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When the Strange Horizons reviews team discussed the possibility of our reviewing ghost stories for Christmas, it seemed like a no-brainer. Except it turns out that the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas is not necessarily a global one. At a recent online seminar organised by the University of Glasgow Fantasy Centre, I was surprised to learn that the telling of midwinter ghost stories, a thing I have taken for granted for many years, is a more specific tradition than I’d imagined. Something of a national tradition, in fact, which in practice means an English tradition, and in reality a London tradition, promoted through print magazines. On top of that, the ghost story tradition we’re familiar with is a Victorian reinvention of the idea, the stories more structured, and perhaps a little more respectable, domesticated even, than the older, pagan narratives.

Nonetheless, in the UK, midwinter ghost stories have invariably found an enthusiastic audience. The biggest Christmas excitement for me, as a teenager in the UK in the early 1970s, was the latest adaptation of a ghost story by M. R. James, who, in my entirely uncritical judgement, wrote the best ghost stories ever. Even now, having read my way through the work of the other, assorted members of the soi-disant James Gang, I still think James did it best. Or perhaps I should temper my enthusiasm slightly, saying that James wrote a certain kind of ghost story—the antiquarian ghost story—and wrote it very well indeed, while other writers, E. F. Benson especially, wrote equally well but in a more worldly vein, though I still love the antiquarian ghost story best.

James’s work drew a particularly sympathetic response from Lawrence Gordon Clark, a film director who adapted five of James’s best-known stories for television between 1971–1975—the most successful, in my view, being “A Warning to the Curious” (1972) and “Lost Hearts” (1973)—as well as filming a truly stunning version of Charles Dickens’s “The Signalman” (1976). But after that long run of ghostly hits, the BBC turned to contemporary ghost stories. These, somehow, with the noble exception of Nigel Kneale’s “The Stone Tape,” never did quite as well.

As if hoping to relive its glory days by tapping into what was clearly a winning formula, the BBC has returned periodically to James’s stories, most notably with a lovely series of performed readings by Robert Powell, reflecting James’s habit of reading his stories to his audience by candlelight on Christmas Eve (“The Mezzotint” is probably the best of these performances, although “The Ash Tree” is fastidiously nasty), and most recently, there have been a couple of Jamesian adaptations by the tiresomely ubiquitous James fan boy, Mark Gatiss, neither of which was actively bad but neither of which was great (how, for goodness’ sake, does one manage to make “The Tractate Middoth” dull?). No matter how much he might want to succeed, Gatiss just doesn’t have Gordon Clark’s filmic eye, and without that the adaptations bump along the ground rather than taking flight. We will also draw a veil over the most recent BBC productions of contemporary ghost stories, again mostly written by Gatiss, because, just no. Meanwhile, the ITV network has never quite managed to top its terrifying 1989 Christmas Eve production of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, the screenplay written by none other than Nigel Kneale.[1]

After the most recent so-so BBC contemporary story, written by Mark Gatiss, featuring Simon Callow and a haunted recording studio, a friend of mine posed this question: which female ghost story writers deserve to be adapted for TV? The immediate answer was E. Nesbit (and her stories have been adapted for the radio), at which point we all looked at one another and thought, “Why hasn’t this been done already?” I mean, “Man-Size in Marble” and “John Charrington’s Wedding” are both screaming out for thoughtful, nuanced adaptations. And then I started thinking about all the other women writers who were effectively James’s contemporaries, not all of whom wrote under male pseudonyms, and none of whom, so far as I can recall, has made it to the screen. In fairness to Lawrence Gordon Clark and his ilk, back in the 1970s, most of those writers probably had been all but forgotten, unless you happened to like poking around in old ghost story anthologies, but Nesbit was very much a household name, more so than ever at that particular point, given the success of the film of The Railway Children in 1970. So how come that never happened?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several publishers drew attention once again to the richness of what Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert called the “literary ghost story”. In The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1986), out of forty-two stories selected by Cox and Gilbert, seven were identifiably by women,[2] while in Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology (1991), out of thirty-five stories, eleven were identifiably by women writers, and Cox and Gilbert’s introduction specifically acknowledged the existence of many other writers. Looking at the tables of contents for both volumes, neither group of names now seems particularly revelatory, but at the time most would have been pretty much forgotten by a general readership, so both volumes might have been regarded as a useful first step in rehabilitation. However, The Virago Book of Ghost Stories Volume 1 (1987) and Volume 2 (1991), plus The Virago Book of Victorian Ghost Stories (1988), all three edited by Richard Dalby, offered up a much broader range of material, although there was a fair amount of crossover in terms of names included, if not duplication of stories (and again, Vernon Lee is included). Around the same time, several small presses (among them Ash-Tree Press) began publishing long-out-of-print collections of ghost stories by women writers, and creating new collections of stories by writers otherwise overlooked. Much more recently, the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series has also included a number of stories by women writers in its various collections, and has volumes devoted to Mary Braddon and Charlotte Riddell.

