Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya looks at processing grief in new queer ghost story

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya wasn’t sure at first how she was going to get her latest story to audiences.

“When I first sat down to write ‘Helen House’ my plan was for it to be a short story,” Upadhyaya says. “But when I finished I had well over 10,000 words and that is way too long for a short story, at least too long to have published. I sat with it a bit, thinking maybe I could stretch it out to a novel but I didn’t think I would be able to do that with this one.”

Then almost serendipitously, Upadhyaya was contacted by Burrow Press about wanting to work with her on publishing one of her stories.

“The timing was great because Burrow Press favors publishing stories that don’t fit into traditional publication standards,” she says. “So it was a little accidental, a little lucky but I’m glad that I didn’t have to significantly change the story and was able to find a home for it.”

That story is “Helen House,” Upadhyaya’s first novelette about an openly gay woman whose girlfriend wants her to come with her on a trip to see her parents. Before they get there, the unnamed narrator of the story learns that she and her girlfriend Amber share similar traumas.

“It’s about a not-so-great relationship that is marked by grief between two women who have both lost their sisters and what happens over a course of a short amount of time when the narrator is going to her girlfriend’s parents’ house for the first time,” Upadhyaya says.

Things go from awkward to uncomfortable to nightmarish as the story unfolds at Amber’s parents’ secluded rural home. There, the narrator learns that the family has an odd mourning ritual for their lost family member Helen.

“It is a queer ghost story, also a queer love story, with a lot of messiness within both of those realms,” Upadhyaya says.

One thing Upadhyaya knew from the start that she wanted in “Helen House” was that both women in the relationship were going to be out.

“I didn’t want them to be closeted,” she says. “I knew I wanted Amber’s parents to know about her queerness and for that not to really be a factor in the conflict at all. Instead, I wanted to create the conflict in more surprising or rather unexpected places. There is a different level of intensity when you are in that stage of the relationship, meeting the parents. I think for queer folks in particular, there is often the concern that you have to be perfect. The narrator is going into that space feeling the pressure of yes, even though the parents are accepting, I still need to go in and perform the role of the good girlfriend in a heteronormative way.”

Something else that stands out in Upadhyaya’s novelette is the narrator of the story has no name.

“Not having the narrator be named was a way to have this intimate story feel a little removed,” Upadhyaya says. “Like this person is telling the story to a mental health professional. She can be candid and open because you’re not telling this story to a friend. You’re talking to someone who can just listen.”

Using a haunted tale to process grief and trauma is something that has been used with great success in the horror genre. Notable stories like “Midsommar,” “The Babadook” and “The Haunting of Hill House” have been big hits over the last decade.

“’The Haunting of Hill House’ particularly had a big influence on me,” Upadhyaya says. “That show was just so amazing at creating these metaphors for difficult things like grief, addiction, death, trauma; I think there is something very useful about turning these things into literal monsters or hauntings or curses.”

“Helen House” is available now in paperback and will be available in a limited-edition hardcover starting Oct. 18. Burrow Press is also hosting an official launch party for “Helen House” at Will’s Pub Oct. 23 with readings at 7:30 p.m. and a dance party at 9 p.m.

“My editor asked me what my dream book launch would look like and I said a haunted dance party,” Upadhyaya says. “So that’s what we are doing. There will be some readings; I will be reading from ‘Helen House,’ my editor Ryan Rivas has a book out, ‘Nextdoor in Colonialtown,’ and he will be reading a piece from that and my girlfriend who is also a writer, Kristen Arnett, will be reading. Then after that it becomes a haunted dance party!”

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