In honor of Women in Horror Month, we thought it the perfect time to ask the following question…
From the instant I received a copy of Minion (2003), L.A. Banks’s first novel in her Vampire Huntress series, I knew a new star was born in the horror literary landscape. I’d been writing horror with black protagonists since 1995, but Leslie’s books were fresh from a different direction–with a young, hip protagonist named Damali Richards who was a spoken-word artist in one life and a Neteru (Vampire Huntress) in another. She was on a mission to end evil in the world, leading a diverse team of misfits with paranormal talents. There was nothing quite like it.
Since she was a new writer, I also offered her advice on her writing–which we writers always offer with the understanding that the recipient might not appreciate feedback beyond a promotional blurb. But Leslie was overjoyed, and we began a friendship that lasted until her untimely death from adrenal cancer in 2011.
She went on to publish 12 books in the series, cementing her place in the hearts of readers, young and old, who believed in love and the power to create a better world. And, of course, vampires. Although Leslie was also prolific in other genres, her Vampire Huntress series was her introduction to the world…and my first signal that the face of horror had changed forever.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson will forever be my favorite novel written by a woman. Not because I poisoned and killed people, although I might have considered it a time or two back then. No, like so many things we remember the most, it has a lot to do with the timing.
I first read the story in 6th grade because all the other girls were reading books about horses. The creepy cover art with the mysterious young girl looking out through a hole in a fence reminded me of how I felt I lived—made to stay behind locked gates and doors—so I bought it and finished the book in one day. Little did I know just how much I’d have in common with Mary Catherine Blackwood.
After school, my younger sister and I would be home alone. We weren’t allowed to answer the door or go outside and play until my mom came home from work in the evenings and by then it was usually too dark. We were latch-key kids. Most afternoons we played dress up, and make-believe fairies. Only there were no grown-ups around to supervise, so things could get out of hand. For instance, if it was winter and cold, starting a fire in the make-believe forest of our family room to warm our hands seemed like the right thing to do, even though we didn’t have a fireplace. It was a constant dilemma between responsibility and having fun. Most of the time, responsibility won out because we didn’t want to upset our mother, but sometimes, like with setting off the fire alarms and having our neighbors run to our house and bang on the door in a panic, we did get into some trouble. This happened before I’d read the book, so some might find the similarity of the fire and how it made me relate so easily to Mary Catherine.
My mom took on the role of Constance in my mind, and I became very protective of her and extremely leery of her male friends. They were all Charles Blackwoods to me, and I’d purposely go out of my way to be not-so-nice. I’m certain they thought I was rotten. And I was. To them.
As I look back on it now and knew even back then, the story gave me a sense of strength. It felt possible that I, at the age of twelve, could protect my mom and my sister. Like Mary Catherine, I had a magical kind of girl power, which came from all the fairy make-believe and pretending, that I used to defend my mom and my little sister against the outside world that surrounded us.
I try and read the novel every year because it has meant so much to me. No story will ever come close to how I feel about We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Fran Friel’s Mama’s Boy messed me up in a number of uncomfortable ways. The short novel concerns itself with the classic trope of doctor vs. patient and does the expected and unexpected. Friel has created one of the most memorable monsters I’ve encountered in her antagonist. He feels all too real, with his back story filled in during their therapy sessions. Think Hannibal Lector and Agent Starling, except ramped up with doses of family-induced trauma (it is titled Mama’s Boy, after all), the paranormal, and a lingering sense of danger throughout.
It is a shame Fran Friel isn’t more prolific. She could be a genre star.
I didn’t realize how many of my favorite horror novels were written by women until I tried to pick just one. I think I’m a born and bred, dyed in the wool, female horror writer junkie (no offense, fellas). I cut my teeth on Anne Rice — not just her vampire books but her Mayfair Witches series. Many a sleepless night was spent dreading Lasher outside my door. Shirley Jackson is the ultimate queen of horror. Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House and Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle are these strange, broken women who creep in through the back doors of our psyches and wreak havoc when we’re not looking. I can’t tell you how warped I’ve been by Kathe Koja’s Funhole in The Cipher. If you haven’t read it, do. You’ll never be the same.
