magic,” “A Thousand Flowers,” “Bajazzle,” and “Significant Dust.” Her novel Sea Hearts won the Aurealis for Best Young Adult Novel and for Best Fantasy Novel.

Lanagan originally sold “The Proving of Smollett Standforth” to Jack Dann and Nick Gevers for their anthology Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, which was published in 2011. It was was a finalist for the Aurealis Award for Best Fantrasy Short story and was reprinted the following year in Ghosts: Recent Hauntings, an anthology edited by Paula Guran.

“The Proving of Smollett Standforth” is the story of a timid young domestic servant, whose job in the house where he lives is to clean and polish shoes and boots. When he is not performing these duties, Smollett sleeps alone in a small attic room. Although the room only has a single door, Smollett is visited nightly by the spirit of a long-dead woman who comes in through a door which has been blocked off. Each night, she presses a beaded necklace on Smollett, which burns his chest when he puts it on, but he in unable, or unwilling, to fend her off.

His shyness means that he doesn’t feel he can confide about his nocturnal visitor to anyone else in the house and he just comes to live with it, although when the cook discovered the marks on his chest, she treats him with a greasy balm and is worried that he suffers from some disease. Smollett’s concerns come to a head when he receives a letter requesting that he get permission for his brother, Dravitt, to spend the night at Smollett’s master’s house while Dravitt is on his way through London for his own posting. Rather than seek help, Smollett decides it is time to take action against the apparition himself, rather than let Dravitt experience it.

Although there is nothing overtly sexual in Smollett’s interactions with the spectre in his room, there is very definitely a feeling that in many ways the ghost is a form of succubus. Smollett’s embarrassment about the encounters and desire to keep them hidden from everyone else, combined with his young age, makes the visitations and results seem akin to a boy’s nocturnal emissions.

Reviewed in its original publication in the anthology Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, HarperVoyager 2011.


Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Doing Business at Hodputt’s Emporium” in Galaxy’s Edge. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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