MIND MELD: Our Favorite Women Horror Writers
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- Gertrude Barrows Bennett (writing as Francis Stevens) – She wrote a number of uncanny stories in the early 20th century and has been called “the woman who invented dark fantasy.” Indeed, it has been said that her fiction was a huge influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Although not all of Stevens’ work has dated well, she was the first American woman to have her weird fiction widely published and acclaimed.
- C.L. Moore – Catherine L. Moore was an American science fiction and fantasy writer, most often known as C.L. Moore. She was one of the first women to write in either genre, and paved the way for many other female speculative fiction writers. Her earliest stories appeared in Weird Tales and a lot of her work was very dark, hence I add her to this list.
- Daphne du Maurier – Although her work was incredibly dark, she was still a very popular writer during her lifetime. Many of her most prominent works have been adapted into movies. My favorite is “The Birds” from Alfred Hitchcock. Although her background could be considered more from the gothic side of fiction, I find her work very dark and disturbing.
- Shirley Jackson – We all know about her famous (and often taught in schools) story “The Lottery,” but she had quite a significant collection of fiction. Her work has influenced many writers, including Joanna Russ, Kelly Link, and Neil Gaiman. I highly recommend picking up the Library of America Collected Stories that came out in 2010. Her work still chills readers today.
- Kathe Koja – I first discovered her work through her short fiction and quickly became a huge fan. Her debut novel, The Cipher, captured the attention of all horror fans, but her work is far more disturbing than the typical paperbacks you see in the horror section of the bookstore. Her novel Skin is still one of my all-time favorite books.
- Tanith Lee – Tanith Lee’s work spans many decades and many genres. Similar to du Maurier, her horror fiction came out of a more gothic tradition. She is one of a few writers who excel in so many different types of genres: horror, fantasy, science fiction, romance, mainstream – you name it, she can do it.
- Lisa Tuttle – I consider Lisa Tuttle’s story “The Replacements” to be a classic of weird fiction and it’s only one of many wickedly good stories she has written. In addition to her thought-provoking short stories, she has written over a dozen novels; her first (Windhaven) was a collaboration with George R.R. Martin.
- Caitlin Kiernan – Caitlin R. Kiernan’s work has been compared to H.P. Lovecraft, but I believe her voice is strong and true and far more interesting that Lovecraft could ever be. She is one of the most unique and fearless writers of our time.
- Leena Krohn – Leena Krohn is an award-winning and beloved writer in her country of Finland. Her short novel Tainaron: Mail From Another City was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and International Horror Guild Award in 2005. Look for her novel Datura from our own Cheeky Frawg Press next month. (NOTE: we’re also doing an omnibus of her works next year.)
- Karen Heuler – Probably most known as a literary writer, although I find her work very dark and delicious. Her work has been praised, yet she is not as well known as she should be. I hope this changes soon. I’ve published her in Weird Tales and have a great contribution from her in an upcoming anthology next year. Her work straddles the dividing line between literary mainstream and genre, although those lines are getting more and more blurred. Check out her latest collection, The Inner City.
- Micaela Morrisette – Currently writing short fiction. I first published her in Weird Tales, and then later in other projects, including Tor.com. Another writer who straddles the line between mainstream and genre. Her work is influenced by the decadents and contains fantastical and weird sensibilities. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and is one of the best of the next generation of weird writers.
- Karin Tidbeck – An up-and-coming writer from Sweden; her short story collection Jagannath has received both commercial success and critical acclaim. She was recently awarded the Crawford award and is currently nominated for a World Fantasy award. Her collection was also featured on NPR with Alan Cheuse.
- Helen Marshall – Another up-and-coming writer, this time from Canada. Her collection Hair Side, Flesh Side was a very well-received first collection and I am now looking forward to her new book of poetry, The Sex Lives of Monsters.
I think Shirley Jackson is pretty much a given, right? The Haunting of Hill House is probably one of the scariest, if not the scariest, book I’ve ever read. That scene where the lights go out and Eleanor believes it’s Theodora holding her hand, and then the lights come up and Eleanor sees that she’s standing all by herself, was so well done I started to sweat while reading it. I’ve had similar reading experiences with the works of Susan Hill, Rhiannon Frater, Kelley Armstrong, Lisa Morton, and Caitlin R. Kiernan.
Truth be told, I am a short story junkie and try to read at least one each day. And I never miss a chance to read a new story from Margo Lanagan, Sarah Pinborough, Barbara Roden, Sarah Langan, Holly Black, Gemma Files, Nancy Holder, and of course the legend herself, Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Ms. Hoffman’s story “The Third Dead Body” remains, to this day, one of my all-time favorite zombie stories. And though she’s not normally considered a horror author, Connie Willis wrote a horror story called “Death on the Nile” that I have read perhaps a dozen times since I first found it in the pages of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s an amazing read. I could say the same about “The Yellow Wall Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” by Katherine Anne Porter, which I’m convinced is the literary birth mother of Stephen King’s story “The Reach,” and of course “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor. But I don’t think I could seriously discuss women in horror without giving a nod to Ellen Datlow. Though she’s not really a writer per se, her many many anthologies have been my bedside companions for more than twenty years. I’ve learned more from her about what I should be reading than from all the other teachers I’ve had in my life.
It was through Ellen, in fact, that I first heard of Margo Lanagan, an author who has achieved great success in her native Australia, but not as much in Europe and the U.S. I find that a real shame. Lanagan has written some of the most memorable short stories in the last ten years, and her collections Black Juice and Red Spikes are both masterworks of the short story form.
Another writer who deserves more attention than she gets is Sarah Monette. My copy of her collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves, though a recent release, is nonetheless dog-eared and ragged from much hard use. I remember when I was first trying to learn the craft of writing. I would take scenes from my favorite books, copy them out longhand, and then study them line by line, word by word, to try to understand how they achieved the amazing things they did. I haven’t done that in a while, but when I have, it’s been from the pages of Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.
Those of you who know me know I love my zombies. I love their rotten little hearts. So it’s probably no big surprise that one of my favorite recent discoveries is Rachel Aukes, author of the zombie novel 100 Days in Deadland. Ms. Aukes is a little different from the other authors I’ve mentioned because she is from the indie side of the house. Self-publishing has emerged in recent years as a viable place to find quality fiction, and Ms. Aukes provides that in plenty. She’s got that rare blend of high literary concept and the willingness to shed blood that makes a horror writer a storyteller, and more than just another genre hack.
Alongside those three I could probably name a hundred more – Dana Fredsti, Julia Elliott, Ann Stapleton, and Nicole Kornher-Stace come readily to mind – but I think the point is made. Horror may have seemed like a boy’s club for a few decades there, but it ain’t that no more.
If we’re talking about current female horror authors – as compared to the luminaries of the past – there are many whose work I very much enjoy. Sarah Langan and Caitlin R. Kiernan are two personal favorites, and have been around long enough to be considered among the world’s best horror writers. The short fiction of Roberta Lannes still blows me away. Nancy Holder, Elizabeth Massie, Yvonne Navarro, Alexandra Sokoloff, Lucy Snyder, and, yes, Joyce Carol Oates have consistently produced wonderful work for decades now. Writers from outside of the U.S. like Margo Lanagan, Kaaron Warren, and Sarah Pinborough deserve a bigger American readership. And most of the newer writers whose works I’ve liked recently have been female – I expect (more) great things from Rhodi Hawk, Fran Friel, Rena Mason, Nicole Cushing, S.P. Miskowski, and Allyson Bird. And I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t mention the woman who has probably done more to shape the art of contemporary horror writing than any other – editor Ellen Datlow.
And to answer the second part of your question – ALL of these women deserve more attention. I’m always flabbergasted when another list of top horror writers appears on some blog or other, and invariably includes no female names. It’s particularly irksome because I truly believe that the writers I’ve listed above are expanding the genre and lifting it out of the ghetto of tortureporn that it’s too often perceived as occupying.
The very first name to pop into my mind and stay there, burning like a neon sign, was Shirley Jackson. Without a doubt she is my favourite female horror writer. Ever. “The Lottery”? Are you kidding me? That is fan-freaking-tastic. A perfect pearl of a horror story, dark, vicious, and vile that haunts me still. And The Haunting of Hill House? Wow. If there is a better haunted house story I haven’t read it.
A more contemporary female horror writer who is a favourite is Damien Walters Grintalis [who now writes under the name Damien Angelica Walters]. If there is a line between dark fantasy and horror stories Damien’s work straddles it. I knew from the moment I published “Running Empty in a Land of Decay” in Niteblade I was going to be a lifelong fan of her work.
Her story “They Make of You a Monster” is one which stays with me, along with “Always, They Whisper” and “Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods.” I love the literary style of her writing and the way she paints with words.
As for which current women horror writers deserve more attention? Well, all of us.
Especially those who write short stories. I tend to see much more attention paid to novel writers and while I understand the reasons for it, I think short story writers deserve more attention than they get. There are a lot of phenomenal women horror short story writers who deserve a larger audience. My shortlist, off the top of my head, would include Megan Arkenberg, Lilah Wild, and Amanda C. Davis.
And don’t even get me started on poets…
This is a difficult question for me, as I tend to think assigning the physical attributes as well as the beliefs or preferences of an author to the work can blind us to what is really important, the writing. It is my feeling that good fiction is just that, excellent usage of words in a way that evokes an emotion in the reader. This is not to say I do not appreciate women writers or have any desire to belittle any appreciation of them. But the obvious issue here is the sheer number of authors, known and relatively unknown, that deserve mentioning. I’d hate to offend anyone by leaving her off such a list.
This being the case, I’ll focus on what I’ve enjoyed reading as of late, say within the last year or so. One exception would be Mary Shelley. I have always been fond of Frankenstein’s monster and I would be remiss not to mention her for such a wonderful creation. Also, Shirley Jackson was instrumental in my earliest love for the genre, which is likely true of several authors. Within the last few weeks, I started digging into Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and have enjoyed the ride so far. I’ve also read excellent work by Lisa Morton and Lucy Snyder. In fact, Lucy’s Bram Stoker Award winning short story “Magdala Amygdala” was brilliant in a group of tough competitors, and one of the reasons I was anxious to pick up some of her latest work. Last year, C.W. LaSart put out a wonderful collection I enjoyed, entitled Ad Nauseum. I’ve heard she’s started work on a novel and I’m anxious to see how that turns out. Jamie Lackey has been creating solid and entertaining work on a consistent basis. I started Rena Mason’s book, The Evolutionist, after hearing positive things about it and so far it, too, is good. There is a unique story in Ellen Datlow’s anthology After that blew me away, “After the Cure” by Carrie Ryan. There are countless women authors whose writing I am quite fond of, Mercedes M. Yardley’s Beautiful Sorrows and Jessica McHugh’s Rabbits in the Garden to name a couple more. I apologize for not taking the time to list each and every book or story that I have enjoyed reading, as all those authors also deserve recognition for their writing. I do hope they know who they are, though, heard me mention their work before, and feel equally appreciated.
This is going to sound odd. Part of me thinks I should be more obscure and/or highbrow with these picks, but screw it. Here are the three women horror writers who got down into the soul of my childhood and changed me the most, the earliest:
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Mary Shelley. It wasn’t that she taught me to be afraid of science or progress. She taught me to be afraid of *people.* She taught me to look for the cause behind the effect, when it came to monsters. I think I read this in fifth or sixth grade, and believe me, I had reasons for needing to know about finding the evil behind the evil by then. It was either read Frankenstein or go postal for a while.
Margaret Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was outraged at the world for about a year. I mean, to the point where I would scowl at hand lotion. What she changed for me–what she got down into my bones–was the idea that when something is just too painful to hear, you have to tell the story slant. You have to cover up the truth with fiction so people will be able to hear you. Even in horror you have to watch out for loading up the reader with too much pain.
V.C. Andrews. For the longest time I kept my mouth shut about liking V.C. Andrews books. I accidentally mentioned my fondness among a group of writers one day, though, and a lot of them perked up. The phrase “guilty pleasure” came up several times. What she changed for me was the idea that you *could* talk about the forbidden. If Margaret Atwood taught me how to hide the truth, then V.C. Andrews taught me the reverse, that sometimes the best way to hide the truth is to dig right down into the ugly. You twist things by making them so outre that part of your brain can’t believe it anymore. Forbidden emotions? Check. Abusive family members? Check. Watching someone you love turn into something repulsive right in front of your eyes? Check. She wrote the craziest situations and turned them into something so real that you couldn’t get out of it, you couldn’t escape–but you didn’t get damaged by them, somehow. The luridity of the stories healed you, no matter what kind of crap situation you were in when you read them.
Oh, and I remember reading Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour in front of my stereo with my headphones on and Depeche Mode’s Violator and Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting on constant rotation. You can look back and laugh now–you can get scholarly about books that did it first, did it better (i.e., with higher “literary” values)–but these are the things that get under your skin, that make you turn pages compulsively deep in the night. Sex and death: two powerful coins.
I love…Octavia Butler. I love…Catherynne Valente. I love…Elizabeth Hand. I love…Kelly Link. I love…Joyce Carol Oates. I love…Lisa Tuttle and Margo Lanagan and Caitlin R. Kiernan and Tanith Lee and SHIRLEY @#$%^& JACKSON and Sarah Monette. I love Angela Carter and the editing work by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, both together and separately. And more, always more. Kathe Koja! Nancy Collins! Poppy Z. Brite!
Which leaves me with the other half of this question: which women horror writers should be read more? I know people are just looking for recommendations with that kind of question, and I do recommend reading the writers I listed above.
But mostly I recommend this observation instead: either you’re reading horror to feel superior to the people who get stuck in these situations (Yay! The stupid people got killed in a particularly gruesome manner! I wish the same thing would happen to all the stupid people I know!) or you’re reading horror to feel fear, and to be healed of fear. I read horror for the second set of reasons–so I find myself reading a lot of women writers, especially at short story lengths, because a lot of them understand what it takes to go down in the dark, and then to come back.
When I was a kid, I read Shirley Jackson’s “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts” in Terry Carr and Martin Greenberg’s A Treasury of Modern Fantasy – incidentally the same book that introduced me to H.P. Lovecraft. Jackson’s darkly amoral tale has stuck with me since that first encounter. If you haven’t read it, any attempt to explain it would spoil it, so I won’t.
Joyce Carol Oates generally isn’t thought of as a horror writer, but she writes it well. Her story “Night-Side,” about the consequences of a séance gone wrong, is hands-down one of the most terrifying tales I’ve ever read.
Elizabeth Engstrom may not be as well known as Oates, but her novella “When Darkness Loves Us” is just as creepy and powerful as “Night-Side.” It’s the story of a woman trapped for years underground because of the negligence of her betrothed – the life she makes for herself in the caverns, and what happens when she returns to the surface.
Chesya Burke’s fiction collection Let’s Play White spins some heart-felt, up-close-and-personal horror tales from the perspective of men and women of color, a perspective too often absent from genre fiction. Her poignant and poetic “CUE: Change” examines who has choices and who doesn’t in society through the lens of a zombie uprising.
