Women To Read is a monthly column from A.C. Wise highlighting female authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Welcome to July’s Women to Read. By coincidence, all four pieces this month deal with some form of haunting – whether it’s literal ghosts, characters haunted by their past, or both. My recommendations include three short stories and one novel, and all are worthy additions to your summer reading list.
Jac Jemc is a Chicago-based author who writes both short and long fiction. My recommended starting place is her deeply unsettling haunted house novel, The Grip of It.
The novel opens with a familiar scenario–a couple, James and Julie, buy a new house that seems too good to be true. It’s affordable, with a big yard, just isolated enough to feel private, but in an area where they’re both easily able to find jobs. Even though the house needs some work, they delight in its quirks; there are hidden passages and closets and extra rooms tucked away throughout the house. Of course there are also strange noises, a growling sound in their bedroom at night, and a low hum during the day, just on the edge of hearing. There’s a creepy neighbor who’s always watching them through his window, and there’s what appears to be a grave in their backyard. Even the neighborhood children are unsettling.
On my first walk through the woods, I find neighbor kids playing a game called Murder. One kid has to hide and think up a way to have been killed. Then the others have to guess how it happened. I can only see one of the children, hanging over a high branch. I hear the others trying to determine how the body has gotten into the tree.
There are rumors of an old tragedy associated with the house, but no one is able or willing to give James and Julie a straight story. Meanwhile, the strange incidents continue to occur. Childlike drawings appear on their walls. Julie discovers mysterious bruises all over her body. A journal filled with overlapping writing in an almost indecipherable hand turns up in a secret room, and then the room vanishes. James finds an old news story about their neighbor and the death of his little brother when they were children, except the people James and Julie talk to in town claim their neighbor only had a sister. They also say there was something wrong with the sister. She would scribble overlapping notes and drawings on any surface to hand – napkins, paper, even the walls. Every scrap of information James and Julie uncover only leads to more questions. How many children did their neighbor’s family have? What happened to them? Did they live in Julie and James’ house once?
Many of the novel’s tropes are familiar, but Jemc uses them effectively to explore the psychology of being haunted. Why would anyone stay in a house that is so clearly malevolent? James and Julie offer many excuses–finances, they just arrived, the house needs so much work it’ll be hard to sell–but ultimately it comes down to self-doubt. They tell themselves they must be imagining things, that the noises and bruises and everything else must have some rational explanation. Ultimately, it’s their determination to believe in a rational world that traps them, and that’s where the true horror of the novel lies. They have been taught to believe that the world behaves in certain, predictable ways, and things like ghosts just aren’t possible. They perform amazing mental contortions to cope with the unexplainable and fit it into an acceptable framework, doubting their senses and doubting each other, leading to mounting paranoia and claustrophobia as a result. They put themselves at risk, physically, mentally, and emotionally just to prove that there is no such thing as a haunted house.
Jemc adopts a dream-like/nightmare-like style of the writing, reflecting James and Julie’s mental state. Similar to the journal the couple discovers with its overlapping writing, the novel is told in alternating points of view, which often overlap and contradict each other, adding to the sense of unease. There are no easy answers to be found, and many loose threads remain untied, further underscoring the truth that sometimes the world simply doesn’t behave the way we’ve been told it should, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The Grip of It is a highly effective novel, full of creeping paranoia and feelings of powerlessness. It’s a quick read, but a highly satisfying one.
Lina Rather is an author, knitter, and amateur historian. My recommended starting place for her work is “The Fall, the Water, the Weight” recently published in Augur Magazine. The story begins with a 3 AM phone call, when an old friend, Oliver, calls Charlotte to tell her that another one of their friends, Julia, has gone missing. Her shoes were found beside the pool under the waterfall where they used to swim as kids, and deep down, Charlotte and Oliver suspect they know what happened to Julia.
Growing up, Charlotte, Oliver, Julia, and the fourth member of their group, Anna, were inseparable. Long before Julia disappeared, Anna vanished under complicated circumstances.
We found out Anna was dying in the fall of sophomore year, right before school started. Cancer. Later it came out that the factory in the next town upriver, the one that was surrounded by razor wire and that had been shut down since we were toddlers, had pumped heavy metals into the drinking water for years.
Julia and Anna had been in love since they were teenagers, when they were all still young, innocent, and happy. Before the group found out Anna was dying, they spent their summer swimming in the waterfall pool and sharing ghost stories and legends. The stories claimed the pool was a portal to another world, and that during the Great Depression, families would leave babies they couldn’t afford to feed there as offerings to the Will-o’-the-wisps and fairies.
When the friends learn Anna’s cancer is terminal, they make a pact to help her if they can. They gather beneath the waterfall, desperately wanting to believe the pool really is a portal to another world, and that they’re not helping her to die, but to escape to a life without pain. All those years ago, Anna vanished beneath the water, and her body was never found. In the present day, Charlotte and Oliver can only hope that Julia’s body will never be found either, and that somehow and Anna found a way to be together again.
