The Horror of Women Writers

Sunday’s NY Times Book Review section has a great essay by Terrence Rafferty called Shelley’s Daughters. Rafferty remarks on the irony that the “mother” of the horror novel gave birth to more sons than daughters, e.g., Poe, King, Lovecraft. And the few daughters she may claim did not always write prolifically in the genre of horror (Rafferty mentions Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman to support this observation). The best part of his essay, of course, is the brief reviews he gives of contemporary women writers of horror. Don’t, however, expect to find reviews of the popular vampire novels by Laurell K. Hamilton and Stephenie Meyer: Rafferty notes that their novels “don’t appear to be concerned, as true horror, should be, with actually frightening the reader.” Rather, he comments on novels by Sara Gran, Alexandra Sokoloff, Sarah Langan, and Elizabeth Hand; writers new to me, but whose work I look forward to reading (especially, Langan whose novel The Keeper I just ordered).

Frankly, I would love to write ** good ** horror. I tried my hand at it in last year’s National Novel Writing Month and, most recently, in a short story that has been revised multiple times. But writing horror is much more difficult than I thought it would be. Anyone can write gory scenes of zombies eating humans or ghosts wielding axes and chopping off body parts; but to instill cold prickly fear in the reader requires skill and precision. I grew up addicted to horror films, mostly from Great Britain but pre-Hammer Film Productions, and the ones that always scared me the most were those that were heavy on suspense: What’s behind the door? Is the monster there? Should our hero open it? What’s behind the door?

Writing horror down is not for the feint of heart.

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About 1WriteWay

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4 Responses to The Horror of Women Writers

  1. L. Wright says:

    I came across this from a search engine. I have heard many reviews of Terrence Rafferty’s book, however fail to see any brilliance. He woefully dismisses any female contribution to the horror genre as does most material on horror’s history.

    His quick defense that female authors don’t write to “scare” fails to have any substance. There are a great number of books in the horror industry, even by the contemporary horror greats, that contain heavy sexual/relationship elements. Strangely, these male authors do write to “scare” and there just isn’t any “romance” involved.

    Writing horror is hard, but it’s made worse when you can’t even inject a simple relationship into your book without having it labeled “chick lit” just because you are a female author.

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    • 1writeway says:

      Laura, thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I appreciate a dialogue on female horror writers because I do believe that they are legion although they don’t get the same attention and credit as do the male horror writers. And I think Rafferty was pointing that out in his essay. Horror is a vast field, and I don’t expect that we will ever have consensus on exactly what horror is. To me, the current Stephanie Meyer and Charlene Harris vampire novels du jour are not horror in the manner of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Rafferty points out that there are female writers who are currently producing novels of the caliber of Frankenstein–deeply unnerving, frightening, thought-provoking, and horrifying. One of them, Sara Lagan’s The Keeper is all these things and also has relationships and sex in it. The Keeper is definitely not “chick lit.” The novels of Meyer, Harris, and Hamilton do seem to fit the the industry label of paranormal romance (not as derogatory as chick lit) and perhaps they’ve hit on a subgenre of horror that currently is wildly popular. What I liked about Rafferty’s essay is that he discusses female writers who are not wildly popular right now (if they ever will be), and for that, he has enriched my library. Rather than dismissing “any female contribution to the horror genre,” I think instead he makes a good argument for the many female contributions to the horror genre, showing me what I’ve been missing by relying on the NY Times bestseller lists.

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  2. L. Wright says:

    Thanks for responding!

    I certainly hope you are right. I think many women in horror, myself included, get very frustrated because there’s so much schlock about it. Sadly, it seems that guys can write horror because they like it or have been fans for years. If a woman writes it, she is just venting feminist domination fantasies or releasing feelings of “oppression.” It’s like there HAS to be some dysfunctional mental reason for it because it isn’t possible for women to just enjoy horror or enjoy writing it.

    I have a database on my site (W.A.R.) that features information and resources on women in horror (writers, directors, etc.). It’s amazing to see so much already and I just started the area late last year.

    I don’t know if female horror writers will ever be ‘popular’ in that sense. Gender is something you never want to make an issue of, but it often becomes one whether you say anything or not. Despite the number of published horror authors (female) each year, they’re seldom mentioned on blogs or standard horror-related sites.

    Thanks again! It was wonderful talking with you.

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    • 1writeway says:

      The pleasure is all mine, Laura. I like your point about women just enjoying horror and/or the writing of horror. I’ll be checking out your database, and I do hope my (albeit few) readers will, too!

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