My newest favorite is Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. The corpse of a half-deer, half-boy is found in Detroit and the reader is taken on a maddening genre-bending ride as told through the intertwined lives of Beukes’ characters as more bodies are found. Detective Gabrielle Versado tries to raise her strong-willed daughter, Layla (who’s also stalking her own psychopath online), while stopping the grisly yet strangely beautiful (at least to a die-hard horror fan) murders. Art and social media are explored — when do they become too real in our lives? Where is the line that must not be crossed? The use of social media is spot-on and well done, not ham-fisted and cheesy. That component alone is frightening as we see the characters manipulated like pawns on a chessboard, placed into danger by nothing more than a well-calculated tweet.
There is a delicacy to Beukes’ writing even in the grisliest moments. I don’t normally lean towards gore in my horror, preferring psychological suspense. But this crime/thriller gets intense quickly and the stakes only continue to mount. It was a book I couldn’t put down, coming back to it every spare moment I had. The supernatural element is well played. The Dream lurks beneath the surface, never letting the reader forget it is the real monster here, but it brings out the brokenness in Beukes’ entire cast of characters. It shatters each one of them and the reader is left to judge if they can be forgiven or not. I suppose part of horror is being laid bare, vulnerable, and knowing that you are not enough — not enough to stop the monster, save the day, be redeemed.
Beukes does this masterfully in Broken Monsters. I look forward to what she writes next. Enjoy!
Lynne Jamneck is a fiction writer and editor. She has been nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel and Lambda Awards for fiction and editing, and holds an MA in English Literature from Auckland University, New Zealand. Lynne’s fiction has appeared in Unconventional Fantasy, A Celebration of Forty Years of the World Fantasy Convention, Fantastique Unfettered, H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Jabberwocky, Weird Fiction Review, Tales from the Bell Club, Something Wicked and the SJV award-winning anthology Tales for Canterbury. She edited the Lambda Award shortlisted SF anthology, Periphery.
For Dark Regions Press, she is editing the forthcoming Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror and as co-editor with S.T. Joshi, Gothic Lovecraft, forthcoming from Cycatrix Press.
I never really thought about it before, but once I began writing this, I realised that when it comes to women and horror, I tend to read more short fiction than novels. In a pinch, though, I’d probably pick Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus for a host of different reasons – arguably the first science fiction novel, it’s morally ambiguous and it highlights some very troubling things about humanity as a species. And I’m not even going to start on the factual events surrounding the creation of the novel, which can be described as anything from debauched to bizarre to tragic. They may have been called the “Romantics,” but they were all crazy (picture it: 1816, Lake Geneva, Switzerland, the “Year Without Summer,” cooped up in a villa with among others your husband, who happens to be Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a certain mad dog called Lord Byron. Writing horror stories. Google it. You’ll find shades of Dracula in there, too).
Instead, I’m going to cheat a little here and instead of picking a novel, opt for a long short story called “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Terrifying stuff and not for the reasons you might suspect. Wallpaper – pretty boring subject matter, right? Sure. Unless you’re female in a time when women really had no voice to speak of and everyone around you – including your husband and brother who are both physicians, for heaven’s sake – refuses to accept what you tell them (silly woman) when you are very clearly suffering from psychological distress.
As someone who has anxiety issues, the most terrifying thing about “The Yellow Wallpaper” is that the narrator, after not receiving acknowledgement from her loved ones about her affliction, sets off to prove – at least to herself – that there is indeed something very wrong with her. If no one else will believe her, at least she can prove to herself that she is in fact sick – which, of course, is what eventually leads to her complete psychological undoing. Confined to bed, the narrator stares at the yellow walls of her room all day long and begins to see things in the wallpaper’s patterns. “It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.” Clearly, this will not end well.
Vampires I can deal with – even zombies, because no matter what The Walking Dead or World War Z will try and tell you, those things are slow. You got a shotgun, you’re sweet. Werewolves, ghosts, demons, Slimer – you can all somehow get rid of them. There’s a cure for these ghouls, even if the cure ends up turning into a Twinkie 35 feet long, weighing approximately 600 pounds. Then you deal with that. But insanity, that’s entirely a different bowl of porridge.
As Gilman’s story winds toward its hysterical conclusion, there’s no getting around the fact that in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the horror is that of not being listened to; of not being believed; of not being considered consequential. A solitary storyteller’s descent into madness is suddenly compounded when we realise that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is very likely a close version of the reality many women had endured during this time. By the author’s own admission, the story was a response to the advice she herself received from her own doctor for the treatment of her ongoing depression – a “rest cure.” To quote the Internet, FML.
There are other interpretations of Gilman’s story. Alan Ryan has written that “It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not.” H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The Yellow Wall Paper rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.” Well, that’s more than a little unnerving. Madness as an infectious disease. I mean, how open are we really to losing our grip on reality? There are also things in the story that involves writing and you know how they say writing things down will help you process them and “keep you sane”? That didn’t work out so well for Gilman’s narrator. You can quote the Internet again here.
(I just saw something move on the wall from the corner of my eye. I refuse to look.)
So there you have it. I can Buffy my way through ghouls, but the notion of going insane terrifies me. The schizoid break between knowing reality from what you think is real … then not knowing the difference either way. It is the ultimate loss of control – the loss of self.
“I don’t like to LOOK out of the windows even – there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?”
“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)
– Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I’ll cheat a little bit on this question and say that one of my favourite horror graphic novels was Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, admittedly less a graphic novel and more a collection of illustrated short stories, borrowing from the Gothic and Grand Guignol traditions. Emily Carroll has been producing her own brand of bizarre webcomics since about 2010, a sampling of which can be read at http://www.emcarroll.com/. These make exceptional use of their online medium to intensify the horror through subtle structures, scrolling and embedded links. The stories in Through the Woods, though, are no less exceptional, and I’ll draw attention to one in particular, “Our Neighbour’s House,” which was displayed in advance on io9. “Our Neighbour’s House” is like a twisted fairy tale, chilling in the simplicity of its language, its almost singsong quality, and it follows the story of three girls, Mary, Beth, and Hannah, who have been left alone in their cottage in the woods when their father sets off on a journey, given the instructions that they are to follow after him if he is gone for more than three days. In the night they are visited by a stranger, and one by one Beth’s sisters disappear. Carroll’s colour choices and use of space intensify the atmosphere of dreamy suspense, which she manages to maintain throughout the entire collection. Reading Into the Woods reminded me of the experience I had reading Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country for the first time: I was blown away by the sheer imaginative power of these stories. One cannot help but feel like Bluebeard’s wife stumbling down corridor after corridor, bold but not too bold, breathless with anticipation and utterly terrified by what might lie behind that final, forbidden door.
That said, my favorite of the books I’ve read in the past 6 months (by anyone, and in any genre) is The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlín R. Kiernan. This fictional memoir of madness, haunting and loss is brilliant. You won’t find any epic battles or other loud scenes in this book; everything is intimate and personal and centered on loss and the fear of loss. To paraphrase the narrator, India “Imp” Morgan Phelps, the book isn’t factual, but it’s true.
I was particularly impressed with the structure of the novel. Poor mad Imp’s narration initially seems random and disjointed, but as the book moved along I came to realize that everything was very carefully placed. The structure of individual pages reflects the narrator’s obsessive mindset; sentences and paragraphs move in circles and spirals. But the macro-structure of the book is disciplined and deliberate.
