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 a new year, and a new Women to Read! Since February is Women in Horror Month, I figured I’d kick things off with an unsettling horror novel, then round things out with three short stories, which all incorporate disturbing and frightening elements, though not all in a strictly horror genre way.
Mariko Koike is a Japanese author best known for her horror and detective fiction. My recommended starting place is her novel, The Graveyard Apartment, translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm.
Misao, Teppei, and their young daughter Tamao move into an apartment that seems too good to be true. It’s luxurious, affordable, close to public transportation, and much bigger than their old apartment. The only catch is it’s located right next to a graveyard, and of course this being a horror novel, things begin to unravel almost immediately. The family’s pet bird dies the morning after they move in, and Tamao insists to her parents that he visits her room at night, telling her about a bad place full of people with no faces. The building is only half occupied, and several of the other tenants are already planning to move out. Tamao sustains a mysterious injury while playing in the already-ominous basement, and one of the neighbors claims to hear whispering voices on the other side of the wall right next to where the accident happened.
The chilly draft was climbing now, insinuating its way from Misao’s ankles up to the small of her back, and she got the uncanny feeling that it had deliberately chosen to wrap itself around her. For a brief instant, she found herself regretting the fact that she was an adult. If I were a child, she thought, it would be perfectly all right for me to let out a long, loud scream right now.
Koike does an excellent job of imbuing mundane situations with a sense of threat. There’s a slow burn to the novel, as strange incidents build toward the truly horrific as it becomes clear Misao and her family are being targeted by something malicious and supernatural. There’s a further dimension added by the fact that Teppei’s first wife committed suicide after discovering Misao and Teppei were having an affair. Their guilt, even nearly five years later only adds to the tension of the stressful situation they are in, straining their relationship at a time when they should stand together against whatever is attacking them. The feeling of being trapped and isolated, of a situation growing increasingly desperate, is well-handled, and the family’s choice to stay in a place that clearly has it in for them never feels forced. Overall, The Graveyard Apartment is unsettling, atmospheric, and an excellent way to kick off Women in Horror Month.
E.A. Petricone is a Massachusetts-based author, and my recommended starting place for her work is “One Song Ending” recently published in Apparition Literary Magazine, a story that is unsettling in a completely different way.
Carlos works in a research facility, caring for the lab rats. As such, he is intimately acquainted with death. He knows the fate that awaits his charges, but he does his best to show compassion while he can, making their lives as comfortable as possible. His work is important and necessary, seeking cures for those who are terminally ill, like his own young niece, Sophia. However, the good that might come of his work doesn’t make Carlos’ job easier.
Each cycle I tell myself I won’t get attached, that rats are rats. But when you spend time with them you see their personalities—the one who likes to belly flop into the cage, the one who plays tricks on his siblings, the one who prefers carrots and the one who begs for broccoli. The one who beats every puzzle you hand to her. The one with extra long whiskers who taps his nose to your hand like a kiss when you weigh him.
Carlos is thinking of leaving, taking an easier job. The new lab assistant, Sam, a musician, tries to convince him he should stay. Anybody can do the job, Carlos tells her, but she points out that not everyone can do it the way he does, with kindness and respect. Rats have been maligned for centuries as plague-bearers; don’t they deserve a little compassion as their lives are sacrificed?
The story is by turns heart-breaking, and hopeful. The weight of Carlos’ job, and his niece’s situation are palpable, allowing the reader to feel the despair of his situation. Yet Carlos reacts with gentleness and love every time, even in the face of his brother’s anger and scorn, and his own feelings of powerlessness. The parallels drawn between rats, death, and ultimately, life, work incredibly well. After years of being associated with deadly illness, it is rats who bear the burden of medical advances, saving lives, rather than taking them. It’s a beautifully-written and emotional story, and while it isn’t an easy read for the subject matter, it is a very worthwhile one.
