As some of you may know, February, in addition to uplifting and celebrating Black History, is also Women in Horror Month. In the past, I provided, like so many do, a list of, well, women-in-horror: authors, actors, directors, reviewers, and more. It is one thing to give a list of possibilities and point out “hey, we’re here, we exist” and another to acknowledge the work women have done in the horror genre. Inspired by Mary SanGiovanni’s call-to-action, I decided one of my posts this month would celebrate the contributions women in horror have made in shaping me as another writer in the genre. These are, in many ways, my mothers, sisters, and aunts who have told me their stories in hushed whispers and techniques across pages.
Mary Shelley. I didn’t read Frankenstein until I was in college, but I had all that general knowledge of the story from pop culture (very different from the book) in my head until then. I remember sitting in a parked car during a soccer game, paying more attention to my book than the goals. I’ve read it a few more times since then, have lectured on it twice (mostly on the film adaptations, and then on how the film adaptations handle (or don’t) the feminist message of the text), and have been inspired in so many ways by Shelley’s Gothic story. It’s not just that it’s the ultimate power-of-God-in-the-hands-of-man type of narrative or an exploration of the growing powers of science at the time, but in the exquisite descriptions of nature and the depth given to who is protagonist and who is antagonist in this ongoing crux and clash. Plus, the use of Gothic and romantic themes—popular at the time—would later help me use them in my own work to a more modern effect.
Shirley Jackson. We read “The Lottery” in middle school, because of course we did. And then again in college, with analysis. Each time I read it, I was taken in again by the simplistic prose and gentle-seeming story which turned with sudden violence, and I wanted to do something just like it. Later, during my MFA, we read The Haunting of Hill House (possessor of one of the best opening paragraphs in literature) and I put it on my comps list because it was the obvious initial inspiration for one of my own haunted houses, even if they were different. I love how Jackson plays with the boundary of what might be supernatural or what might be real through the lens of perspective, and how she creates characters who feel so sympathetic even as they make decisions (or have decisions made for them) that we as readers wouldn’t. I have more of her work that I look forward to exploring now that I have a bit more time to read.
Toni Morrison. I’ve read Beloved three times in the last five years, enough times to know that I can easily argue it to be a horror novel (and the only one to win a Pulitzer). It, perhaps, more than any other novel of my college reading has influenced me. I initially didn’t want to put it on my comps list for my MFA because how was I supposed to analyze and critique what was, obviously, a masterpiece, especially as a white woman? Beloved is a novel about trauma and ghosts (which I understand, of a different kind) and the techniques Morrison uses to convey this story are some of my favorite. She moves through time so seamlessly, uses number symbolism, and, at the same time, doesn’t lose any authenticity to her characters or the world while the novel is ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ at the simultaneously. I learn and take something new every time I read the book.
Ellen Datlow. I’m also including an editor here among my inspirations because I really admire the work Datlow does. Not only does she put together the Best Horror of the Year collections, but she has countless anthologies under her name as well. While I wouldn’t say any of the compilations are perfect—as any so rarely are in representing the people or the genre—I do appreciate how well-read, versed, and professional these books are. For many people who aren’t sure where to start with short horror stories, they’re often given the advice of picking up a ‘best of’ and Datlow’s are usually a decent indication of what sells in a given year: Lovecraft is still popular, new ideas are better than tired tropes, more representation and diversity is great, and certain trends come and go. The themed anthologies are also a lot of fun for stories along a particular vein. As far as editors in the genre go, Datlow has clear taste and that is something earned by being an expert in the genre.
Rachel Caine. Although, perhaps, not a traditional horror writer, Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires was my favorite paranormal series for seven years. My copy of Glass Houses has a cracked spine and pages falling out from how many times I’ve read it; I still associate the taste of chili and Coke with that book, and find it weirdly comforting. It helped me when I was first starting on my anti-Twilight novel, and helped me bond with friends since the paperbacks also fit in the pockets of my Tripp pants. Not only did these books teach me the power of pacing—as many events would be split over multiple books, with few time jumps—but maybe this is also where a bit of my obsession with weird small towns comes from. Morganville, as a setting, is so well-described, built, and developed by Caine that I felt like I had lived there myself. It had characters that weren’t quite typical for YA of its time (I still appreciate a genius 16-year old) who were perhaps prototypes of that ever-popular found family trope. Plus, the vampires were awesome and there were some genuinely thrilling moments. I miss Rachel Caine, but I’ll still have Morganville.
Carmen Maria Machado. I read Her Body and Other Parties in one day the first time. I would read certain stories again for a class in my MFA, “The Husband Stitch”, “Real Women Have Bodies”, and “Eight Bites”, and later read the book again for my comps (as would most of my cohort). I met her once, at AWP in Portland, wearing my Women in Horror #10 shirt, and was so tongue-tied and awkward that I can’t believe she coherently understood anything I said. Her memoir, In the Dream House, is a different kind of horror, based in reality, and it felt all-too familiar to me. I love how Machado’s prose is unapologetically hers; it is poetic and descriptive, but withholds when the narrative calls for it. Her work is sex-positive, feminist, and LGBT+, but doesn’t feel like it panders rather than portraying reality as she experiences or sees it. And this is then how she brings horror in, through those lenses, because being a woman can be terrifying, or having a certain kind of body, or living in a kind of headspace. I love how her work often toes the line of memoir and fiction without apology and it gives me a confidence to feel I can do that too.
One of many great things about reading and writing in the horror genre is finding that you’re not alone in your love for the things that go bump in the night. I’ve never felt more stimulated and appreciative of the craft and the people than when I was at StokerCon in 2019, meeting new folks who talked about the same books and movies that I did. Hopefully, I’ll be back there soon enough, finding more women in horror to inspire me. Until then, there’s always Twitter, blogs, and books.
Further Women in Horror Reading on Reading Malone: