In this blog series, we’ll explore the contributions women have made to the horror genre throughout history. With reviews, recommendations, and reading lists, we hope to help you discover some new, spine-chilling reads (and watches) for the month of October. If you’ve got a book or movie you’d like to review, or a short reading list you want to contribute, shoot us a pitch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last time, we gave you a brief primer of the history of horror and how the Gothic literature of the 18th century, pioneered and popularized by women, helped shape and develop what we think of as contemporary horror lit. We also started our countdown of 5 must-read spooky novels by female authors, beginning with Tananarive Due’s The Good House.
Today, we continue the countdown–with something a little more…well…chaotic.
4. The Labyrinth by Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne Valente is well-known in genre fiction circles, and for good reason; she’s a Lambda and a Locus award winner, and her work has been nominated for Hugo and World Fantasy awards. Also, her Fairyland series for children has been on the New York Times best seller list on several occasions, so you know—she’s not a secret.
Nevertheless, her first novel, The Labyrinth, seems to have garnered relatively little attention—perhaps due to its surreal, imagistic style. Arranged into five Cantos, The Labyrinth is a slippery, hallucinatory meander through myth, philosophy, and archetype. Can I tell you what it’s about? Not really. The Labyrinth is Alice in Wonderland meets Theseus and the Minotaur meets Carl Jung, with the unnamed female protagonist navigating a strange and sometimes deadly maze-world in her quest to find the Center. That’s not to say there isn’t a plot, nor that the novel lacks characters; but if you’re looking for a straightforward read, this isn’t the book for you.
What sets The Labyrinth apart from other works in our must-read list, and indeed (I suspect) from much of Valente’s other work, is its fierce devotion to language on a line-by-line level. It’s a meticulously-constructed lyric narrative, a meta-meditation on the hero’s journey, and an exceptionally clever and subtle homage to authors as diverse as Shakespeare, Milton, and William Blake. Is it horror? It’s certainly disquieting, and evocative of the kind of fear that comes from utter disorientation; the protagonist is disoriented within the maze and you, as a reader, can’t help but be disoriented by Valente’s lush, multilayered prose.
As the narrator herself says:
“I am I, can be no other, and my little mind, encapsulated in skull and void, insists that a center exists within Wall after Wall. I promise myself not to think on it, knowing as well as I do that there is nothing, that the whisper is a lie, but I slip. I slip and drown in the root system of the Labyrinth.”
The book is unfortunately out of print and thus difficult to get ahold of (you can find it on Amazon, but the price tag can run pretty high), though it was available for a time as a free PDF on Catherynne Valente’s website. We’re sure if you reached out to her you might be able to get ahold of it!
Join us tomorrow as we continue our list, and remember; stay spooky! Tis the season!
Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine, and a hardcore horror fan (ever since her best friend strapped her to a chair and forced her to watch The Ring in 11th grade). The recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and the runner-up for the 2014 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, Kia’s work has been published in Midnight Echo, the official magazine of the Australian Horror Writers’ Association, as well as journals such as Cordite, Going Down Swinging, Westerly, Permafrost, Inky Needles. You can find her online at kiagroom.com and she tweets@whodreamedit.