Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review: The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women

In an effort to improve my fiction writing, I'm working on more short stories. And in an effort to improve my short stories, I picked up The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. I learned a lot, not least of which it takes a lot of skill and attention to craft a short story that is vivid and meaningful at the same time. There are some gems in here, though I gave the collection overall only three stars out of five. At 400 pages, the editor could have chosen only the best ones and still had a substantial collection.

NOTE: A few spoilers follow. I've camouflaged them, so if you don't mind reading them, simply use your mouse to select the gap portions and it will be readable.

Overall, the collection was uneven. Generally it was arranged from the weakest stories to the strongest. The first few stories were so weak that I wondered if this was all that was expected of women in this genre, which was depressing.

"Field of the Dead" started strong and the action was gripping and fun. The punchline, however, was disappointing at best, and, frankly, a plot hole to my mind. How would the village audience have seen Thom the child mummer given what we discover of him at the end? But I could almost forgive it since the world Kim Lakin-Smith had created was so vivid and the action so urgent.

"Collect Call" was so trite it barely merited inclusion, and does not merit comment by me.

"Dead Flowers by a Roadside" again was trite, more touching but ultimately didn't take the reader anywhere interesting.

"The Shadow in the Corner," written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) was interesting because it was very vividly a product of the period when the author lived, and the characters were clear and intriguing, but this one also didn't really go anywhere, and especially not with Daniel and Mrs. Skegg, whose reactions to the events of the story would have brought meaning to the tale.

"The Madam of the Narrow Houses" was an interesting premise, which contrasted what we think we understand of people with what they actually are. I would have liked to have seen a little more consequence to the story.

"The Lost Ghost" was touching, an American story written in roughly the same period as the Braddon tale, a meditation on compassion that endures beyond ordinary bounds.

"The Ninth Witch" is a spare tale that lasts over a long lifetime. The premise was interesting: the foundation of a myth set in some post-apocalyptic time that the main character doesn't fully understand. This one too has a plot consequence that negates a claim made at the beginning of the story and isn't dealt with. By this time though I was getting a little fatigued by pointlessness of some of these stories so I may not be giving it the credit it deserves. 

"Sister, Shhh..." was depressing and sad, seemed to have been more toying with the idea of LDS fundamentalism than the characters themselves. And didn't go anywhere I wanted to be taken.

"The Fifth Bedroom" was a proper ghost story, with an innocent but embittered young woman, a very bitter and not at all innocent ghost, and a swindle. Maybe not the deepest read in the volume, but a proper ghost story, with atmosphere, beautiful pacing, and a heartbreaking ending that was worth the read.

"Scairt" was a parent's worst nightmare with a miraculous ending. 

"Seeing Nancy" was in the same vein as "Scairt," in some ways; but the protagonist is taken in and the terror of the tale is in many ways set to occur after the story closes. 

"The Third Person" was a cautionary tale about a woman who loans her flat to an unfaithful wife. It was tremendously vivid with an absolutely terrifying ending.

From here the stories started getting a bit stronger, more pointed, with characters who changed and sometimes even grew. If the first half of the volume was a bit of a slog, from here the stories were more interesting, more thought provoking, and harder to put down.

"Freeze Out" was a family tale in which all was not as it seemed.

"Return" was the tale of a highly dysfunctional family forced to confront their dysfunction in an unconventional way.

"Let Loose" by Mary Cholmondeley (1859-1925) was another proper ghost story in which the arrogance of a young architect sets an evil loose on the world. This one was reminiscent of the atmosphere in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

"Another One in From the Cold" revisits the bloodbath of the First World War and the ways in which contemporary people romanticize real sacrifice when they fail to understand how real history was to the people who lived it. The situation in which the protagonist is set to bring closure to a lost soldier is perhaps not totally unique, but is told in a way that makes the soldier's situation important, urgent, even; when the story comes to conclusion it is clear that the protagonist is set on a path she wouldn't have chosen on her own, but to which she is committed. This was perhaps one of my three favorite stories in the volume.

"My Moira" was a fun read, a contemporary story set up in a time and place that will feel familiar to many readers, but with just enough twist to make it fantastic. Another of my favorites from this volume.

"Forget Us Not" was one of my least favorite; in the vein of "Dead Flowers by a Roadside," the protagonist is unable to move forward from a devastating loss until she gets a ghostly visitation. Though both were competently written, the premise just felt stale.

"Front Row Rider" had a twist that gave me that little ah moment that George Saunders is necessary to a successful short story, but it did not make my top three; it was competently thought through and executed, it just kind of lacked bite.

"God Grant That She Lye Still," by Cynthia Asquith, (1887-1960) covered that charming 1920's or so period that was lacking in the book up to this point, and was very nicely paced. For theme it echoed "The Fifth Bedroom," though the protagonists in these two stories, as in "Forget Us Not" and "Dead Flowers by a Roadside," had different fates. 

"The Phantom Coach" by Amelia Edwards, 1831-1892, was fun to read but not terribly cohesive. It had a big "so what" in the middle that spoiled the story for me, although the main character's dawning terror and attempt to save himself were nicely drawn.

"The Old Nurse's Story" by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) has everything in it that makes me enjoy Gaskell's novels. She is homely, she values family, she values respectability and moral uprightness. She is plain spoken and her heroines strive to do right in spite of all the many obstacles she throws in their paths. If all of literature were like a Gaskell novel then literature would not be nearly so fun, but to sprinkle a little in here and there, like including one of her stories in this volume, is a refreshing breeze that reminds you that not all the world is full of lonely, bitter, cynical people. One of my favorite parts of the story was when the Old Nurse told the children she was speaking to (the offspring of the little girl in the story) that though they were cute, none of them was even remotely as precious as their mother had been as a child. It made me smile, and also it laid the foundation for how devoted the nurse was during the events of the story.

The final three stories were all absolutely good, and the two contemporary authors represented here, Gail Z. Martin and Gaie Sebold, created such vivid and intriguing worlds that I'm putting their novels on my to-read list.

"Among the Shoals Forever" followed a pirate with magical abilities who is part of a secret organization to protect the world from dark magic objects. In the story he is hunting a powerful necromancer with the assistance of a ghost, a vampire and a voodoo high priestess. The story is set in Charleston (colonial Charleston? Certainly pre-Civil War) and beautifully contrasted the young man's character with the urgency of his mission. I'm hoping that some of Gail Z. Martin's novels follow Dante, Coltt, Evann, and Sorren.

"Afterward," by Edith Wharton, was a very fun read. Ned and Mary Boyle buy their dream home in rural England with money from a fortuitous business endeavor, the Blue Star Mine. One of their requirements for the house was that it be haunted, which the friend who helps them find the property promises it is -- "Oh, there is one of course, but you'll never know it." When Ned disappears mysteriously mid-way through the story, Mary searches frantically, until she realizes that he is the victim of the haunting they had mocked. Lovely point in the story is when Mary realizes that she had been enjoying the fruits of her husband's work without ever having a clear idea of the means by which he had attained their good fortune. This, to me, was the meat of the story and gave it its power.

"A Silver Music" by Gaie Sebold promises a much richer world than just a short story can properly contain, so I hope to find more of it in her novels. A cynical detective investigating a murder finds that what he had thought were two mutually exclusive worlds had come together in a gifted young man who sparked love in a most unexpected corner. While it might have been a conventional detective story in any other setting, Sebold gave this one a richness and poignancy that really elevated it. 

So there you have it... Three stars altogether, to balance the ones that weren't worth the time against the ones that are sending me deeper into their authors' canons. It should be noted that there is a whole series of Mammoth Book of... volumes with various themes. Happy reading!