And yet, there remains this sense that women’s supernatural writing continually requires attention to be drawn once again to its existence in a way that I really don’t think happens with writers such as James or E. F. Benson, and their brethren. (Although, having said that, I can’t recall that Benson’s ghost stories have been adapted for TV. This is a shame, as there are more than a few that would “enliven” Christmas Eve).

I thought about all this when the first volume of Women’s Weird was published, and I find myself thinking it again now that we have Women’s Weird 2, edited once again by Melissa Edmondson. That is, what is it about women supernatural writers that causes them to slip so easily from the mind? Based on what is published here, and in the previous volume, I have no obvious answer to that question, because the majority of the stories in both collections can easily hold their own against the likes of James or Benson.[3] But, and maybe this is the sticking point for some, few if any are actually like James’s work, in particular, though many of them would measure up reasonably well to Benson’s output. The writers featured in the two volumes of Women’s Weird rarely deal with the scholars so beloved of James (perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the refusal of the universities of the period to admit women as undergraduates), and when they do, it is almost invariably through a male viewpoint character. More often they seem to find their stories in domestic settings.

I wouldn’t want to fall into the trap of implying that women writers of ghost stories were producing a distinctively domestic form of weird fiction, because I don’t for a moment believe that to be true.[4] While there is no denying that a glance at the Table of Contents for Women’s Weird 2 reveals repeated references to both “house” and “room,” this is to overlook, first of all, the variety of geographical settings, some easily identifiable, ranging from London to India to small-town America, and then the use of those less well defined places that function more as markers of a certain kind of life, from the English garden, to run-down country houses, to small, dismal rooms in boarding houses, or upstate American cottages. So while it might be possible to argue that ghost stories by women are often linked to a building before an event, Stella Gibbons’s “The Roaring Tower,” Barbara Baynton’s “A Dreamer,” Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Green Bowl,” and several others certainly give the lie to this, as indeed does Edith Stewart Drewery’s “A Twin-Identity.”

To a degree, Drewery’s story sets the tone for this collection, with its first-person account by Marie Lacroix, a female Parisian police agent, in London to hunt down a murder suspect, during which process she receives unexpected, and seemingly supernatural, assistance in her quest. Yes, it is hinted that she at times disguises herself as a man in order to carry out her work (and it’s not entirely clear to me how much the element of fantasy comes into play here—were there female agents de police in Paris at this time?), but I find it fascinating that the narrator takes for granted the fact that she should carry out work of this kind. One wonders what her predominantly male audience—the story is apparently told to a group of snowbound railway passengers—makes of everything, but there is no doubt that Marie’s position as an agent de police is intended to add further veracity to her narration, implying that her story is to be trusted, because she herself is a responsible observer, as much as it is intended to titillate. Her profession is, if I’m honest, far more interesting than the story, which does involve a certain amount of mystical hand-waving, but what it might lack in supernatural interest, it more than makes up for with its depiction of a woman successfully pursuing a profession outside the home.

