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Lone Women coverVictor LaValle has done it again, and by “it” I mean “turned H.P. Lovecraft upside-down so that the result is the right way up.” LaValle’s latest novel, Lone Women, is a Black feminist, gender-swapped version of “The Dunwich Horror”—and also so much more. The epigraph is a phrase from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977)—“Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down”—and this sets the tone for the whole plotline, in both a metaphorical and a literal sense.

Lone Women is set in Montana in 1915, with a harsh winter fast approaching. Immediately we learn a lot about American homesteading in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862, American citizens over twenty-one could file a claim of land for a fee. Once the fee was paid, the person had to live on the land as a permanent resident and make improvements to it—including building a home, planting trees, and growing crops or raising livestock. After three years of successful farming, they would “prove up,” and the land would become their registered property. What probably none of us ever heard in school is that not only were there “lone women” homesteaders—that is, homesteaders starting out on this venture without a man, each for their own reasons—but that this right wasn’t reserved solely for white women either. This fact proves lucky for LaValle’s protagonist Adelaide Henry, a single Black woman in her thirties, who has just arrived from California in a town called Big Sandy (or rather at a location a couple hours’ ride outside this small community), bringing nothing with her apart from a travel bag containing the bare necessities … and a heavy, padlocked steamer trunk. All we know at the beginning is that she left her home farm in a rush after setting it on fire, her parents’ dead bodies resting on the bed upstairs—and that her trunk mustn’t be opened. Every time somebody manages to do that (usually with plans of theft), people disappear.

What starts out like either a ghost story or indeed a Weird tale (depending on what the secret contents of the trunk might turn out to be) proves to be so cunningly composed and so brilliantly written that it was impossible for me to put down. For the first time in decades, I didn’t want to go to bed because I didn’t want to close a book. I spent all of the next day reading, too. Sooner than expected, the secret in the trunk is revealed when Adelaide invites a man to stay the night (spoiler, no spoiler: female characters are allowed to initiate intimacy, have sex without necessarily wanting a lasting relationship, and enjoy it too) and wakes up to find what she refers to as “her curse” trying to devour him. (“Matthew had thought to pilfer her treasure but found only her curse” [p. 89].)

The descriptions of the creature remind me of the “angel”/vampire design in the American TV miniseries Midnight Mass from 2021. And, in a refreshing twist away from most creature horror, LaValle refrains from mansplaining monster taxonomy. Instead, references to the (supposed) antagonist stay pleasantly generalised and include “family curse” (five instances), “monster” (eight), “creature” (eighteen), and most often “demon” (twenty-two, clustering near the climax of the novel). Choice of word is hugely important here. If you refer to something by a certain term, that’s what it becomes to you. You manifest your own reality. Calling somebody a demon literally demonizes them, turns them into an unlikeable, irredeemably evil thing, devoid of humanity. It fosters fear and hatred and simultaneously justifies all sorts of behaviour towards the target, from ostracising and bullying all the way up to lynching. Thus, it makes a huge difference whether the creature that Adelaide brought to Montana is referred to as a monster, a demon, as “it”—or  whether she is called by her human name: Elizabeth.

The big reveal (which firmly plants this novel in “Lovecraft rewritten” territory for me) is that Elizabeth is Adelaide’s non-human twin—exactly like in Lovecraft’s classic short story “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), except for their parents’ absolute cluelessness as to what may have caused Elizabeth to be born like this. Her appearance is monstrous, but as it turns out she is not a monster (even though her appetite is that of a non-human predator and she doesn’t necessarily prioritise humans over horses). Halfway through the book, when she has liberated herself from her confines—the box, the room, the house—she takes flight. And she is beautiful because she is free: for the first time we get to read her internal monologue, and it’s formatted like poetry. We can’t help but admire her (just like the old Hispanic couple who in a brief scene on page 210 call her “goddess”).

Elizabeth unchained functions as a wonderful symbol for liberated womanhood. Somewhere around page 168, Adelaide finally reveals—no, confesses—how her family had kept the “demon,” the other sister, hidden, imprisoned, chained, from birth. She implies how difficult this was for her and her parents, how their secrecy caused the other townspeople to avoid them and made them a target for gossip. She mentions how she used to sneak into the barn to keep her sister company. It isn’t clear whether she realizes the extent of her sister’s pain, anger, and despair. But then Elizabeth is liberated. And redeemed. We finally see her in all her power and glory. And, of course, she is terrifying—to those that misunderstand her and want to control or exterminate her.

