From the Archives: “Clean Hunters” by Lena Valencia—Discussed by Kathryn Ordiway

March 20, 2024

Lena Valencia’s “Clean Hunters” was one of several ghost stories published by The Masters Review leading up to Halloween in 2015. I’m a sucker for a good ghost story of almost any kind, and there are so many kinds to choose from. What struck me with this one was Valencia’s atmosphere, the dread I felt while reading despite a lack of jump scares or frightening descriptions of poltergeists. 


For the most part, “Clean Hunters” is a linear story, but there are moments where the pacing of that linearity shifts dramatically, or the story’s place in time jumps around. The first section of the story is an obvious example and my favorite. It begins with Emily, age 10, seeing her first ghost. Then, in a small amount of space, we’re brought to the present through Emily’s relationship with the paranormal. Ghosts led her to an online community, which would give her a community when she felt isolated in school. Most importantly, that community leads her to Gabe:

“It would be the place where she learned how to do what she did best, and where she’d eventually meet Gabe, who she’d eventually marry, who was in the passenger seat of their rented Prius now, scrolling through his phone and reading the National Weather Service’s report about the storm that was projected to dump a foot of snow on the little town they were currently driving toward, where they’d be spending their sixth wedding anniversary.”

The way time can move so quickly when it needs to, coupled with the looming sense of expectation that comes with a ghost story, creates a sense of uncertainty. The majority of the story is happening on the weekend of Emily and Gabe’s second wedding anniversary as they visit what is supposed to be an “astral goldmine” of a haunted New England inn, but there are moments when the story dips and weaves away from that. That uncertainty plays with linear time to create a question: where is the story going? Where and what is the ghost?

The Ominous Real World

In my opinion, the best part of any paranormal story is the things that are horrific that are not ghosts. Recently, I was reading Bad Vibrations by Lucy Leitner with some book club friends. A huge fan of vampire fiction, I—more so than my reading companions—kept waiting for the grand reveal to be a cult of vampires. But there are no vampires, just a horrible man who wants horrible things, which is what so many horrors of the world typically are.

“Clean Hunters” has a handful of such moments. Two in particular stuck with me long after I turned to reading other things. The first occurs as Emily is wandering through town, avoiding the hotel room where she is unable to sense any ghosts. While exploring a used bookstore, she finds herself looking at a collection of old medical textbooks and pondering the anatomic drawings and their long-dead subjects. Before Emily steps back into the snow, Valencia writes “When she turned a page with a diagram labeled ‘Genitalia of a fourteen-year-old girl,’ she shut the book.” At just the right moment, when the reader is lulled into Emily’s casual tourism, that sentence and its implications are a slap in the face disturbing the previous sense of comfort.

The second of the two comes toward the end of the story. Emily is still trying to avoid everything that waits for her by returning to Gabe and the inn, this time by eating at a roadside diner. The setting feels perfect for a ghost: there is only Emily, the waitress, and an old man a few seats away from Emily at the bar. The snow is falling outside, the radio is on, the coffee is bitter and burnt. At this point, I was certain Emily would get her sense back, or that any mix of the people at the diner, including Emily, could be ghosts. Instead of her paranormal sense, however, Emily uses another almost other-worldly ability: “The old man, she could sense, was staring at her, waiting for her to do something that could lead to a conversation. That was one sense she still had, at least—but she ignored him and continued shoving forkfuls of the dessert into her mouth.” That looming threat of being a woman society, of ever-present and often-threatening gaze of men, colors the dialogue that comes next.

In a ghost story with so few ghosts, these moments deftly create a foreboding atmosphere.

The Haunting

So, we come to the haunting, the thing that is stalking Emily in the night, the threat that hangs overhead. Emily can no longer see ghosts. She does not know why, but for almost a year she’s been without her sense of sight. Being a Clean Hunter has taken her full circle, from a lonely, isolated teenager finding company with others who have the sight, to a lonely, isolated woman lying to her husband to avoid admitting that she has lost the gift that brought them together in the first place. She is staying in this hotel room with her husband to experience the hub of ghostly activity at this inn.

Emily feels “an intense responsibility” for Gabe—he has told her before that she saved him. They are bound not only by the similarity of being able to see the paranormal, but by Gabe’s decision, motivated by hunting with Emily, to stop using the medications he’d been using for years to placate his parents. All this information combined makes the weight of Emily’s loss particularly heavy. The sense is the glue that binds their marriage together.

It is not a ghost then that haunts Emily, but the absence thereof and what that absence could mean for her life. There is no bump in the night that threatens her. The revelation of her secret carries far-reaching repercussions for her stability, her community, and her lifestyle.

“Clean Hunters” ends with Emily returning to Gabe and slipping back into the mold of their life together. He is mid-seance, cross-legged on their bed. She sits beside him; he reaches to her. When he asks if she sees the ghost, whether she is seeing it, she says yes.

by Kathryn Ordiway


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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