Spotlight on Five Feminist-Minded Short Stories with Elements of Horror & Sci-Fi
Joyce Carol Oates once so perfectly wrote, “One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary skepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist: we can see no way out except to go forward.” This quote perfectly encapsulates why so many love the horror genre; it transports its reader to another world where one can observe, and be an entirely new entity, whether person, monster, witch, or troll. When you combine horror with the feminist short story, you enter a whole new realm that’s even more terrifying than any Pinhead from Hellraiser or Damien from the Omen. The horror delves into reality, where much can be hidden beneath the facade of such vanities as a life of wealth, the perfect marriage, or an idyllic community.
The tales below are a sampling of five feminist short stories that do indeed leave us with a “rising sense of dread” because sometimes, the horror is too personal.
The Lake is the introductory story in novel and non-fiction writer Tananarive Due’s first collection of short stories. After reading a positive write-up in a library review journal, I immediately purchased Ghost Summer for the library in which I work. After reading The Lake, I promptly returned the book and requested that my local feminist bookstore carry it and order a copy for me. The entirety of the book is so excitingly engrossing that it’s a burden to have to choose one as “best,” but being the first story that I read by her, it hooked me.
The story opens with Abbie, a 36 year-old Bostonian who has opted for a fresh start by moving to a small town in Florida to begin teaching at a preparatory school following her divorce. We are introduced to her bit by bit as she ruminates on her past and explores the new experiences of a life in Gracetown, making you both root for her and question her sometimes disconcerting internal monologue. She is alone in a new town with her own 3,000 square foot colonial and private lake, though her solitude is anything but lonely as she opens herself to swimming, something foreign in her previous life. Each time she wades through the water, the reader can identify with her burgeoning sense of freedom and tranquility, though we quickly become confounded. As she begins teaching, you begin to ponder her motivations as she mentally dissects and analyzes her male students, whittling them down to find the exact specimen that will suit her needs. Ostensibly, we are to believe those needs are to fix a home that has fallen into disrepair due to Florida humidity. Yet as Abbie’s swims in the natural lake increase over the summer, she begins to undergo a physical metamorphosis prompted by the advice she hasn’t heeded: “…one must never, ever go swimming in Gracetown’s lakes during the summer.” Her human calculations of the fresh young male student physique mirrors her growing appetite for raw flesh as she transforms into something of an aquatic predator.
Abbie is a compellingly tricky character because you don’t know whether you want to be her, or to steer clear while passing in the street once you know what goes on inside her head (but isn’t that true for all of us?). The allure of transforming into a creature that can navigate other worlds, the ability to leave a life of sameness and broken relationships and start anew would be tempting at the very least. On the other hand, what comes with the freedom of anonymity and solitude for some may be too tempting when one’s vices are able to flourish without scrutiny.
When I first read the short story Pop Art from the collection, 20th Century Ghosts, I was flooded by an intense feeling of sorrow, leaving me in complete awe that such a short story could completely knock my socks off. Reading it again years later in June of 2016, I found myself sobbing on my lunch break, gazing up at a vast blue sky in the middle of a prickly field, which was eerily and beautifully appropriate given the ending of the story.
The plot is a seemingly common one that graces the pages of so much teen-centered fiction; new kid in school gets relentlessly pummeled because he’s different than the vast majority of the student body, new kid makes a friend. In Hill’s design, the narrator saves Arthur (Art) from bullies who are literally kicking his ass, but into the air because Art is actually inflatable. Throughout the story, Hill creates a simple yet so on-point description of the jungle that is a teen’s life in high school: abusive, mentally ill or deceased parents; disability; religion; forging friendships; bullies; and dealing with death before our minds can grasp it. The boys, through the bond of their outsider status, explore these matters that are thrust upon by chance, strengthening the alliance to one another, especially as the narrator continually attempts to keep Art from being popped. Much like the film Lars and the Real Girl, the storytellers create a world that transcends the one as we know it, enabling us to empathize by accessing those tricky, basic human emotions like love, empathy and loss that seem to so easily reel so many of us in. Like Art’s best friend, we are also suspended in a state of flux–we delight in his insight, dread his future and mourn his fragility.
Though Pop Art may lean into the science fiction genre, Hill relates horrors of the mind–the unknown, loss, endings, and the mere terror of living on this planet without someone who understands you. I don’t know about you, but I’d argue it’s enough to keep you up at night.
Secret Life, With Cats
Taking place in South Evanston (Illinois) and its closest bordering Chicago neighborhood, Rogers Park, we are introduced to Beatrice with her life of newly acquired wealth, her realtor husband and his metaphorical baby, their ever-evolving house. Out of an antsy-ness springing from a void that’s bigger than the beautiful house she lives in, she volunteers at a local cat shelter where she meets Ruth, an older, no nonsense volunteer with whom she forms an instant, deep sisterly bond.