From the very beginning, the narration—though in a studiedly neutral third person—is very perceptive about casual sexism and racism in everyday situations, and about how men tend to abuse privilege. Much like Toni Morrison, Victor LaValle chooses beautiful and tender language to reveal harsh and sometimes violent truths.

A funny thing happens when a man thinks he has a woman’s company all to himself. He may show her a face that he would keep hidden if there were even one more person around. He speaks from his secret self.

And even though Adelaide had been part of a family that largely kept to itself, she’d gone back and forth to Victorville and Allensworth, hauling plums to be sold. At the markets, or along the roads, she’d encountered many men by herself. The things they said. When she began making the trips alone, she wouldn’t recount the words to her mother or her father. They became like a small bag of stones she carried in one hand. (p. 16)

By contrast, when Adelaide chooses the isolated and hard life of a homesteader, she discovers the solidarity of other such “lone women,” each of whom helps keep the others alive. To express this solidarity as completely as possible, LaValle develops a strong language of gestures (for example, the repeated motif of the caress of a hand against a cheek, a gesture of soothing), a language of bodies and closeness (not necessarily romantic or sexual, mainly human), and a language of solidarity and sisterhood.

Positive highlights of this book were little emphases of marginalized identities that white male writers often leave out—or at best “kill off” early in the story. Here they are painted as successes (despite the hardship they encounter): a mixed-race lesbian couple who survive until the last page and thrive. A single mother bringing up a trans boy with much love and respect in 1925. In-keeping with this, the real monsters turn out to be very human indeed: they are white capitalists who think they run the town—and this group is not solely restricted to men, either. Intertwined with an all-men club referring to themselves as “the stranglers”—and who are really, really into lynching—is a group of suffragettes and town activists who are really early TERFs. [1]

All literary monsters are also metaphors; all literary monsters are also political. Monsters who are constructed as a reaction to and an inversion of Lovecraft perhaps have an especially highlighted political function. The TERFs seem to be deliberately chosen antagonists in a novel about “lone women” supporting each other: officially, out in the open, they are all about charity, women’s rights, empowerment, and supporting fellow women in need (obviously very publicly, in order to emphasise their self-elected role as philanthropists); they always know what’s best for everyone. But apparently this includes torturing a trans child and forcing a small laundry service out of business on the basis of its owners’ sexuality. Elizabeth on the other hand—especially as a female monster, as a sister—can be read as the pent-up rage of the titular “lone women,” having been stomped on for centuries: victimised, demonised, condescended to.

In the big showdown, Elizabeth brings a cleansing fire to her sister Adelaide, who finds her at the end of a drug-enhanced journey where she is forgiven and where she can forgive herself, and to the town of Big Sandy itself, cleansing the community of racism, bigotry, misogyny, and transphobia (which really isn’t a phobia, it’s just hate). Unlike many revenge plots in novels with male heroes, this isn’t a bland, unsatisfying victory; this is retribution, where the guilty will be punished, the innocent protected, and societal balance restored after being disrupted by crime.

LaValle chooses not to call attention to the everyday violence inflicted by people who believe themselves to be at the top of their own fictional hierarchy by letting the villains get away with it (as Toni Morrison does in her beautiful and horrifying novel Paradise [1998], one of my favourites of hers). Instead, he chooses to let the “lone women” (who are not so alone after all) establish a lasting sanctuary, a veritable women-run utopia, guarded by Elizabeth, who they now refer to as a dragon—since “every child wants to learn that dragons are real” (p. 261). Settling in a ghost town, they don’t rebuild it. They remake it into a new town according to their own needs: the town of Two Sisters, Montana (p. 268). While some might argue that this is easy and cheap poetic justice, I suggest that justice is exactly what every character in this book deserves, and that Elizabeth functions as the medium that works it—which is more or less the exact post-Lovecraftian re-imagining of the Weird Tale I want to see in the world. And finally, I do think that we all benefit from reading a story that ends on a hopeful note rather than a dystopian one.

More power to you, Dragon Sisters* (which—and this should go without saying—obviously includes all my trans and nonbinary siblings).

Endnote

[1] Technically, the term TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) should be replaced by FART (feminism-abusing radical transphobe) for reasons of accuracy (and I’ve seen this version in use around the internet). [return]



Phoenix Scholz is based in Vienna, Austria. They have published articles on science fiction, weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and On Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, Wyrd Daze, and Open Polyversity. Their first published novelettino is Dun da de Sewolawen: The Heart of Silence. They blog at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.
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