A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, an online magazine devoted to fiction and art about bugs. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
Welcome to Women to Read: Where to Start, a series of posts recommending women in the speculative fiction genre and where you should start with their work. (The first post in the series can be found here.)
To kick things off, I’d like to offer a suggestion out of left field. Toni Morrison, while she’s a highly acclaimed author, is not traditionally associated with the speculative fiction genre. But, at its heart, Beloved is a ghost story, and it’s my recommended starting point. Beloved, published in 1987, is not a conventional ghost story. The ghost in the tale is one born of rage, guilt, anger, and love, but not its own. It is a ghost birthed, quite literally, by the character being haunted, which makes the story all the more poignant. While I was initially introduced to Beloved through the filmed version, it stuck with me, a haunting in the true sense. The movie prompted me to seek out the novel, which is every bit as dark and darker still. Beyond the darkness, there is a lyrical quality to work, and an epic feel to a largely domestic story about pain and struggle very much rooted in this world. Beloved is a ghost story, but it is so much more than that. It is the story of life, with all its love and horror. It is the story of family, of holding on, and of letting go.
Among genre fans, Marion Zimmer Bradley likely needs no introduction. In addition to her own prolific writing career, she helped launched the careers of several other authors through her ground-breaking anthology series Sword & Sorceress, focusing on women in fantasy fiction, and through her Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. Among the new voices in speculative fiction she sought to promote, she was particularly interested in showcasing female authors at a time when the pages of most publication were still dominated by men. Bradley was also very active in fandom, co-founded the Society for Creative Anachronism, and wrote under multiple pen names, including writing gay and lesbian pulp fiction. For those who are unfamiliar with her work, I recommend starting with The Mists of Avalon. In this classic novel, Bradley reclaims the stories of the women in Arthurian Legend – Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, Igraine, Nimue – and all the other women typically either left out of Arthurian tales or relegated to secondary roles. She gives these women agency, elevating them beyond cookie-cutter and one-dimensional characters such as evil sorceress or patient wife. She gives the women of legend legendary status in their own right, complete with complex motivations and desires of their own. She draws them in shades of grey as opposed to stark black and white. In essence, she writes the women in her novel as (gasp) real people.
Helena’s Bell’s short story “Robot” was a Nebula nominee for Best Short Story in 2012, so what better place to start with her work? Though I must admit, I have a certain fondness for “In Light of Recent Events I have Reconsidered the Wisdom of Your Space Elevator”, which appeared in Shimmer #16. How could you fail to love a story with a title like that? May I cheat and suggest two starting points for her work? Both Robot and In Light of Recent Events I have Reconsidered the Wisdom of Your Space Elevator, are effective specifically because of what they don’t show. The stories lies largely in-between the lines of text, and rather than hitting readers over the head with her point, Bell trusts their intelligence and lets them bring something of themselves to the text. She captures a unique voice with each piece, and uses it to explore vast themes like love and loss on an intimate and personal scale in a lovely and poetic way.
Gemma Files is the author of the Hexslinger Series, a prolific short story writer, winner of an International Horror Guild Award, and other fellow Canadian. As a starting point for her work, I’ll recommend the first short story of hers that I read, “Spectral Evidence”. “Spectral Evidence” was first published in ChiZine #30, and was recently reprinted in Hauntings edited by Ellen Datlow, released earlier this year. “Spectral Evidence” is another story that expects the reader to bring something to the text. Its horror is all the more effective for its subtlety; it is insidious and creeping, rather than relying on buckets of blood and cheap shock value. Files uses footnotes brilliantly in the story, again telling much of the tale between the lines of text, by what is implied rather than what is outright shown. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’m a sucker for ‘found tales’ (think the first Blair Witch Project), and Files uses the trope particularly well, allowing the story to reveal itself slowly through notes and commentary on a series of disturbing found photographs.