Truth be told, I picked this book because of the title. I found it at a favorite outdoor bookstall that sometimes pops up in a nearby park during the weekends, which always has good finds! The cover wasn’t anything remarkable, but I was (of course) drawn to the title: Women & Ghosts. Because, quite simply, I enjoy stories about women…and ghosts. I hadn’t heard of American author Alison Lurie at the time but several quotes on the back promised that this short story collection was ‘funny’ and full of ‘cerebral irony’. Since, in my opinion, not enough ‘literary fiction’ leans into humor and I love things that are both beautifully written and funny, I picked it up.
This collection was originally published in the 1990s, and it’s one of my goals to read writing from lots of different eras (not just go with what styles and topics are trendy at the moment). It’s been several years since I’ve actually read this book, but it has stuck with me and I wanted to recommend it to you this Halloween because there are two stories in it which I loved! They are the first story in the collection: ‘Ilse’s House’ and then the final story ‘The Double Poet.’ The book is worth getting your hands on for those two stories alone.
The first story, ‘Ilse’s House’ is a retelling (as I saw it!) of the Bluebeard story, about a woman who narrowly escapes a disastrous marriage through the frightening warnings of a (real or not?) ghost of her fiancé’s ex wife. It’s one of my favorite fairy tale re-imaginings (I’m not even sure that Lurie intended it to be a retelling, but I think so?) and really gets to the heart of this fear that so many people, especially women, had for so long (and many still do): who are you really marrying? It’s one of those primal anxieties that drives similar stories like Jane Eyre. What secrets does the charming, rich man have locked in the attic? I’m such a sucker for these types of stories. And this is such a good version of that story because the narrator, Dinah, is so fun to read: she’s dry, low key and practical. So things seem all the spookier when she starts seeing weird things in her too-good-to-be-true fiancé’s house and we learn the truth of why she ‘never married Gregor Spiegelman’.
My second favorite ghost story in the book is ‘The Double Poet’, which is written as a series of frantic journal entries from a famous poet who becomes convinced that another woman, her exact double, is turning up to all her appearances and readings. It’s a really fun and somewhat spooky meditation on the power of ‘persona’, how celebrities create these characters that can kind of get away from them and ‘taking on a life of their own’ so to speak.
The other stories in the collection, from what I recall, didn’t blow me away, but they were fine. The writing is very well put together and the premises are fun: there’s one about a shy graduate student who may or may not turn into a sheep, there’s one about a homophobic woman whose pool is haunted by the ghost of two gay construction workers, one about a woman whose callous mistreatment of her former lovers comes back to literally haunt her no matter where she goes. But ‘Ilse’s House’ and ‘The Double Poet’ both have a special spark – they seem to get at genuine and very fresh, real fears that people (especially women, I think) truly have, and I felt their themes were richer than the other stories. The other ones just felt like straight up ghost stories with no other layers to them, especially an entertaining one about a haunted cabinet – as far as I could tell, it’s just straight up about a haunted cabinet. It’s a nice and creepy story but not much resonance.
I wish I liked the other stories as much as those two, but it was still a fun book to read and a great find! I’d recommend it to you this Halloween. I hope you have a great one and do have a look at the other books mentioned here in the further reading, which could provide other spooky reading too. Have a wonderful weekend!
Recommended (Seasonal) Reading:
- Women and Ghosts by Alison Lurie
- The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (which I reviewed here last year – LOVED this story!! Truly a terrifying story about mental health treatment in the 19th century)
- These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (I reviewed it here earlier this year – a fun Victorian mystery)
- Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh (I always go on and on about this book, and wrote a ‘Friday finds’ about it a few weeks back! It has so many good ghost stories, you’ll never get bored!)