I’m continuing Ghost Month by recommending “Women and Ghosts”, a collection of ten supernatural stories by American author and academic, Alison Lurie. Since her field of study has been Children’s Literature and Fairy Tales, she knows a thing or two about story-telling. Professor Lurie is best known for her witty novels, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Foreign Affairs”, but she also has the knack of writing unsettling short stories. This collection dates to 1994. “Women and Ghosts” doesn’t seem to be available in ebook form but there is a good audio version (ideal for ghost stories) and cheap paperbacks are easy to get hold of.
As you would expect from the title, all of the stories feature female characters who go through some kind of supernatural experience. The settings are contemporary rather than Gothic. They range from sunny Florida to the rain-drenched English Lake District and from India and Africa to small and college town America. The supernatural elements are equally varied. Ghosts of the “wronged dead” type manifest themselves in unusual ways and apparitions of the living are just as frightening. Some of the stories involve haunted objects; others describe bizarre visions or inexplicable happenings. All of the supernatural encounters are life-changing for somebody but not always in a negative way.
In “Ilse’s House” a young woman is haunted by visions of her fiancé’s former girlfriend while in “The Pool People” a little girl can see more than shadows in her nasty grandmother’s swimming pool. Ever felt that inanimate objects have a grudge against you? Then you’ll respond to “The Highboy”; the story of a piece of antique furniture with a will of its own. In “Counting Sheep” a professor comes up with an extraordinary explanation for the mystery of a missing student. During “In the Shadow” a diplomat is haunted by a dead boyfriend who tells her unpleasant truths about her lovers. “Waiting for the Baby” follows an American woman who has come to India to adopt a baby and has a strange experience in a local temple. In “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” a bride’s feelings are transformed by a garment she is given to wear on her wedding day. “Fat People” lives up to its title when a reluctant dieter starts seeing monstrously overweight people everywhere. In “Another Halloween” a guilty woman realizes that there is always one Trick or Treater too many, while in “The Double Poet” a writer learns that she has a doppelganger who seems to be stealing her life.
I would classify the stories in “Women and Ghosts” as delayed-impact fiction. Some of them seem quite slight on first reading but they linger in the mind and gradually provoke new and disturbing interpretations. Alison Lurie’s fiction has sometimes been compared with that of Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lurie produces perfect prose and dissects human nature in a ruthless but amusing way. She is the mistress of fine detail. When Lurie writes about a particular sheep with “dense yellowish-drab wool, incurled grey corrugated horns, long pale narrow face, and liquorice eyes” (Counting Sheep) I can see it so vividly. She can describe anything from the exact effects of light on water at different times of day (“The Pool People”) to a gaudy group of “glaringly new…half-comic, half-sinister deities” in an Indian temple (“Waiting for the Baby”). Thanks to the power of Lurie’s prose, the supernatural elements in these stories seem as real as the mundane ones.
Lurie also has the gift of summing people up in a few barbed sentences (“She had the sort of cool manners that always made me think of words like pleasant and cordial. She never had much to say, or raised her voice, and she didn’t like it when somebody else did.” Another Halloween) . In Britain, Ghost fiction has been dominated by male writers and male characters (see my October 2013 post on the work of M.R.James) but females have had a stronger voice and presence in American Ghost fiction. It is refreashing to read a collection of Ghost stories centred on female characters who aren’t just there to scream when the ghost appears. At the start of “In the Shadow” we’re told that successful diplomat “Celia Zimmern was about the last person she, or anyone else would have expected to see a ghost”. This is true of most of the women in “Women and Ghosts”, who include a Professor of English Literature, a market-research analyst and a Poet in Residence. None of these intelligent women frighten easily but they don’t behave like dauntless Fantasy heroines either. Their flaws are woven into the stories. Is Celia’s haunting caused by her greed for fine things and her sense of superiority? It’s left to the reader to decide.
An outstanding feature of this collection is that the living people in the stories are often scarier than the ghosts. The first story, “Ilse’s House”, contains a chilling portrait of Gregor, a man whose charm masks an abusive personality. During this story a confident young woman is haunted by a vision of the cowed housewife she will become if she marries Gregor. In “The Pool People” the villain is a monumentally selfish old woman, who fails to notice the catastrophes she has caused. The central character in “The Double Poet” is a monster of egotism who despises her readers. “Another Halloween” is, on the surface, more like a conventional Ghost or Horror story than the rest of the collection. It shows how a failure to accept responsibility comes back to haunt a woman whose motto is “I wasn’t involved”. After a possibly preventable tragedy, the narrator says, “Now I believe women have to take responsibility for other women, even ones they don’t much like.” It’s a conclusion that lets none of us off the hook. Have a thoughtful Halloween.