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Haunted Legends is a 2010 anthology of supernatural horror stories/weird tales/whatever, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas. I picked it up when Kakaner and I went to Readercon in 2010, and have read it 2+ times since. The table of contents is stacked with major names: Catherynne Valente, Caitlin Kiernan, Laird Barron, Ramsey Campbell, et al.

The anthology is themed around local legends, and the presiding tone is chilly, regretful, and uneasy – there are only a few stories that read as more straightforward horror, like Joe R. Lansdale’s lurid creature feature, “The Folding Man,” which closes the volume with a punch and a leer (and won the 2010 Stoker Award for short fiction).

Since most of the authors are North American, most of the stories draw from those legends. Of those that are set abroad, several are objectionably maudlin and touristy, like Kit Reed’s “Akbar” (India) and Carolyn Turgeon’s “La Llorona” (Mexico). Others engage sharply with tourism or imperialism (Catherynne Valente’s tremendous “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai” [Japan], Kaaron Warren’s “That Girl” [India]), and/or draw upon authors’ immigrant backgrounds (Ekaterina Sedia’s “Tin Cans” [Russia], Lily Hoang’s vicious “The Foxes” [Vietnam]).

There are also three hitchhiking/roadside phantoms total.

For me, the standouts are Richard Bowes’ “Knickerbocker Holiday” (which I’ll talk about below), and the stories by Caitlin Kiernan, Carrie Laben (a new name for me), Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne Valente, and M. K. Hobson (all of which hopefully I’ll write about later). Those hit my sweet spot so far as emotional complexity, prose, freshness of concept/execution, and pervasive unease are concerned. Laird Barron and Jeffrey Ford’s stories, which I think share a kind of darkly musing/amusing quality, also made me go “hmm” in a pleasant way.

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Richard Bowes‘ “Knickerbocker Holiday” opens the collection, and immediately made me wonder why I hadn’t read Bowes before, and where I could find more of him.

Last Sunday night the Dutchman flew, the Headless Horseman rolled in from Sleepy Hollow. It happened when I paid a visit that was in part nostalgia, but in larger part morbid curiosity, to a corner of my degenerate youth. I even kissed the fingertips of a very bad old habit of mine and told myself it was for memory’s sake.

Fanning myself! The rest of the story sustains this singular, dreamy, morbid flippancy; I couldn’t get enough of it. The narrator is one of a coterie of aging, not terribly glamorous fashion writers who gather to remember dead colleagues, from their youth working together in New York’s old Garment District. Unlikely connections to Sleepy Hollow emerge, laced with bad deaths and sexual unease.

I love the story in large part for its fragmentary yet rich evocation of ’70’s New York. That richness of sense of time and place seems especially appropriate given how lovingly Washington Irving worked to record his Dutch New York in all of his stories. Not much love here, though – instead of autumnal lushness, there’s only an autumnal falling-away, a sense of twist and rot.

Then there’s the painterly way in which Bowes handles the nightmare-like elements of this story. Painterly is the best word I can think of to describe it, and I find the effect utterly arresting – the few, silent, almost stately visions of the supernatural that he presents, simple scenes touched with an inexplicable threat. Like a Magritte painting, is what I’m thinking: simple shapes, arranged wrongly; a few lighted windows invested with unknown meaning.

I very much look forward to investigating more of Bowes’ short fiction.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.11.2016
Book from: Personal collection 

Newly orphaned Peggy Grahame is caught off-guard when she first arrives at her family’s ancestral estate. Her eccentric uncle Enos drives away her only new acquaintance, Pat, a handsome British scholar, then leaves Peggy to fend for herself. But she is not alone. The house is full of mysteries—and ghosts. Soon Peggy becomes involved with the spirits of her own Colonial ancestors and witnesses the unfolding of a centuries-old romance against a backdrop of spies and intrigue and of battles plotted and foiled.

Elizabeth Marie Pope wrote a grand total of two novels in her lifetime, which is a damn shame. She spent most of her time as a professor of English at Mills College in California, Wikipedia informs me (in addition to being a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, oh gosh); I can only assume that she was delightful in the classroom. Her first novel, the dark, Tudor-era Tam Lin retelling The Perilous Gard, is one of my tippy-top favorites – I had a probably 10-year streak of rereading it annually, starting from when I was about ten. It took me quite a while longer to turn my attention to The Sherwood Ring. Subconsciously I was afraid it couldn’t possibly measure up.

