Ghost Stories, Both Literal and Figurative

For Jeanette Winterson, ghost stories are not old-fashioned or anachronistic in the modern world, but both cutting-edge and primal. In the introduction to her new collection, NIGHT SIDE OF THE RIVER: Ghost Stories (Grove, 306 pp., $27), she recalls some of her own inexplicable experiences with the uncanny, from the ghost of a writer friend materializing on her computer screen to her childhood premonition of her grandmother’s passing. Religion, and specifically faith in an afterlife, “can be considered as humankind’s first disruptive start-up,” she writes. “What’s being disrupted is death.”

Not every story in the book is meant to be scary; some delight in the clever juxtaposition of ghost tropes and technology. In “Ghost in the Machine,” canny A.I. avatars represent unbodied consciousness, tempting humans with the promise of immortality in exchange for cryptocurrency. In the collection’s most tender and lyrical story, “The Undiscovered Country,” the dead narrator tries to reach out to his grieving male partner via shipping forecasts on the radio.

But Winterson’s strongest stories follow characters haunted not just by apparitions but by human bigotry and traditional, toxic gender roles. “The Door” is set in a 14th-century Scottish castle-turned-wedding-venue that’s inhabited by the spirits of a medieval queer couple who were killed by transphobic villagers. In a pair of linked stories, “A Fur Coat” and “Boots,” a young scammer couple swindle an earl into letting them live on his rural estate for the winter, rent-free — but their romantic “simple life” is interrupted by the property’s surly gardener, who teaches the indoorsy boyfriend how to hunt pheasant and “to keep an eye on that woman of yours.” The gardener, who may or may not be a ghost, goads Jonny’s hatred (“She’s a whore,” he thinks. “Edwin’s right. Edwin’s with him, whistling softly”) until a climactic moment of violence. The ghosts hardly need to show up at all, Winterson knows; the terror’s already present in the misogyny of the living.

At first glance the seven stories in Paul Yoon’s slim but exquisite collection THE HIVE AND THE HONEY: Stories (Marysue Rucci Books, 150 pp., $26) appear unrelated: A Korean American man from Queens is released from prison and travels to the rural hometown of his former cellmate looking for work; a woman who escaped North Korea decades ago is given one opportunity to send a message to the son she left behind; a Korean immigrant couple who own a corner shop in London plan a seaside vacation. But each narrative is a piece of a larger puzzle that together form a portrait of Korean history and its diaspora that is breathtaking in scope, detailing the persistence of imperialism, war, poverty and dislocation across generations.

Throughout Yoon limns the tiny choices that ripple across his characters’ lives — a prison-yard fight, a refusal to help a mysterious runaway — before turning his lens on history. In the epistolary title story, set in 1881, a Cossack police officer stationed in a Korean settlement on the Russian border witnesses a local man’s brutal vengeance against his brother’s wife, who killed her husband after he raped and beat her night after night. But his action is not without consequences: A month later, the narrator writes to his uncle, “Almost every member of the settlement has been visited by what they are calling the apparition. It’s never the husband, always the wife. They describe her in the exact same way. A moving brightness. Anger. The same height and shape as the hanged woman.”

In “At the Post Station,” 17th-century Japanese soldiers in service to an Edo-period daimyo end up raising a Korean child whom their lord instructed them to kidnap in battle as an infant 10 years earlier, “a casualty of the invasion of Korea.” The final story, “Valley of the Moon,” is a masterpiece of emotional restraint in which a Korean War refugee returns to his home village in the South to start a farm, and takes in two orphans who are unaware of his murderous past.

Crisscrossing the globe and the centuries, Yoon expertly telescopes between the long view and the close-up.

Injustice and harm, whether financial or interpersonal or both, loom over the lives of the working-class Irish women in Louise Kennedy’s accomplished latest, THE END OF THE WORLD IS A CUL DE SAC: Stories (Riverhead, 289 pp., $28).

“In Silhouette” switches from second- to first-person narration as a manicurist reflects on the torture and killing of her older brother during the Troubles 40 years earlier; in “Belladonna,” a schoolgirl from Belfast delights in her job with an Irish herbalist until his wife’s erratic behavior and a mysterious bruise hint at trouble to come.

Kennedy knows how to ratchet up the tension by teasing out details. In the title story, a woman abandoned by her husband, a shady housing estate developer, is living off the dwindling supply of cash she’s found in his dresser. When a young man takes an interest in her (“You’re the gangster’s moll from down the hill,” he says), she can’t quite place where she’s seen him before, until it’s too late. On a date with him, she suddenly remembers the time her husband read about the young man in a local tabloid: “A kingpin, no less, he had said as he folded the paper up. The wee knacker is a kingpin.”

Occasionally the weight of the characters’ burdens threatens to overwhelm a story, teetering into hopelessness. “Brittle Things,” about a couple with a young, neurodivergent son, feels suffocating in its depiction of the parents’ shame and denial. At a restaurant the mother worries constantly as she feeds her child breadsticks to calm him, feeling onlookers’ “eyes on her,” Kennedy writes. “It must have looked like she was training a puppy.” When she seeks answers online for why her son hasn’t started speaking at 5, her husband snarls, “Everything gets a … label these days.”

But more often Kennedy’s droll wit and spot-on dialogue brilliantly illuminate her characters’ travails. The middle-aged friends in “Beyond Carthage” save up for an “exotic” vacation in Tunisia only to arrive amid torrential rains at “a purpose-built concrete resort arranged around a new marina, as neat and airless as an architect’s model.” Unable to get to the classical ruins of their dreams, they book a visit to what they think is a local spa, but turns out to be “a glorified brothel, with a clientele of desperate women … who found themselves single at an age when being alone made them feel ridiculous,” Therese thinks. “She and Noreen fitted right in.”

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