Girls and boys disappear; couples caught in the heat and suppressed rage of urban life are haunted by the ghosts of their own making; neighbourhoods drift in the murky atmosphere of buried emotions, where the echoes of distrust and dissonance prove that something just isn't right.
These strange stories gather and weave themselves together into a wreath of memories, rife with an atmospheric and ominous creep redolent of Shirley Jackson. This eerie collection illustrates the disconnect amongst people and the places they inhabit, the gap that allows the supernatural to flourish.
Winner of the prestigious Exile/Carter V. Cooper Prize for fiction, author Halli Villegas guides us into a wreath of memories, rife with an atmospheric and ominous creep redolent of Shirley Jackson. Girls and boys disappear; couples caught in the heat and suppressed rage of urban life are haunted by the ghosts of their own making; neighbourhoods drift in the murky atmosphere of buried emotions. The Hair Wreath and Other Stories illustrates the disconnect between people and the places they inhabit, the gap that allows the supernatural to flourish. – Sandra Kasturi
"Villegas's debut collection offers 19 tales that nicely blend ordinary characters with sudden and unexplained supernatural threats . . . "His Ghost," disturbing on multiple levels, tells the tale of an obsessive man in search of his muse. "Salvage," a haunting set on a spaceship, is efficiently creepy. "An Unexpected Thing" is a solid, straightforward revenge story with a nasty undercurrent . . . "D in the Underworld," in which a woman searches for her missing daughter, rises above the rest. Fans of creepy, non-gory horror will appreciate this collection. . . .– Publishers Weekly
"[F]or the most part these stories are very finely thought through; their language is precise. And, on the whole, the emotional effects are successful. It's a strong debut collection, marking a writer worth watching."– Rover Arts Review
"Ghosts and other mysterious forces intrude on the characters in the new collection of dark fiction from Toronto-based writer Halli Villegas. . . . On the whole, this collection proves that the most effective ghost stories are the ones that leave you with more than just questions."– Quill & Quire
"Overall, the collection is a modern twist on urban ghost stories, weaving the idea of dark spiritual encounters with modern lifestyles always getting in the way. . . . A perfect read for a quiet night alone, in the seeming tranquility of the city."– Broken Pencil
The Hair Wreath
They had to get out of the city. Their loft, which they had finally bought after many deprivations in the form of forgoing dinner out and Starbucks lattés for two years, was stifling. Despite exposed brick walls, floor-to-ceiling windows and proximity to all the city's amenities, it had no outside access. No balconies marred the front of this genuine industrial building. The floor-to-ceiling windows that had been such a selling point in January let in relentless light in July.
Standing only in her bikini underwear in the middle of the loft, she said, "We should have taken the place with central air."
A sheen of sweat brought out the blonde down along her arms.
"We wanted the exposed brick," he said from the depths of a leather recliner where he sat naked. "Remember, we talked about it?" There was a sucking sound of flesh unsticking from leather as he shifted in his chair.
"Yes, yes, we talked, but who knew the goddamn windows would be so hard to cover?"
They had only managed to rig curtains about halfway up; neither was very handy and they couldn't afford to have it done professionally. She crossed over to him and sat in his lap.
"I'm not mad at you." She nestled her head into his shoulder. Her short blonde hair rubbed against his neck.
"Too hot." He pushed her off. "Let's go for a drive. Out of this city."
She tossed her head to settle her cap of hair back in place. "Alright." She was already walking toward the bathroom. "But I get the shower first."
The acrid scent of her blonde sweat lingered in the air as he listened to her turn on the water. He lay back in the leather chair, enjoying the easily remedied discomfort of his damp body against the slick surface.
For fun, they took a back road off of the main highway. The city was twenty minutes behind. They turned the radio on loudly and sang along. All the car's windows were open and the wind whipped their voices away, but every once in a while she reached over and squeezed his hand. He turned and smiled at her, his palm briefly cupping her thigh. Lifted by the breeze, her hair made a glinting halo. His hair had dried quickly, the heat making it curl up at the ends. She wrapped a curl around her finger and smoothed it down flat on his neck as he drove.