Resemblances between the opening chapters of The Perilous Gard and The Sherwood Ring:

  • Habitually solitary heroine
  • approaches an ancient estate
  • through a dripping wood
  • where she encounters a mysterious hooded lady.
  • (Also, the two novels are alike in taking inspiration from folklore/balladry: The Sherwood Ring‘s title isn’t a coincidence, as the spirit of Robin Hood is present throughout.)

All of this made me smile hugely – how comforting to see the familiar shape of a beloved story subtly transfigured (and to recognize an amusing partiality on the part of the author).

The Sherwood Ring immediately strikes a different tone from Gard: even shot through as it is with the melancholy of Peggy’s solitary childhood and her cold treatment by both her father and uncle, The Sherwood Ring quickly registers as a comedy – a sparklingly witty and romantic comedy. Though battles, imprisonment, and privation all eventually, necessarily feature in Peggy’s ancestors’ wartime history, Pope plays a game of sustaining suspense while nimbly dodging any possibility of mortal stakes. The protagonists, both female and male, are all clever, dashing, and buoyant, executing numerous daring escapes and double-crosses in order to emerge triumphant (and happily engaged).

The Sherwood Ring falls short, though, in its breathlessly brisk handling of Peggy herself. Though Peggy receives a few scenes in which we can fully register her as a person – her quiet determination, her hopes for companionship from Pat, and her loneliness – Pope, unfortunately, mostly uses her to perform a few perfunctory acts of mystery-solving, thereby cueing the reemergence of her ancestor-ghosts, so that they can continue to unreel their bigger, brighter story.

So while The Sherwood Ring absolutely measures up to The Perilous Gard in terms of brilliance of prose, historical detail, and dialogue, it feels more like a charming pageant and less like a full, human story; I truly wish Pope had treated the framing story with more depth. Still, the mischievousness and elegance of her writing is rare and to be treasured: The Sherwood Ring has both sweetness and panache in spades.

Related reading:
Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (1999): review by Emera

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film-prettything1

Director Osgood Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter was one of my favorite horror movies of the past couple years: an extremely quiet, extremely tense little maybe-supernatural horror movie with an almost exclusively female cast. Thematically and artistically it seemed to end up standing in the shadow of The Witch (far and away the horror movie of the last, oh, five years at least, for me): I watched them within a month or so of each other, and Blackcoat immediately appealed to me as being the The Witch‘s little sister. They share the theme of female alienation being answered by the supernatural, and they share, shall we say, manifestations. But Blackcoat is smaller, sparer, and in a way, weirder and more personal-feeling, even if it does employ a few more conventional horror tropes. (I think it’s difficult for The Witch to feel as immediately personal – despite the fact that it’s a deeply humane narrative – due to the distancing effect of its historical setting.)

Lo, did I lose my shit when the existence of Perkins’ I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, a Netflix original movie, was brought to my attention. (Thank you, S.) First of all, THAT TITLE. Secondly, its trailer suggested, again, an extremely quiet, slow, weird film with a predominantly female cast. Yes.

The outlines of the plot are as follows: a present-day hospice nurse, Lily, arrives at the beautiful, historic Massachusetts house of an elderly horror novelist, Iris Blum. Prim, nervous Lily is lonely and scares easily; Iris has dementia and only addresses Lily as “Polly,” when she is responsive. From day one, Lily is troubled by small disturbances: knocking sounds, disarranged objects. As her months with Iris pass, it’s eventually suggested that one of Iris’ novels, The Woman in the Walls, was narrated to her personally – by the ghost of Polly, the 19th-century bride for whom the house was constructed, and who disappeared on her wedding day.

All of these conventional Gothic elements are conveyed, stylistically and structurally, in ways that push hard against conventionality, and are used in the service of exploring a rich interweaving of themes: isolation, time as nonlinear, the inevitability of death, and communal experience of female trauma.

