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

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2011: Explore My Literary Feminisms!

At the beginning of 2011, I set a goal to read 24 books before the year was through in the attempt to trump my 17 from 2010.  If I didn’t reach it, no biggie, the point is quality, not quantity.  I did feel though, that a good amount of my time was melting into endless nights of watching the uber-dramatic and the really important issues of wives from Beverly Hills and the Mob.  Maybe a portion of my time would be better spent on what I sometimes forget that I really love?

My choices were not preplanned at the beginning of the year and I tried to tackle a range of books resulting in some feminist, most not, and a surprising few dabbled in Library Science, which I saw as more bang for my buck in the end.

My reading plan for this year not only differed from last year in goal (from 17 to 25), but also price.  Besides one or two that were bought for me, I checked all of the books out from the library.  Like many library types, a good amount of us buy our books.  Shocking, I know.  A lot of us are collectors of books and pride ourselves on showing off our giant libraries.  Think of it as battle scars.  However, being on a fairly strict budget for much of 2011, I decided to put my money, or rather, no money, where my mouth is (I think this also had a direct impact on my increased number of books).  Once I remembered that I had free access to an endless amount of books, I found it difficult not to fill my arms with mass amounts of fiction and non-fiction with the  voracious appetite of a brain eating zombie who had just encountered fresh prey!

Top 10

The Night Eternal
by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2011)

The third and final book in the Strain Trilogy about vampires taking over the earth.  The trilogy was amazing and each book led me on an emotional roller coaster.  Needless to say, I cried when I closed the last book.

With GDT himself and yes, I am holding the first book of the Strain Trilogy

Neverwhere
by Neil Gaiman (1996)

This year I discovered Gaiman, as you will see as you read further.  I read most of his adult fiction this year, and Neverwhere was my favorite Gaiman novel, and second favorite overall this year.  It had a happy ending, a very likable protagonist, and it sucked me in within the first few pages.  I also recommend this on audiobook because Gaiman himself reads the text and because of this, the audiobook expresses exactly what the writer was thinking when he was writing it.

Gunn’s Golden Rules
by Tim Gunn (2007)

This book is my Bible, or the closest thing I’ve ever read to a guide on how I want to live my life.  Gunn gives practical advice on how to act like a normal human being, encompassing good manners, the importance of treating yourself with respect and of course, making everything work.  I will definitely be reading this on a yearly basis and I recommend buying this one.

An Object of Beauty
by Steve Martin (2010)

If you like artwork, New York, fashion, Steve Martin, coming of age stories, color pictures in books or any combination thereof, then this book is for you.

Herland
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

Three men crash land into an all-female utopia where the women actually function just fine!  Go figure!  Plus, it’s a classic by a classic woman.  If you haven’t read CPG yet, I recommend starting with her short story the Yellow Wallpaper.

American Gods
by Neil Gaiman (2001)

Gods living on earth in human forms.  What more could you want?  This piece of fiction is epic and like Neverwhere, grabs you right away.  At times, this book tackles some tough life and death issues but not so much that you feel like you’re reading a Russian novel.

Bossypants
by Tina Fey (2011)

Fey is a feminist and Fey is funny.  And I also want her to be my best friend.  Recommended for women and men who aren’t scared of childbirth, rotten breath or pubic hair that resembles vermicelli noodles.

The Fellowship of the Ring
by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)

This year I thought that I’d take on the book since I love the movies so much.  It really reinforced that books and film are two totally different mediums and therefore are difficult to compare.  The book fills in gaps in the movie that I didn’t even know there were.  Plus, I was surprised by what an easy read it ended up being.

Based Upon Availability
by Alix Strauss (2010)

Short stories about women who are interconnected by their association with the Four Seasons Hotel.  Like her last fiction novel, Joy of Funerals, Strauss is really great at writing from varied female points of view.

Men Are Stupid and They Like Big Boobs
by Joan Rivers (2008)

What can I say?  It’s Joan Rivers and she rocks.  She’s a bipartisan powerhouse with a voice and an opinion.

Runners Up

The Anansai Brothers
by Neil Gaiman (2005)

The story of two reunited brothers who are the sons of an African God.  Very Gaimanesque: death; life; Gods; whimsy; a somewhat awkward central character who comes into his own; and as always, he presents us with magic and superstitions and makes it so easy to want to be part of that world.