As the story unfolds, a subtle but palpable sense of loneliness lingers between the lines, only erased as Ruth and Beatrice’s friendship blossoms over cards and cats. Author Niffenegger enables the reader to relate to Beatrice’s feelings of estrangement from others because of the universal plight of any of us humans–the rare occurrence of a true connection with another person during our adult lives. The author may also be tapping into a fairly accepted universal truth, that people with a love of cats can typically be introverts, thereby making it difficult to forge friendships, and that lovers of cats are to be trusted. Let’s be real, it takes a special person to understand their oftentimes aloof personalities, as seen in Joy Carol Oates’ short horror story, The White Cat. While Beatrice ultimately receives spiritual fulfillment from her bond with Ruth, Ruth’s ultimate bond is to cats and connects in a mutually supernatural, or psychic fashion. As the friendship between the two women deepens as time progresses, it morphs into one that defies life or death, with cats as the conduit.
In the preface to the story in the above collection, Niffenegger describes the impetus for the story, a sense of loss from that of a cat and a friend. Feelings of loss, abandonment, “aloneness and loneliness” in marriage and relationships is felt felt from start to finish as expressed through these two disparate women’s lives and their relationships to each other, themselves, and bonds to animals. First published in the Chicago Tribune in 2006 with its occasional reference to Northwestern University, this story will also nestle nicely in the heart of any northside Chicagoian with a fondness for the furry types.
*Illustration by Audrey Niffenegger
In one of the most heart-wrenching stories of the list, we glimpse into to a short period of time in the life of “she/her” and her husband from a third person point of view. From the get-go, she has begun her physical transformation from woman into a deer, beginning with the protrusion of antlers, followed by hoofs, to full embodiment, though she says later in the story that she had always been wild. Coinciding with her metamorphosis is her diagnosis of stage three cancer, though there is some allusion to her previously having some form of it, and knowing that it had returned in an extreme iteration.
Both she and her husband’s handling of her cancer diagnosis are explored; she in a state of acceptance, or maybe shocked coping, and he in denial and panic, though the process of grief remains fluid between the cancer and her animal transformation. The imaginative ways in which Rickert likens of the experience of cancer to transforming into an amazing animal, including growing antlers to losing her hair; the loss of control over one’s body as it becomes something that works against you (Gilda Radner discusses this in her biography, It’s Always Something); the loneliness of experiencing something that you can’t explain to another, is a heartbreaking and ingenious comparison. As her transformation comes to completion, a deer cannot live with a man, despite her husband’s agonized protests, she joins the animal kingdom.
The manner in which Rickert constructs the story closely mirrors the mood; set during winter in the woods, the writing is mournful, to the point, and resists flowery language. Much like Tananarive Due’s book, every story is a powerful declaration and as a whole, creates a powerful collection that is hauntingly original.
The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet enables us to glimpse into the less than idyllic household politics of wife and mother Kamala Mishra, and much like in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, her plight is revealed through the eyes of a man, in this instance, her husband. Though the story is told from his perspective, we can suppose much of what her life has been like through his rigid and self-serving diatribes, leaving little to ponder as to the reasoning of why Kamala begins her transformation into a host body.
The story begins with patriarch Ramnath Mishra’s annoyance as his wife disrupts just one of his plethora of rituals, coffee on the veranda while reading his newspaper. What he had envisioned as a relaxing future in his new retirement from government is soon “inconvenienced” by his wife’s seemingly mental breakdown as she tells him that she, amidst a lifetime of a shaky identity, is a planet. As his wife begins to exhibit more unwieldy, unpredictable behaviors that baffle him, including trying to take off her sari (in their home), buying balloons for poor children (“…you are spoiling these good-for-nothings!”) , and welcoming a colony of small beings into her body (though not the most pressing of his concerns), Ramnath panics. We learn that he is a rigid man, finding comfort in a life consisting of sterility, routine and a strong adherence to social honor codes that would prevent any modicum of disgrace upon him in the eyes of the community. As Kamala begins to shed concern of judgement, including addressing her husband by his first name, to him it is a threat to his value system, causing him to reveal through internal dialogue his self-absorption as he ruminates over the constant “irritations” his wife has thrust upon him, further exemplified by such further recitations: “What did I do to deserve this?” “His day was completely ruined.” “Ramnath felt a surge of anger and self-pity.” When the issue of Kamala’s emotional well-being is seriously considered by her husband, it is in relation to how it inconveniences him. His extreme rigidity can further be seen as he chides himself for becoming slightly aroused when seeing his wife naked after having ghettoized her to the role of strictly mother and housemate.
Kamala’s life of marital expectation and servitude can further be glimpsed as Ramnath reflects on their past, suggesting that she visit her ancestral village, commenting that he had “not permitted” her to visit her mother in over five years because of obligations he had put upon her, “the marriage of their sons, his retirement…somebody had to run the house and supervise the servants.” The irony is that Kamala interprets his suggestion as kindness, but in actuality, being rid of her is preferable to any sort of personal growth on her part, even to the extent of murder, of which he easily justifies.
Singh’s writing is a profound examination into the couple’s intimate relationship, expressed through the inner thoughts of a truly selfish man. Though his wife’s body begins to morph into not only uncharted territory, but also a home for otherworldly beings, Ramnath is unabashed, and has always been, about the extreme control he exerts over his wife and how they interact. It’s difficult as a reader to remain objective, identifying with Kamala’s urge to break free both mentally and physically from the constraints role as obedient wife. Luckily for her, us, and the creatures which inhabit her, she does.
Part 1 can be viewed here.