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Women to Read August/September 2019

Women To Read is a regular column from A.C. Wise highlighting female authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.

Welcome to another Women to Read! I’m writing this in the depths of summer, so what better time to discuss books featuring hauntings and death? Every season is a ghost season if you have the right frame of mind, and it’s never too early to prepare for Halloween.

Sarah Waters is an award-winning novelist based in London, and my recommended starting place for her work is her unsettling Gothic novel, The Little Stranger, which was made into a movie in 2018.

Dr. Faraday is called to the crumbling country estate known as Hundreds Hall, home to the Ayres family – Mrs. Ayres, her daughter Caroline, and her son Roderick. Faraday remembers the home from his youth, when his mother was employed there and it was impressive and grand. Now it’s in decline, worn and shabby, as is the family. Roderick returned from the war scarred and broken, Caroline would rather ramble through muddy fields with her dog Gyp than act the part of a lady, and Mrs. Ayres never fully recovered from the death of her first child.

The patient Dr. Faraday is asked to see is Betty, the maid, one of the few remaining servants at Hundreds Hall. Faraday quickly discovers she’s feigning her illness, but only because the house makes her uneasy, and she’s afraid. Faraday does his best to reassure her, and accepts Mrs. Ayres invitation to stay for tea after treating Betty. Despite their reduced circumstances, Mrs. Ayres is determined to be a good hostess. The visit leads to Faraday forming a friendship with the Ayres family, and even beginning to consider himself one of them. However, during a party at Hundreds Hall, Gyp attacks a young girl, seemingly out of nowhere, leading the girl’s parents to insist on the dog being put down. The incident is only the beginning of the family’s further bad fortune, which includes Rod’s erratic mood and behavior, and his insistence that he is being haunted.

His injured leg was throbbing, but he didn’t mind it–he was almost glad of the pain, for keeping him alert. Because what he had to do now, he said, was watch. He had to watch every object, every corner and shadow in the room, had to keep his gaze moving restlessly from one surface to another. For he knew that the malevolent thing that had tried to hurt him before was still in there with him, waiting.

Waters suffuses her novel with an atmosphere of dread. A sense of decay and isolation pervades, creating a kind of claustrophobia and the feeling that the Ayres family is trapped. The once grand house, a symbol of their class and status, has become an anchor and a tomb. In addition to the Gothic atmosphere, Waters laces the novel with uncertainty and doubt. Is there a true haunting at Hundreds Hall, or is the Ayres family haunting itself?

The question is left open, as are the motives of the characters. Faraday may sincerely want to help the Ayres family, but it’s just as easy to read the way he inserts himself into their lives as unhealthy. Class plays a large role in the novel, and it seems at times that Faraday wants to play the savior, making the Ayres dependent on him so some of their old glory and status might become his own. Faraday reads as an unreliable narrator, or at very least, one not being entirely honest with himself. The ambiguity only increases the atmosphere of dread surrounding the house, with the characters’ emotional state playing into the sense of place. The way they mirror each other makes The Little Stranger the perfect Gothic novel.

Caitlin Starling is an author based near Portland, Oregon, and my recommended starting place is her debut novel The Luminous Dead . Like The Little Stranger, it is a highly atmospheric novel, deeply rooted in a sense of place, claustrophobic and uneasy, and populated with characters whose motivations are suspect, and whose relationships aren’t entirely healthy.

That said, the setting and tone of The Luminous Dead are very different from The Little Stranger, namely sci-fi horror on an alien planet. Gyre is the latest in a long series of cavers sent on a mission she doesn’t fully understand. She needs the money though, so even when it becomes almost immediately clear that something is wrong, she’s determined to continue. After all, Gyre hasn’t been honest either, she lied about her level of experience in order to get the job.

One of the first things Gyre discovers is that Em, her handler topside, is the only one monitoring her where she should have a whole team. Em is also the one who hired her, and is financing the entire operation. A previous team – her team, Em claims – was lost in the cave and she wants Gyre to find their bodies and bring them out. The lies and uncertainty only mount from there. Gyre learns Em was never part of the team, but her parents were. The cave has become Em’s obsession, and she’s sent more than one caver to their death on what increasingly appears to be an impossible suicide mission.

She stared down at the wreckage. The suit had been half crushed. The mask was off, revealing pits where eyes had been, and tight, dried skin stretched over a prominent, masculine chin. The caver’s chest had been split open, and filamentous white fungus grew from the hole. His legs disappeared below a boulder that had tumbled from the pile, much like the one that had almost killed Gyre.

Gyre faces danger from her environment – flooded passages , impossible climbs, and tunnels which could shift or collapse at any moment. What’s more, Gyre becomes increasingly convinced she isn’t alone, seeing things from the corner of her eye, finding the supplies that should be lying in wait for her sabotaged, or missing. As much as Gyre is pitted against her environment, she’s also pitted against Em who lies to her constantly, and has the power to take over Gyre’s specially-designed suit, preventing her from moving, or even injecting Gyre with sedatives and knocking her out.