Oh No She Didn’t: The Top 100 Style Mistakes Women Make and How to Avoid Them
by Clinton Kelly (2010)

Kelly’s guide makes you reflect on  your own wardrobe, laugh out loud on the bus and then look around to judge everyone near you.  However, I think his critique on eyebrows is totally incorrect.

Locke and Key
by Joe Hill (2008)

I am going to say it, Stephen King can’t hold a candle to his son’s writing.  Having never been a real graphic novel fan (besides being made to read Maus and Persepolis in undergrad), Hill’s graphic novel has prompted me to want to read the next three in the series.  A little bloody, a little disturbing and totally enthralling.  (May I also recommend Hill’s fiction: Heart Shaped Box and Horns.)

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman (2008)

The story of a baby who is adopted by ghosts in a graveyard after his parents are murdered.  Though technically a teen novel, I thoroughly enjoyed this coming of age story.

Carrion Comfort
by Dan Simmons (1989)

If you liked the Strain Trilogy, I’d recommend this novel as well.  Vampires living on earth unbeknownst to humans, a group of rag-tags on the hunt and characters that you fall in love with.  The end gets a little murky and I wouldn’t hold it against you if you speed read the last 1/4 of the book.

Tim Gunn’s Guide to Quality, Taste and Style
by Tim Gunn (2007)

Like Joan Rivers, I like everything that Gunn writes so naturally he’d make it to my runners up group.  Though not one that I’d stress that you buy, he does give good, solid advice on fashion and style, though through a somewhat more conservative lens.  Maybe it’s a New York high fashion thing.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
by Seth Graham-Smith (2010)

Sometimes we need something to read where we don’t have to think, right?  Well this is it.  Lincoln was actually a vampire hunter and guess what, slave owners were usually vampires.  It’s real!  Seriously!

Wigfield
by Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert (2003)

Yet another book where you can just laugh and not have to think much, though be prepared to accept the utter silliness and absurdity of the whole piece.  I’d recommend this on audiobook because Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris perform the voices for several of the characters.

Mister B. Gone
by Clive Barker (2007)

The concept for this book is really unique–a first person, or rather demon, point of view.  Demon Jakabok Botch is trapped within the pages of the book that you are reading, at that very moment, and he warns and implores you throughout the book to stop reading or else be damned!

The Vegetarian Low-Carb Diet
by Rose Elliot (2006)

Okay, so I am listing this as a runner up because I lost ten pounds in two months.  I was a vegetarian already but the low-carb thing really works.  I wouldn’t take this book as word, but it’s easy to use it as a general guide and make it your own.

Summer of Night
by Dan Simmons (1991)

This book is a prequel to another Simmons book, Winter Haunting and describes a group of boys over the course of one summer.  It entails possession, ghosts, baseball and creepy teachers.  It’s an easy, mindless read and I would recommend it if you have nothing better to read.

The Terror
by Dan Simmons (2007)

I keep reading Simmons because I feel like a lot of the time he almost gets there, but not quite.  This book falls in the typical Simmons style, much like Carrion Comfort.  Most of this book is great–the story of an arctic expedition, Eskimos with special powers, and a large killer spirit who kills off a ship of 19th century English explorers.  The first 3/4 of this book keeps your interest piqued, and then the last 1/4 goes a little off course.  If you can stretch your imagination and suspend belief for a few dozen pages, then you’ll be fine.

Eh.

Holidays on Ice
by David Sedaris (1997)

I realize that by saying this I may be pegged with eggs on the street by strangers, but this book is not great.  The stories are disjointed and the book doesn’t seem to have much focus.  I think it could have been a lot better it if were just stories about his normal [holiday] anecdotes, but it pulls in some strange tales, such as a young Asian girl moving in with an American family and the mother killing her grandchild.  While this story is totally acceptable and somewhat entertaining, it seemed like it would be better in another book.

Salem’s Lot
by Stephen King (1975)

The more I read Stephen King, the more disappointed I am, and the more I read.  Stephen King is known as the king (pun intended) of horror, but I think that his novels are just okay.  I’m not drawn in, scared or excited by his stories and this novel was no exception.  There were a lot of gaps in the story and I was missing the meat of a great vampire tale.  The idea behind it was great, a vampire comes to a small town, but it lacked the follow-through.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
by Steven King (1999)

A little girl gets lost in the woods and is accompanied by a battery operated radio with the voice of commentators reporting on baseball player Tom Gordon.  I did like how King describes being perpetually wet and stung by mosquitoes, because we can all relate to this.  However, I felt myself becoming bored at times because like Salem’s Lot, I felt like the meat of the story was lacking.