Feminist Short Stories: Horror & Sci-Fi (Part 3)

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.

Eau-De-Eric
Manuela Saragosa

In this thoroughly creative and universal short story, author and journalist from the BBC World Service (photo above) explores the strong connection between scent and memory, how a simple whiff can conjure and propel us back into the most painful of past memories.

We are privy to a snapshot into the life of Kathy and her young daughter Ellie  one year post Kathy’s husband, Eric’s untimely death.  When she brings home a resale shop teddy bear to her daughter, Ellie names the doll after her father citing a similar scent to which Kathy agrees, much to her dismay.  As the story unfolds, the bear becomes a compulsively constant companion to the girl, complicit in her whispers behind closed doors.  He seems to perpetually stare at the mother and her new boyfriend, communicating a feeling of ultimate betrayal, an emotional neglect as Kathy forges her new life.  This new man, his presence betraying the memory of Ellie’s father.

In this shorter short story, Saragosa flawlessly commands and transforms the mood of the plot with only a few sentences, morphing the daughter from saint to sinner, the mother from dubious parent to survivor.  The scent of the father, though comforting to Ellie, becomes reminder of the terror endured by the mother during their marriage.  The smell becomes the personification of the dead man, inviting him back into the house as not only a bear, but possibly inhabiting the form of their daughter, an inescapable entity of memory now passed through the possession of DNA.

It’s the perfect short horror story–it’s a seemingly simple story that takes you on a subtle though impactful emotional ride that encompasses memory, single parenthood, death of a parent, and the complexities of grief.

from Six Scary Stories, selected and introduced by Stephen King

The Summer People
Kelly Link

Two years after reading The Summer People over a snowy Chicago winter weekend, the mystery and magic of the tale, written by short story maven Kelly Link still fills me with wonder every time it springs into my psyche.  The basis is magically fantastic in every sense of the word.  Similar to American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Link creates a world where many of us wish to live, where the ordinary is peppered with the extraordinary, living as one, though the extraordinary is often hidden to most.

The story focuses on its main protagonist, teenage Fran, caretaker of everything and one in her life–her father, her home, the people who vacation in their southern part of the US and the homes in which they stay.  Fran is a tough cookie; she’s weathered so much burden throughout her life, including an absentee mother, an unreliable and alcoholic father, and the knowledge of necessity.  Fran knows that if she doesn’t keep up the adult responsibilities for her father, no one will, including the care of their otherworldly summer inhabitants who keep Fran’s mother, father, and now Fran captive by location.  They are both blessed with the presence of magical beings who care for the family, and damned by them as their perpetual caretakers.

Link entwines the complicated plight of a lower income, broken family expressed through the steadfastness of a young woman and the whimsical quirks of the Summer People.  Though Fran has grown weary of their antics with slight sprinkles of amusement, the readers learn of their supernatural abilities as they gradually unfold to Fran’s friend Ophelia.  Almost by happenstance, Ophelia innocuously inserts herself into Fran’s life and naturally that of the Summer People, unknowingly entering into a world which may cost her more than her curiosity.

from Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link

In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)
Caitlín R. Kiernan

Ireland native Caitlín R. Kiernan is so damn fascinating that it can’t help but steep into her writing.  Aside from her fiction career she has been a professor, having studied zoology, geology and paleontology in addition to publication in various scientific journals.  In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888) reflects that respect for all that is old and of the earth by its setting, late 1800s and the unspoiled, soon to be colonized land of Alabama during that time period.

The story begins with an introduction to Henry S. Matthews, professor of geography and math who’s painted as a solitary, quiet man with a calm mind only stirred by fossils and the primitive.  He picks through the strewn aside “antediluvian seashore in hardened bits and pieces” that the workers unintentionally unearth, armed with axes that bore through the Red Mountain to bring industry and water to Birmingham.  The miners, referred to as “hard men” view Matthews as some curious creature that he himself surveys from the ground as he tags along during their work to reap the underground gifts.  The mostly silent relationship eventually turns into one of ominous kinship as something is unearthed deep in the Red Mountain. Matthews is called to witness this unknown thing, lurking in what may should not have been disturbed.

Throughout the story Kiernan’s descriptions of mud, mountains, rocks and earth mirror that of a living being; nature itself is a body of organs, blood and bones.  Kiernan expertly uses such personifying phrases to set her mood: “iron-ore bones…Appalachia’s long and scabby spine…fresh wound, these walls, this abscess hollowed into the world’s thin skin…”  The tenor throughout the story is completely intoxicating; it’s dark, it’s wet, it’s cold, it’s eerie, it’s grey and unknown; “the autumn sky growls…”  It’s everything you want in a short story, leaving an unforeseen punch that becomes part of your psyche.  Bookmark it in your collection, or if from the library, make a copy and keep it near.  You will never again look at the reaping of the earth the same again.

from American Supernatural Tales, edited by Guillermo del Toro (among others) and can also be accessed via Google Books here.