The first name that actually popped into my head when presented with the Mind Meld question was Gemma Files. Gemma’s been producing top-notch horror stories for years, and her weird Western Hexslinger trilogy is chock full of hellish horrors. I had the privilege of publishing her astonishingly creepy “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” (co-written with husband Stephen J. Barringer) in Clockwork Phoenix 2 and her eerie ghost tale “Hell Friend” in Clockwork Phoenix 3.
The fact is, I’ve published ghost stories and horror stories in all four of the Clockwork Phoenix volumes. I’m going to restrain myself from rattling off every single one of them, but C.S.E. Cooney’s dark fantasy “Braiding the Ghosts” in the third volume stirred some notice, and she’s definitely a writer whose work you should watch out for. Journal of Unlikely Entomology co-editor A.C. Wise, who contributed the beautiful and unnerving “Lesser Creek: A Love Story, A Ghost Story” to Clockwork Phoenix 4, has had her work reprinted by horror anthology maestro Ellen Datlow, always a sign someone’s on the right track.
When faced with the question of who deserves more attention, I wanted to give a thorough, well-rounded answer. I turned to Innsmouth Free Press editor, publisher and writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia, author of This Strange Way of Dying (and someone else you should be watching), for further thoughts about who to shine a light on. I was pleased to discover our lists already overlapped a bit.
So to the list of writers I’ve already mentioned, let’s add poet and editor Linda Addison, the first African-American to win the Bram Stoker Award. Yoko Ogawa, author of the collection Revenge — like Oates, she’s thought of as “literary,” yet her stories explore the weird and the gothic. Miyuki Miyabe, a writer who covers many genres, has a collection of ghost stories out, Apparitions. Poet Ann K. Schwader, who I’ve published a lot in my zine Mythic Delirium, has been exploring Lovecraftian themes.
Silvia alerted me to the writing of the late Silvina Ocampo, who she describes “as like a Latin American Shirley Jackson.” She also pointed to E. Catherine Tobler. Like the other writers on this list, she’s cranking out great work and deserves a closer look.
I gravitate to fiction that explores the hideously mutable nature of reality. I’m interested in how this distortion of reality (or, perhaps more rightly said, absence of reality) provokes disturbed emotional states.
Shirley Jackson is, perhaps, the most accomplished practitioner of this mode of horror as explored in novel length. The Haunting of Hill House isn’t just a haunted house book. It’s not even a haunted protagonist book. For me, from its very first sentence, it’s a book about an inescapably haunted world. “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality…”; that says it all right there, now, doesn’t it?
I know Caitlin Kiernan isn’t fond of being considered a horror author, but she’s another one who comes to mind when I think about these themes. I also find them addressed with extraordinary skill in a short story like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall Paper.”
When I’m not wanting to read about insanity, I’m a glutton for tales of plain, old, everyday bleakness (like Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”; it’s often anthologized as a literary classic, but remains one of the most horrific stories I’ve ever read). Similarly, Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” is rightly classified as a science fiction story, but it could just as rightly be classified as a horror story. It’s a story that blew me away and just thinking about it makes me want to re-read it.
Which current women horror writers deserve more attention? Instead of naming names (and, inevitably, forgetting to include someone deserving of inclusion), I’m going to simply emphasize a couple of points that relate to the issue of visibility.
- Women are actively making contributions to every horror subgenre, without exception. Yes, you will find many women writing horror off-shoots like paranormal romance or urban fantasy. But you’ll also find women writing extreme horror, philosophical horror, contemporary dark fantasy, dystopian zombie fiction, historical horror, Lovecraftian horror, subtle ghost stories, bizarro horror, and everything in-between. (Including works that defy easy description and/or blend two or more genres or subgenres). So, I would suggest readers look around in the subgenres they already find appealing, and simply be open to reading the women already hard at work in that particular area of the field. Be open to knowing that, whatever your interest in horror, there’s already a woman there, producing work that’s every bit as accomplished as that created by her male counterparts. If you don’t quite know where to start, there are some lists generated by the readers at Goodreads.com that can at least get you started.
