Women in Horror Month - Where It's Been, Where It's Going By: Lisa Morton
Back in 2010, I realized I’d been reading a lot of small press horror books that were all by men. Where, I wondered, were my female colleagues? I did my own (very rough) analysis of publications by a number of the small genre publishers, and came up with a distressing figure: 7.07% of the authors published by these excellent presses were female.
Less than ten percent? What the heck was going on here?
Apparently the literary scene wasn’t the only one wondering where the women were, because that same year officially kicked off the celebration of “Women in Horror Month”, which focuses mainly on women filmmakers. Now, each February, www.womeninhorrormonth.com is at the head of a veritable parade of activities: screenings (including the “Ax Wound Film Festival”), signings, and a blood drive PSA from the Soska Sisters are just part of it.
The literary side receives some attention as well. Invariably, my February news feeds are full of “Name your favorite female horror writer” posts, with accompanying discussion and lists. This year the Horror Writers Association (www.horror.org) is doing interviews each day in February with a woman who has won their Bram Stoker Award® (by way of disclosure: I currently serve as HWA’s President, so I’m particularly proud of this initiative).
There are always spirited debates about the usefulness of this “WiHM” stuff. Does it really help, or is it just segregation? What about the other eleven months of the year? And has it always been this way?
Let’s just say that there’s never been a Golden Age of Women in Horror. The first great horror/science fiction novel might have been penned by a woman (Mary Shelley; the book was Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus), but the first edition of the book was released anonymously. When rumors of the book’s author began to circulate, many readers and critics believed that Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Shelley, was actually responsible for much of the work. When the real author was revealed, some critics were stunned; a review from the 1832 London Literary Gazette noted of Frankenstein, “…contrary to the general matériel in the writings of women, has less of the heart in it than the mind.”
Another woman writer who preceded Shelley by just two decades, Ann Radcliffe, dared to publish her books under her name and was almost universally acclaimed. Now considered the mother of the Gothic novel (books like The Mysteries of Udolpho have remained continuously in print for over two hundred years), Radcliffe was an influence on writers including Poe, Jane Austen (whose novel Northanger Abbey is a satire of Gothic novels), and even Fyodor Dostoevesky.
Radcliffe’s renown turned out to be more of an anomaly than a game-changer, sadly. With the exception of a few late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century authors, including Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Mary Wilkins Freeman, who wrote some very fine (mainly) ghost stories, women were nearly invisible within the horror genre. The influential magazine Weird Tales, which premiered in 1923 (and would go on to feature fiction by H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Clark Ashton Smith), included only a handful of women authors, and its most notable one – C. L. Moore – used gender-neutral initials.
It wasn’t until 1948, when The New Yorker published a short story called “The Lottery”, that the first major female horror writer of the twentieth century would appear: Shirley Jackson would go on to write The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, two of the greatest horror novels ever written. Still, there was no following flood of women horror writers.
The horror boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s saw the emergence of superstar horror writers, mostly male – Stephen King, Peter Straub, William Peter Blatty, Clive Barker – but Anne Rice and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro re-created the literary vampire. In 1989, Kathryn Grant’s groundbreaking anthology Women of Darkness showed that women could (and were!) also writing terrifying and sometimes very gruesome short fiction.
Women finally had a toehold in the genre, and the ‘90s saw the arrival of more gifted female novelists: Kathe Koja, Poppy Z. Brite, Elizabeth Massie, Caitlin Kiernan, Nancy Holder, Melanie Tem, and Yvonne Navarro all produced acclaimed novels alongside their male peers.
But men still dominated the genre, and if anything the arrival of the 21st century seemed to push the women back. The growing popularity of genres like paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and young adult lured women authors, often offering larger audiences and lucrative deals. Meanwhile, the small press often featured “extreme fiction”, in which gore and violence were emphasized. This ultraviolent storytelling – which mirrored the “tortureporn” films that were playing in movie theaters – often included graphically-described scenes of rape and murder, making it (unsurprisingly) something that women writers tended to avoid.
That was seven years ago. I’m pleased to say that I do think the genre is finally changing for the better. More and more female voices are appearing in publisher’s catalogs, anthology tables of content, “best-of” articles, and awards list. HWA offers a scholarship (the Mary Shelley) specifically for female horror writers, there are more women behind the scenes in editing and in the writing organizations, and the Shirley Jackson Awards continue to pay tribute to the genre’s most extraordinary woman author.
If you’re a reader who loves horror – or a woman who loves to write it – now is a great time to jump in. Take a look at some of the excellent anthologies coming out to find some new female voices. Pick up a novel or collection from an award-nominated author. If you’re just trying to break in as a writer, my advice is always: be bold. Don’t hold back in either the words you put down or the way you present them to the world. The future has never looked better for those of us with two X chromosomes and a love of the darker side. I predict that quite soon, only one month to celebrate women in horror will be a thing of the past.
About Lisa Morton
Lisa Morton is a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, a screenwriter, a novelist, and a Halloween expert whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. Her most recent releases are the non-fiction books Ghosts: A Cultural History and Cemetery Dance Select: Lisa Morton. She lives in the San Fernando Valley, and can be found online at www.lisamorton.com. Check her out on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lisa.morton.165 and Twitter: https://twitter.com/cinriter!