The movie has a looping, drifting, intensely hushed aesthetic; elliptical is an easy word for it. Lily narrates from the beginning, for example, with unsettling authority, that “I am twenty-eight years old; I will never be twenty-nine.” In other words, this is a ghost story within a ghost story, the story of a second death nested within a first.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.20.2013 
Book from: Personal collection

Arriving in the English countryside to live with her mother and new stepfather, Jenny has no interest in her surroundings, until she meets Tamsin. Since her death over 300 years ago, Tamsin has haunted the lonely estate without rest, trapped by a hidden trauma she can’t remember, and a powerful evil even the spirits of night cannot name. To help her, Jenny must delve deeper into the dark world than any human has in hundreds of years, and face danger that will change her life forever.

This is the book that restored my Beagle-faith after I bounced violently off of The Innkeeper’s Song; frankly I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, given how little I’ve seen it mentioned or discussed. I cannot recommend this more for fans of spooky English/Celtic fantasy, like Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, or even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It is also quite queer, in a very sweet, nondramatized way. (Jenny remarks on her head-over-heels reaction to Tamsin by saying, “I’d never been the type to get girl-crushes before,” and that is the full extent to which she dissects any issues of sexual identity; the rest of the time she just goes on loving Tamsin.)

The initial few chapters – when it’s not clear yet what sort of haunted universe Jenny has stepped into, and her encounters with the uncanny are glancing and inexplicable – are by far the creepiest. But even once the central mystery is mostly laid bare, the combination of characters and world, both fantastical and actual-historical, are terrifically compelling.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Oct. 18, 2014
Book from: Personal collection

I went on a bit of an M. R. James rampage last winter (the most fearsome sort of rampage, clearly), but in February stopped about halfway into this, the second Penguin volume of his complete, classic ghost stories. The Haunted Dolls’ House (2006, annotated by S. T. Joshi) collects the contents of A Thin Ghost (1919) and A Warning to the Curious (1925), as well as several introductions by James to other collections of ghost stories, and “Stories I Have Tried to Write,” an amusingly brisk rundown of ghost stories that he conceived but failed to complete. (For reference, the first annotated Penguin volume is entitled Count Magnus & Other Stories. All of James’ stories are available free online as well.)

James’ later ghost stories are generally considered to be weaker than his earlier work; both this and the simple fact of having saturated on the Jamesian formula were what led me to hit the pause button on The Haunted Dolls’ House. But with the return of colder weather, I put it back into rotation as bedtime reading.

At this point I can hardly remember specifics of most of the stories that I read at the beginning of the year (and choose not to skim them now in case they can pleasantly surprise me during a dedicated future reread). But I do remember struggling to get through “The Residence at Whitminster” and “Two Doctors” – that there was a depressing lack of paragraph breaks to get one through the period chatter and hand-wringing, and that there was a general feeling of windiness and of much of the action being beside the point. “Two Doctors” is a great title, though, as are “The Uncommon Prayer-book” (only James!) and “There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard” (thanks for the latter must go to Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale).

“An Episode of Cathedral History” is a classic, plain and simple. This is one of the James stories that I read anthologized many years ago, before I really knew who M. R. James was. Something emerging from cathedral depths – its long entombment disrupted – to terrorize a humble town…

I very much liked the eeriness and outdoor setting of “A View from a Hill” – even those of James’ stories that don’t deal with haunted rooms or houses have a feeling of enclosure about them thanks to their tightness of construction, so it was a refreshing and unsettling change of pace to locate the uncanny as an emergence from a broader, rural setting. And the descriptive passages of the English countryside were quite lovely, and again, unusually outdoorsy for James, who normally satisfies himself with a two-paragraph rundown of the architectural features of whatever Georgian manse or Gothic cathedral is under consideration.

“Rats” is just thoroughly great in my book, from the opening supposition, to the counterpoint of the hot afternoon sunlight and the thing in the bedroom. It gives me the same uncomfortable, fevery feeling as some of my favorite Lovecraft stories, and gibbets are always a winning point for me so far as sinister imagery is concerned.