That easy assumption of personal agency also underpins Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Green Bowl,” a story of clairvoyance and mystical connection between two women of different classes, facilitated by ownership of the titular bowl and its twin, the sister bowls. Again, it’s a curious tale, well told, but one of the things that really stands out for me is the narrator’s account of her journeys across New England, either alone or with a female companion. “[D]o you mean to say,” asks a scandalised listener, “that you really go driving off to strange places, quite, quite alone? Have you no fear of tramps?” Katie Montague, the story’s narrator, instead cheerfully regales the company with tales of her resourcefulness, and that of her companion, Frances Kent, when the two find themselves miles from a night’s lodging, in the pouring rain, and obliged to put up in a tiny church overnight. Katie Montague casually talks of lighting a stove and having the wherewithal about her to ensure that she and her companion can eat and drink. And they are perfectly capable of tending to their carriage horse.

All this might be incidental to the seeming heart of the story, the meeting with Mrs Patton, the owner of the two green bowls, the eventual gifting of one bowl to Katie Montague, and her eventual coming into her power, but Katie’s lavish descriptions of her adventure prior to meeting Mrs Patton are clearly intended to establish the two young women as being entirely self-sufficient. I find it difficult, too, to get past the queer … I want to say subtext, but the closeness of the relationship between the two women is so front and centre within the story it would be an act of wilful misreading for a twenty-first century reader to ignore it. It’s not so easy to gauge what the girls’ audience for their story is thinking, but the mostly easy acceptance of their friendship and travels together suggests that most of the women present are either not bothered or are utterly ignorant. Travelling without a male companion seems far more scandalous.

Jewett was best known as a “local colour” writer, and her account of the young women’s experience, driving through the pouring rain and looking for somewhere to stay, is intensely vivid, as is the evocation of Mrs Patton’s speech patterns and daily life, which is detailed without seeming patronising. It feels like a lived experience. One feels, too, the connection forged between her and the two young women, and indeed the entire story is suffused more with friendship than it is with any sense of the supernatural. Or, to be more precise, Katie Montague’s belated accession to her powers, towards the story’s end, becomes a threat to her otherwise delightful life.

Indeed, what is striking about so many of these stories is that the “hauntings,” for want of a better word, are not entirely the point of the story. Take, for example, L. M. Montgomery’s “The House Party at Smoky Island,” which does actually feature a ghost, one with something on its mind, and yet the story has little to do with the ghost, and everything to do with the dynamics of a particular group of people at a particular moment, wondering about the deteriorating relationship between two people they all care about. Here, the ghost, when it appears, is not so much a haunting as a vehicle for a revelation that cannot conveniently be made in any other way. Its presence is almost incidental to the bulk of the story, which is instead a very sharp little study of a group of people who meet out of habit although, in truth, they probably don’t have that much in common. The ghost’s intrusion is almost a relief in that it distracts the reader from feeling rather more out of it, even, than the narrator, who remains at a slight distance from the main social group.

If Montgomery’s ghostly revelation is in many respects somewhat crude, there are others stories here that are far more intricate. Katherine Mansfield’s “The House” is very much a case in point. Is it even a ghost story? I think it is, but in so much as it anticipates a future haunting rather than one that has already taken place. It’s a story I don’t remember reading before (true of all the stories in this collection, in fact, which is itself a novelty), and I’m very glad to make its acquaintance as it seems to me an exemplar of a certain kind of story where doubt persists throughout as to whether there is a haunting, at least in the physical sense, whilst it is undoubtedly about a sustained act of imagination. Here, Marion takes shelter on the porch of an empty house, during a downpour, only to find that, mysteriously, this is indeed her own house, with her own husband finding her there as he comes home, bearing flowers and gifts. Their life in this miraculously beautiful house is perfect in every degree, until a mystery voice calls from the hall downstairs, drawing Marion away again. It is, if you like, a modern version of Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” with Marion taking refuge in a dream she and her lover constructed previously, when they visited the house, knowing they could never afford to rent or furnish it. But it seems likely that she will always have the house now, as the servants who discover her body fear that she will haunt it. Indeed, perhaps she haunts it already.