The Lady of the House of Mirrors
Rafaela F. Ferraz

Portugese author and natural history buff Rafaela F. Ferraz reimagines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where our traditional Victor is Rosie, the recent inheritor of the store Dolls for Dreamers, where unique and sometimes supernatural dolls are crafted for the wealthy.  Aided by her Igor (Theo), they set out to create a companion for an eccentric shut-in, the woman known as the Lady of the House of Mirrors.  While they typically sculpt with clay and brass, this time they seek a human body to equip with the workings of a robot, a dead though living doll who is able to manage not only servitude, but also conversation.

We don’t know a lot about time frame, location of the story or much about Rosie’s past, but the crumbs gathered give way to glimpses of a world of awe.  The upper class has seemingly cut themselves off from a seedy underbelly where Rosie’s workplace resides; there are bodies being sold for wings, young dead men in corsets, missing limbs and glass eyeballs.  The world created by Ferraz is one of evocative imagery, all of which serve to create a highly sensual locale. Besides the allure of this new world, the real meat of the story lies in Rosie– the creation of a complicated, sometimes flawed and confused human being.  A renown business on her shoulders, trying to fill the shoes of a genius inventor whose prestige may be unattainable.

The ending is ambiguous, leaving you with more questions than answers and much like the world of the house of mirrors itself, at its conclusion you are left in a state of wonder, which is consistent with the vibe of the story.  Prior to viewing the tv show, Twin Peaks: the Return I may have yearned for that Hollywood ending, but Ferraz creates a Lynchian twist where the reader can inhabit a space where they both ponder the possibilities while accepting the mystery of that which may not be explained.

from Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists! edited by Steve Berman

The Sleep of Plants 
Anne Richter

The Sleep of Plants, written by Belgian author Anne Richter details the life of “she,” our protagonist who willfully transitions into a plant, seeking silence through a world of observation.  Similar to In the Water Works, we see repeated allusions to nature, the inextricable connection between humans and the natural world and how one cannot removed from the other.      

Our protagonist, “she” lives quietly with her mother and spends the majority of the story reflecting on how she seeks a life of solitude.  The vehicle for this solitude manifests itself as the desire to transform into a houseplant and begins her metamorphosis by “planting” herself into a pot of soil.  Her mother, upon finding her daughter upstairs in a flower pot, seems to decide to ignore the dirty secret and avoids her altogether.  “She’s” fiance finds her and brings her water and food in the form of insects.  Eventually, she transforms into a being that exists on water and sun, living as one that contently observes and never speaks.

Published in 1967 shortly following the advent of second wave feminism, The Sleep of Plants is reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s film, Jeanne Dielman, addressing themes of solitude, boredom of the middle-class woman woman during the 1960s, and depression stemming from the pressure of expectation; to be a social being and marry against one’s will, in this instance.  The story is compelling in its ingenuity, curious and somewhat confusing, all making it a great slice of life to ponder what the hell is going on.  For an introvert, the idea of morphing into a plant sounds more like heaven than horror, but who’d want to eat all of those bugs?

from Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

Part 1 can be viewed here.

Part 2 can be viewed here.

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Librarian’s Pick of the Week: XX (Film)

Library patrons are always asking me, “what have you read (sometimes seen) lately that you loved?”  This is what I loved this week.

XX: Four Deadly Tales by Four Killer Women (film)

Directors: Roxanne Benjamin 
Karyn Kusama
St. Vincent (Annie Clark)
Jovanka Vuckovic

Why: XX is a complication of four short horror films either directed or written by women, about women.  The Box (JV), about a mysterious box whose contents wreak havoc on the well-being of a suburban family and the suspense in this film could not be more monumental.  The Birthday Cake (SV), directed by musician St. Vincent, is a quirky, beautifully shot and sometimes adorable tale of death and family.  Don’t Fall (RB), about four friends camping in uncharted territory in the wilderness with suspicious cave drawings and amazing creature effects.  The anthology concludes with Her Only Living Son (KK) about the love that a mother can possess for her child (possess being the operative word), sacrificing herself at all costs, whether to her detriment or not is debatable.  It’s plain to see why these four were chosen to accompany each other in this volume because though so dissimilar in content, each story is masterfully directed, creative and excitingly original.

