Favorite Fiction 1st Quarter 2022

Art by Adeline Lamarre

Ghosts and dreams and sleepwalkers through life are all part and parcel of these eight stories. With just a touch of surrealism they draw the reader into a singular fictional world where we forget all about real world problems. After the list, my wee interview with Sheree Shatsky about the writing of her story “Good Night, Harry”.

But first, Amy Barnes talks about the craft of writing and the practice of kindness on social media and via content warnings in her column in Trampset. So much wisdom.

“Sense and Sensitivity” by Amy Barnes in Trampset

March has made me cringe for another reason: near-constant writer discourse. I expect some heated discussions because we’re writers and editors. It’s hard to stop the words and thoughts especially when it feels like everything in the world is a discourse too. What I don’t expect is downright ugliness. The literary discourse has felt overwhelming recently. It spilled into my timeline despite my best efforts to avoid it. Ad nauseum. At times, nauseating.

I want to change the discourse. I want being sensitive to not be a dirty word. I want it to be as easy as writing an editor and asking nicely: please fix this. Please change this because it will hurt someone else.

“My Mother Visits Me in America and is Offended by What the Dishwasher Can Do” by Tara Isabel Zambrano in Okay Donkey

“I wake up at night,” my mother says, “and grow sad about the world. It’s dying because there’s too much smartness and not enough touch.”

“RADIO to KNOLL” (a wordle story) by Francine Witte in Bending Genres

Love, he says, is what jets him out of bed. I want to think he means love of his morning coffee. We pre-set the Keurig the night before, and it waits for him all beany and steamy and eyepop. I want to think he means love of the crisp, ironed shirt he will put on, how the starchy smell makes everything seem new again. I want to think that this is what he means by love. I know that’s not what he means.

“Bone on Bone” by Eric Scot Tryon in Fractured Lit

The grinding intensifies each night. That crunch, heavy like cement. In the fitful space between waking and sleeping, I dream his teeth fly out of his mouth and shoot across the room one by one. Not fragments, but whole teeth.

“WHEN YOU’RE THE CONTORTIONIST” by Candace Hartsuyker in Cleaver Magazine

Next, you’ll drag your father’s suitcase from out of the hall closet, twist and bend, contort your body into its smallest shape. You’ll move as gracefully as a Slinky that is being cradled from one hand to the other.

“We Are Not a Ghost Story” by Ellen Rhudy in Milk Candy Review

I need your help, she says, but because she is not a ghost story (or because she is) she cannot tell me how she needs my help. Instead she follows me into meetings and onto crowded buses and through the lunchtime salad lines. This is called haunting, I tell her.

“The Dollhouse Detective” by Georgia Bellas in Milk Candy Review

The bodies are everywhere. Almost no room to walk. Looks like a child’s slumber party but there are no pajamas or sleeping bags.

“Love Songs for Ghosts” by Cathy Ulrich in The Bureau Dispatch

Before the world ended, the torch singer had a lover with a neatly trimmed goatee and a day job where he wore a suit. He’d stop by her place on his way home, throw his suit jacket over the wooden back of one of her kitchen chairs, say the way he knew she liked, honey, I’m home.

“Good Night, Harry” by Sheree Shatsky in Twin Pies Literary

Harry is asleep in the back room. Susie hovers him, she was his first. She unties the bow at the neck of her ripped blouse and wraps it tight around his scrawny throat. Susie pulls hard, as hard as her weak phantom hands allow. He snorts and rolls over.

A Wee Interview with Sheree Shatsky

What was the seed that grew “Good Night, Harry“?

The story was written in response to a photo prompt that reminded me of the Pacific Northwest. I made a list of what images came to mind when thinking about the lush forests and (unfortunately) my thoughts kept circling back to dead girls and serial killers. Actually one in particular. Ted Bundy, who made his way across the country to my home state of Florida where on January 15, 1978, he entered a Florida State University sorority house and attacked four young women, killing two. I was a college senior that year (South Florida) and these women have lived in my thoughts ever since.

This is a revenge story against an implied serial killer yet it’s very cunningly written. Although the women are ghosts, they find a way to exact their revenge. How important was it to put the focus on the women instead of the actions of the killer?

The FSU sorority sisters were asleep when Bundy attacked, totally helpless. Thinking about this as far as “Good Night, Harry” I turned the tables on Harry and gave his victims the power over him while he slept. Being ghosts, the women have only so much phantom power, enough to be a bother and a nuisance, so I very much enjoy the ending where the ghostly mini-persecutions result in Harry hurting himself all on his own. Karma.

There are so many delicious lines in this story. I really like how you use surrealism but there’s still a distinct and relatable storyline. Do you have any tips on including surrealism in a piece while advancing a plot the reader “gets”?

I remember thinking why would these murdered girls come back to visit their killer, surreal in itself, so I had to figure out what other than a typical haunting draws them to the cabin “on nights the mist gathers high in the tall firs.” I also wanted to convey that Harry was an active serial killer and that’s where Pamela and Longfellow’s poem about an ill-fated voyage “The Wreck of the Hesperus” comes in. She’s the most recently killed and it’s her first time haunting Harry. Pamela’s statement,“This place is a wreck, like the wreck of the Hesperus,” is something my mother always said when the house was a mess) and the observation gives the women a reason to be there periodically: to clean up after a less than tidy Harry. The poem though is more than about a shipwreck, to me it’s also about can a person ever be safe anywhere? I didn’t realize this until during revision.

As far as tips, when I write a first draft, if I hear a family expression like my mother’s Hesperus in my thoughts, I include it and later revisit how it works with the story. It’s like automatic writing in a way-it comes from out of nowhere. Write it down. It could be a bit of purposeful whimsy.

Thank you, Sheree!

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