Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer

Leah is a researcher who collects ghost stories. Not artfully crafted spooky tales but rather the stories ordinary people have of encounters with things that they felt were supernatural.

The most interesting thing about ghost stories is that almost everyone has one.
The other really interesting thing, to me, is that they’re nearly all terrible stories if you try to take them as stories. A good story has a beginning, some buildup, and then a resolution or a twist or something at the end. Ghost stories go, “This creepy and inexplicable thing once happened to me. The obvious explanation is that I dreamed or imagined it; I am certain that I didn’t dream or imagine it.” Or in some cases, “I used to live in this house where creepy stuff happened all the time. Then we moved.” Every now and then you’ll hear a story with a ghost that has a beginning, middle, and end, but those are most often urban legends: “One day we were driving along and we picked up a hitchhiker.” (Beginning.) “As we drove, we had this creepy conversation with the hitchhiker.” (Middle.) “Then we reached our destination and the hitchhiker had vanished from the back seat.” (Twist!) That one’s not a real ghost story. It did not happen to your cousin, no matter what he says.

It is a brave way to open a ghost story with a discussion about how the genuine ones do not work as narratives and how the ones that do work as narratives are inauthentic.

However, Kritzer commits to her opening statement. Much of this novelette is styled as an essay or a personal reflection on its subject matter. An account of the life of somebody collecting ghost stories, the people she meets and the nature of the things she collects. The actual ghost story that is there is approached circuitously, introduced in fragments. Likewise, the thesis of the essay, that ghosts can be about grief and loss and lingering presences of emotional bonds (good and bad) is woven in slowly.

A personal essay, a ficto-critical examination of personal encounters with the supernatural, a story of one woman’s relationship with her mother AND a ghost story all sounds rather too much. When I list it out like that I can’t help think of my whining about novellas being so over stuffed that the story doesn’t fit. But there’s nothing over-stuffed here, it all fits together neatly and leisurely and with generosity.

Moving and clever, the multiple modes of the story (the short vignettes, the personal history, the discussion of ghost stories) all mesh together expertly.

Voting for novelettes this year is going to be a nightmare of indecision. Can we add “All of the Above” as an option as a kind of anti-No Award?

6 responses to “Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer”

  1. I loved this novella. I like Naomi Kritzer’s writing anyway; but this one breaks my heart every time I read it. It’s a wonderful piece of work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I thought this was a good novelette, and I liked it better upon re-reading, but it didn’t affect me the way it obviously affected a lot of other people. I suspect that whether the reader has lost a parent may have a lot to do with that.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yeah I liked this but didn’t love this. Still a worthy nominee, but not up to the same level as some of the others.

    Now Best Short Story I agree needs an award for like the entire shortlist, god that’s an impossible group to pick between.


  4. This was the rare Kritzer story that I didn’t love. I get the meta-point she was trying to make, but judged as an effective story it was too slow and more circuitous than it needed to be.

    It was very well done though.

    So really I liked rather than loved. I can certainly see how it could have struck other people enough to make the ballot though.

    Liked by 1 person

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