The shifting power dynamic between the two women is fascinating, and again, bordering on the unhealthy. Their relationship is founded on lies, and yet Gyre is forced to place her life in Em’s hands in order to survive. Starling isn’t afraid to let the relationship between the women be messy and problematic. There’s a budding attraction between them, which further complicates things, and as with the characters in Waters’ novel, Em and Gyre may both be so used to lying that they aren’t even capable of being honest about their motives with themselves. The Luminous Dead is a fascinating exploration of control and trust, not to mention an exercise in sheer terror as Starling constantly ramps up the threats to Gyre’s life, letting the reader feel every moment of her peril and her struggle to survive.

Jesmyn Ward is an author and associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University, and my recommended starting place is her National Book Award-winning novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Jojo lives with his grandparents, his baby sister Kayla, and his mother Leonie. Jojo loves working with his grandfather around the farm and listening to his stories, even the troubling ones of his grandfather’s time in prison, and the young boy, Richie, who was imprisoned with him. Leonie is barely a presence in Jojo’s life, addicted both to drugs and to Jojo and Kayla’s father, Michael, a white man, who is about to be released from prison. Despite their troubled relationship, Leonie is determined to drive with Jojo, Kayla, and her friend Misty to pick him up and bring him back home.

The haunting in this book is both literal, and figurative, and almost every character carries ghosts with them. Leonie sees the ghost of her dead brother, Given, who was shot and killed by Michael’s cousin. Jojo’s grandfather, River, is haunted by his past, and particularly his failure to protect Richie. Jojo, like his mother and grandmother, sees the dead, and Richie’s ghost attaches itself to him, determined to hear the story of his own death from Jojo’s grandfather.

The boy is River’s. I know it. I smelled him as soon as he entered the fields, as soon as the little red dented car swerved into the parking lot. The grass trilling and moaning all around, when I followed the scent to him, the dark, curly-haired boy in the backseat. Even if he didn’t carry the scent of leaves disintegrating to mud at the bottom of a river, the aroma of the bowl of the bayou, heavy with water and sediment and the skeletons of small dead creatures, crab, fish, snakes, and shrimp, I would still know he is River’s by the look of him.

The story is also haunted by the shadow of racial injustice and racial violence, and although it is beautifully written, it is by no means an easy read. Nor is it meant to be. Ward lets discomfort sit heavily throughout the novel – the physical discomfort of Leonie, Misty, Jojo, and Kayla’s road trip to pick up Michael, the discomfort of the restless dead, the uncomfortable weight of history, and the tension between the characters.

Much of the discomfort rests in Leonie, and it makes her a fascinating character. Ward paints a picture of her as a reluctant mother, unapologetically so, yet manages the delicate balance of making her simultaneously unlikable and sympathetic. Through Jojo’s eyes, we see a neglectful parent, impatient, self-absorbed, short tempered, and constantly making decisions that are detrimental to her children’s health. Through Leonie’s own eyes, we see someone filled – if not with outright self-hatred – then at least uncomfortable in her own skin and feeling wholly out of place in the world.

The one light in Leonie’s life is Michael. She loves him to the exclusion of all else; he is the only thing truly keeping her anchored to this world. So often we see selfless mothers in fiction who stop being their own person the moment they have a child. Leonie is the opposite, and even though it’s easy to dislike her when seen from Jojo’s perspective, it’s also refreshing to see a mother who is wholly her own person, who has her own desires in life that are completely separate from the lives of her children.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a fascinating look at guilt, responsibility, and the intersection between the two, as well history, and hauntings, and different kinds of ghosts. It’s a painful novel, but a beautiful one, full of striking imagery, and even though it isn’t a comfortable read, it is a worthwhile one.

Julie C. Day is primarily known as a short fiction author with numerous stories and a collection to her name, however my recommended starting place is her upcoming novella, The Rampant, due from Aqueduct Press in early October. While the overall tone of the novella is lighter than the other works discussed here, it still deals with pain, loss, death, and grief.

In a refreshing twist, rather than trying to prevent the apocalypse, best friends Emelia (Mel) and Gillian are trying to cause it. The Rapture got halfway started when the Sumerian gods Anunna and Anunnaki came to their small town in Southern Indiana, but the final herald of the apocalypse, the Rampant, failed to show up, leaving things half done. Now the world is broken, overrun by demons, and the dead are stuck in a kind of limbo. So what else are Mel and Gillian to do other than descend to the underworld, force the missing herald do his job, and bring about the end of the world?

The Rapture is like a birthday party your parents never get around to throwing. Ten years in and I still get up, brush my teeth, and wonder if today is going to be the day. Then each night I say my prayers before my bedroom shrine, ignore that poster above my bed–a supposed cross section of the earth: crust, mantle, and all the rest–then fall asleep and dream.

The Rampant plays with Sumerian myth and legends, but for all that, manages to keep the story very much grounded in our world, with a contemporary feel. The grounded feeling is down to Mel and Gillian’s relationship – slightly snarky, full of sarcasm and banter, but fiercely loyal and loving, and on its way to becoming something more than platonic friendship. Mel and Gillian feel very much like real people; they aren’t superheroes, they’re teenage girls doing their best to cope in a weird and messed up world, dealing with the loss, and a daily existence that is anything but normal. Their heart and determination, and their bond with each other, carries the story through. Day perfectly balances dark and light in The Rampant, and offers up a fresh take on apocalyptic fiction that draws on ancient mythology and literature to create something that feels completely original and new.


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