Alternatively, Bithia Mary Croker’s “The Red Bungalow” is reminiscent of some of Rudyard Kipling’s supernatural stories, but here there is a distinct sense that the narrator is just waiting for Netta Fellowes to get her comeuppance as she refuses to heed the warnings about the Red Bungalow, instead renting it for a pittance, determined to open it up and establish her new life at Kulu. The low-key tensions of life for army wives are laid bare in this account. Netta, with her “marvellous energy and enviable taste,” seems oblivious to the deeper niceties of service life, as Liz, the narrator, chides her gently for wanting to move so rapidly: “Then pray don’t look to me for any assistance. If you make such a hasty exit the station will think we have quarrelled.” Netta’s response—“no one could quarrel with you, you dear old thing”—in turn suggests she regards Liz as rather stuffy. One wonders initially if Liz’s throwaway comment that “our nursery was empty” implies a certain jealousy concerning Netta’s two children, but when she refers to herself later as “a middle-aged Scotchwoman,” one wonders instead if she is simply piqued by Netta’s refusal to take advantage of her considerable experience of the area.

What Liz knows intuitively—that the fact of the Red Bungalow having remained empty in a place where decent-sized houses are at a premium suggests that something is very wrong indeed—is reinforced by her experience when she visits for the first time.

As I stood reflecting thus, gazing absently into the outer glare, a dark and mysterious cloud seemed to fall upon the place, the sun was suddenly obscured, and from the portico came a sharp little gust of wind that gradually increased into a long-drawn wailing cry—surely the cry of some lost soul. (p. 103)

Her unease increases when an elderly English resident comes to her with other stories, emphatic that the servants will not stay, as indeed proves to be the case. Netta has airily dismissed these stories by noting that “this is the twentieth century,” which brings with it an unsettling second-hand rejection of the local Indian experience. While we can read Netta as merely ignoring the old India hands because she is determined to make her mark in local colonial society, she is also ignoring the stories told by the local Indian people, those she hears directly, and those relayed to her by people further up the social hierarchy. As so often happens in these stories, we never quite see the haunting, but the effect of Netta’s refusal to take the stories seriously is her undoing, socially and for her family.

But undoubtedly the most oppressively atmospheric of these stories is Bessie Kyffin-Taylor’s “Outside the House,” an extraordinary story of a haunting that has driven the family involved to bizarre lengths of denial. Narrated, inevitably, by an outsider, the story focuses on the experiences of John Longworth, a convalescent soldier who goes to stay with the family of his fiancée, Elsie Falconer, in their country house. It soon becomes apparent that there is something very strange about the house and its occupants, not least the family’s insistence that no one remain outside beyond 5 p.m. While this may make sense in the winter, it is deeply puzzling during the summer. Even more startling is the elaborate indoor garden created by the family and the shuttering on the windows facing the main lawn of the house. Undeterred by the family’s refusal to speak about the issue, Longworth is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, as anyone would be.

That the story is finished by a friend tells us that Longworth ultimately fails, but his death has far-reaching consequences for the family, obliged as it is to finally address its refusal to engage with the past. The alleged haunting is unusual—the ghosts of resentful miners who died in a pit disaster although they might have been rescued, besiege the house built on their involuntary grave. But the haunting seems to be tied as much to the failure of the mine owner and his descendants to admit that the family was in the wrong in its treatment of the miners. Their stiff-necked refusal to admit that anything has happened, even when their lives are weirdly proscribed by this dark family history, sets up the inevitable tragedy when Longworth will not stop asking. There are also hints that class issues are in play. Longworth’s failure to take the hint and stop asking questions, despite the stern admonitions of his hostess, indicate that he does not, from the family’s point of view, understand his position, and does not bode well for any marriage to the daughter of the house. But Longworth’s strange experiences in the garden resonate too with his wartime experiences, and there is a temptation to read the story as also being about the attitude of those not directly involved in the war, for whom it is an inconvenience to be tolerated.

It is Mary Elizabeth Counselman’s “The Black Stone Statue” that disturbs the hitherto fairly even tenor of this collection of weird stories, because it is so unlike the other stories (rather as Frances Stevens’s “Unseen—Unfeared” seemed oddly at an angle to the other stories in Women’s Weird 1). So far I’ve dodged the question of “what is weird fiction?” because the stories themselves have defined the term, simply because they seem, for the most part, to represent a particular, personal kind of engagement with the supernatural, and that includes Helen Simpson’s “Young Magic,” which deals with a child gradually coming to an awareness that she might possess strange powers, and then, as an adult, trying to determine whether or not this was the case, and how this might affect her future. Not a ghost story as such but recognisably akin, like “The Green Bowl.”

