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A Little Blood & Thunder Behind Alcott

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott, edited and with an introduction by Madeleine Stern William and Morrow, Co. 281 Pages, $23

By Emily J. Wood

The four stories in the recent reprinting of Louisa May Alcott's Behind A Mask are closer relatives to "Melrose Place" than to Little Women.

Filled with enough lust and feuding to make Amanda Woodward quake in her boots, these stores, called potboilers, were the pulp fiction of the old -19th century.

In Alcott's time, cheap weekly magazines regularly published sensational stories of bloodlust and scandal Authors frequently tossed off these frothy pieces to pay the bills while waiting for a publisher to accept their more highbrow works.

Alcott was such an author. In the 1860s, she published dozens of tales under the pseudonym of M. Barnard.

"I intend to illuminate the Ledger with a blood & thunder tale as they are easy to 'compoze' & are better paid than moral & elaborate works of shakespeare," Alcott wrote to a friend in 1862.

Four such tales are reprinted in this collection: "Behind A Mask," "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," "The Mysterious Key" and "The Abbot's Ghost."

Sharing the themes of family intrigue, feminine trickery, and unstable patriarchy, the stories are certainly sensational. But even the witchy women and swarthy men who populate Alcott's pages cannot detract from her crisp and lively prose.

Key to Alcott's success in the genre of pulp fiction is the mischievous side she's not afraid to show. You can sense Alcott's delight in debauchery throughout the collection.

Her first story, "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," for which she won $100 in a contest, begins briskly: "To and fro, like a wild creature in its cage, paced that handsome woman, with bent head, locked hands, and restless steps. Some mental storm, swift and sudden as a tempest of the tropics, had swept over her and left its marks behind."

Not exactly "Hamlet," but it's entertaining nonetheless.

Though no one doubts the historical value of these stories, their content places them with Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon as great beach reads. Alcott herself put it best in her journal of 1862: "I enjoy romancing to suit myself, and though my tales are silly, they are not bad."

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