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.
The Birth of Horror: How Women Shaped the Genre
By and large, the horror genre isn’t known for its diversity of representation. Modern horror (and its various subgenres and subsidiaries) is overwhelmingly masculine and overwhelmingly white: if you were asked to name three well-known horror authors, my guess is they’d all be male. Similarly, the writers and directors of most cult Hollywood horror classics such as Halloween, The Exorcist, The Shining, and Nightmare on Elm Street are all white men (as an aside, they all look eerily similar, leading me to the conclusion that since 1970 the horror genre has, in fact, been controlled by an advanced race of hyper-intelligent cyborgs whose only known energy source is our collective fear, terror, and disgust).
But it wasn’t always so. Horror as we know it today has its roots in the Gothic literature of the 18th century—a genre that grew and flourished due to the contributions of women such as Ann Radcliffe and, in the 19th century, Mary Shelley. Though the works from this time that have entered the canon are chiefly male-authored (see: Horace Walpole, Matthew Lewis, and later, Bram Stoker), most horror novels penned in the 18th century were written by women, for women.
At a time when middle-class women were at their most bored and most idle, many turned to the flights of fancy offered by novels and novellas. Novels of any kind were thought to be the frivolous, red-headed stepchild of literature’s more serious form of expression: the epic poem. So while the men of the time were off scribbling meaningful verses about Grecian urns and clouds and daffodils, women were writing narratives that offered both a reflection of and escape from the confinements of their gender. Whether they knew it or not, these women were participating in a push-back against the patriarchal structures that made them prisoners inside their own homes, and even their own bodies.
So what changed? Academics and historians are split on this one, but I’d speculate that a good part of the reason female horror authors faded from view is that the genre was coopted by men who had the education, social connections, and money to better promote and distribute their work. If the male-authored Gothic novels of the 18th century were ‘better’ than those written by women, one need only look to the extremely rudimentary education offered to women which certainly didn’t give them all the tools and skills necessary to write startlingly brilliant works of prose. Eyebrows are often raised at the idea that women wrote more novels in general than their male counterparts—after all, we don’t see those books on college reading lists, or in the Classic Literature aisle at Barnes and Noble. For this, we can thank the canon, and its relentless, dogged determination to uplift the work of white male authors and pretty much ignore everybody else.
As the genre was coopted so too was the representation of women within these works. Sure, most horror films and novels have female characters. Unfortunately, they’re usually one-dimensional cardboard cutouts; the final girl, the crazy bitch, and (lest we forget) the slut. The exceptions to this rule still use the gendered body as an object of fear, as in Stephen King’s Carrie, with its iconic menstrual blood/group shower scene.
With female sexuality and the female body increasingly portrayed as monstrous and grotesque, it’s perhaps unsurprising that women—both writers and readers—began to feel alienated from the genre. A 2013 article published by Tor Books—one of the top publishers of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction—shows that of the 503 submissions they received in the first six months of 2013 only 32% were from women, and most of those women were submitting works of Young Adult fiction, or Paranormal Romance (the only field within the genre that seems to embrace women, possibly due to its connection with the Gothic Romance). Only 17% of works submitted were categorized by Tor as ‘horror’.
All this to say, it’s probably true that great works of horror fiction by women and other marginalized writers are harder to find. But the assumption that femininity and the horrific are diametrically opposed is simply not true. With that in mind, over the next five days I’ll be showcasing five of my favorite horror novels by women. Let’s proceed…
The Good House by Tananarive Due
I read The Good House on a trip to Walt Disney Land, and let me tell you—if a writer can creep you out while you’re waiting in line for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, they’re doing something right. Though The Good House is, in many ways, formulaic (Haunted house? Check. Voodoo curse? Check. Indian burial ground? Check. Mysterious magical ring? Check.) Due takes each of these tropes and carefully subverts them in order to craft a truly original, spine-tingling page turner.
After the death of her son, Corey, Angela Toussaint is understandably reluctant to return to the site of his suicide: the summer home, left to them by Granmama Marie, known to the locals as the Good House. Despite the affectionate moniker, folks in the small town of Sacajawea, Washington don’t seem particularly pleased to see Angela—also, they’re kind of racist. As Angela and her estranged husband, Tariq, begin to unravel the mystery of Corey’s suicide, it becomes clear that a malevolent force is at work in the town; a force unleashed by dear old Granmama to teach those bigoted white folks a lesson. Unfortunately, as Angela discovers, Evil is much easier to summon than it is to banish—even when your intentions are good.
Told from three perspectives (Angela’s, Corey’s, and Marie’s), and written in a style both compelling and evocative, The Good House is a unique take on the haunted house story that highlights the truly human evil that both commands and drives supernatural occurrences. Props, too, for a more or less accurate depiction of Voodoo, and Due’s commitment to a diversity of characters where the stereotypical other is not the villain, but rather the savior.
You can purchase The Good House direct from publisher Simon and Schuster, though it’s also available from our favorite drone-delivery service in both hardback and Kindle versions. There’s also an audio book version available through Audible, if that’s your jam.
Tune in tomorrow for #4 on the list!
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.