Good things come in threes
It was a dark and stormy night, but three Beamers braved wind and weather to meet and talk about ghosts, werewolves, the end of the world, and the monsters that lurk within each of us. Tananarive Due’s short story collection, Ghost Summer: Stories, gave us a lot to discuss even with only a few of us huddling together while the thunder boomed.
Diving into Deep Waters
Ms. Due, who shared the hosting duties at this year’s Hugo Awards ceremony, is known principally as a writer of supernatural fiction as well as mysteries written in collaboration with her husband, Steven Barnes, and actor Blair Underwood. So, it would come as no surprise to find her short fiction also involving the supernatural. But her approach tends to work from the inside out. The first piece in the collection, “The Lake”, was written for an anthology of horror pieces from the monster’s viewpoint, and it slowly reveals (or transforms) its protagonist for the monster that she is. Or was it something in the water?
Due maintains a certain distance in her prose, keeping secrets and only unveiling traces of the past. Donna, a former high school teacher, could spot the lurking menace in the way our fictional teacher was assessing her male students as suitable to invite home, ostensibly for repair work. Nick was willing to believe that bathing in her new backyard lake was at least partly to blame, as the local legend warned against swimming there in the summer.
Which came first, the internal or the external signs of monstrosity? Due is not afraid to show us the signs but is less willing to award blame. Or to excuse. What is horrifying is not just the implied attack but the longer term planning and stalking. Many of our words were spent on the idea of abusing trust and the responsibility of an adult toward youth left in her care. Despite a shiver, I could not look away. Donna, on the other hand, was upset enough to stop there.
The Summers of our Content
Which did leave us with a slight imbalance, as Nick had read about half of the stories from all the various parts of the book. So, we did spend some time attempting to persuade Donna to continue reading (as Nick was planning to do). The second story, “Summer”, I thought would be a good test piece for her upon which to decide. The story of a mother with a fussy baby who is suddenly possessed by something (demon? leech?) that leaves the mother with a very different, very cheerful infant, it presents us with her dilemma: seek a cure or enjoy some peace “just for the summer”. The horror is mingled with humor and with a lot of simple affection for family and friends (a highlight of almost all the pieces).
Here, I was most touched by a simple act of kindness, two locals who recognize each other’s burden, offering each other wishes for a good summer. Almost a trite sentiment, often tossed off without much meaning, but Due makes it into a moment of real connection between two individuals who have little in common other than their troubles. Which, in a sense, can be said of any of us. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” goes an old saying. Due makes it come to life.
The third piece, “Ghost Summer”, earns the right to be the title piece for its lengthy exploration of how history haunts the present. Like the first two, it is set in Gracetown, Florida, and it pulls together the strands of local history at which the first two hint. Readable on two levels, it is the story of one young boy’s quest to prove that ghosts exist and haunt his grandparents’ home, while also providing insights into the home life of present and past young boys.
As adults, we could see Davie being caught between his parents looking to divorce and the historical tragedies that left three young spirits tangled up with feuds over land in ways that he could only slowly puzzle out. But, the more adult perspective serves to heighten our empathy with him, and with the locals who recognize his ability to see ghosts, something that is lost when puberty arrives. Due makes us nostalgic for the past, even when it includes racial hatred and wrongful deaths, because it can give us a present that includes reconciliation and forgiveness.
Getting Under the Skin
“Aftermoon” tells of Kenya, a young lycanthrope living in Brooklyn, who meets Dr. Jack, a dermatologist, who informs her of his other “monthly” clients. Nick enjoyed how the story subverts most of the usual monster tale conventions, including Kenya having to decide for a life shared with others who could understand her full moon fever as opposed to a life of perhaps perpetual deceit and hiding. Her choice, he found, was not what one would expect.
In turn, I offered up “Danger Word”, a zombie story, a subject that tends to make me shamble off in search of brains. But, again, Due places the focus on the individuals who are struggling to survive and what they endure for their families to survive. Yes, there is a desperate fight scene, but the whole of the collapse of civilization is wrapped up in a short radio news broadcast and a few telling facts, like a neighbor with 6 dogs only having three (“meat was getting scarce”). So, I could put up with a few zombies for the sake of Grandpa Joe trying to keep his grandson safe.
The Day it Changed, and After
Or even the apocalypse and what comes after, another sub-genre that has recently been popularized and commodified. Here, though, when Due offers three stories (“Removal Order”, “Herd Immunity”, “Carriers”) about Nayima, a naturally immune person who lives through the 72-Hour Flu pandemic, we again can feel her pain and her hope (often tied together), even as civilization collapses (again, mostly in the background, intruding only in small ways, as when the skies are smoke-filled or people cough from the fumes of the next town over being sterilized by fire). Small details won me over, like Nayima following another survivor in “Herd Immunity” by the candy wrappers that he leaves behind, like the breadcrumbs of Hansel and Gretel. This fairy tale did not end so well, though its ending does seem inevitable in ways that left me both despairing and consoled about human nature.
We are social animals, as Nayima says, which is our blessing and our curse. In the afterword, Ms Due’s husband, novelist Steve Barnes, says that her power comes from showing how, even though we live in times of disaster and tragedy, we overcome our justifiable fears through our unreasonable capacity to care and to love. And that capacity shines through in many of the pieces in this collection. Nick and I hope that Donna will give them and their all-too-fallible, all-too-believable ordinary heroes and monsters another chance.