Just after an old stone bridge that crossed a creek, they came to a small town. The houses were Victorian for the most part, set back from the road by wide lawns. Occasionally a wartime bungalow appeared; then the Victorian next to it would have a truncated lot, the larger house brooding over the smaller.
They joked about how they would buy one of these houses when they made their first million. Their country place. They looked at each other, still laughing, and felt it was entirely possible.
The little main street of the town had a white clapboard café with ruffled curtains where they stopped for lunch.
"This is the perfect day in the country," she said over a glass of homemade iced tea. Her face glowed. He reached across the table and touched her hand. Her hair fell across her flushed cheeks as she bent over his hand and kissed it.
After lunch, they wandered up the few blocks of the main street. They looked in the window of the dusty hardware store, and the clothing store with the headless mannequins wearing sweatshirts that featured baskets of kittens or flowers.
"Ready to go back to the car?"
"Alright," she said, taking his hand, but something across the street caught her eye.
"An antique store." Her voice was excited. "Let's go see if they have anything for the loft."
She crossed and he followed, though he was tired, and the thought of the drive back was beginning to weigh on him.
A bell on the store's door jangled into the moted air. It was several degrees cooler in the shop. His nostrils flared, recognizing the papery, dry smell of old things. A woman with a long grey braid and a pilled lavender t-shirt watched them from behind a glass counter.
"Howdy," he said, raising a hand to her. She nodded, then looked back down at the paper she had spread out on the counter top.
His wife had already begun to dig through the shop like a little terrier, her white tennis shoes shining among the heaps of old furniture and listing piles of junk. He picked up a few pieces of glass with knobs on them like glass boils.
He fingered through a tin box of old photos. Dumpy looking women in voluminous dark dresses, heavy hair wound in braids or swathed around their unsmiling faces. To him, the eyes in these old photos always looked blank, empty, as if the unchecked disease or early capricious death of the era had made them into unfeeling automatons. He imagined them pushing out one child after another to replace those that died young, burying their feelings deeper with each successive death. He dropped the photos back into the box and tried to wipe the black dirt from his fingers on the hem of his shorts.
He was about to wait outside in the sun when his wife called to him. She was holding a yellowed cardboard box. Inside, on a pile of tissue, was a shallow shadow box with a faded velvet background. On the velvet was a wreath. It had fibrous-looking flowers with centres of glass beads. Fragile circlets sprouted at various intervals. The whole thing had a dull sheen to it, the colours ranging from dark brown to ashy yellow. He put one finger out and touched it. The texture was unmistakable.
"It's hair." He rubbed his hand violently on his shirt. The skin crept up the back of his knees.
"Isn't it fantastic? It's a hair wreath. I've always wanted one." She brushed her bangs off her forehead with one hand. There was a black streak along one of her cheeks.
"They were in remembrance, of friends, lovers, family. The dead and the living." She looked down into the box smiling. "I've always wanted one."
She looked up, surprised.
"It's awful, dead people's hair. God, it makes me shudder just to think of it."
She narrowed her eyes. "You're being silly. It's artwork. It's an antique. It will look wonderful on the brick wall in the loft."
He shook his head. "Not in my house."
The proprietress came over. He could see now that her silver plait reached to her waist.
She took the box. He watched his wife's face go still. He knew she was wondering if the woman would set the price too high if she saw excitement on her face.
"Oh, the hair wreath. Bought that at an estate sale over to Kirkfield. Used to be you couldn't give them away, now they're hard to find. Seems they've become collectible." She chuckled and handed the box back to his wife.
"How much do you want for it?" his wife asked, fitting the lid back on the box.
The shop owner hesitated. A ray of light filtered through the filthy windows and lit his wife's hair into gold. She held the box close to her chest, her arms crossed over it.
The proprietress shrugged. "Let's say a hundred, no tax."
"I'll take it." His wife didn't look at him as she followed the shopkeeper to the front to pay.