GHOSTS OF YOU: The Murdered Ladies Series
By Cathy Ulrich
Okay Donkey Press, 2019
The layered, quirky, ghoulish, and funny cover of Ghosts of You by Sarah E. Shields is perfect for this collection of forty flash fictions by Cathy Ulrich. Ulrich has achieved a take-off on noir fiction and its tropes. She also has managed to create a sociological commentary on what happens when women are murdered, which is all too often.
Not only does the murdered lady have to face horror before her death, but through the “you” voice, each story being a direct address to her, the dead woman (or girl) has to continue to find out about her boyfriend or husband’s new lovers and new marriages. She has to find out how her children begin to think of “mother” as two-dimensional because they only see her in photos. In Being the Murdered Clerk, Cathy informs the dead woman, “You’ll be found. Your killer never will.”
Don’t be turned away by the grim subject. These stories, written in the deadpan of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Elroy, are often LOL-worthy. When I read the opening line of The Murdered Wife, “The thing about the murdered wife is you set the plot in motion,” I thought, wow, she’s writing about the act of writing as well as weaving a story. And maybe plot refers not just to story structure, but also to “burial plot.” Then I read the first line of Being the Murdered Lover—“The thing about being the murdered lover is you set the plot in motion.” And so it goes with Being the Murdered Coed and all the other stories in the collection. Read on, and it’s like knowing that the vaudevillian is going to slip on a banana peel. Chuckling, you begin to recite the line before you turn the page.
There’s are also tongue-in-cheek details of the crime scenes and the aftermath. In Being the Murdered Coed, the woman who finds the girl’s body will be wearing “purple leggings, shoes with matching laces. The very small dog will pick up your scent. The very small dog will bark, will bark, will bark.” What a parody of every Law & Order SVU you’ve ever seen.
Along with the wit, these stories have emotional truth. The world of the murdered ladies will go on. Children will grow older than their mothers. The parents of a murdered woman will get a grief-stricken divorce. The murdered actress and the murdered homecoming queen will both become more famous by having been murdered than if they had lived. The Murdered Coed will be blamed for her own murder. “You had a beer. You had a beer. You had another.”
Most of all, these stories hooked me with the beautiful starkness of their prose. “You will be twenty years gone, you will be the hiker stumbling on loose dirt, you will be gone, you will be gone.”
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Empty Mirror, ACM, and more. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in such publications as The MacGuffin, Moment, Permafrost, Harpur Palette. Her essays have been published in The New York Times (Lives), Newsweek, and many anthologies. Currently, she teaches writing at UCLA Extension. http://rochellejshapiro.com @rjshapiro