“An Evening’s Entertainment” was unexpectedly, specifically gory for James, but the framing device of yesteryear’s granny telling a bedtime story was a charming application of James’ knack for voices, and I loved how the haunted site became the matrix for several generations of familial terror. I am also partial to any imagery involving Beelzebub (chalk it up to reading Lord of the Flies at an impressionable age), and the combination of the vicious, lingering flies with the temptation of dark, glistening blackberries was such a strikingly uncomfortable material juxtaposition. Black flies, blackberries…

The twelve bonus medieval (15th-century) ghost stories, transcribed by James and here translated by Leslie Boba Joshi, are thoroughly weird and wonderful, full of guilt and sorcery and marshes and midnight processions of ghosts riding livestock. I wish Mike Mignola would take some of them on; they’d be perfect for the folklore-centric volumes of Hellboy. I had a long conversation with friend E., who is currently attending divinity school, about their mixture of bizarre and terrifying folky spooks (“And you will see him in the shape of a bullock without mouth, eyes, or ears” – or, “Upon hearing this, the apparition faded into a shape something like a wine-vat, whirling at four angles, and started rolling away” !), with a sort of legalistic, liturgical fixation on absolution via confession – a clear warning and prescription to would-be secret sinners. Practically everybody in these stories is guilty of something, and just waiting to be found out (and then, ideally, absolved). The wronged master of the house takes recourse to consulting a sorcerer and a demon boy (whose supernatural abilities are accessed by anointing his fingernail???) in order to find the thief who ate his meats; an apparently innocuous traveler is confronted by the ghost of his aborted child. All of this conjures up images of a teeming supernatural world growing up out of a fertile substratum of moral murk. The misdeeds of the past furnish us with the great ghost stories of the present – a formula that James made the best of.

Go to:
M. R. James: bio and works reviewed
“M. R. James and the Quantum Vampire”

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.3.2013
Book from: Personal collection

“Stories do not serve me. Even my own stories.”

Caitlín Kiernan‘s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl form a diptych: red and blue, burial and drowning, the chthonic and the oceanic. They’re mirror-image confessionals struggling with grief, mental illness, suicide, inexplicable loss, inexplicable hauntings. Present-day hauntings as crucibles for pain, and art, folded in with the matter of folklore and urban legends – that is, hauntings passed down through time, what Imp in The Drowning Girl terms, with a kind of vehement sociological exactitude, “pernicious memes.” (As if naming the thing will better pin it down, fix its dimensions. I suspect the vehemence is partly ironic.)

The Red Tree has a ferocious heat to it, a molten core exerting terrible gravity – the boiler in the basement of the Overlook. There’s only one way in to Sarah Crowe’s story, and it’s down. Catabasis without anabasis.

Like Sarah, Imp circles around and around the places of greatest hurt, making darting rushes towards them, then leaping back again just as quickly; being slowly, slowly drawn on and in. But as Imp makes her way through the waterscape of her memories, slipping from current to current, tidal pool to tidal pull, we gradually become aware that for her, there might be a return. Her story is not entirely about consumption, about the claiming of a sacrificial victim; it is also about bearing witness, about choosing or being chosen to bear witness, and it is as a witness that she will survive. (Her survival of Albert Perrault’s art exhibit in particular, and her movement in memory around it, reminded me of another of Kiernan’s haunted witness-narrators, in the science-fiction short “A Season of Broken Dolls.”)

Because one thing The Drowning Girl does that The Red Tree doesn’t, is show us, make us bear witness to, the bodies of the dead. Bodies, and unfamiliar or outright violent transformations of them, mutability and violation, are one of its principle preoccupations (again as in “Broken Dolls,” and countless other pieces of Kiernan’s fiction). The Little Mermaid, werewolves, Imp’s transsexual girlfriend Abalyn, all are considered as superimpositions of multiple identities, and multiple physical beings. (Though Abalyn resists Imp’s initial attempts at narrativizing her experience as a transsexual woman – telling her that she was “brave” for undergoing surgery, for example.)

In The Red Tree, the dead are disappeared, beneath the roots of the oak tree, or simply into a black obscurity, like the endless void of the basement spreading under Sarah Crowe’s house. But in The Drowning Girl, the literal bodies of the dead are tossed back out again, out of the deeps, for Imp, for her fellow witnesses in fiction and in history, and for us to contemplate from shore. We see that they’ve been worked on, but not, of course, what’s been working on them. The recurring image of a beautiful girl, drowned and bisected – gone from ribcage down, like half-rotted Hel of Norse mythology – becomes a macabre sister to the image of the mermaid. The blame is put on scavenging sharks, but who’s to say what was really responsible for the dissolution of body, life, memory, out there in the blue. For those victims of the deep, the physical violation seems besides the point.