But “The Black Stone Statue” is something else altogether: an encounter with a mysterious creature that has the property of turning anything it comes into contact with into black stone, like some latter-day Medusa. The nature of the creature is never discussed, but the narrator exploits the creature’s ability to further their career as an artist, until a prestigious commission finally prompts them to confess. Now, it may just be me, but if we are reading “weird” as “supernatural,” in the traditional sense, how is this story anything but science fiction?

That in turn brings us to a couple of more general questions, namely: what is “weird?” And what is “women’s weird?” Is it weird fiction that happens to be written by women? Or is there a distinct type of weird fiction written by women, as I hinted at earlier? And is “weird” the same as “supernatural?” I noted in my review of Women’s Weird 1 (The BSFA Review 9, p. 22) (which exhibited a similar uncertainty) that “the proliferation of terms—strange, weird, supernatural, ghost—is indicative that we are in danger of becoming lost in a forest of immense taxonomic complexity.” A need for brevity meant I couldn’t explore that issue to the degree I would have liked at that point, but I think it’s worth exploring it now.

I have, not wilfully but undeniably intentionally, talked in this review about ghost stories, although some of the hauntings are rather less embodied than others. Some are little more than a feeling, or an apprehension, but over the years I’ve generally considered that it’s the sense of uneasy potential that marks out a ghost story for me, even if the spectre never actually manifests itself. So, a story as traditional as Lettice Galbraith’s “The Blue Room,” complete with devoted family servant as accessory to the ghost’s eventual laying, and a happy-ever-after for the young couple, can sit happily alongside Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom,” a strange tale of a man who disappears from a small, nondescript bedroom overnight, its narrative framed by the account of the woman who rented him a room, having been forced by economic circumstances to become a landlady.

I could easily reframe all these stories as being “supernatural,” but I think only the Counselman could be described as “weird,” if we take the definitions employed in Women's Weird 1. In her introduction to that collection, Edmondson invoked H. P. Lovecraft, who observed that “[t]he one test of the really Weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers” (qtd WW1 p. ix).[5] Perhaps I’m doing this wrong, but of all the stories in this collection, I think only the Kyffin-Taylor comes close to meeting those criteria, at least from the point of view of Longworth, the narrator, and even then, as other parties in the story confirm, the ghosts were embodied, and certainly not the product of an unknowable cosmic horror. Lovecraft at least writes from the reader’s point of view. Other early commentators, such as Mary Butts, author of an influential essay, “‘Ghosties and Ghoulies’: Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction,” serialised in The Bookman in 1933, wrote much more from the point of view of a writer of supernatural fiction (I recommend Butts’s “With and Without Buttons” in Women's Weird 1). Butts wrote that supernatural stories should bring with them “a stirring, a touching of nerves not usually sensitive, an awakening to more than fear—but to something like awareness and conviction or even memory”(qtd WW1 p. x), and that feels perhaps closer to what we might be seeing with these supernatural stories.

However, in the introduction to Women’s Weird 2, Edmondson discusses Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917).[6] In this, Scarborough considers the continuing popularity of the weird in fiction: “The spirit feeds on mystery. It lives not by fact alone but by the unknowable, and there is no highest mystery without the supernatural” (qtd p. vii). Which feels right, to my mind, but is that weird? Scarborough gets closer to the truth, and perhaps a little further from the weird, when she takes up the matter again in the introduction to Famous Modern Ghost Stories: “Modern ghosts are less simple and primitive than their ancestors, and are developing complexes of various kinds. They are more democratic than of old, and have more of a diversity of interests, so that mortals have scarcely the ghost of a chance with them” (qtd p. viii). And if the ghosts are more democratic, then perhaps so, too, are the writers. In these stories the reader is, so to speak, cheek by jowl with expressions of the supernatural. It is an up close and personal kind of experience, and thus maybe not quite so weird as it might at first seem.