Watchalikes: Grace dir. Paul Solet
Rosemary’s Baby dir. Roman Polanski
May dir. Lucky McKee
Contracted dir. Eric England

Feminist Short Stories: Horror & Sci-Fi (Part 2)

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.

tananarivedueghostsummerThe Lake
Tananarive Due

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.

Pop Art20th Century Ghosts
Joe Hill

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
Audrey Niffenegger

catsniffennegerTaking 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

You Have Never Been HereMemoir of a Deer Woman
Mary Rickert

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 Planetvandana
Vandana Singh

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.

Exorcising the 1980s in Grady Hendrix’s New Book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism

Flipping through Grady Hendrix’s (Horrorstör) new book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it’s difficult to not be instantly attracted to a book described as “Heathers my_best_friends_exorcism_72dpimeets the Exorcist.”  After finishing the book, it’s easy to see that like Heathers, its staying power and popularity will be anything but ephemeral.

Exploring Feminisms: I can’t think of beginning any other way besides asking you, what was the impetus for writing this book?!  What was the inspiration?  I found it refreshing, sweet, extremely suspenseful, fun and to say the least, an unconventional “page turner,” as we say in the library world.

Grady Hendrix: It was the title. One afternoon, the phrase, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, just popped into my head and everything flowed from there. Although saying “flow” makes it sound like writing this book was a blissful, uninterrupted stream of creative inspiration. That is not accurate. Imagine a flow of lava rolling through your living room and setting your hair on fire while you run around screaming and trying to rescue your favorite possessions as they burst into flame and give you hideous burns. More that kind of flow.

EF: Throughout the entire novel, I was struck by how well you interpreted the universal aspects of the lives of most young women, such as the intensely emotional friendships and going through your parents closet and finding their porn stash.  How were you able to reflect back on the intricacies of high school with such detail, and further, from the varied perspectives of different types of young women?  

GH: When I’d finished half of the first draft of this book I was really, really proud of it, so I showed it to my wife. She informed me that it was full of clichés, stereotypes, and lazy assumptions. It was, to use her words, hot garbage. After I spent some time crying, I realized she was right. So much of what I thought I remembered about high school in the 80s was other people’s memories, John Hughes movies, and an infinite supply of pop culture clichés. So I sat down with all of her letters and photos from high school, and I sat down with all my letters and diaries, and yearbooks from high school and I spent weeks reading them. I copied the letters again and again until my handwriting changed. I got lost in them. And then, one day, an actual real memory of exactly what it felt like to be 15 and in high school in 1988 bubbled to the surface. And then another one. And another. And I started to write.


EF: The book takes place in an upper class high school academy in Charleston, SC.  Did you grow up in the South?

GH: I grew up in Charleston, SC and went to a school that is very similar to Albemarle Academy. I also lived on Pierates Cruze. Everything else is total fiction.

EF: I was discussing the book with my spouse, who is from North Carolina, and we were continually comparing notes on how accurate your portrayal was for me, of the 1980s, and for him, the South in the 1980s.  The tight gym shorts, the tv shows, the (economic) class politics, the music, et al.  Can you tell me about writing for a specific time and location?

GH: It was so hard, but so much fun. I love research, and digging into a time and place I actually lived through was a blast. I’ve got a calendar for 1988 next to me on my office wall with every incident in the book mapped out, I’ve got TV schedules for every day of the week, I’ve got clippings from magazines that came out in those months (Seventeen, 16, TIME, Sports Illustrated), and I think I’ve read almost every issue of my hometown paper, The News and Courier, that came out between June and November, 1988. It makes me sound like a serial killer stalking 1988, but I love this kind deep nerdery.


EF: When Abby tries to tell the adults that her best friend Gretchen may have been sexually assaulted, resulting in the adults turning on Abby instead, I couldn’t help but absorb her feelings of incredulity and alienation.  How were you able to create and express such a sense of betrayal?

GH: It’s how I felt every day I was in high school. Adults were the enemy and they could not be trusted. Even now, if someone asks me what advice I’d give a teenager, I’d tell them that teenagers shouldn’t be taking advice from anyone over 30. We all look back and we minimize our teenaged experiences, or attribute what we felt to “adolescent angst” but I look at the way my friends and I were treated by the adults we knew and I’m still angry about it. I knew girls who had awful things happen to them, and couldn’t get anyone to believe them. I knew guys who were targeted by teachers for humiliation and mockery. When you tried to get help it was dismissed as “drama.” Let’s face it, teenagers are still treated as being less than human, and it hurts.

EF: I was stuck by how easy it was for me to envision each of the characters because you really gave them all distinct, believable personalities, even if they were only in a few  paragraphs.  No one was made into a caricature, and though the book has been compared to the movie Heathers, all of the lines were believable within the context of an actual conversation between two people.  Tell me about how you were able to construct these characters.

