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 Unlikely Story, an online magazine publishing three issues of fiction per year with various unlikely themes. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. Winter is almost upon us. With the chill air, howling wind, and snow threatening in the clouds, it’s the perfect time for tales told around the fire. This time around I’m focusing on four short stories offering their own spins of fairy tales, myths, and urban legends – the right kind of stories for an almost-winter’s eve.
To kick things off, I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to recommend a starting place for Kelly Barnhill‘s work, and then offer another story as an exercise in comparing and contrasting (it’s like English class all over again). “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch,” recently published at Tor.com, is a sweet story, with a relatively light tone layered over darker undercurrents. As the title suggests, the story centers around a woman and a mythical sasquatch who happens to not be so mythical. The recently widowed Mrs. Sorenson has set the whole town a-flutter, simply by being herself. She’s always been a bit of an outsider, but since her husband’s death, many of the local men are a little too interested in her, and many of the local women are convinced there’s something not just scandalous, but downright wrong about her. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear Mrs. Sorenson has taken up with a rather unconventional lover – a sasquatch, who may or may not be her old flame. The relationship isn’t handled salaciously; it’s a tender thing, though there is an element of sexuality. Mrs. Sorenson, by her very nature, is a sexual creature, a woman in touch with her desires and unapologetically so, despite the puritanical attitudes and gossip running rampant in the town. These elements combine to make the story a fascinating contrast with another of Barnhill’s stories – and one of my favorites – “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife,” which appeared in Clarkesworld in 2006 and in the anthology Clarkesworld: Year Five. Both stories feature a spouse dealing with the loss of their partner. “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” is a creepy and dark piece, exploring a possessive and unhealthy relationship, one that doesn’t end with death, but rather only becomes truly fulfilling for the taxidermist once death has occurred. “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch” is the opposite. Here is a woman who is self-possessed, rather than being a possession, whose reaction to her husband’s death is to close one chapter of her life and move onto the next one. The taxidermist’s wife is, by necessity of the story, defined entirely by her relationship to her husband. “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch” is a story about a woman embracing her nature, and becoming who she was meant to be, while not downplaying the importance her husband had in her life, or their love for each other. Even without taking them as a study in contrasts, both stories are worth reading, as is Kelly Barnhill’s work in general.
“Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong, recently published in Strange Horizons, is another story that makes the mythological personal. The women of the narrator’s family have been tied to the dead god by blood and promises for as far back as anyone can remember. Despite being the younger of two sisters, Christina is chosen by the dead god as his heir, a role which comes with both power and burden. The story is poetic and touching, and uses the framework of mythology to provide a rich character arc for the narrator, and to examine issues of class, disability, and disenfranchisement in society. One of the things I particularly appreciated about the main character was her wisdom, which transcends traditional deal-with-a-supernatural-entity narratives. Rather than jumping at a chance for power or trying to outsmart the dead god, Christina simply refuses the offer outright, until she has no choice in the matter. When she finally does call on the dead god’s favor, it is for her sister’s benefit and not her own. Although it isn’t dealt with explicitly in the story, this choice on Christina’s part casts her in a parallel role to the dead god in her sister’s life. With her mother’s death, Christina has no choice in her role as heir; with Christina’s deal with the dead god, her sister is given no choice in what comes next. The dead god’s boon is thrust upon her, and she will have to deal with the consequences. The story is perfectly satisfying in itself, but there are threads embedded in the narrative ripe for plucking and weaving into other stories to be told and retold both inside and outside its borders – as the best myths do.
From mythology, we move onto fairy tales with “Hunting Monsters” by S.L. Huang, published by the newly-launched fiction division of The Book Smugglers. This story mashes up several well-known tales, including Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, and Bluebeard, and goes beyond these tales to explore their consequences and introduce elements of moral ambiguity. In her author interview about the story, Huang says she has always been interested in what happens beyond the borders of traditional fairy stories, the ramifications of the blood and violence that are often presented as an end game, or a black and white cautionary lesson. But in a world where animals talk, how can humans justify eating meat, or claiming the importance of their own lives against those of intelligent animals? These questions raised by fairy tales form the backdrop against which Huang tells a beautiful and painful story of fierce women, family, and friendship. There are no easy choices here. Various notions of love and loyalty are played against each other here, with each character willing to uphold what they believe in, even at the cost of their own lives and happiness.
Last but not least is my recommended starting place for Carmen Maria Machado‘s work, “The Husband Stitch,” which recently appeared in Granta. Like Huang’s “Hunting Monsters,” “The Husband Stitch” mashes up several ghost stories and urban legends, and puts the blood and sex of the old tales front and center, while giving them true weight and consequence. The story plays on the reader’s familiarity with classic tales, particularly The Green Ribbon, to infuse the piece with tension. Nearly everyone knows how the story will end, how it must end, and yet the sense of impending doom, the question of when crawls beneath the reader’s skin and leads them through the story. Beyond using the familiarity of the tale to create tension in the story, Machado plays with the ghost story format itself by building in stage directions, harkening back to the oral tradition and the way stories are meant to be told. Machado also examines gender politics in this piece – the acceptable role of women in society, in families, and with each other, along with the expectations and pressure that come with simply being female in the world. “The Husband Stitch” is an interesting companion piece to “Hunting Monsters” in another way, in that it partially inverts the Bluebeard legend, making the husband the insatiably curious one and the wife the one asking for unequivocal trust. However, like the classic Bluebeard legend, it is still the wife who pays the price. She wanted a small piece of privacy, one single thing she could call wholly her own, but unlike Bluebeard, she is the only one hurt by the revelation of her secret. However there is yet another inversion here. The narrator chooses her fate; she gives up her secret and allows what the reader knows was always going to happen to occur on her own terms.
While these stories are unlikely to comfort you as the days get shorter, colder, and darker, hopefully they will keep you entertained in their own way. As always, please leave your own suggestions for women to read and where to start in the comments.