I thought about this particularly when reading British Weird Selected Short Fiction 1893–1937, edited by James Machin, another collection from Handheld Press. It is a pleasing selection of stories, from names as familiar as John Buchan, E. F. Benson, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen (whose story “N” is here anthologised for the third time in 2020 that I’m aware of; uncannily, it was a story I’d not come across before this year, and now it seems ubiquitous), as well as E. Nesbit, Eleanor Scott, and, once again, Mary Butts. These stories seem to me to be, for the most part, much more centred on landscape and the outdoors, and consequently much closer to Lovecraft’s sense of “a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space” (qtd WW1 p. ix). Blackwood’s “The Willows” is well-known, but still, I think, one of his best stories, and the sense of menace emanating from the landscape itself is matched by Buchan’s “No-Man’s Land,” a new story to me, one concerning the notion of a preserved race of prehistoric people, lurking somewhere in the remote Highlands. Eleanor Scott’s “Randalls Round” has a surprisingly contemporary folk-horror vibe, concerned as it is with strange practices in a country village, and to some extent, so does Nesbit’s “Man-Size in Marble,” a story I’ve previously read as a ghost story: now I’m not so sure. Conversely, both the Machen and Butts’s “Mappa Mundi” deal with the idea of an urban landscape concealing as much as it reveals, and that seems to me to tap into a genuine sense of cosmic horror, and that’s not so far removed from the secret model landscape at the heart of L. A. Lewis’s “Lost Keep,” again a story I was unfamiliar with. Perhaps the best thing about this collection, though, is that it reprints Butts’s “‘Ghosties and Ghoulies’”, a boon indeed when the original is not that easily come by.

But, if the stories in British Weird seem to me, for the most part, to be weird (I’m reserving judgement on the Nesbit for now), I’m still not sure about the stories in Women’s Weird 2. I come back to this feeling of a sense of enclosure, even in the Jewett which, despite its upstate adventures, still, for the most part, takes place in the drawing room and cottage parlour. Weirdness seems to demand wide open spaces, but the supernatural, actual ghostliness even, seems to require corners and shadows, its shockingness deriving from the mundanity of its setting. And having said that, Women’s Weird 2 is then clearly the natural choice for Christmas Eve reading, while British Weird Fiction will suit Boxing Day very well indeed.

[1] This production is now famous for a particularly long-lasting shot of the face of the ghost filling the screen. It scared me so much when I was taping the broadcast that I accidentally shut down the video recorder and spent what seemed like minutes fumbling with the remote control to get the recording restarted. And still the face was on the screen when I got it going again.

[2] Not included in that total is Vernon Lee, who at that point was regarded as writing under a male pseudonym, whereas more recent research has made it clear that Lee thought otherwise.

[3] I have wondered if the answer is, simply, that many women writers published their stories in magazines, and didn’t have enough clout with publishers to get collections published. From the outset, James’s work primarily appeared as hardback volumes, while Benson was a prolific writer, publishing widely, in magazines as well as in hardback. And yet, looking at various bibliographies it’s clear a lot of these women writers were publishing collections of short stories all through this period, many of them entirely devoted to supernatural stories.

[4] At the same time, James’s fictions often touch on matters of domesticity; for a man who lived most of his adult life in college rooms, he understood extremely well how a middle-class household worked. And he had an eye for disturbing domestic images. One of the most horrific is that of a man putting his hand under his pillow for his watch in the middle of the night, and instead encountering a hairy mouth with teeth, while another involves a character reaching over the side of his bed to pet his dog and finding … something else. Let’s just say, there are reasons, even now, why I do not to stick my foot out from under the duvet in the middle of the night if I can help it, and James’s stories are several of them.

[5] Frankly, it pains me to have to refer to Lovecraft at all, but, whatever one feels about his stories, his Supernatural Horror in Literature is one of the first modern theoretical texts concerning the fantastic. I am pinching my nose as I write this section.

[6] Happily, this volume is available on Project Gutenberg, as is Scarborough’s anthology, Famous Modern Ghost Stories.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and freelance copyeditor. She reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and was assistant editor of Foundation. She was senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons when she died in September of 2022. You can read a 30 January 2023 special issue devoted to Maureen.
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