GH: Thanks so much for saying that. I love these characters and spent so much time with them that when bad stuff happened I felt like a jerk. I mean, anything that went wrong with their lives was actually 100% my fault. Everyone in this book started with a seed of someone I saw or someone I knew in the real world, whether it was a person I watched on the subway or someone I went to high school with. Then I wrote their biography and they grew past that seed and became someone different and fully created. Also, I felt a real responsibility to my friends from high school to make sure everyone felt real. My friends are the people who got me through that place alive and I felt like I had to write a book that was worthy of them.

EF: I loved the doctor at the Gross Anatomy Lab and his goofy personality.  My father’s an undertaker and pretty much everyone I’ve met in the field of dealing with dead bodies has a very good sense of humor, so you hit that nail on the head.  Was he modeled after someone you actually knew?

GH: Actually, he was modeled after the doctor at the Gross Anatomy Lab where my class took a tour! He was a blast! I grew up in a medical family, so I’m pretty familiar with the sort of casual goofiness people in that field have around death, like they’re whistling past the graveyard.

EF: When Gretchen begins acting strange–not showering, cut marks on her arms, becoming anti-social–it sounds like pretty angsty teenage stuff and could be interpreted as such, as opposed to her being possessed by a demon.  Could one argue that her possession is an allegory for teenage angst; the divide between the teenage world of confusion, discovery and burgeoning individuality juxtaposed with the pressures that parents put on their children and the stories they tell themselves to save face in front of other adults?

GH: I hate to say anything’s an allegory because it makes me sound pretentious, but I will say that I watched friends go crazy in high school. They never got diagnosed or anything, but I watched them change so radically I didn’t recognize them anymore. Overnight, they’d go from being my close friend to being someone dangerous and scary. And I wasn’t immune. For me, 10th grade was so hard. I felt like everything I did was going wrong. I felt possessed. I’d try to do something good, and it would turn out bad. I’d be proud of doing the right thing, only to discover it was absolutely 100% the wrong thing. I felt completely out of control and, even worse, no one seemed interested in stopping me.

And, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism is told from Abby and Gretchen’s points-of-view, there’s another, equally valid, version of this story told from the POV of Gretchen’s parents. That’s a story about having a daughter who seems to be losing her mind. It’s a story about loving this kid for years and years and then overnight she becomes dirty, and loud, and angry, and, to be honest, even a little bit scary. And you don’t know what to do, and she’s hurting herself, and every time her best friend comes around she only gets worse. That’s not the story I set out to tell, but it’s another version of this book that I think is just as true as the one I wrote.

EF: What made this book a page turner for me was the high level of suspense; I had no idea what was going to happen next or how the story would end, or what was going to happen to Abby as she was constantly being put through the ringer.  Can you tell me about how you were able to create this feeling and extend it throughout most of the novel?

GH: I wasn’t sure it worked, so thank you for letting me know it did! Suspense is hard because there’s a thin line between creating suspense and jerking your reader around. I had to make sure that anything I set up, paid off, and any pay offs I wanted were properly set up. That makes it sound like I had some kind of master chart, but it’s a lot more organic than that. When you’re writing a long book you get to a place where you’re so buried in it that things get weird. But there comes a point when you need something and you reach out and there it is, already waiting for you as if you knew you’d need it down the road. Good Dog Max is a great example. I had no idea why he was in the book, until all of a sudden towards the end I needed him and there he was, waiting for me.

Suspense is all about setting up unsolvable situations for your characters, and then figuring out solutions. It’s really hard because it means you have to be honest about your characters, and sometimes smarter than them, and I’m not known for being smart. Fortunately, your subconscious mind seems to be working on your side.

EF: The horror in the book is intermittent but effective.  I also appreciated how you used restraint, especially in the part with the dog and the possessed character, Gretchen.  It seemed to me that you chose horror that was scary but not so much that you would completely alienate your audience, which would have happened if you went into detail during that scene.  I’d love to hear more about the process of devising horrific scenarios.    

GH: I have a notebook that I carry around and whenever something gross, weird, or disturbing occurs, I jot it down. Whether it’s the way a guy smells on the subway, or a dead animal I see on the street, or even just an idea about people hiding behind doors and watching you through the cracks — if it makes me uncomfortable, it goes in the notebook. When it’s time to write a book I hold it up over my desk and shake it really hard and the worst stuff falls out and that’s what I use. Writing horrific scenes is both hard and easy because all you have to do is be totally and completely honest about what makes you feel sick and then relay exactly why to the reader. Like I said: it sounds easy, and it is, but you’re also exposing your own weaknesses and that doesn’t come naturally. If I’m making myself feel ill (and for two scenes in this book, I really felt sick while writing them) then I know I’m doing a good job. I’m my own best lab rat.

