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.
Over the past few days I’ve been counting down my favorite/most recommended spooky novel-length reads by female authors. In a genre that has a severe issue with diversity (the cause of which is hotly debated, as this roundtable discussion from the Horror Writers Association suggests), it’s a worthwhile endeavor to spend time familiarizing yourself with the work of genre staples such as Shirley Jackson, as well as looking further afield for stories that chill the blood in unexpected ways. In addition to Jackson, we’ve also taken a look at the work of Tananarive Due, Catherynne Valente, and Ursula K. Le Guin. But today we’re rounding off the list with a truly exceptional, little-known novel that pushes the boundaries not only of horror as a genre, but of the concept of narrative prose itself.
1. The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
Like Valente’s The Labyrinth, The Orange Eats Creeps kind of defies genre pigeonholing. Published by Two Dollar Radio—an extremely awesome independent press devoted to promoting subversive, experimental work—The Orange Eats Creeps (Krilanovich’s first book) was selected as one of Amazon’s 2010 Best Books of the Year. I picked it up through Amazon, after it appeared as one of the recommended books based on my previous purchases (poetry by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg). If you’re familiar with these poets, you might have some indication of the kind of grotesque lyricism that lies within the pages of The Orange Eats Creeps. Let’s put it this way: it’s weird as hell.
Reviewers on Amazon did not seem to know what to think—30% of readers rate it 5 stars, and 40% give it a 1 star rating. Positive reviewers have praised it for its hallucinatory, trippy prose, it’s keen focus on language, and its slippage between dreams and reality. Negative reviewers, on the other hand, have called it “a self-indulgent word salad that borders on the insipid,” “a bunch of indecipherable work-puke masquerading as some sort of pretentious new genre of literature,” and one reviewer simply said “I just…I can’t?” Many expressed a desire to buy the physical book in order to set it on fire. So naturally I had to buy it.
Ever attracted to polarizing works of literature, I plunged headlong into The Orange Eats Creeps with the kind of animal ferocity usually reserved for hill folk and road kill. As with The Labyrinth, I was not disappointed. Steve Erickson, editor of the journal Black Clock where excerpts from TOEC first appeared, describes it as “A vortex of a novel…” that “…takes leave of not its senses but rather of sense, and…demands the reader do the same.” Unsurprisingly, some readers aren’t fond of being told to abandon their expectations of narrative cohesion. The kinds of complaints leveled at The Orange Eats Creeps echo the issues people tend to have with James Joyce’s prose–it’s not that Krilanovich doesn’t understand how to shape and build a narrative arc, it’s that the artistry of the work is on the level of the language. In other words, stop looking at the forest and pay some damn attention to the trees. Because they’re beautiful. And fucking creepy. Creepy, beautiful trees.
This is a novel in which you disappear—where line by line you are caught up in a feverish scrambling where fear is evoked by sheer uncertainty. The protagonist is a young traveling girl, a runaway foster child who finds herself on the fringes of the punk scene in the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s. The novel runs with gas-station liquor, sweat and pre-packaged snacks, blood, spit and semen, and yes—a lot of blood.
Billed as vampire novel, fans of the classic capes/fangs/immortality tropes may be disappointed. This is a gritty reimagining of vampires, chilling because they’re not beautiful or otherworldly—and frankly, it’s hard to say whether they’re vampires at all. The unnamed narrator careens through a twisted dreamscape of drug-fueled desperation, frantically trying to track down her foster-sister, Kim, while the threat of a serial killer named Dactyl stalks her along the “highway that eats people.” This is some messed up, next-level, Hunter S. Thompson shit. Goodbye, Anne Rice. Hello, Grace Krilanovich.
TOEC inspires horror because it is so utterly classifiable—because Krilanovich’s stream-of-consciousness prose starts to have a hypnotic effect on the reader that, much as with Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, starts to bleed narrative with off-the-page reality. Things blur. You feel something stir behind you. Your perception begins to curl, like paper under flame. You have no fucking idea what’s going on, and it’s glorious.
This is the number one book I have purchased for friends and family, have recommended, have quoted, have furiously dog-eared, underlined, and marked up. This is a book with a heart that pulses, and while you’re not going to get a sense of arc or resolution, that’s the point–that’s the horror. Krilanovich leaves you stranded in a ghostly ocean of beautiful, yet alienating, lyrical syntax. “There is something about being 17 and being immortal,” she says “like wishing you could turn into a magical being and then waking up, looking into the mirror, and seeing that you are. Cuz you can’t see shit and you know it happened, you turned vampire. So one day my reptile brain though, ‘I could tell that fuckin story.’”
And she did.
That’s it for our list of top horror novels to read by women, but you’d best believe we have more recommendations and reviews bubbling in the cauldron all through the month of October. Honorable mentions on our novels to read list go to Poppy Z. Brite (who we didn’t feature on this list primarily because he’s a transman, but whose work we feel we can’t properly omit altogether–if you haven’t done so, check out the holy trinity; Drawing Blood, Lost Souls, and Exquisite Corpse–the latter only if you’re okay with a novel about gay necrophiliac serial killers in New Orleans; and who wouldn’t be?), Caitlin R Kiernan’s Silk (which won an International Horror Guild award and was nominated for a Bram Stoker award in 1998), and (only every so slightly begrudgingly), Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, which has arguably done more to resurrect the contemporary vampire mythos than just about any other work of fiction this century. Except the one we don’t talk about.
Keep your eyes peeled, horror fans. We’ve got more on the way for you in the near future. In the mean time, don’t forget to check under the bed. Seriously. Seriously.
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.