The plot begins with a dead body. More specifically, a dead woman. In these electric, masterfully contrived flash fictions from Cathy Ulrich’s Murdered Ladies series, Ulrich investigates the legacy left by the dead and how murder creates a vortex about a person, making them both more alive and more erased than ever. What culminates is a devastating look at a society with blood on its hands and an unwillingness to favor the stories of the living over those of the dead.
Setting the Plot in Motion
Each piece in Ghosts of You begins the same way: “The thing about being the murdered girl is you set the plot in motion,” except in other pieces Ulrich replaces “girl” with other possible female types, such as wife, lover, teacher, professor, and politician, even veering into more outlandish realms with taxidermist, witch, and mermaid. These stories turn typical narrative construction on its head as each one begins with a void left by the murdered woman. The stories are about these women but also not. They are about the people these women leave behind, the way these people move on and remember the dead, contriving models of who they were in life now that they have passed into death.
The repetition of each tale’s entry could grow tiresome if extended too long or not followed by such excellently composed vignettes, but Ulrich has complete control in this collection on a micro and macro level. The climax of the opening line creates space for Ulrich to explore her themes through character reactions, her line of inquiry finding itself at its best in the ways those who still live cling to the tangible and intangible remains of each dead woman without really recognizing these women’s narratives, their lives. In one story Ulrich writes,
“The police will secretly prefer the photo of you dead, find something attractive in the parting of your lips, the bruising of your throat, something graceful in your death, something fragile, something precious.”
“They’ll write a biopic about you. A man will. A man who knew you, tangentially, when you were still alive. A man who remembers, tangentially, the sound of your laughter, the tap of your footstep. He’ll write you the way he remembers you, the way the people do. He’ll write you larger than life.”
While Ulrich writes about the dead, it’s impossible not to see how each murder references society’s treatment of women while alive. In the first quote, the idea that men find beauty in control, the encapsulation of a woman’s features over and against the holistic, living woman. In the second, the idea that men try to craft the narrative of a woman’s life instead of allowing her to craft it for herself.
This seeming critique on the patriarchy’s possessiveness of women’s bodies and minds culminates in “The Murdered Princess” when Ulrich notes, “You had always belonged to them, princess, even more now that you have been murdered. They will call you ours, ours, ours.” This possessiveness finds its end-state in death because it strips the voice from the living, renders them indigent.
Ulrich’s writing is revelatory, bone-shaking. Not just enjoyable but visionary in how she begins with classic mystery tropes only to burst those confines, showing the wholeness of these women, the stories that society tried to reduce to mere bodies. This is flash fiction that will sink into your bloodstream and keep circulating long after the final line.
Flash fiction is deathly tricky to get right. To get it right across an entire collection is like lightning rattling the same tree for hours straight. But in Ghosts of You, Ulrich deploys a rare talent, Zeus-like in how she captures the lightning before casting it on every page.
Ghosts of You is published by Okay Donkey Mag.