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Archive for February 2018

Hauntings

Ghost stories are often pulp, supplying fun shivers late at night. Consider, as an easy example, their immense popularity in Victorian England: assisted by the rise of the periodical, not to mention creaking houses and gas-lamp hallucinations, the ghost story was so prevalent as to be traditional English Christmas Eve entertainment. The women of the time, in the wake of Mary Shelley and her classic tale of a man haunted by his own creation, turned out ghost story after ghost story for publication in literary magazines—magazines then read primarily by women.

The Victorians are but one example. The ghost story appears again and again, in myriad cultures, in every region of the world, often handed down by women as oral history, myths and legends. Even in America, we have our own omnipresent, so-often-female ghostly tales: la llorona, the phantom hitchhiker, the dead prom queen.

Time and time again, women have used the ghost story as allegory, as metaphor, and as cautionary tale.

Ghost stories are so much more than pulp, and if you expand your query to all manner of shades, spirits, remembrances, and things that go bump in the night, you’ll see why Sirens chose hauntings—and what it means to be haunted—as its 2014 theme. It was perhaps one of our more surprising themes, but also, unexpectedly, one of our more literary themes. Not only have women authors such as Toni Morrison and Shirley Jackson written brilliantly and incisively of ghosts and women, earlier writers such as Daphne du Maurier and Edith Wharton wrote ghost stories, and just last year, Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, a ghostly exploration of the ravages of slavery in a post-Katrina south.

For centuries, women have been using this genre—sometimes fantasy, often horror—to explore deeper themes. Their subversions, if you will, illustrate revolutionary ideas disguised as ghosts and other hauntings. Consider, for example:

  • A mother missing, an unhappy daughter, and a jealous house. In some ways, a shockingly good haunted-house story, and in many ways, a powerful statement about the sometimes predatory, jealous relationship between a woman and her home. (White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi)
  • A husband so forcefully demands that his wife, killed in a car crash, not be dead that she comes back. A ghost story, and a sometimes funny one at that, but also a biting commentary on the limitless expanse of wifely duty. (“Clay-Shuttered Doors” by Helen R. Hull)
  • A Cuban-born journalist in Miami investigates a phantom house. A classic haunting in many ways, but also a vivid exploration of Cuba’s history and diversity and what it means to be separated from your homeland. (The Island of Eternal Love by Daína Chaviano)
  • A girl killed in a car crash, left to haunt the highways and roadside diners of America. A variation on the classic hitchhiker story, but also a sophisticated exploration of a woman’s role as caretaker for a seemingly endless parade of men. (Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire)
  • A mother dead and risen again as a horror. Assuredly a nightmare, but also a study of how tightly our grief binds those we have loved. (Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow)

These explorations illustrate only the beginning of the depth and breadth of our conversations about hauntings in 2014. As we approach this year’s reunion, we hope that you’ll contemplate hauntings, as well as the other themes of our past four years, in your reading, your conversations, and your programming proposals.


At Sirens, our reunion years are an opportunity to reexamine the themes of the previous four years, in this case: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Please look for more posts on these themes in the upcoming weeks—but please also know, as you begin to plan your programming proposals, that proposals need not focus entirely or even at all on theme topics. All proposals related to women in fantasy literature are welcome. Get inspired by our 2014 Hauntings book list, Suggested Reading.

 

Reunion

Ten years ago, we dreamed.

 

And when we dream, we dream big and bold and bright.

 

We dreamed of an annual conference dedicated to the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature.

 

That conference is Sirens.

Each year, Sirens selects a theme: something we can use as inspiration. Something to spark programming ideas, and conference artwork, and guest of honor selections. Our first year, that theme was warriors, and we discussed how most of us feel, in our daily lives, like warriors not so different from Alanna. Whether we’re suited for combat or not, life is so often a battle.

We followed warriors with faeries and monsters, tales retold and hauntings. We examined ruthless faerie queens and what it means, as women or nonbinary people, to be monstrous. We analyzed retellings of some of the world’s oldest tales, and we discussed the early incarnations of the ghost story, a screen for women to discuss feminine issues. We shared how, in so many ways, we are revolutionaries.

But given that Sirens is often less a conference than an annual gathering of a community, it is perhaps inevitable that our theme would occasionally be not rebels or lovers or witches, but reunion. This year, our tenth year, we want to celebrate the Sirens community: the readers, scholars, professionals, and authors who, each year, contribute their time, their energy, their thoughts, and their hearts to sustaining a community that is welcoming, smart, and unabashed.

We have often said that Sirens is an annual respite: a place where you can repair your armor, replenish your magic, and remember how truly remarkable the women of fantasy literature—from readers to faerie queens—are.

If that is true, it is because of our community: truly remarkable (mostly) women and nonbinary readers who join us, sometimes every year, sometimes occasionally, to use fantasy literature as a springboard to discuss gender and power and ambition and, yes, big and bold and bright dreams.

There is nothing more important to Sirens than its community, and so in 2018, as we plan our tenth year, we raise our glasses and declare this community something worthy of discussion, debate, and celebration.

At Sirens, our reunion years are also an opportunity to reexamine the themes of the previous four years, in this case: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Please look for posts on these themes in the upcoming weeks—but please also know, as you begin to plan your programming proposals, that proposals need not focus entirely or even at all on theme topics. All proposals related to women in fantasy literature are welcome. Get inspired by our 2018 Reunion book lists, this year’s Suggested Reading and Reading Challenge.

