Dealing with dementia, with shifting rules of reality, can make you prone to magical thinking. If I say this word, she’ll remember. If I show her this picture, there will be a spark of recognition. You scan the face of someone who doesn’t know you, even if they raised you, even if they were married to you, and hope you’ll recall the incantation, the trick, to make them remember, even for a moment or two.
Naomi Kritzer’s “The Thing About Ghost Stories,” first published and podcasted in Issue 25 of Uncanny Magazine, unfolds in this realm where the boundaries of the fantastical world and the concrete blur. As one might expect, it’s a story about a haunting, but not necessarily one that occurs after death: this ghost story starts unfolding while everyone involved is still living, and unravels the idea of what it means to be a ghost, or to exist in a house with one.
Leah, the story’s narrator, is a hardworking academic about to publish a book based on her dissertation examining accounts of ghost stories across the U.S. Her one real-life sighting of a ghost at age five was insignificant, and she’s not interested so much in the supernatural phenomena as the meaning behind why ghost stories are told and classifiable iterations in which they occur. Her mother, diagnosed with dementia during the course of Leah’s Ph.D. program, didn’t live to see the book published, but it’s dedicated to her: she even helped Leah edit it, though her feedback became meaningless towards the end. Leah remembers looking on as her mother, once a professional copyeditor, declined even as certain automatic functions of her brain and routine endured: “‘Someday, this will be published,’ she said, as she went over each chapter of my book. She said that as she edited. She said that when her edits had stopped being reliable. She said that when I’d give her a manuscript every day to keep her busy, even though I knew I’d just be quietly leaving that stack of red-marked pages in the neighbor’s recycling bin where my mother wouldn’t see.”
Leah’s instantly engaging voice is the element that sustains the slow build of the story, and Kritzer’s deft characterization of her straightforward approach to her unusual work and her practical endurance through grief sucks the reader in long before any supernatural elements present themselves. She’s the person at a party I’d pester with a million questions about her studies, and she’s credibly competent in her role as a researcher who needs to get subjects to open up quickly as she travels the country soliciting stories of the phantasmal at coffee shops and bars. Everyone’s got their own opinions on ghosts, and we as readers start to form our own on each of the tales she presents us with, from the person in Massachusetts who puts up with the specter of a dead man in the bathroom for the reasonable rent to the mother of the little boy who communes with a dead soldier to the women who finds 1950s-style hairpins all over her home.
Most of the people Leah interviews seem sincere in their need to relate to her whatever it is they’ve seen, but it’s the mediums that make her wary. The turning point in the story comes when she encounters a medium who claims she can see Leah’s mother sitting there beside her, whole and intelligent and trying to communicate something crucial about the family ring that was stolen by an unscrupulous caregiver before her death. The ring, like so many tangible and intangible things about her mother, is another in a long list of essentials Leah learned to live without as her mother faded. She feels her mother’s absence keenly, but “I’d spent so many years losing her a piece at a time, though, that grieving was really strange. Also, I don’t know if there’s anything after death but I could at least imagine her whole somewhere. Restored to the person she was before the dementia.”
I first read this story a month after my grandmother died, on the other end of a long decade with Alzheimer’s. Kritzer’s descriptions of what it feels like to watch someone you know go through memory loss, and the way it mirrors and warps the grief that comes after death, feels deeply apt, and the concept of the story itself—the exploration of what ghost stories mean, and why we tell them—resonated as I moved through bereavement. Ghost stories can be a way of telling ourselves a comforting narrative, or a cautionary one, about what someone’s life meant and what they left behind. They echo the way we often talk about people with dementia, the way we tell stories about who they used to be and surround them with old photographs and familiar possessions, like we’re conducting a séance. Once they pass away, it’s hard to believe they’re gone, when you’ve gotten so used to them being both present and absent for so long.
Moving through a memory care unit, you encounter a population of people who experience space and time and objects profoundly differently than you do, who seem like ghosts of their former selves: but you’re a ghost to them, too. You’re not existing in the same reality, and there’s an approach to dementia called validation therapy that encourages you to meet people with the condition on their terms, rather than correcting them or reasserting your version of the universe. For them, time has collapsed, and they may be eight years old again, or twelve, or twenty. They may see people long dead, ghosts that are more present to them than you are. For a while, my grandmother would introduce me as her “young cousin Barbara,” and I always played along, happy that it seemed to provoke pleasant memories for her. Leah’s mother stops recognizing her own reflection and begins believing the blurry image in her wineglass is a sniper, or a ghost, or an alien. Leah covers or takes down all the mirrors, but eventually even she gives in: “Once, I actually told her it was aliens. Friendly, helpful aliens. It had been a really long day.”
The last time I saw my grandmother at her memory care unit, long after she’d forgotten who anyone in our family was, we smuggled her in a cup of coffee-flavored ice cream. Her sweet tooth, like her affinity for music, had endured past the shadowy bounds of dementia. She’d stopped eating most everything else at that point and hadn’t spoken in discernible sentences for years, but as my mother lifted the wooden spoon to her lips and she took her first bite, she looked up into my mother’s eyes and said, unmistakably, “Thank you.”
Those were the last words I ever heard her say, and they felt like a gift, a small coincidence that seemed like magic. Maybe it was. I’ll never know what world she saw in that moment, never know if we made contact across the different worlds and eras we inhabited. Kritzer’s story captures this odd limbo, this longing for resolution and a connection with the lost version of the person you knew, and achieves a beautifully restorative sense of peace with its ending. The climax of the story is a remarkable moment that feels almost quotidian by the time we reach it, given how Kritzer has laid the groundwork of ghost stories throughout, followed by a coda that’s both elegiac and joyful. Like the little moments of grace we might get when saying goodbye to someone we love, the memories we turn into stories we tell ourselves, as we try to understand what it means that they’re gone.
Katharine Duckett’s fiction has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine, Interzone, PseudoPod, and various anthologies. She is also the guest fiction editor for the Disabled People Destroy Fantasy issue of Uncanny. She hails from East Tennessee, has lived in Turkey and Kazakhstan, and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she majored in minotaurs. Miranda in Milan is her first book.