Still, it’s enough to wound their witnesses in turn. Imp assembles snippets of song, poetry, fiction, art, history, and legend around herself like talismans, weaves them densely, as if glancing from juncture to juncture of the resulting web, assessing its intersections and symmetries, will render her own experience of being haunted, twice, by a siren or a werewolf named Eva Canning, more comprehensible, more forgivable.

It doesn’t, of course; it just makes it deeper, more terrible. “Lost paintings, daughters of mystery, mysteries and the pieces aren’t ever going to stop falling into place. Or falling, anyway. One Eva, but two paintings.” I found myself thinking about the all the twinnings, the uncanny reflections and resonances and multiplications, as two kinds (more twins) of sounding: echoes sent up the wellshaft by Imp’s investigations, her attempts to sound the depths.*

But the denseness of the weaving, and the mind of the weaver, are beautiful, too. Sarah Crowe is furious in her hurt; Imp is just as much a wounded animal, but a gentler one, with a quietly mordant wit. The essential elegance of her thoughts, as they flow from tale to tale, image to image, is not diminished by their desperation – rather, that intentness and need invests them with elemental power, the ability to peel back the surface of fairy tale and urban legend, expose the bone. Not as a violation (“stories do not serve me”), but as a revelation of potency and meaning, of one possible essential shape among many. I think Angela Carter would have approved.

 

* I just realized that I gravitated towards this pun because I’ve used it once before on this blog, in this post about a Jack Gilbert poem.

Go to:

Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed
“So Runs the World Away,” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2001): review by Emera
Alabaster, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2006): review by Emera
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2009): review by Emera

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I’m trying to remember how Walter de la Mare’s 1912 poem “The Listeners” ended up in my to-read pile, and I suspect it was by way of Robert Aickman, whose cagey, elliptical, and exceedingly unsettling tales of the supernatural I’m just beginning to plumb. I haven’t read enough of either yet to make any interesting judgments about de la Mare’s influence on Aickman, so for now, here’s “The Listeners.” The poem conjures a creeping, velvety sense of estrangement, and of the sort of pressure that the unseen can begin to exert on the imagination at night, and in solitude.

 

The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champ’d the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Lean’d over and look’d into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplex’d and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirr’d and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starr’d and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
‘Tell them I came, and no one answer’d,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: Various, Spring 2013

I don’t know about anyone else, but I always seem to crave ghost stories before bedtime. Here are some of the results of typing “ghost” into Tor’s rather friendly search engine.

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“A Ghost Story,” by Mark Twain (1888): Read the story online at Tor.com.

“I took a large room, far up Broadway, in a huge old building whose upper stories had been wholly unoccupied for years until I came. The place had long been given up to dust and cobwebs, to solitude and silence. I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead, that first night I climbed up to my quarters. For the first time in my life a superstitious dread came over me; and as I turned a dark angle of the stairway and an invisible cobweb swung its hazy woof in my face and clung there, I shuddered as one who had encountered a phantom.”

This takes a turn for the really goofy, predictably, given the author. An eerie nighttime haunting becomes a clamorous one becomes a slapstick-ridden, tragicomical one, as the initially stricken narrator helps his ghostly visitor realize that he’s the victim of several layers of misunderstanding and hoaxery. Alas!

For those who, like me, have ever dreamed with fond shivers of the eeriness of museums at night, one of the incidental images in this story is worthy of a story of its own, as the ghost is a tenant in a museum –

“I can have no rest, no peace, till they have given that poor body burial again. Now what was the most natural thing for me to do, to make men satisfy this wish? Terrify them into it! haunt the place where the body lay! So I haunted the museum night after night. I even got other spirits to help me. […] I felt that if I ever got a hearing I must succeed, for I had the most efficient company that perdition could furnish. Night after night we have shivered around through these mildewed halls, dragging chains, groaning, whispering, tramping up and down stairs…”

Glee! Any recommendations for haunted museum stories??

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“The Cairn in Slater Woods,” by Gina Rosati (2012): Read the story online at Tor.com.

“My recently deceased great-aunt Z’s house smells like cat crap, stale smoke, and retribution.”

“The Cairn in Slater Woods” is a basically old-fashioned teen ghost story, albeit updated with references to manga and smartphone apps. Its narrative predictability and black-and-white morality don’t undermine the fun of its scene-setting – the Slater family woods shadowed by an ancient burial cairn, and tree branches hung with dozens of empty glass bottles. But the best line in the story might simply be the opening one, with its sullen teenaged melodrama. This would have made a very nice episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark.

