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. It’s October, so what better theme to focus on than ghost stories? However, instead of bringing you traditional ghost stories, I’m discussing four works that expand the concept of what a ghost story can be.
First up, my recommended starting place for Quan Barry’s work is She Weeps Each Time You’re Born. Barry has published several books of poetry, but this is her first foray into novel territory, and it’s a hell of start. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born presents Vietnam as a country full of ghosts, both literal and figurative. The protagonist, Rabbit, is born in her mother’s grave and dug up by her father. She hears the voices of the dead, and sees ghosts all around her. The novel is contemplative and quiet, but full of violence and trauma as well. Barry’s poetic roots show in her use of language. The narrative moves with a dream-like quality, frequently breaking with (modern, Western) conventions. It unapologetically head hops, treating the story like a river, one that Barry guides the reader to dip into at various points, catching thoughts from this character, then that, before moving on. The story is both linear and circular, events and characters recurring, loops closing pages and chapters later just when you think they’ve been dropped. The story spans several years, and occasionally generations as it moves backward and forward in time. Always, there are ghosts reminding the reader of the violence visited upon, and born in, Vietnam, and showing it on both the epic and extremely personal scales. As Barry’s first foray into prose, it’s a perfect starting point, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.
My recommended starting point for Gabby Reed’s work is “Glaciers Made You,” recently published at Strange Horizons. This is another non-traditional ghost story, one where the tale itself is suffused with a sense of haunting. As a young child, Bonnie finds words written on the skin peeled away from her sunburns. They’re only fragments, but they point to geological features, moraines, and ridges, an incomplete map she struggles to follow. Reed pairs the literal writing on Bonnie’s skin with a moment written on her heart. It is a moment during a road trip Bonnie took as a child, where she and her father lay side by side in a dry creek bed in the Badlands, feeling how connected they were to the desert around them. The rest of the story ripples out from there, like rings around stone dropped in a pond. Bonnie’s father is dead, and “Glaciers Made You” is Bonnie’s ghost story. Reed’s descriptions are painfully lovely – wide open vistas that are the opposite of traditional dark, cramped, and claustrophobic ghost story settings take on an air of sorrow and the uncanny. As Bonnie grows older, it gets harder to peel away her skin. Life has given her a shell, a literal thick skin. It protects her, but makes her vulnerable as well. It severs her connection with her father, driving her to greater extremes to recapture what she’s lost. It’s a wonderful and poignant starting place for Reed’s work.
Next up, my recommended starting place for Lily Hoang’s work is “The Foxes” from the anthology Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas. Like Barry’s novel, The Foxes presents Vietnam as a country of ghosts. In this case, the ghosts are foxes who are also the reincarnated spirits of seven murdered women. These seven women were the sole survivors of a deadly plague that wiped out their village only be captured by the colonizers who arrive shortly after the plague ends, tortured, and hanged as a source of evil. Their bodies vanish, and shortly afterward, the foxes appear, ravenous and implacable, destroying entire villagers and leaving only one survivor alive each time – a woman who is chosen to become one of them. Hoang weaves multiple threads throughout the story – descriptions of the plague, conflicting tales of the fox-women’s true nature, and a children’s game the reenacts the legend where certain girls (always the popular ones) are foxes who chose one girl to join them, while the other must play dead and are forbidden from speaking for a week. The question of who has a voice and who has power plays an important role in the story. It explores gender as well, particularly through the differing accounts of the fox legends the protagonist is told by her mother versus the accounts told by her father. As the anthology’s title suggests, “The Foxes” is a haunted story – and a haunting one – and it is a wonderful place to start with Hoang’s work.
Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for Alaya Dawn Johnson’s work is “The Score,” originally published in Interfictions 2 edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. Similar to Reed’s story, there is a ghost at the center of this tale, but one defined by absence. Through a series of news stories, articles, interviews, and letters exchanged, “The Score” tells the story of Jake Pray musician/activist who dies under mysterious circumstances in police custody. Following his death, he becomes a symbol – a victim of police brutality, a conspiracy to discredit the police, proof of a higher power. Everyone claims him and everyone claims to know him best, his friends, rival musicians, his ex girlfriend. Even strangers begin to claim him after his death; reports of his ghost circulate, and every sighting is followed by a major violent event – a ceasefire ending, a bombing, a declaration of war. Johnson tells us of Pray’s ghost, but never shows us the ghost directly. Jake himself is never given a voice, highlighting the way people’s lives are often reshaped after their deaths – becoming more or less perfect, depending on who is telling the story. Beyond the obvious uneasiness that comes with a story that is painfully close to actual news stories happening today, there is a general sense of uneasiness pervading the tale. The truth of Jake’s death, how he died in his cell with a small piece of rope in his hand, and a microscopic tear in his heart is never fully explained. Again, it is left to the reader to fill in the absence, claiming a truth for themselves the same way the characters do. There’s a secondary layer to the story that is particularly fascinating, a friendship that develops between an internet conspiracy theorist and Pray’s former lover, Violet. Their relationship begins as antagonistic – he comes off as a crackpot reaching out to a complete stranger and demanding attention. Over time though, they develop a kind of respect for each other, or at least an understanding. They are constants in each others’ lives, there is a loneliness to each of them, and in the end, there’s a sense they know each other better than anyone else. This brings the story back full circle, speaking to the way we reinvent people in their absence – the fact that these characters never meet in person allows for a more honest communication between them. They know each other in a way that Violet and Jake never knew each other when he was alive. As ghost stories go, it’s an effective one, and a wonderful place to start with Johnson’s work.
So there you have it – October’s Women to Read: Where to Start. I’ll be back with more recommendations in November. In the meantime, leave your own suggestions in the comments – ghostly or otherwise!