It’s a beautiful story, touching on queerness, friendship, and first love, along with guilt, grief, and loss. Rather perfectly captures the feeling of a particular time of life when your friends are your entire world. You see them every single day and share everything, and as a result the friendship you have with them is intense and almost transcendent. Even though Anna and Julia are the only romantic couple, the love between all four characters is palpable. Anna’s sickness changes everything, and the group’s grief for her is just as powerful. Both Charlotte and Oliver carry their guilt, an unshakable feeling that they hastened Anna’s death and added to her family’s pain–that she simply died and disappeared in the water. And yet, Rather leaves the story open ended. As readers, we are left in the same position as Charlotte and Oliver as adults, fiercely wanting to believe in the magic of the pool beneath the waterfall. We want Julia and Anna’s story to be a happy one, and we want Oliver and Charlotte’s story to be happy as well. We want their choice to be vindicated and, despite everything they went through when they were young, for them to find their happily ever after, after all.
Kristi DeMeester is an author who consistently writes dark and delicious fiction. I have my eye on her novel Beneath, as well as her short fiction collection, however my recommended starting place for her work is “Learning to Drown” recently published at Three Lobed Burning Eye Magazine.
Debbie and her sister Hannah have a strange relationship with the river near their house. When Hannah stands in it, the water turns silvery around her. She whispers to it, and it seems to answer her. When she emerges from the water, she’s never wet. But to Debbie, the water is different.
Her dress is never wet when she comes out of the river. At first, I thought it was a miracle, but now I know better than to think anything so simple. Once, I tried to go into the river myself, but the water was like a thousand razor blades, and I screamed and screamed until Hannah came and pulled me out.
Their mother has a deep history with the river, having experienced it’s magic many years before. She forbids her children from entering the water, but Hannah is determined to disobey. While Debbie would prefer not to know the river’s secrets, perhaps because it doesn’t speak to her the way it speaks to her sister, Hannah is convinced there’s something supernatural in the water. Furthermore, she believes it loves her and has chosen her, like it chose their mother before her, but for Hannah, things will be different. The river will never fall out of love with her like it did with her mother.
Although it remains largely unseen on the page, the supernatural element haunting the edges of the story is effective. DeMeester’s imagery is striking, and her use of language beautiful. At its heart, “Learning to Drown” is a story about family, and specifically a family of women relating to each other. There is jealousy between Debbie and Hannah, and between Hannah and her mother, but there’s also real love between each of them. Like all family relationships, this one is messy and complicated, made even more so by the mother’s admission that she loved the entity in the river when Hannah was conceived, but had fallen out of love with the entity by the time Debbie was conceived. The way all three women seek validation, wanting to feel special, chosen, and loved rings painfully true. By using the supernatural as a mirror, DeMeester speaks to the way women are frequently taught to compete with each other for men’s attention, making it a haunting story on more levels than one.
Ekaterina Sedia is both a scientist and a prolific author. It’s hard to pick just one piece as a recommended starting point, because I love all of her work, however I’m going with a story that has stuck with me since I first read it: “Tins Cans” originally published in Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas, and reprinted at Weird Fiction Review.
The story’s protagonist is an old man, a widower, who takes a job as a night watchman at the Tunisian Embassy. Before the building housed the embassy, it was a mansion belonging to Lavrenity Beria, a member of Stalin’s inner circle known for his brutality. Beria did not limit his penchant for violence to Stalin’s enemies however, and soon after he begins the night watchman job, the protagonist encounters the ghost of a little girl while on his rounds.
She turned once, her face half-melting in the deluge of ghost tears, her fists still pummeling against the invisible door, but without conviction, her heart ready to give out. Then an invisible but rough hand jerked her away from the door–I could not see who was doing it, but I saw her feet leave the ground, and then she was dragged along the hardwood floors through the nearest closed door.
The night watchman is sadly unsurprised by this apparition. During the 1950s, he worked as Beria’s chauffeur, helping to procure young girls for him to rape and murder. The first ghost isn’t the only one he sees, either. The house is soon filled with dead girls–a haunting that may be triggered by his return to the house– all naked, all between the ages of twelve and eighteen. At first no one else seems to see the girls, but there are rumors among the rest of the staff of bones buried in the mansion’s basement walls.
Eventually, the haunting increases in intensity and the ghosts begin to make themselves known to the diplomats and the other employees in the embassy. There is talk of an exorcism, and eventually a demolition team is brought in to excavate the basement to determine whether the rumors of Beria’s crimes are true. As the walls in the basement are destroyed, the bones and skulls of the dead girls are found, fully dragging the somewhat open secret of Beria’s monstrosity into the open at last.
The story is a chilling one, and Sedia tells it unflinchingly. The horror lies not in the presence of the supernatural, but in the real life historical torture inflicted on the girls. The protagonist’s guilt is a complicated thing. He almost regrets the excavation of the girls’ bones because carrying the burden of their deaths and his role in them as Beria’s former chauffeur is the only thing keeping him going. At the same time, he envies their release. They have found a peace he cannot, even though he knows he doesn’t deserve forgiveness or absolution.
Sedia handles the complex and horrifying subject matter deftly. She plays the idea of the protagonist doing what he felt he had to do to survive in a horrible situation against his knowledge of it being reprehensible. He lived in relative comfort while others suffered, and now he has to bear the consequences. Again, his relationship to his guilt is a complicated one, making the story both a fascinating and terrifying exploration of human nature.