Elias works at Ushuaia Station, an isolated research facility chosen specifically as a place where he can be alone. His only companion is the AI, Heloise, who speaks in a comforting British accent, and helps look after Elias’ emotional and mental health. As the story opens, Elias’ new partner is set to arrive. He’s anxious about the situation, preferring to work alone, but determined to make Lola comfortable.
Lola talks too little. When I chose her, I imagined she would be an introvert like me, but not to this extent. Her dormitory is on the opposite side of mine, and we only see each other when we are both in the control room. This can get rather repetitive. The only thing she asks about are technical aspects of our work, but I have no response: I’m not a scientist like her, I just have been trained to control the shield.
Looking at Lola’s file, Elias learns she is Autistic, like him, which both comforts him, and complicates their relationship. Elias has trouble reading Lola, convinced she will be disgusted by him as a trans man, and conditioned in general by an unhealthy relationship with his family to believe that no one could ever care for him. Only Heloise cares for him and understands him, as she constantly reminds him. That being the case, perhaps it would be better if he simply stopped doing his job, and let the shield that he maintains at Ushuaia Station fail. After all, why should he protect those who scorn him? Elias nearly succumbs to Heloise’s arguments, until Lola calls his name, the one he chose for himself, his real name, showing that she sees him for who he is, cares for him, and considers him a friend.
Pueyo explores the darker side of technology in this story, presenting a frightening picture of gaslighting as Heloise convinces Elias he is alone, misunderstood, and cannot trust anyone but her. It’s classic abusive behavior, isolating the victim and making them feel they need the one causing them pain. Having the AI’s chosen weapon be emotional manipulation is an interesting twist on the genre of artificial life turning on humanity. Elias’ budding friendship with Lola makes a perfect contrast to his relationship with Heloise, underscoring the fact that affection can come in many forms and be expressed in many ways. Constant attention and claims of caring aren’t always a sign of friendship, just as someone maintaining their distance according to their own boundaries doesn’t mean they don’t care.
Izzy Wasserstein is an author, poet, and a teacher of literature and writing. My recommended starting place is “The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls” published at PseudoPod. Coincidentally, the story was her first professional sale, making it a good jumping off point to explore the many works she’s published since.
“The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls” shares some themes with Pueyo’s “What the South Wind Whispers”, but offers a very different take on the controlling caregiver hurting their charges for their own good. The mothers of Wasserstein’s story are monstrous creatures, leaving trails of ichor behind them. They don’t precisely claim to care for the Wayward Girls under their protection, but they do claim they will make them better, and keep them safe from worse things that lurk outside.
After breakfast, we do our chores. Chores build character, the Mothers remind us often. We will refine you. We scrub floors that never come clean, whitewash peeling wallpaper, prune the gray-leafed trees in the enclosed garden. Over time, we have cleaned the whole of the Home, the dorm room, the dining hall, the kitchen, the bathroom. There is so much to clean. Miranda thinks there used to be many more Wayward Girls, because there are so many empty bunks, so much empty space. But we cannot be sure.
The story puts a horrific twist on the idea of girls being made to suffer for their own good. Fighting and anger are not allowed, because it’s not “proper behavior”. Talking back and questioning authority are not allowed either. As with Elias’ relationship to Heloise, it’s all about control under the guise of betterment.
The narrative is told in the collective voice of the girls, with the outside perspective being provided by the new girl, Bel. The other girls hate the new girl, precisely because she is new. She remembers the outside world, which immediately makes them want to tear her apart. Despite the mothers’ claims regarding fighting, it’s another form of control. If the girls are busy turning against each other, they won’t be trying to escape or question the mothers’ authority.
Wasserstein effectively uses horror tropes to explore the way girls and women are often conditioned by society to view each other. They are taught that approval is a limited commodity, and that there is only room for a select few of them. They must be the “right kind of girl” to prove their value and win their place, and what better way than ripping others apart to show their superiority. It’s a chilling reality, given an extra dimension here with the addition of literal monsters, making it an excellent story on multiple levels.