Like many classic ghost stories, “Old Habits” is a study in futility, stasis, and regret. There’s nothing the dead in Nalo Hopkinson’s story can do about their situation. Trapped in the mall where they died, they have almost no agency, and are forced to regularly relive their own deaths. There are no heroes in Nalo Hopkinson’s ghost mall; no magic bullets, no tantalising opportunities to rejoin the living. And the mall they haunt isn’t exactly Valhalla.
The mundane, slightly sordid, nature of the afterlife Hopkinson has created, and the powerlessness of her characters, could have made this story a frustrating experience for a living, breathing reader. This story rejects well-worn fantasy plot structures that focus on active questing characters changing, or finding, their fates through sheer force of will. It also centres the experience of a group of powerless ghosts instead of, as so many ghost stories do, concentrating on the living, or giving the ghosts powers. And finally, this story pushes readers to face the banal ways in which mortality can be brutally stripped away. “Old Habits” is not a comfortable read, and that’s before the reader finds out that these ghosts can be hungry, and vicious, when provoked by their own kind.
However, out of all this difficult material, I think Hopkinson has created an affecting, quiet story about the pettiness of loss. Partly that’s because its conception of death is so rooted in the mundane, and everyday; presenting, like much apocalyptic media, enticing details of a world which, at least for these ghosts, cannot be regained. And that central concentration on the powerless is a theme carried through to great effect. The story opens with the death of a disenfranchised woman, crushed by corporate security, in a nod to many real life deaths in custody. While it’s not a story I’m in a rush to read again (facing this vision of an afterlife is a hard ask) it’s certainly a well-crafted piece that plays on my mind. “Old Habits” is a reminder that ghost stories can be just as inventive as every other part of the SFF and horror genres.