Review: Ghosts of You
by Cathy Ulrich
Okay Donkey Press, 2019 ($15.00)
If you read flash fiction on web journals, then you already know who Cathy Ulrich is. If you don’t know her, then let me tell you that she is one of the kindest people you will ever encounter on social media. She publishes flash regularly, but she would rather promote dozens of other writers’ stories before sharing her own work, which is dazzling, heartbreaking, and beautiful in so many ways. It is no surprise that Okay Donkey would launch their press using a collection of Ulrich’s work as their first release. Many of Ulrich’s stories can be categorized by series: astronaut love stories, girl detective stories, at the end stories (like her newest, “Where the World Used to Be,” featured in this issue). But the series for which she is best known is her Murdered Ladies stories—forty of them comprise Ghosts of You, making for a collection as stunning as its cover, which was designed by the talented Sarah Shields.
If you are unfamiliar with the Murdered Ladies series, the table of contents may appear to repeat itself, causing you to wonder whether the stories will also repeat themselves. This is not the case, because you would find that after reading one story, and then the next, the forty stories could have easily been eighty—or a thousand—and they would all be unique. Each story places the reader in the shoes of a different character through Ulrich’s clever style of narration. No two murdered ladies are the same, yet as a collective, they all tell the same tragic story of a woman who has no agency in the aftermath of her own murder.
It is remarkable how Ulrich instantly connects readers to a character who no longer has a voice. The murder is the inciting incident that sets a plot in motion, and the reader then witnesses the behavior of characters who are peripheral to the murdered lady. The periphery is different for every story in this collection—a spouse, a community, a media group sensationalizing the murder with disregard for the victim’s dignity. In the midst of tragedy’s aftermath, these characters’ behaviors partially characterize each victim, and through Ulrich’s narrative style, the reader is able to understand how the murdered lady feels, how she is unable to speak up in defense to assumptions and opinion, how private details are made public, how rumors circulate, and how blame is shifted in the wrong direction. We feel the defenselessness through the vehicle of POV and tense, but the rich details and the raw emotions are the engine of these stories.
The effect of each murdered lady’s death has a broad scope—the affected party could be a single close friend, as in “Being the Murdered Clerk,” or it could be generations of a high school student body, as in “Being the Murdered Homecoming Queen.” The murdered lady herself can be anonymous, as in “Being the Murdered Hermit,” or she can be famous, as in “Being the Murdered Actress.” In that story, a new actress is cast as the victim for a biopic; her performance is so convincing that fans see her as a replacement for the original actress. In “Being the Murdered Muse,” a sculptor creates a statue that comes to replace the victim. The murdered ladies are sisters, mothers, girlfriends, wives, idols, colleagues, and daughters. The stories affect some characters for a short period of time, others for years. New relationships develop where the murder is the impetus, and it defines the relationship. Through the future progressive tense and second-person point of view, the reader holds hands with the ghost of the murdered lady, who is forced to silently watch as events unfold.
Ulrich has a wonderfully distinct voice that is consistent throughout the collection. She emphasizes yearning through repetition of carefully chosen words and phrases, texturing each story with a lyrical and hypnotic voice. And this voice is woven intricately into the stories, giving the collection the feel of an entity rather than forty individual pieces strung together— not only does this whole artfully recognize each victim in the collection, but all of the lost women, for whom Ulrich dedicates Ghosts of You.