EF: Overall and for so many reasons, the novel was a great “complete package” of a book that I recommend to both adults and teens, though I see the appeal towards adults as especially alluring because of how you were able to reflect on the 1980s, which is great nostalgia for anyone of that era.  Thanks so much, Grady!

My Best Friend’s Exorcism will be available on May 17, 2016.  You can pre-order the book from Women and Children First if you live in Chicago,  at Amazon.com, or of course, your local library.

You can also visit Grady’s website to see what else he’s up to.

Feminist Short Stories: Horror & Sci-Fi (Part 1)

Spotlight on Five Feminist-Minded Short Stories with Elements of Horror  

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.”  It is this very reason that I so 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 façade 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 Giant WistariaCPG
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It’s shocking once you’ve finished The Giant Wistaria to realize that it was published in 1891, when it seems as if it were written not so long ago.  The story takes place during two time periods, the 1700s and the 1800s.  The former century begins with an English family and we’re dropped into the middle of the most scandalous of family dramas–their daughter has just given birth out of wedlock, and the parents are fleeing to England to escape any disgrace to their family name.

Fast toward to the late 1800s; the house from whence they fled is now decrepit and has been virtually swallowed by a gigantic Wistaria vine.  A wealthy young couple and their friends happen by, completely enchanted by what they interpret as rustic charm, they assume that it must be haunted and rent it immediately.  As the three couples drink, eat and laugh, they describe the prospect of an eventful summer chock-full of ghosts that hopefully inhabit the house.  After the first evening, their fantasies come to fruition as half of the group awakens to find that they’ve had the same dream of a young woman with a mysterious bundle in her arms and a red cross around her neck.  They soon find that their collective dreams were more than a mere case of indigestion (to quote A Christmas Carol).

The Giant Wistaria is chilling for several reasons.  First off, the punch that is delivered is done so in only a few pages; not only is CPG a feminist, but she’s also a powerful storyteller and is able to intertwine the two seamlessly.  Another sobering facet of the story is the juxtaposition of the two time periods, the people who exist in each one, and finally, the full-circle of tragic events.  CPG was a master of collective human emotions and is able to make you feel guilty and sickened by indirectly referencing class and gender inequality.

A Good Man is Hard to Find
Flannery O’Connor

Good Man is Hard to FindI knew very little about Flannery O’Connor when this collection of short stories was recommended to me.  I knew that O’Connor was Irish Catholic, and that the stories were written in the mid-20th century.  Needless to say, as I finished the first story, which is also the namesake for my particular edition, I was completely taken aback.  “The person who suggested that I read this should have warned me!” I thought.  Like so many of the other stories in this article, it’s thrilling to read a gem so subversive that it still shocks nearly 70 years later.

As the story begins, we meet a family comprised of three young children, their mother and father, and the paternal grandmother.  Like many of O’Connor’s other writings, A Good Man is Hard to Find is set in the South, and as the family embarks on a road trip to Florida we learn that a murderer is on the loose by the nickname, “The Misfit.”   From start to finish, the grandmother is a pill.  She believes the past was best, children should be quiet, women should always be ladies, and her opinion is always right.  Basically, she’s the southern queen of unsolicited advice.  O’Connor is a master at tapping in on a personality type that annoys most people because they are in everyone’s lives in some form.  Because of that, we as readers are extended participants in this very long road trip.  In addition to being an expert character study, O’Connor takes us on a trip through 1940s/50s Georgia in the summer.  It’s hot and dusty with a killer on the loose.  They are alone on the road in a deserted part of the state where gas stations come only intermittently, setting a tone that leaves us unsure of our surroundings and insecure about the future.  As the trip goes on, the grandmother sends the family on a wild goose chase, seeking out physical proof of a misplaced memory.  This dirt detour sends the family into a downward spiral that puts them face to face with what the grandmother hoped to avoid from the outset–the Misfit.

At first read, A Good Man… could seem like nothing more than a story about an incredibly annoying grandmother and a gang of psychos.  However, this is one of those great stories that unfolds a multitude of onion-like layers that encompasses race, religion, class and poverty, region, crime, place in history, Civil Rights, and gender roles, amongst others.  However you choose to read this story, as one of good old-fashioned murder, or a story of murder inextricably bound with issues of class, race and religion, you are left with comparable sense of dread, and maybe just a hint of schadenfreude as the grandmother finally gets her lips zipped.

