Reviewed: Cautionary Tales for Excitable Girls, Anne Casey-Hardy, Scribner
Don’t let the title of this book scare you off. Its tongue-in-cheek tone, persistent throughout the collection, counters its terrifying tales. Spine-tingling but never descending into graphic violence, the hauntings within feature classic ghost-story tropes: spooky houses and weeping willows, girls held hostage by delinquency and small-town mores, pinch-cheeked gothic housekeepers, dastardly dungeons, wailing attics and she-oaks, not to mention all manner of foxes, rats, poisons, brats and torture chambers. Set among contemporary scenes, these feel especially uncanny.
In the vein of Angela Carter, the book’s horrors are a vehicle for the sociological. Cautionary Tales strives to exhume the feminist manifesto with the rallying cries of today’s sisterhood: our right to have agency, own our bodies, get drunk but not be ‘asking for it’, and fundamentally, to rule the world, regardless of whether we are smart enough, privileged enough or have ‘earned the right’. Many of the stories boast underwhelming, underachieving, misguided heroines, inverting the myth that power is deserved. In these tales, power is won through sheer existence: fat, ugly, stupid or otherwise, as the self-described ‘just a drunk fat girl’ narrator of the book’s third story, ‘New Year’s Eve’ clearly illustrates.
Many of the book’s tales centre around coming-of-age experiences. It opens with ‘Being the Mother’, which features two teenagers as they experience being mothers for a day. Knowing this is temporary, their enthusiasm is unbridled—an experience in sharp contrast with the mother in the second story, ‘Literally Beside Myself’. Delirious with exhaustion and post-partum grief, she becomes a real-life warning to her ghostly teenage self. In later stories, teenagers reappear by creeksides and coastal camps, backlit by threatening bonfires, foreshadowing what’s to come. Their fears are more than imagined, manifesting in stories of older women—barren, broken, traumatised—who physically, mentally and emotionally, embody past griefs. And in the case of ‘My Beautiful Dollhouse’, go so far as to re-create and replay them using childhood’s artefacts.
Many of these stories could feel overwhelmingly grim if not for the knowing glints in their narrators’ eyes. ‘I was smarter than Jimmy,’ declares the wounded misfit in ‘In Disguise, Laying Low’—‘because it would never occur to him that I could turn the tables if I wanted to.’ Here, Casey-Hardy highlights her ironic intent, and it’s vital that readers grasp this. Without it, her unfortunate anti-heroes could be misread. Beyond the pages of the book, I imagine them rising, heads ghostly pale, chanting in unison: ‘Under-estimate me at your own peril,’ much as the penultimate narrator in ‘The Merri Creek’, who emerges from distant shadowy hills to float along the creek, revisiting past wrongs, haunting—and at times, saving—the living.
One of the joys of short story collections are the myriad ways in which they can be collated: from disconnected experiments, to tightly themed assemblages, to pieces so closely linked that the book becomes a novel-in-stories. There is no doubt that Cautionary Tales is steadfastly focused on girls in precarious predicaments. In parts, it also attempts to incorporate the linked-story model by having characters reappear across various stories. I’m not entirely convinced this works. When read on their own, the linked sections seemed unfinished, as if their narratives had been cut midstream; I might prefer to have read them as a single, sustained piece. That said, the recurring characters end up becoming a continuing thread that bind the collection. In that light, the stories’ disjunction works—particularly if considered representative of the fragmented periodisation of women’s lives.
Inarguably, what this structure does exemplify, is the considerable care taken to create a holistic reading experience—a rare feat for a short story collection—while at the same time delivering a variance of styles. While the straight-form stories of the book’s main body give it heft, its final two pieces move to the poetic. Rich in metaphor and philosophical musings, they shift the collection’s tone as it draws to a close, illuminating the unshakable feminine bedrock upon which its terrors are perpetrated. After the chilling ride through womanhood’s house of horrors, this coda offers a glimpse of the prospective beauty that awaits post-haunting. An assurance: that come hell or high water—creekside or ocean—the feminine, in all her various guises, will prevail.
Charle Malycon is an editor, writer and cultural critic. She has poetry, monologues, short stories and reviews published in ABR, Meanjin, Overland, UTS Writers’ Anthology, UTS Central and Voices for Woman.