Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Behind a mask: the unknown thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott is a collection of four novellas that reveal another side of the author best known for Little Women.

Alcott started her writing career with “blood and thunder” tales that evidently, she rather enjoyed producing, even as they helped her make the money she so needed to earn as a way to support her family.

Each of these stories features sharp-witted, outspoken women. Alcott manages to give each tale a twist, and imbues them with suspense and irony. Four stories are included in this edition, although Alcott wrote several more Gothic tales.

In the introduction to this modern volume, Madeleine B. Stern writes that Louisa wrote her thrillers “when her hair was down and her dander up.” Here’s a brief description of a book that offers a deliciously dark side of a beloved American author.


Another side of Louisa: “Blood and thunder” stories

Adapted and excerpted from an article by Joy Stilley, AP News Features, August, 1975:  Louisa May Alcott, famed though out the world as the author of Little Women, a gentle book about a loving family, had a lesser-known side to her life as the author of “blood and thunder” stories.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott includes stories that were written under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard and were published in weeklies in the 1860s before Miss Alcott began writing fiction for girls.

“They are terrific, suspenseful cliffhangers and reveal a side of her that has never been investigated,” says Madeleine B. Stern. An Alcott scholar, she has edited and written the introduction to a book in which four of these “novelettes” were reprinted for the first time in more than 100 years.

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A long fatal love chase (louisa may alcott) cover

See also: A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott

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Discovering Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers

The discovery of their existence in the 1940s was a major literary event in which Ms. Stern played a part, she explained in an interview. “I was working on a biography of Louisa May Alcott, and for my research I visited Carroll Atwood Wilson, who had a rare collection of her books. He was sure that she had also written under a pseudonym and suggested I try to track it down.”

“I’ve speculated as to why she chose that pseudonym but I really don’t know,” Ms. Stern said. “…mostly it was a good masculine name. She in a way was ashamed of those stories, afraid of offending her family. 

While conceding that Louisa May Alcott was no Susan B. Anthony, Ms. Stern declared that she “swings a feminist pen” in the tales, which “vent her anger at the male lords of creation.”


Strong, passionate women characters

Miss Alcott’s female characters in the the thrillers were always strong, passionate women, painted as powerful and always angry at men, Ms. Stern pointed out.

“She loved people and resented any injustice to anyone who was oppressed, and certainly women were oppressed. She herself had gone out to service when she was 19 and had the unfortunate experience of doing degrading work, including blacking the boots of the head of the household.”

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Louisa May Alcott Books

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A change of course with Little Women

Miss Alcott was 36 when she was asked to write a girls’ book, Ms. Stern related. “She always needed money, and so she wrote about the only girls she knew — her sisters.

Little Women was so successful that she continued in that vein, finding it comfortable but not exciting. “Little Women has been reprinted in countless languages and is still read and loved.” With that success, sequels (including Jo’s Boys and Little Men) followed, along with many other books in the same vein.

The thrillers of Louisa May Alcott were set aside, but she never quite forgot them.

Ms. Stern, who considers Miss Alcott an “extraordinary genius” says that those familiar with Little Women would find it hard to believe that the author of the book about “domesticity, a loving family gathered around the hearth” had also written tales of “passion, power, rebellion, and vindictiveness.”

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Behind a Mask - the Unknown Thrilers of Louisa May Alcott

One Response to “Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott”

  1. Gosh! Thank you for this. Very interesting, and something I have learnt today.
    This site is wonderful. I really enjoy it all. Rosy

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