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.
by A.C. Wise
Even though Halloween is over, we’re still within the haunted season, the time of year when things are dead, dying, or at very least sleeping and dreaming. That being the case, it seems only appropriate for this installment of Women to Read: Where to Start to focus on ghostly and haunting tales.
Jaime Lee Moyer is the author of numerous short stories and her debut novel – my recommended starting point for her work – Delia’s Shadow, was released by Tor earlier this year. The novel tells the story of Delia, who has seen ghosts all her life, and the one ghost in particular who will not let her rest. Set in the early 1900s during the San Francisco International Exposition, the novel deftly blends historical fiction, supernatural, mystery, and brace yourself ewgirlcooties, romance. That’s right – ghosts, bloody serial murders, police investigations, rigorous historical details and love. There’s even, gasp, a wedding! Along with everything else, Delia’s Shadow is about family, the one you’re born into and the one you choose, a theme which echoes throughout the book and gives it weight. From the first, Delia’s Shadow is compelling, driving the reader to devour it as quickly as possible just to find out what happens. But the characters at the heart of the story are what really make it shine. They’re compelling and likable; they feel like chosen family. Luckily, Delia’s Shadow already has at least two planned sequels featuring the same cast of characters.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s writing is often billed as ‘early American feminist writing’, and it’s hard to argue with the definition given that my recommended starting point with her work could be considered as describing gaslighting before gaslighting was a widely accepted term. While it isn’t exactly a ghost story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” may be the very definition of a haunted story. A creeping and insidious dread permeates this tale of a woman quietly losing her grip on reality, sparked by her physician husband confining her to a room decorated with hideous yellow wallpaper ‘for her own health’. Even though no traditional ghosts manifest, the room is haunted by echoes, hinting others have been imprisoned before her. There is a recursive quality to the story, suggesting the main character may be the source of her own haunting. Beyond being an effective ghost story, this circles back to the gaslighting theme, suggesting the woman’s problems are her own fault, which makes the story all the more powerful and disturbing. On a personal level, the closing image of the main character creeping smoothly around the room at just the right height is one that will never leave me.
One could start just about anywhere with Joyce Carol Oates’ work and be satisfied. Even limiting oneself to her ghostly and haunted tales, the same would be true. So I’ll cheat and recommend the thematically-appropriate story I read most recently as a starting point: “Haunted,” most recently appearing in Ellen Datlow’s Hauntings. (Can you get any more on topic?) “Haunted” is another ghost story that may or may not be a ghost story, but is all the more effective for its uncertainty. It lingers the way a ghost story does, telling of a young woman’s encounter with something not entirely explained or explainable in an abandoned house. As the best stories do, especially ghost stories, “Haunted” offers a story within a story, a story behind the story, lurking, ghosted just below the surface of the text. It’s also a story about young women and the way they relate to each other, the way they’re expected to behave, and who they truly are on the inside. It’s a story I would recommend at any of the year, haunted or otherwise.
To close out the haunting theme, I’d like to point to Tori Turslow and recommend her story “Boats in Shadow, Crossing”, which appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (and thank you to M. Bennardo for reminding me of this story and highlighting its appropriateness to the ghostly theme). Once again, this isn’t a traditional ghost story, but it is haunted, and the theme of ghosts and things moving just beneath the tale’s surface recur. The writing here is lush, and the world is rich and deep and decadently gorgeous. The story gets extra points with me for gender fluidity and a Carnivale/Venetian setting which hits to my fictional sweet spots. The story also plays with myth and history and classic literature, and like the above recommendation, is well worth reading in any season.
Thank you all for tuning in for this vaguely Halloween themed installment of Women to Read: Where to Start. What are your favorite ghost stories by or about women?