Every Story Is a Ghost Story, Especially the Monstrous Ones
by Michael Matheson
I’ve always loved ghost stories. Reading them. Watching cinematic or theatrical tellings. Writing them – all of my own fiction is ghost stories of one kind or another. Largely because I find the central components of ghost stories fascinating:
An emotionally charged core centred primarily around loss, death, identity, or revelation – the last two especially true in Gothic storytelling; interaction across metaphysical, metaphorical, or otherwise breached barriers, and in many cases a sidereal discourse on liminal spaces; interrogation of the literal world as well as frequently the super- or supranatural world; and a confrontation – internal, external, psychological, terror-inducing, transgressive, transformative, exculpatory, inculpatory, entirely metaphorical or otherwise, in various combinations – that puts us face to face with a thing that usually looks very much like us.
Yes, ghost stories are often about monsters. But they’re primarily about us as the monster. About what we leave behind. The pieces of ourselves that we can’t let go, or the rage or pain that we can’t move past. And sometimes just connections too deep to want to let go.
Ghosts may appear as terrifying, and some will be inhuman or non-human. But by and large ghosts were people once. They lived. They loved. They hated. They wanted.
It’s the wanting that, above and beyond everything else, informs a ghost story. A good ghost story involves need. It involves desire. Motivation, in whatever context, is the core of all stories, really – what do the protagonist, antagonist, and ancillary and/or anterior characters want, and why? But more importantly: To what lengths will they go to get it?
Where along the way do we stop being people and become monstrous in the pursuit of what we want. And who gets to define terms?
The study of history will tell you that a narrator declares who will play the role of the antagonist. Fiction, too, will teach you the perils of heeding only one side of a story, and the consequences of not questioning further base assumptions about declarative nomenclature.
And that too fascinates me: perspective. Especially as it pertains to the ascription of moral absolutes; where and how we draw the line. And, again, why.
The application of the term “monster” is so easy. So readily and so often applied:
These things that offend us and are not like us: they’re monstrous. These practices that are alien to our own, or abhorrent to our sensibilities: monstrous. These people not like us -- too ugly, too malformed, too different, behaviourally odd, not normal: monstrous.
And now we are in a quandary. For where does that line of reasoning stop?
Who gets to define “normal”? Who gets to define “baseline” or any other deciding factor? Is it a single voice that does so? Is it communal? It is socially or societally agreed upon? Do we develop a social contract to decide who among us shall remain and who be ostracized?
Taken out of the realm of the purely theoretical we of course already do all the above. We are not a homogeneous nor hegemonically organized species, and yet we treat ourselves as such. And punish those who by various means are seen as difficult, unwholesome, unclean, or unfit to fit inside the kind of society we want to build.
When I was putting together The Humanity of Monsters anthology, I was thinking about those questions. I was thinking about those ghosts.
Some of the work I pulled together for the anthology is literally about ghosts. Yoon Ha Lee’s “Ghostweight” looks at a revenge story through the lens of identity, symbolism, the weight of history, and cultural comparison. All told through one woman’s interactions with the ghosts of her past, and a very literal ghost guiding her. Sunny Moraine’s “The Horse Latitudes” centres an atrocity and the ghosts it creates, and intertwines that storyline against the story of a pair of lovers fleeing for their lives.
But those are just the most literal ghosts in the book. There are other, subtler ghosts. Other pasts dredged up, or weighed against the present. Terrible, all-consuming love, and the past it makes and obliterates in Livia Llewellyn’s “and Love shall have no Dominion.” Ghosts of past love and promises weighed against the weight of family, and the ghosts we become, in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “A Handful of Earth.” The ghosts of past trauma and the revenge it births in Alex Dally MacFarlane’s “Out They Come.” The ghosts of things unsaid, how relationship choices haunt us, and needs met and unmet in Berit Ellingsen’s “Boyfriend and Shark.” The wants and desires that drive to us to make choices that haunt us in ways we could never have foreseen, and the weight our choices have for ourselves and for others, in Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream.” And the ghosts of history and choice and colliding, interweaving realities in Meghan McCarron’s “Terrible Lizards.”
Every story in the book has a ghost in it somewhere. Something that haunts, be it literal or figurative. Likewise, every story has a monster. Some more than one. Some literal, some figurative. Some a direct question put to the term. Some subtler questions put to the term. You’ll have to decide for yourself how the terms are defined. And where the borders of the nomenclature lie.
In the end, the twenty-six stories included in the book are a way of mapping the liminal spaces in that definition. A roadmap for a discussion made by asking the questions that come with that territory:
Questions about what war does to us -- whether it makes us monsters, or whether we already were. Questions about parents, and children, and family -- be they human, alien, or otherwise. Stories about the things we don’t see, and can’t say, to ourselves and others. Stories about fear, and courage, and hate, and love. Questions about sociopathy and neuroatypicality and “normalized” behaviours. Questions of identity, self-ascribed, externally given, or adopted. The beauty of nightmares, and dreams, and the terrible brutality of the waking world.
I got very, very lucky in what I was able to include toward that discussion. Compiling an anthology is a balancing act, between what work’s available to you via what exists or that you can get people to write for you to include, timing, available funds, word count caps, and finding stories that fit exactly what conversation you want to have. And of course other things would potentially fit if your theme is broad enough.
Because an anthology is the beginning of a discussion. And so you can create a further reading list in addition to the exquisite work you’ve collected. From additional work that’s compelling, accomplished, and speaks to your theme. Work like, say, Hiromi Goto’s “Covalent Bond,” Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” Sam J. Miller’s “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides,” Joyce Carol Oates’s “Landfill,” Alyssa Wong’s “The Fisher Queen,” almost the entire body of Stephen Graham Jones’s work, so much of Kelly Link’s work, and huge swathes of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s corpus, as well as Vajra Chandrasekera’s gorgeous “Documentary,” among others.
The point of that expanded reading list being to show this: An anthology is a primer on a subject. It opens a conversation, allows room for discussion, and frames questions for the reader to ask.
And if at all possible an anthology should contain ghosts, whether they’re shadowing us down halls and haunting our dreams or being slyly metaphorical. Because ghost stories are the best kind of story. Because they linger. Because they force us to ask who the monster in the story is. Because the question is always more important than the answer.
The Humanity of Monsters: We are all of us monsters. We are none of us monsters. Through the work of twenty-six writers, emerging to award-winning and masters of their craft, The Humanity of Monsters plumbs the depths of humane monsters, monstrous humans, and the interstices between. Monstrous heralds of change, the sight of whom only children can survive. Monsters born of the battlefield, in gunfire and frost and blood, clothed in too-familiar flesh. Monsters, human and otherwise, born of fear, and love, and retribution all, wrapped tight and inextricable one from the other: the Fallen outside of time, lovers and monsters in borrowed skin, and creatures from beyond the stars and humans who have travelled to them. Dreams of lost and siren-song depths - of other half-held, half-remembered lives. And the things we have survived, and the things we might yet survive, in the face of greater, eviscerating loss. In stories by turns surreal, sublime, brutal, and haunting, there are no easy answers to be found, no simple nor uncomplicated labels to be had. Only the surety that though there be monsters, you will name them false. And when you meet those who truly are, you will not know them.