Go to:
Gina Rosati: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.24.11
Book from: Personal collection

“Of all the things Anya expected to find at the bottom of an old well, a new friend was not one of them. Especially not a new friend who’s been dead for a century. Falling down a well is bad enough, but Anya’s normal life might actually be worse. She’s embarrassed by her immigrant family, self-conscious about her body, and she’s pretty much given up on fitting in at school.

Anya really could use a friend – even a ghost. But her new BFF isn’t kidding about the “Forever” part . . .”

Great characters, great dialogue, fabulous art. Brosgol’s style is elastic and rounded, equally ideal for conveying weightless movement and solid figures; the same could be said of her writing.

The resolutions to Anya’s emotional and social conflicts head towards conventional teen-movie territory, but Brosgol has such a light touch (her sharply contemporary dialogue often comes in handy) that none of the “wholesome realization! reconciliation and mutual understanding!” moments feel too heavy or forced. The climax, in particular, surprises by deliberately backing off of a too-easy, emotionally violent “conclusion.” I love how honest Anya comes to be about her own shortcomings. I’m also rather in love with her acerbic, squinty, spiky-skinny best friend Siobhan:

Siobhan
Siobhan, Exhibit A.

I found the comic a clear-eyed exploration of how so much of what makes teen girls unhappy – social pressure, body image, embarrassing family, lack of perspective – can come close to making some into little monsters of selfishness, and how they/we (been there, not so long ago) can come to back away from that brink. All in all: Anya’s Ghost is funny, scary, sad, and beautifully drawn.

(I first found Brosgol’s work, by the way, through the Draw This Dress Tumblr she shares with Emily Carroll, where the two post their lively illustrations of historical and sometimes not-so-historical fashion. Anya actually models a Victorian bathing suit in one post!)

Go to:
Vera Brosgol: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.8.11
Book from: Personal collection

An ironic title: Carter’s take on “waywardness” and “wickedness” is far more subtle, of course. The women in this anthology – all written by women – are canny, worldly, self-directed. They are leery of others’ plans for them, and quietly attentive to their own desires – which is not to say that they are selfish, necessarily*, though they run the gamut when it comes to moral fiber. The mother in Elizabeth Jolley’s “The Last Crop” cheerfully cons a kindly doctor when she decides that she’d really rather keep and cultivate her inherited land after all. The women and girls in Jane Bowles’ “A Guatemalan Idyll” are capable of disturbingly calculated callousness – the youngest, Lilina, “[chooses] her toys according to the amount of power or responsibility she thought they would give her in the eyes of others.” The particular toy she considers in this story, a pet snake, ends up beheaded due to her (deliberate?) carelessness; Lilina’s only comment is, “Look how small her head is. She must have been a very small snake.”

(In a wonderfully horrible play with point of view, Bowles half-distracts us from the impending violence in this scene by shifting the perspective to another character just long enough for the snake’s death to occur in the interim. [The other character, a boy, is meanwhile observing that he dislikes Lilina “probably because he suspected intuitively that she was a person who could fall over and over again into the same pile of broken glass and scream just as loudly the last time as the first.”] The aggregation of such effects in this story left me strangely unsettled, and, like the visiting traveler who eventually “escapes” from the Guatemalan women, feeling like I’d awoken from a fever dream.)

I’ve gotten way off track – there’s so much to talk about in each story. Carter’s own point about the morality of these women, questionable or otherwise, is that the range represented is a normal one. The women here are well-characterized individuals, flawed and proud individuals of varying ages and desires and backgrounds, rather than one-note femmes fatales or whores or shrews. They frequently “act out” simply by resisting, by hunkering down and continuing to dig out their own paths. The protagonist of Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Plums,” a Ghanaian student named Sissie who is touring in Europe, looks askance at the advances of a lonely German housewife, and in the end sloughs her off and keeps traveling. Throughout the story, she registers an ironic combination of pity and quiet contempt for the German woman and for whiteness in general, reflecting that “it must be a pretty dangerous matter, being white. It made you awfully exposed, rendered you terribly vulnerable. Like being born without your skin or something.” (The German woman’s son and husband are both named Adolf, it’s worth noting.) By contrast, Sissie goes through the story shielded, observing and untouched, sometimes even cruel, behind her armor of self-respect.

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