by Rebecca Jones-Howe
First off, to the EIC of Quill & Crow Cassandra L. Thompson: Thank you for going back to Woman of the White Cottage and understanding it. There are a lot of editors who talk a big game about taking risks on stories other editors wouldn’t. I’m glad you did.
Second: Short story collections get a bad rap and I wish they didn’t. It’s like the Rick and Morty joke, “Want to watch a 10-hour movie?” “No.” // “How about 20 half-hour episodes?” “You sonofabitch, I’m in.” I personally think short stories are like the egg test for a chef — can you create a mesmerizing, self-encapsulating world with characters that are interesting and create a resolution that makes sense in under 6k? (Spoiler: RJH can.)
I’m a fan of Quill & Crow Press. I pre-ordered this title when it hit my inbox because yes, sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover, and that’s one of the things I love about them. If you’re drawn to the cover, read it. It’s FOR you. But better than you thought it would be, too. If you love VC Andrews, Victoria Holt, Michael McDowall, Anne Rice, Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Emilie Autumn, Carmen Maria Machado, Isabel Yap, and all the random books in the “Ladies Running Away From Houses” genre, trust the cover. It’s what you’ve been looking for.
As a writer, I’m jealous I didn’t write this.
As a reader, I’m SO glad to have found it.
The thing I love about the gothic literature novels is that they never, as Joe Bob Briggs says, “Let the writing get in the way of a good story.” (I know this author has GOT to be a Mutant. 100%) The thing is, I always wanted a book where the writing was good AND the story was captivating, too. This is that collection. I appreciated the content warnings and index of triggers. I ended up not needing to use them, but I appreciated that they were there. That’s a nice touch, especially since gothic literature that takes after the 1970’s heyday books often includes trigger topics, violence, and sex, often graphically.
I appreciate that when treated by a modern author, these topics are presented in a way that give the characters of Ending In Ashes more agency and often “flip the script” so that instead of victimization for the sake of itself, these scenes allow the female protagonists to be the one whose growth is explored, not their abusers. Many of the stories don’t have a “happy” ending (which I think the opening story alludes to, starting the collection on that note.) But once you reach the ends, they all feel authentic. And inevitable. And to me, that’s what makes a good story.
Here’s the breakdown. 11 Stories/ 179 pages — I ripped through this in about 3-ish hours, give or take. Couldn’t put it down.
- THE RED HOUSE — Starts off with a bang. One of the few Covid stories that hasn’t continually referenced Covid but really dug into how it messed with people’s heads. It was real, and tough, and a lot of it made me squirmy. It also let me know what to expect from the rest of the collection.
- HOSTAGES: This one reminded me a bit of The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg because the sense of reality felt slippery to me. The desperation of the characters was palpable. I couldn’t tell if they had actually survived or not. I liked the not-knowingness.
- A PATIENT, A GUEST — This story didn’t grab me as much as the others, but it wasn’t a bad story by any means. This was one I wished there had been a little more of. It reminded me of a story in Poppy Z. Brite’s Wormwood, in terms of storyline and prose.
- THE LANTERN: This one reminded me of the stories in Fen (Daisy Johnson) and also a little bit of the film The Woman and a dash of Spider Baby. This story has a different voice than the rest of the stories, which I think was necessary to tell it.
- A LESSON IN SOPHISTICATION: A little bit Carrie, a little bit kitchen magic/kitchen witch, and maybe a touch of Lolita. Hints of Midsomer or another compound-cult. Will make you want to make an apple tart, even if it might mean your ruin. That recipe should have been in the index.
- HONEYMOON: Holy smokes, buckle up. In my opinion, This story is the anchor/masterpiece of the collection and why it’s in the dead center of the book. It’s one of the longer pieces in the collection and it’s the most graphic so definitely make sure you enter it prepared. If you are a fan of Ti West X, then you’ll appreciate this piece. This story is impressive as both a reader and as a writer reading it. The use of anaphora/repetition and a very clever narrative conceit work to the story’s advantage. 2nd person “You” POV is one of those things that either goes totally right and it’s amazing, or terribly wrong and it’s a mess — but nothing in between. It’s a bold choice for the story that works. And the subject matter requires you to be all in. For me, it worked. You will not want Pepsi for a while.
- THE WALKING HOURS — I took a break before reading this because Honeymoon was so intense. I’m glad I did, because I came back to this story ready for it and it’s probably my 2nd favorite in the collection. It fused the idea of a traditional vampire with (I think?) the Filipino manananggal. If you’ve read the short story Good Girls by Isabel Yap you’d probably like this story too. It’s all that and also kind of the weirdest fusion with an I Love Lucy aesthetic…plus bood.
- THE FRUITS OF WARTIME: Mix The Great Gatsby with Secretary and you’ll be in the right neighborhood. The end of this one is frustrating, but authentic. I hated how true it was but that’s not RJH’s fault. It’s what the story required and the landing line is pretty graceful for a story that’s not soft at all.
- WOMAN OF THE WHITE COTTAGE: This follows a great tradition of “cottage witch” and then segues into Victorian medical horror. This story reminded me a lot of Jilly Dreadful’s work and Emilie Autumn’s Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls. It’s creepy and icky and cruel, and I’m glad I pushed through to the end (and I’m glad the EIC did too.) The landing line is MASTERFUL and exactly the kind of resolution I wanted.
- LITTLE BLACK DEATH — This one had a very Angela Carter/ Anne Rice feel to it. The prose felt like a fairy tale, but not one you’ve heard of, and it still felt familiar. It is a dark fairy tale and feels both timeless and timely.
- IN HIS HANDS — Similar to The VVitch and Slewfoot (kind of), this story takes the traditional “burn the witch” story and turns it on its side. Like Woman of the White Cottage, the landing line of the story is savage. What a note to end the collection on.
Thanks for reading to the end! This book belongs in your favorite dusty attic or other place that your creepy ass goes to read books and be left alone.