The Joy of FuneralsAlix Strauss
Alix Strauss

The Joy of Funerals differs from the other titles in this round-up because it is a collection of short stories that end up connecting in the end, which also packs a great ah-ha as the tales come into the final braid.  Similar to Strauss’ most current book, Based Upon Availability, each story is unique in its own right, and the culmination of all the interlaced stories is an extra cherry on top.

Each story is about how women, whether individually or in a group, deal with the grief they experience over the loss of a loved one in New York.  Strauss plunks us down smack dab into their lives by crafting mournful imagery and offering variety of well fleshed out characters.  Each character, in only a few pages, is described in such thorough detail that you feel like you not only really know them, but can completely empathize with what they are experiencing through their grief.  In one story, a woman burns a photograph of her husband and eats it on her breakfast cereal, and while reading it, you are eating the ashes with her–you can smell it, taste it and feel the loss as if you’ve been punched in the belly.  In another story, a woman’s behavior is so deceitful that it leaves the reader with a personal sense of betrayal, but also left me to unfortunately identify with the character’s insecurities.  To me, only a true master of art can make you identify with the flawed characters, al la the films Spring Breakers and Happiness.  Full disclosure, I found myself crying throughout the majority of the book because the stories are crafted in such a way that they strike the core of shared human experience with concern to love and loss.

Barbara GowdyWe So Seldom Look on Love
Barbara Gowdy

The short story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love is truly a forgotten treasure.  Reading it nearly seventeen years ago, it has remained implanted in my mind, and the physical book has stayed with me through every move of my life because of it.  The short story that I’d like to hopefully introduce you to, which is also the title for the book, is the reason why banned and challenged books are so important for the youth.  Decades ago, this creepy, gross and arguably offensive story exhilarated this gal as a fifteen-year-old and helped to make her the liberal bitch that she is today.

The story is told from the point-of-view of the main character as she reflects on her childhood as a blossoming necrophiliac and fast forwards to current day when she is publicly disgraced as her sexual proclivity becomes mainstream knowledge.  As a child, she realizes that her infatuation with dead animal corpses: the smell, the blood, their energy, et al, will prevent her from attracting and sustaining any form of friendship.  As she gets older, she accepts her sexual attraction to male corpses, admitting that she is unable to fall in love with any living man, and that plenty of corpses have broken her heart.  Naturally, she enters medical school as a means of gaining access to these potential and cadaverous love interests.  Though the idea of engaging in oral sex with dead tissue may seem unattractive to most of us, I give kudos to Gowdy for her character’s unflinching acceptance of her sexuality at so young of an age.  Teenage girls, and really, most women, have mixed emotions regarding their sexual bodies, and it’s refreshing to read about a young woman who doesn’t deny herself those inclinations.

The White CatJCOates
Joyce Carol Oates

The White Cat is one of those great stories where the plot may not be as it seems, and its interpretation can be fluid depending on its reader.  Ostensibly, we’re reading a tale about a WASP of a man, his younger wife, and their evil Persian cat, Miranda.  As we delve deeper into the mind of Julius Muir and his family life, the storyline thickens as we are fed bits of information that make Julius’ home life seem less than perfect, though he would have you think no other way.

It can be argued that the story is a portrait of the building and collapse, aka psychological break-down of the main character, Julius, and since much of it is from his point of view, it’s not exactly clear where the truth lies.  We are to believe that Miranda the cat is evil because of said evidence: “…as the cat grew older and more spoiled…it became evident that she did not…chose him.”  His subsequent reaction contains a crumb of hilarity as he reconciles that he will handle this situation by killing the cat because her ambivalence of him is an affront to this man who “knows who he is.”  Because Mr. Muir purchased the cat for his wife, he believes himself to be her sole master and therefore has the right to end her life since he brought her into being (at least into this own house).

As we read on, the facts become murky.  We wonder, what has happened for the past ten years?  There is no indication that their contemptuous relationship has built over the decade of co-habitation, and seems to be a relatively recent occurrence.  An occurrence that has also surfaced with the advent of his wife making more decisions independent of Julius, perhaps.  Is the quirky Persian evil, living to cause Mr. Muir a life of anguish?  Is he simply ignoring characteristics are inherent in the sometimes fickle feline species?  Or, is he attributing his wife’s human characteristics to his cat instead of facing up to his own troubled family life; a life that is seemingly so perfect in every way?

 

Part 2 can be viewed here

My Top 10 Feminist Horror Movie Picks for 2013

In the Exploring Feminisms household, horror is one of the most common film genres playing on our television.  Of those out there, very few are what I would consider feminist, or at least having a feminist agenda of some sort.  So the task of the day is to find some that may lend a little hope to the genre.

As with every year, this task is always a lot more difficult than I think it will be, resulting in a lot of viewing, and a lot of discarded films.