- Women of every possible background are writing horror. There are women of color writing horror. Women from the LGBT community. Economically disadvantaged women. Women from the non-English speaking world, whose work you can find in translation. You name it. Again, producing work that’s every bit as accomplished as that created by their counterparts. There are lists on Goodreads that can help readers find books from particularly diverse female horror authors as well.
As the editor for the Dark Faith series, I’ve had the privilege to work with many women who I absolutely rave about as often as possible. A quick check of either volume’s table of contents and you can get caught up pretty quickly on who I think deserves more attention, but I will highlight three:
- Chesya Burke – Black women in horror are especially overlooked. If you ask a horror reader to name a few, given some time, they might come up with Tananarive Due or Linda Addison (and usually respond to the names Jewelle Gomez or Jemiah Jefferson with “who?”). Add to that list Chesya Burke. You don’t want to sleep on her collection, Let’s Play White (Apex Books). She brings a literary flair to the horrors of the inner city as well as the magic of everyday black life. Her story “The Unremembered” was in the first Dark Faith.
- Gemma Files – I have been a fan of Gemma’s since her short story “The Emperor’s Old Bones.” Her collection, Kissing Carrion, has a story in it that I’m pretty sure broke me in places that never healed correctly. So it’s no surprise that I sought her out for the Dark Faith series. Her story “Fin De Siècle” appears in Dark Faith: Invocations.
- Lucy Snyder – Lucy Snyder is straight up gangsta. She is one of only a handful of authors to appear in both volumes of Dark Faith. Her story “Miz Ruthie Pays Her Respects,” which appeared in the first Dark Faith, has a scene so wrong in it she thought when I sent her the edit notes back that I was going to ask her to cut it. I didn’t. So when the invite went out for Dark Faith: Invocations, she felt obligated to top herself. It was the first (and only) time I sent an acceptance letter that read: “what the fuck is wrong with you?” Her story “Magdala Amygdala” won a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction, can be heard on Pseudopod, and has been selected for inclusion in the next volume of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year anthology.
For those keeping track at home, Dark Faith had 5 poems and 26 stories by 17 men and 14 women. Dark Faith: Invocations had 27 stories by 17 men and 10 women. It’s simply not that difficult to produce a table of contents that has diversity. In fact, you have to almost go out of your way to produce an anthology without diversity. I’ve had the privilege to meet, read, and want to work with a lot of people. If your “rolodex” lacks diversity, it may be time to diversify your life.
Current women horror writers who deserve more attention: Rena Mason, Lisa Morton, Chesya Burke, Lisa Mannetti, Nikki Hopeman, Fran Friel, Tracie McBride, Mercedes M. Yardley, Kristin Dearborn, Monica O’Rourke, and Tonia Brown.
I feel that female authors have done some of the best writing in the genre. Certainly, Mary Shelley leaps to mind as a towering example of the feminine imagination, not only for Frankenstein, but also for The Last Man. I am also a big fan of the works of Shirley Jackson, and I adore Emily Dickinson’s poetry, which was often quite dark.
With respect to current female authors, I was a fan of Interview With the Vampire, so Anne Rice is a good one. I like Margaret Atwood, and Ursula K. Le Guin, too. And, though not really one of my favorites, Joyce Carol Oates is someone that I respect as a writer as well. I also enjoy the work of Nancy Holder, Lisa Morton, and several newer writers, such as Stephanie Wytovich (poetry), and Airika Sneve. In my digest, Nameless, we have published quite a number of remarkable female poets and short story writers. It’s an exciting period for them to be productive, as there is, I feel, greater acceptance of their works than ever.
Tagged with: Ann VanderMeer • DeAnna Knippling • Jason V. Brock • joe mckinney • Kenneth W. Cain • Lisa Morton • Maurice Broaddus • Mike Allen • Mind Meld • Nicole Cushing • R.J. Cavender • Rhonda Parrish
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