In her Author’s Note, Kiernan states that the structure of her narrative was partly based on the Neil Jordan film The Company of Wolves and partly on Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 (also known as The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). She says that the structural mirroring of The Company of Wolves was unintentional until it was pointed out to her by her beta readers after the novel was complete; with the novel’s dreamlike qualities, fairy tale narrative style and stories-within-stories structure, the resemblance is obvious. But I, too, missed it until she mentioned it in her note, even though it was right there in plain sight all along.
I had not heard Górecki’s Symphony before reading Kiernan’s novel, but I did study music, and so I could see the structural resemblance to some kind of orchestral opus. I’m glad to know what the model was. The symphony focuses on strings and a lone soprano and lacks the epic swell of percussion and horns that you’d find in a Wagnerian opera. The book’s overall structure mimics the three movements of the symphony and Imp could be seen as the soprano.
I’ve written stories inspired by individual songs, but to use an entire symphony as the template for a novel? That’s ambitious. And the result is a must-read for any reader who enjoys quiet, literate Lovecraftian horror.
Don’t get me wrong, I can name you some great female horror writers of the top of my head: Shirley Jackson, Mo Hayder, Mary Shelley. And let’s not ignore the little gems of the indie world! Lisa Lane, Jaime Johnesee, Suzi M, C.W. LaSart… to name but a few (seriously, go check these ladies out).
I haven’t read all the fabulous females yet, but there are some fantastic horror authors out there. People who claim women can’t write terrifying horror obviously haven’t found the right female authors yet.
Despite me knowing so many great ladies… I struggle to tell you what my favorite horror novel is. In my defense… I couldn’t name you one written by a male either. To me horror is about as personal as comedy. Though there are quite a few jokes that will get a giggle out of me, I struggle telling you which one made me laugh the loudest.
So, while I can recommend you some horror books that I enjoyed reading, I can’t pick one that I love above all. I don’t have a single favorite female (or male) horror author. They all have their own unique style and appeal.
Instead I’m going to be a complete rebel *shakes hair loose and makes the sign of the horns with her hands,* and tell you who my favorite female horror character is. *mutters* That’s women in horror too, right?
I’m very glad that over the years we’ve moved further away from the stereotypical female horror victims, and we’ve given the ladies more “deadly” roles. Girls running around in their underwear, or very tiny skirts, calling out for their boyfriends (usually named Billy) and announcing they are going to take a shower, have been done to death. We have such a potential to be utterly terrifying, and there are plenty of female monsters to prove this.
As a child I was petrified of the myth of Bloody Mary. Another lady who scared me was the bride in the Haunted Mansion in Disney World. But not until 2002 did I find my ultimate female monster. To me, the scariest thing out there is Samara from The Ring. *hugs herself*
Her gender plays an important role in the image that she portrays. If she were played by a man, she would have been an entirely different creature, and to me, she would have been a lot less scary. Let’s be honest, there is something very frightening about little girls who are truly evil. Perhaps it’s the contrast with the innocence we usually credit to little girls (sugar and spice and everything nice) that’s so frightening… something that really shouldn’t be scary is suddenly terrifying.
The strength of Samara is that her story is a contemporary myth that plays on our own curiosity. The videotape is a forbidden fruit, and horror fans know they, in real life, would be tempted to watch it. And why wouldn’t they? Magic isn’t “real” after all. Yet at the same time, we fear that there may be some truth to it, we are willing to suspend our disbelief. That’s what makes horror so great, it’s giving us the opportunity to be frightened in a safe environment.
The use of “modern” technology in The Ring also really hits home with the audience (okay, videotapes aren’t that modern anymore, but televisions still are). The relatable setting draws them deeper into the story, as if they could be a part of it. So the character doesn’t only have a “scary image” but the setting adds to the fear.
I saw The Ring in a sneak preview in the cinema, and I had no idea what I was in for. I am not ashamed to admit, I was a little wary around televisions for a few days after. Now, years later, the image of Samara still scares the living daylights out of me. To me she is a perfect example of a “woman in horror,” and of how utterly scary we can be.