While sifting through the plethora of bloody thrillers, teen screams, zombie flicks and vampire love stories, directed by both men and women, I came across a few that stood out as notable films ranging from masked and subtle to overtly feminist.  Overall, I saw two distinct motifs appear this year, and their themes timeless: coming of age stories and attaining beauty at any cost.

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Aliens
(James Cameron, 1986)

Okay, I know that we’ve all probably seen this film about a thousand times on TBS, but as I watching it again (sans commercials) with a more critical eye, I was surprised to see a few nuggets of insight that maybe be somewhat hidden to the casual channel flipper.

In the second of the franchise, (Aliens being the follow-up to the classic, Alien) we learn that Ripley had a daughter decades before she was propelled through time, but who is now within the timeframe of the story, deceased.  This fact gives more weight to her self-appointed role of guardian of Newt, the newly rescued child who undoubtedly reminds her of her daughter.   What’s more, because the nature of the military is inherently male-dominated, based on a masculine ideology, it is extremely subversive that Ripley’s character makes a conscious decision in the face of her superiors and other military personnel to show compassion and nurturing qualities.

The cast also includes not only women, but a variety of races and ethnicities within roles of power.  Given that this film was made in 1988, seeing a measurable amount of minority cast members is arguable progressive for the time.

Aliens

American Mary
(Jen & Sylvia Soska, 2012)

 American Mary is the story of Mary, a med school student who is extremely adept in the way of suturing, but is having trouble making ends meet.  When her dominating (ok, asshole) male professor invites her to a party with only male doctors as guests, she is used as a human rag doll.  Too disturbed to continue her formal education, she becomes an amateur plastic surgeon for an underground body modification crowd.

The film can be categorized in the body horror sub-genre, and recommended for fans of films like Inside or In My SkinAM is a definite step up from the Soska sisters’ first film, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, by giving us some satisfying gore, a more fleshed out plot, and better acting with Katharine Isabelle from Ginger Snaps leading the way.  Though I do tend to feel that rape revenge movies, much like Holocaust films, by virtue of the content, already have the audience fired up and ready for revenge.  Lo and behold, I did get fired up and like Mary, wanted revenge, and we as an audience are not disappointed.

american-mary

Black Rock
(Katie Aselton, 2012)

In Black Rock, three old friends return to a deserted campsite in an attempt to reforge their fragmented friendship, though while on their way there, it becomes explosive due to painful betrayals in their past.  In an ironic twist, a group of violent, dishonorably discharged men back from the Middle East is what glues the women back together again.

The situation between the ex-soldiers and the three friends mirrors that of Americans invading the Middle East, and the reports of aggressive soldiers abusing civilians and prisoners of war.  Except in this instance, the three friends must go guerrilla style after the men try to murder them and turn into the hunters.  In essence, the women become the aggressors themselves, but do so in the name of their own survival.  This film is extremely suspenseful and at times uncomfortable to watch because of its complete unpredictability.

Black Rock

Contracted
(Eric England, 2013)

Contracted is a breath of fresh air not only within the horror genre bubble, but also to film at large right now.  When compared to any given contemporary Hollywood film, this indie flick puts them all to shame.  It’s funny, gory, shocking, cute, and original, and film that conveys all of those adjectives is certainly a rarity.

Contracted is about a down on her luck in love lesbian that makes an unwise, alcohol and drug induced mistake and sleeps with a strange guy.  What follows is a cosmic retribution, possibly by the lesbian Gods that be, where an unknown and horrific plague is cast upon her body.

Contracted

Death Becomes Her
(Robert Zemeckis, 1992)

Like Aliens, you may be surprised by this film making it on the list.  But, after watching it for the first time since the 1990s, the writers were onto something, and my assumption is an astute eye for observing the pervasive late 20th culture of Hollywood and the stigmatization of the elusive aging actress.

The title Death Becomes Her sums up the whole point of the film; death, or aging comes upon a woman, but for many actresses, aging is the proverbial kiss of death-the death of their youth, and subsequently in the youth-obsessed culture in which we live, the death of a career.  This concept is parodied in the film as two women drink “the potion” and stay young and classically beautiful forever.  However, the caveat is that they must take care of their bodies because if their physical bodies do in fact die, they will continue to live.  Though parodied to the extreme, we see the lengths of what some women will endure to stay forever “beautiful,” though for these women, beautiful is exactly the opposite of what they become.

Death Becomes Her

Dumplings
(Fruit Chan, 2004)

Mrs. Li, an actress in her 30s sees herself, in comparison to herself decades earlier in her films and to her husband’s younger lovers, as unattractive and undesirable.  Like the middle-aged actresses in Death Becomes Her, the not even yet middle-aged Mrs. Li also takes a potion of sorts, except instead of swallowing a glowing pink liquid one time for eternal youth, she needs to continually eat fetuses in the form of dumplings to remain wrinkle-free.

