Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Recommend: Classic horror stories by women authors

This month we asked authors, artists, editors, and other friends of TFF to recommend their favourite classic horror stories by women authors. (By “classic” we really mean pre-1920s or by an author who died pre-1940s. These have the advantage of being in the Public Domain, so anyone can read, share and even adapt these stories!) Here are a few suggestions to get us started, but we’d really like to learn about more such stories and authors in the comments…

Jessica Campbell (faculty page)

Vernon Lee’s “Amour Dure” (from Hauntings, 1889) is a gothic ghost story about a young scholar who travels to Italy and becomes obsessed with the alluring mysteries of the past. Classic! While researching the archives of a castle, he becomes fascinated with a sixteenth-century femme fatale figure who led multiple men to their deaths, and pretty soon he is convinced that he is actually communicating with her, through letters and in person. She signs her letters with a very emo motto: “Amour Dure—Dure Amour,” or “Love Lasts—Cruel Love.” Let’s just say things don’t end well.

Vernon Lee (1856-1935) was way ahead of her time. She lived all over Europe, dressed like a man, and was a pacifist, a feminist, and a lesbian. Her stories will seem long to readers today, but the lush prose and gothic drama are worth it. See also her excellent titles, like “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”!

Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)

E. Nesbit wrote amazing supernatural stories, among them “The Violet Car” (in Fear, 1910 [audiobook]). A young woman goes to a remote farmhouse as nurse to an older woman. Her husband believes she is deranged because she does not hear, see or smell the things he does. She believes he is deranged because she doesn’t see the things he does. The nurse agrees with her. To begin with.

This is one of the earliest ghost stories to feature a car; it is an indicator of modernity, as is Nesbit’s discussion of whether ‘ghosts’ are in the mind or corporeal, signalling that the ghost story is moving into new territory, even as it looks back to older traditions. Nesbit offers several possible explanations of the haunting but no certainty. The ghost car may be a manifestation of the husband’s guilt for sending the lost driver over a cliff, punishing him for killing the couple’s daughter in an earlier accident, but we’re left with a modern young woman who now doubts the thing she saw with her own eyes. It is masterly storytelling.

Aliya Whiteley (website)

There’s a moment in “Was it an Illusion?” by Amelia B. Edwards (1881 [online]) when we change from past to present tense, and that feeling of quiet observation is replaced by being right inside the story. It only lasts for a paragraph and a half, but it always works its magic on me; suddenly I’m part of the action, and I hold my breath as something ghastly is revealed. I love the way that the story builds to that crescendo, and then falls back from it.

It’s a tale of a school inspector who sees odd things: a walking figure who disappears, and then a shadow that shouldn’t exist. The strangeness of it all creeps up, and even the narrator is not sure how to make sense of the experience. Rambling, occasionally wandering off into other associations, it lulls me with its classic, slower rhythm—and then it changes tense, and I’m gripped all over again.

Valeria Vitale (TFF bio; City of a Thousand Names)

Recently I have been spending a lot of (delightful) time reading ghost stories written by women, especially from the “golden age” of Gothic literature. Although the list of authors is very long, their tales are still often dominated by male POVs. A refreshing exception is Charlotte Riddell. Her “Nut Bush Farm” (in Weird Stories, 1882) is not only a captivating supernatural story, but also features a variety of female characters (although not in the leading role), often challenging both gender stereotypes and literary clichés. In Riddell’s stories you may meet single women that found perfect happiness in the management of their farm; or criminals able to shoot a gun and put up a proper fist fight (as in “The Open Door”). But even when they are not extraordinary, Riddell’s women become remarkable just by being visible, actively opposing the consuetude in the genre of erasing women from the scene or making them bidimensional cutouts.

Besides being pleased by how Riddell populates her stories with well-written female characters, I also enjoy her combination of supernatural horror and traditional mystery. Her ghosts are often flagging some unsolved crime, and so the protagonists have to become cold-case detectives and investigate what happened. With a little help from the ghost themselves, of course!