 

Book Club: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

The Monsters of Templeton

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

“The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”

Thus begins The Monsters of Templeton.

I read somewhere north of 150 books a year—and when you do that, you have the luxury of tackling books for any number of reasons. I don’t have to jealously guard 12 or even 50 available slots a year, cautiously filling them only with books that come highly recommended. I can read for any reason under the sun. For example, I’m notoriously a sucker for well-designed covers, sometimes for good and sometimes for spectacular ill.

This might, however, be the first time that I chose a book because of its first line.

But look at it. Just look at it.

Even putting aside my preternatural love of monster narratives—which we absolutely should not because my love is legion and we’re going to discuss this monster in particular—that’s a magnificent first line. There’s a gravity to it, a weight, around not just a return to Templeton, but a return steeped (steeped!) in disgrace. But there’s an absurdity as well, as you read on to the dead monster surfacing on the lake. Oh, the questions! Who is the protagonist? Is Templeton formerly home? What is this disgrace? How bad was it? What is this monster? Do you have a lot of monsters in Lake Glimmerglass? Are there monsters everywhere?

I had to know.

And that’s what hooks a reader, right? That need to know what happens next.

Well, it worked.

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff (yes, that Lauren Groff), is one of my favorite fantasy literature subgenres: the sort of adult fiction that is so literary and so real that the marketing team can readily sideline the fantasy elements, making it all-too-easy for booksellers to shelve it with the general market fiction. (Annoying!) Think Jesmyn Ward or Carmen Maria Machado or Violet Kupersmith, all of whom write fantasy works, but none of whose works live in the fantasy section of your local Barnes and Noble. (Someday, I’ll write an essay that starts with those three and then happily proceeds to Erin Morgenstern, then Helen Oyeyemi, then Cassandra Khaw, at which point we are well and truly down my very favorite rabbit hole.) The Monsters of Templeton lives somewhere in this procession between Ward and Machado: a number of ghosts, some magical realism-style conflagrations, and the aforementioned monster—but we’re wholly and resolutely in a thinly-veiled Cooperstown.

Willie Upton, an archeological doctoral candidate, magical only in the very slightest of ways, opens the book by returning to her hometown: Templeton, New York. The town is important, not only as a predicate for the plot that follows, but also as a foil for the larger, perhaps grander, sometimes more disappointing world outside. The book can suffocate: After Willie’s arrival, her story arc happens entirely in the town of her birth; only rarely does the outside world intrude (the occasional phone call, a single postcard, a number of scientists looking to examine the monstrous corpse). Those intrusions periodically remind Willie—and the reader—perhaps unwantedly, of Willie’s scholarship, her ambition, and her success navigating that outside world.

Willie’s reason for returning home—and indeed, her return home itself—is fraught. She’s had a (perhaps) ill-advised affair with her married professor, found herself pregnant, and fled her summer work in Alaska to return to the bosom of not only her single mother, but the hometown she hasn’t seen in years. Willie’s flight from Templeton was, in her mind, a necessity; her homecoming, even more so. Never underestimate the emotional trauma of returning to not only your family, but your tiny hometown, “steeped in disgrace.” You can never go home again, I suppose, until you think you have nowhere else to go.

Vi, Willie’s mother, is drawn unsympathetically in Willie’s first-person narrative: a hippie-turned-Baptist, a professional caregiver, a descendant of town founder Malcolm Templeton, a woman who (smugly) knows her daughter better than Willie knows herself. Upon Willie’s arrival home, Vi (cleverly) gives her academic daughter a research task: Discover who her long-secret father is. Vi tells her only that he’s a resident of Templeton—and also a descendent of the revered Malcolm Templeton. Willie the archeologist gets to work and uncovering her father’s identity becomes both mysterious plot arc and book structure: sections alternate between historical depictions of Willie’s ancestors and her modern-day discoveries of links between those same ancestors. It’s a clever conceit, but one that causes the book to lose steam about two-thirds of the way through; at that point, the reader yearns for a hastened pace, but the book stoically maintains its structure.

Willie, Vi and the rest of Templeton are written with a lot of sensitivity. Anyone from a small town will startle at Groff’s insightful depiction of both the unchanging sameness and the roiling, gossip-worthy drama. That same group of middle-aged guys runs around Templeton every morning, but the more Willie uncovers in her quest for her father’s identity, the more the reader learns about the scandals of the town’s past. That sameness and that long-buried gossip birth both security and contempt in Willie, but also provide an unexpected accelerant for a story of monsters premised on, of all things, familiarity. Harken back to that first sentence: Willie has gone home, but equally important, a monster has died.

For those of you looking for a “here be monsters” adventure, this is not your book. Instead, that dead monster is a ready metaphor for every small town and for Willie’s story in particular: those churning scandals—an affair, a death, a fire—made manifest and, not coincidentally, surfacing at last. Not an inapt parallel, once you stop to consider, and one that Groff mines to raw, honest effect. You can go home again, in the end, but heaven knows what you’ll find.

Amy
 


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

New Fantasy Books: February 2018

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of February 2018 book releases of fantasy by and about women. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments.

As always, we’d love to hear from you. If you’ve sold a fantasy work, read a great recently-released story, discovered a fantastic link that we missed, or if you’ve got a book or story review to share, please get in touch and leave a comment below!

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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