Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories
By Kelly Barnhill
Algonquin Books, 2018
Kelly Barnhill’s new collection, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, explores love, loss, and longing in a diverse selection of stories that rely more on lyricism than plot for their surprising effects. The award-winning children’s author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon (2016), Barnhill in her newest work targets more mature readers with seven original stories and two previously published works that explore a range of genres including fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, horror, and the ghost story. Barnhill’s diverse cast of characters includes a range of fantastical figures—a sasquatch, an anthropomorphized insect, ghosts, mad scientists, magicians, and witches—but also individuals, usually girls and women, for whom the supernatural is a reflection of the tortured psyche.
“Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch” (originally published at Tor.com in 2014) tells the tale of a widow who is able to reconnect with her first love, the mythical creature who was abandoned along with her nature- and animal-loving self in favor of a respectable, loving man with allergies. Her baffling romance, which deeply inconveniences both the hopeful bachelors who come courting and the respectable ladies who offer sympathy, moves the local priest, the man who refused to baptize her unconventional lover all those years before. Mrs. Sorenson’s restoration to her true self has a profound impact on this man, and her journey inspires him to reconnect with his past and travel back, in memory, to his own childhood.
Although brief, “Mrs. Sorenson” and many other stories in the collection are lyrical, richly textured, and provocative in the ways they explore the inner worlds of their protagonists. A fair few deal with ghosts—both the actual spirits of deceased persons and the specter of lost lovers. “Open the Door and the Light Pours in” and “The Dead Boy’s Last Poem,” for example, are both conventional ghost stories in which the passing of the beloved does not put a halt to communications with the one left behind, as the deceased continued to interact through letters and poems. These stories are more interested in peeling away the lives of their protagonists than surprising us with conflict, even though the protagonists who have lost love to untimely, tragic deaths, must deal with strife to heal emotionally. In “Open the Door,” such a passage means the protagonist, Charles, must confront his long-repressed desire for his late wife’s brother, while in “The Dead Boy’s Last Poem,” the poet’s grieving girlfriend must destroy his haunted manuscripts in order to free herself from an obsessive first love in her progress toward adulthood.
While some of these stories are dreamlike, revealing great compassion for human frailty, others are jarringly abstract and unforgiving, forcing the reader to confront nightmarish scenes that blur the line between dark fantasy and unhinged reality. The two stories that evoke the horror of the collection’s title—“Dreadful Young Ladies” and “Notes on the Untimely Death of Rona Drake”—have the flavor of Angela Carter’s twisted fairy tales, but with the cultural fantasy of perfect girlhood, marriage, and motherhood rejected through abstract, poetic scenes in which women characters respond not with resistance, but with real-world violence. Perhaps more than any of the others, these two stories will surprise those familiar with Barnhill’s writing for young readers.
While not all of the stories are quiet, they are mostly character-driven, with the most startling showing the individual’s conflicts with both the self and society. While male characters frequently provide the sympathetic eyes through which we view Barnhill’s complex female characters, men are often the source of their emotional trauma and physical violence. These tales introduce us to a husband eager to reshape his wife into a more pliant creature (“The Taxidermist’s Other Wife”), as well as despotic male rulers either terrified by magical powers possessed by women (“Elegy to Gabrielle”) or eager to harness the gifts of magical children for frivolous ends (“The Unlicensed Magician”). Males are often the obvious villains of this collection, but women are not always victims. More often than not, even disempowered women have the potential to heal (as well as astonish) and are ultimately able to reshape communities and challenge toxic masculinity.
“The Unlicensed Magician,” the final story in the volume, which was published as a novella in 2015, deftly combines dystopian and fantasy in a work that takes up half the collection. Not surprisingly, this piece represents a shift away from the tone of the other stories, offering a neatly-packaged message about both the dangers of magic and its potential to heal that seems more attuned to younger readers. While an entertaining story, its inclusion here seems a way to fill out a rather slim but interesting volume and is uncharacteristically plot-driven and thematically simple when compared to the other stories. While it does share some common elements and motifs with the other pieces—the role of magic and healing, the revisiting of past loves, the obsession with knowledge (occult or otherwise), and the compulsion experiment at the expense of humanity—it feels tonally out of place here.
While the final story reveals Barnhill’s skill as a storyteller, the collection feels more like poetry than prose, exploring emotion over action, which means that the best of these stories feel more like literary fiction than conventional genre pieces. Although Barnhill singles out the Van der Meers, proponents of the New Weird, for offering support and inspiration, she seems less interested in creating hybrid genres than in ornamenting those genres known mostly for heavy plotting with figurative language and emotional depth. While not an especially coherent collection, suggesting that Barnhill is using familiar genres to explore her own interests in literary language, nonetheless each story reveals her skill, her ability to mesmerize the reader with fascinating characters and compelling language. More than anything, the volume offers a pleasant surprise to readers unfamiliar with Kelly Barnhill, and perhaps a transition point for younger readers looking for stories of greater maturity and complexity than their usual literary fare.
Jessica Tvordi is Associate Professor of English at Southern Utah University, and she is currently completing a book-length study examining the representation of deviance in narratives of nation formation in early modern England.