Maria Grech Ganado (profile; interview)

Christina Rossetti’s maternal uncle, John William Polidori, published the first English vampire short story in 1819, so the paranormal was probably in her blood. Revived by feminist criticism, “Goblin Market” (in Goblin Market and other poems, 1862), open to diverse interpretations, is today considered her masterpiece. Fantastic, ambiguous, symbolic, erotic, religious, with themes of temptation, fallen womanhood, addiction, sisterly love and redemptive sacrifice, Goblin Market’s vocabulary, even more than its allegoric form, suggests both Christian and sexual readings. Various kinds of fruit with sexual undertones, more enticing than one apple, are offered by different types of savage goblins more repulsive than a serpent. Rossetti probably found the market concept itself redolent even of Victorian marriage, let alone the horrible plight of prostitutes she herself did charity work with.

Andrea Gibertoni (Miskatonic Bookshop)

The story I’d like to recommend is “The Villa Lucienne” by Ella D’Arcy, first published in 1896 in The Yellow Book Quarterly, one of the most prestigious British literary magazines of the nineteenth century. The Villa Lucienne is a deeply unsettling tale featuring an all female group of characters that includes women of different ages, from a little girl to an old lady. While visiting the South of France, the women start looking for a house to rent during their stay, and are struck by the malevolent aura of an old villa. Not only does the place look bleak and decayed, but it also seems to have been abandoned in a suspicious hurry. It is a short story, where the characters feel haunted by eerie and malignant vibes. The final, dreadful twist will be revealed to the readers through the young daughter of the tenant.

These all sound great, and I look forward to reading them. What other horror stories by women from this period can you recommend we look at? Please leave suggestions in the comments.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Interview with Benjanun Sriduangkaew

We are joined by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Campbell- and BSFA-nominated author of many postcolonial cyberpunk and South-East Asian fantasy short stories (among which “Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods,” “Vector,” “We Are All Wasteland on the Inside” and “Mermaid Teeth, Witch-Honed” in TFF publications), who is celebrating the release of her new novella, Winterglass from Apex Publications.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to strange cities, beautiful bugs, and the future. Her work has appeared on Tor.com, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and year's best collections. She has been shortlisted for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her debut novella Scale-Bright has been nominated for the British SF Association Award.

She agreed to answer a few of our questions (after the Winterglass blurb below):

The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.

At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.

To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.

If the splinter of glass in Nuawa's heart doesn't destroy her first.


“A fairy tale, beautiful like an ice crystal, and razor sharp.”
SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA, WORLD FANTASY AWARD-WINNING CO-EDITOR OF SHE WALKS IN SHADOWS

“Winterglass is rich with diamondine prose, a scintillant retelling of the Ice Queen that challenges Occidental aesthetics, colonial mentality, and personal identity.”
CASSANDRA KHAW, AUTHOR OF HAMMERS ON BONE, BFA & LOCUS AWARD NOMINEE

The Future Fire: Winterglass isn’t the first subverted fairy tale retelling that you have written. What is it about this genre that appeals to you?

Lusadh, illustrated by Mumi
Benjanun Sriduangkaew: The obvious one for me is to queer it all up: most fairytales and mythological stories are depressingly heteronormative, even ones that purport to center a woman rescuing a boy are stuck in this quagmire (since when are boys worth risking your life for? Exactly). My hope is that by retelling and reconfiguring these stories there's something we can reclaim for ourselves and for our places in the world. Stories are a powerful thing, the human subconscious looks for narrative patterns. I like to think that by engaging with stories with origins in our cultural bedrock we can reconfigure our minds a little, shift our default assumptions of what love stories are supposed to be like, of who gets to have power and who gets to speak.

TFF: Do you have any plans to collect your fairy tale stories into a single project of some kind?

BS: At first I thought I hadn't written that many, but as it turns out—aside from full-length novellas like Scale-Bright and Winterglass (which are too thematically different)—I have actually written a fair number of stories that fit the bill. 'Paya-Nak' is a lesbian take on a Thai folktake, 'Mermaid Teeth, Witch-Honed' [in TFF-X, ed.] is a Lovecraftian lesbian retelling of The Little Mermaid, 'The Beast at the End of Time' is a post-singularity lesbian Beauty and the Beast, and so on. At the moment there is probably not quite enough volume, but it's very much a possibility to put them together into a mini-collection (plus a new story or two), and I expect there would be interest. It will have to wait a while, as I'll have a collaboration out next year, Methods Devour Themselves (Zero Books), that's partly a mini-collection.

TFF: Why did you choose a tale from the European tradition to talk, among other things, about colonialism and cultural assimilation?

BS: Andersen lived in a culturally homogeneous region, and his entire body of work is culturally/racially homogeneous. His fairytales, like many western fairytales and European narratives, are part and parcel with cultural imperialism. It seems as apt as any to regard his fairytales as a symbol of that hegemony. ‘The Snow Queen’ in particular struck me as a useful allegory—not because the original put in any such work or even pauses to think about it (Andersen was no doubt about as familiar with post-colonialism as he was with having a fulfilled romantic life, which is to say not at all), but because the idea of imposing an unfamiliar climate is essentially what colonization is. It changes ways of life, makes the colonizer's technology seem suddenly 'necessary', and demands total submission into the new order. Having said that, the colonizer in Winterglass—the Winter Queen—is neither white nor European.

TFF: Is there a particular pleasure in remodelling stories that have been told and retold for centuries and yet being able to use them to say something completely new?

BS: Yes! Structurally Winterglass has very little in common with the Andersen story, and eschews the bildungsroman entirely (Gerda and Kay are children; Nuawa and Lussadh are respectively in their thirties and forties). What I was interested in doing wasn't a literal retelling so much as referential, so I treated ‘The Snow Queen’ as material to mine rather than a framework to replicate.

While I don't think I'm saying something entirely new I do find that most retellings—being by white authors—more interested in the gender politics of fairytales (usually the agency and role and activity of female characters; somewhat more rarely, in queering up the stories) or in grimdarking it all up (by emphasizing or adding, sometimes to excess, the violence and sexual assault). The questions of empire and culture come up somewhat less. Either way I like to think that I'm bringing something to the table that, say, Disney very much hasn't.

TFF: As a reader/viewer, do you enjoy retellings of classic stories? Is there one that taught you something you found useful in your own writing of Winterglass?

BS: Joan D. Vinge's The Snow Queen was very interesting for its time, even if on reread now it doesn't hold up, partly because it depicts an improbable white-guilt fantasy: here's a planet inhabited entirely by white pagans, here's a bunch of brown people who colonized and exploited them. Unfortunate implications, as they say. I don't think it necessarily taught me a concrete lesson, but it does show that you can really put a fairytale in unexpected settings, clones and supercomputers and all.

TFF: Why do you think mirrors make such good symbols of our deepest desires?

BS: Reflection is potent, and reflection that can distort—such as in concave or convex glass—unnerves. There's a reason doppelgangers are creepy, because it can be either a very harsh teller of truth or a version of you that's not quite right, and sometimes it can be both. Mirrors can represent so much dream logic, the subconscious, suggesting that what it brings out can be something about ourselves we don't even know (or want to know). And physically glass is an attractive material, it does interesting, intriguing things with light. There's a lot of room for metaphor there.

Thank you so much for talking to us about Winterglass, Benjanun. I look forward to reading it!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Making Monsters Call for Submissions opens

We have just opened the call for submissions for Making Monsters — a mixed volume of public engagement essays on classical monsters, and speculative fiction short stories and poems that retell or reimagine monsters, their marginality and transgressiveness. This volume is being jointly produced with the Institute of Classical Studies (University of London), and is co-edited by Emma Bridges, an academic there.

We’re really looking forward to this collaborative endeavor and hybrid publication (and even more to being able to announce the   g o r g e o u s   cover art very soon!).