Dumplings is the perfect bookend to Death Becomes Her, and shows how regardless of the decade or country, women feel pressure to maintain eternal youth to feel a sense of relevance as they get older.  In Mrs. Li’s case, she finds complete legitimacy in skirting the lengths of infanticide.

dumplings

Excision
(Richard Bates, Jr., 2012)

 It is rare when a writer/director can tap into the the inner workings (similar to Jack and Diane (below) and Turn Me On, Dammit!) of a teenager with any modicum of accuracy, and this film does just that.

Excision depicts the darker side of a teenager navigating through their newly discovered, unwieldy sexual urges, and in this case, the main character fantasizes about necrophilia.  The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) describes lead character Pauline as, “disturbed and delusional,” but this description underestimates the difficultly of coming to terms with your newly developing body and all the psychological confusion therein.

Sex with corpses aside, the way that main character Pauline is portrayed is both unusual and empowering.  Though in high school and without any real friends, Pauline is preternaturally self-assured.  She owns her desires; she decides when to have her first sexual experience, with whom, and what type of experience she wants to have.  She recognizes the limitations of an encounter with a teenage boy, and instead of the typical first jackrabbit-like, awkward sexual experience for most teenage girls, she dictates how the experience will best pleasure herself.  This is especially rare in both film and real life as many women feel a sense of shame concerning their own bodies.

Excision

 Eyes Without a Face (“Les yeux sans visage”)
(Georges Franju, 1960)

Christiane is involved in a disfiguring car accident, but instead of letting her live with her less than perfect visage, her father kills young women in the hopes of transplanting their faces onto his daughter’s now lack of one.  Her father practices his untested medical procedures on stray dogs, puts her through a series of transplants where her face rots away from her bones, and even stages her own death.

Throughout the film, as her father continues to assert more authority over her life, Christiane begins to prefer death to a life of a virtual ghost with no autonomy.  Without her permission or the choice to make decisions over her own body, he prefers that she be dead to the world as opposed to being perceived as unattractive to a society that is universally understood to be obsessed with flawless beauty.

Eyes Without a Face

Grace
(Paul Solet, 2009)

When it comes to the horror genre today, in this case, the vampire genre, it is damn near impossible to glean any originality in most horror sub-sects today that haven’t been regurgitated, recycled or spread too thin.   In the story of Grace and her newborn child, we see originality brought to the genre by taking the vampire story a step further outside of the box as Grace finds that her baby is only satiated by the nourishment of blood.

Grace is thick with issues that are extremely personal to women specifically, including the loss of a child, breast feeding, women loving women, Oedipal issues, et al, but takes them a step further by stretching the limits of what women will endure to fulfill their more disturbing desires.

Grace Film

 Jack and Diane 
(Bradley Rust Gray, 2012)

Jack and Diane is one of those great coming of age stories that serves as a reminder that the experience of first love, whether you are attracted to the same or opposite sex, is the great equalizer.  Don’t you remember?  You acted completely irrational; you ignored your parents’ phone calls; you came home late without permission; you couldn’t sleep…you went crazy!  It was all very star-crossed lovers, and even Shakespeare understood hundreds of years ago the power of that innocent, all consuming love, except in Jack and Diane’s case, it would be more akin to Juliet and Juliet, but the passion remains the same.

Of course, with all the lovey-doveyness of the first love, there was always a deeper-seated, more sinister undercurrent: obsession, insecurity, doubt and all of those new, unchecked emotions.  Instead of, say, in Romeo and Juliet, resulting in double suicide of sorts, in Jack and Diane’s case, these emotions manifest themselves as ravenous monsters.

Jack and Diane is unique, sweet, and dares to step outside of the realm of the typical coming of age script by normalizing young, same sex relationships and offers us a quaint, original way of representing human emotions.

Jack and Diane

Afterbirth

After three years of feminist horror lists, a shocking thought came to me recently.  Is there such a thing as a feminist horror film? Considering one angle: in many of the films listed over the years, a common thread is the victim reclaiming power by exacting a bloody revenge against her aggressor.  Reclaiming power after being subjugated can be, well, empowering.  On the other side of the coin, if someone asserts their power over you, and you then reclaim that power and use it against them, it maintains that imbalance, and the question becomes: doesn’t asserting power over another make you no better than your abuser?  Or does appropriating that violent power from your aggressor empower?  You have to ask yourself, which kind of feminist are you?

Need more recommendations?  Check out my lists for 2011 and 2012!