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. November is an uneasy month – caught between fall and winter. The dark closes in, the air grows colder, and trees shed their leaves. It’s a dying month, the perfect month to explore works of fiction that touch on the uncanny, the shifting border between horror and fantasy, stories that flicker around the borders and carry with them a definite chill.
To start things off, my recommended starting place for Helen Marshall’s work is The Hanging Game, originally published at Tor.com and reprinted in her collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After. The story centers on a small logging town called Lawford where children play the Hanging Game of the title. As the name implies, the game involves a mock hanging, carried out differently in each town. In Lawford, children steal a bit of highrigging rope, loop it around an ash tree, stand on a wooden stool and lean forward until the rope is taut and nearly choking them. As they are being ‘hanged’ they speak prophecy, a truth they don’t remember after the game is over, and which no one is allowed to tell them about. Echoes of Norse mythology haunt the ritual, though Marshall never names them directly. The children play the game in the name of Hangjaw, the Spearman, the Gallow’s Burden, Father of Bears, who reads like an aspect of Odin who hung on the tree for nine days to gain wisdom, was pierced by a spear, and is often associated with the gallows. In addition to the Hanging Game, there’s a delicate balance between bears and humans in Lawford as well. Many of the prophecies spoken during the Hanging Game center on the way the children are called on to pay for their parents’ sins when a bear is killed. There’s an uneasiness in the way the plays the innocence of a children’s game against the idea of blood debts paid by later generations. The uncaring randomness of a balance that is satisfied as long as it claims someone, regardless whether that someone transgressed, is played against the formality and ritual surrounding the Hanging Game. It’s a work of tension, and the unexplained, but yet it still feels perfectly contained. It’s an excellent starting place for Marshall’s work, playing with many of the themes that recur in her other pieces, specifically elements of myth and fairy tale with older, darker meanings tucked inside them.
Next up, my recommended starting place for K.L. Owens’ fiction is July Story from Shimmer #27. Despite the name, it isn’t a summer story. Kitten is the prisoner of a mysterious house that stole him out of the world in the mid-1850s. The house feeds him, it keeps him alive as decades pass. Kitten is allowed to leave the house only in July, returning to the world while the month lasts before the house snatches him away again. While there are fairy tale elements to the scenario – a magical, traveling house that provides food and travels through time – there is horror in it as well. Everyone Kitten knows and loves is dead by the time he emerges from the house again. The house wants something from him, something he doesn’t know how to provide. The house rattles a sewing kit at him like an enraged poltergeist; it is a hurt and broken thing, unable to communicate its need. There is a warped room where all of Kitten’s lost years live, and the disturbing imagery of the house returning its first ‘pet’ home, depositing a child’s bones back in its room, exactly where it found them. Owens does a fantastic job balancing the horrifying and the fantastic, weaving in loss, family, and friendship, and combining the creepy and the poetic. Whether it’s a ghost story or a fairy tale largely depends on the angle from which you look at it, which makes it the perfect in-between kind of story for November, and the perfect place to start with Owens’ work.
The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club by Nike Sulway in the October issue of Lightspeed is another uneasy November kind of tale that occupies the spaces in-between. It plays with the uncanny nature of anthropomorphic animals, but rather than cute Beatrix Potter animals, these are rhinos on the edge of extinction, giving the story a darker edge. Clara is a member of the titular Karen Joy Fowler Book Club. She has a daughter, Alice, who takes care of children, but has chosen not to have children of her own. Clara’s husband has left her, and Clara co-owns a cafe with her friend Belle. Clara’s daily life and her concerns read as very human. She prepares meals, and organizes her library; she worries about her daughter, and she struggles to define herself and find her place in the world. But there’s is the added weight of her concerns of being the last of her kind. The biological imperative to reproduce versus enjoying relationships for their own sake play a large part in the story. The story also examines the way people define themselves at different stages in their lives – as a child, spouse, parent, friend, member of a species. During the course of the story, Clara and Belle become lovers. Rather than a happy ending, it’s a step in Clara’s evolution toward her ability to understand who she is an individual. There are layers to the story, with meta-references to other genre authors, and tropes. The uncanny and uneasiness comes in the play between human and animal characteristics, and the occasional questioning of what is metaphor, and what is literal. Overall, it’s an intriguing story, and an excellent starting place for Sulway’s work.
Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for Tananarive Due’s work is The Lake, originally published in Monsters Corner: Stories Through Inhuman Eyes, and included in her recently-released collection Ghost Summer. As the title of the original anthology suggests, the story is told from a monster’s point of view, but of course, monsters rarely see themselves as such, do they? The idea of predation is woven through the story on multiple levels. A teacher moves to Gracetown, the setting of many of the stories in Due’s collection. She is warned to stay away from the lake, but ignores the advice. She swims almost every day, and the water begins to invade her dreams. In her dreams, there are alligators in the water, and whatever she has become, these apex predators are afraid of her. At the same time, the theme plays out through the threat of sexual predation shadowing the tale. The teacher invites one of her young students to her house so he can help her repair it throughout the summer. The threat remains largely under the surface of the story; it is never made overt, but it is present enough to make the reader uncomfortable. The main character’s literal transformation into something monstrous with gills and webbed toes parallels the mounting tension as the reader wonders exactly what sort of hunger she teacher feels for her student and whether she’ll act on it. The moment of consumption at the end of the story can be read as literal or metaphorical, and it’s chilling either way. Stories about monstrous women are rarely told from the woman’s point of view, which adds an extra layer of unease to the story. Due asks the reader to feel sympathy for her main character while showing her as monstrous, and as embracing her monstrous nature. Not only is “The Lake” my recommended starting point for Due’s work, it is the starting point for her collection, setting the tone for Ghost Summer with many of the recurring themes in Due’s work.
That brings us to the end of another Women to Read: Where to Start. December will be here before you know it, and I’ll have more recommendations. Until then, leave your own suggestions in the comments!