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.

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

Being Their Own Women: Self Discovery & Independence in Women’s Personal Lives


The Awakening
by Kate Chopin

Set in the late 19th century, The Awakening spans two pivotal seasons in Edna Pontellier’s life as a young wife and mother.  Having never felt truly alive during the entire span of her life, Edna “awakens” during a summer of spiritual liberation, leading her to reflect on her life as someone’s wife and mother.  The story results in a woman who subverts the conventions of her time by defying filial and maternal expectations by focusing on her life as her own woman.

Personal Velocity
 by Rebecca Miller

Miller’s book consists of seven short stories that describe the lives of seven very different women. They are bound by their grit, strength, incredible struggles, and their will to survive amidst their personal tribulations. Despite each of their uphill struggles, each character finds solace the minute details of life uses that to persevere in their own ways, revealing the complexity of women’s reaction to struggle.

A Spy in the House of Love
by Anais Nin

In this semi-autobiographic work, the lead female character, Sabina, struggles to develop her sexual and artistic expression.  This work is known for its erotic language and strong themes of a relationship with the self and passion.

The Story of Avis
by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Avis is an artist who decides to marry who she thinks is a “modern man,” believing (and being led to believe) that once married she can continue to express her creative self.  However, the traditional gender roles that suppress(ed) women and elevate men take their hold over Avis’ artistic expression.

Orlando
by Virginia Woolf

Born as a man, Orlando transforms into a woman as (s)he lives over several centuries, experiencing the gamut of gender norms, restrictions and suppositions that are forced on men and women. Seeing the treatment of Orlando as both a man and a woman by society, though (s)he is the same person, highlights the inequities that both men and women have faced throughout the ages.

The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath


Though sold as fiction, The Bell Jar is an autobiographical account of Esther (some argue Plath), a young woman working for a summer as an employee of a major magazine away from home.  There, Esther suffers a mental breakdown, and the reader is taken down with her into the depths of her insanity, so much though that it is difficult to distinguish insanity from reality.

Nightwood 
by Djuna Barnes


Taking place in Paris, Nightwood tells the story of two women romantically involved and the deterioration of their relationship.  This novel highlights both hetero-sexual and lesbian relationships that are expressed through dark, thick and lyrical language.

Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein
by Gertrude Stein

This collection features non-fiction essays, anecdotes and fictional stories about Stein’s female partner, and artists of the day.  This book is a perfect sampling of Stein’s well-known fragmented and unique writing style.  It also features the well-known short story “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” who we assume to be two romantically linked women who strive for their own fulfillment in life and relationships.

HERmione
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Perhaps the most obscure of all her titles, this autobiographical account and coming of age story, written by Hilda Doolittle, commonly known as H.D., details her unsure and tumultuous life during her twenties at Bryn Mawr. H.D., known in the book as Hermione Gart, battles to transition between her old, obedient self that her parents once knew and the new identity that she begins to forge now that she is away at school and exposed to people who help to foster her true self.

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Most known for the short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, a woman is denied creative output by her husband and is treated as psychologically weak and incompetent, which ultimately exacerbates to her mental deterioration. This collection also features Gilman’s non-fiction prose, Women and Economics and an excerpt from her novel Herland which illuminates a peaceful, all female utopia without the presence of men and that of a patriarchal, capitalist system.