To celebrate Women in Horror Month 2019, I asked four excellent female writers and horror experts to join me for a roundtable discussion. Given how the genre seems to be expanding rapidly to include more women at all levels of experience and publishing, I tried to gather a group of women with a range of talents and experience.
Linda Addison is an accomplished short story writer and editor, but she is probably known primarily as a poet. She is a recipient of the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and is the only author with fiction in three landmark anthologies that celebrate African-American speculative writers: the award-winning anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction, Dark Dreams I and II, and Dark Thirst.
Joanna Parypinski made her first professional sale in 2011, and her short fiction has since appeared in the magazines Nightmare, Black Static, and Vastarien, and anthologies including Haunted Nights, The Beauty of Death 2: Death by Water, and The War on Christmas. Forthcoming in 2019 is her novel Dark Carnival, and a middle grade tale in New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. She also teaches English at Glendale Community College.
Becky Spratford is the public library world’s most visible horror expert. She is the author of the American Library Association’s Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror (published in a second edition in 2012), and maintains the acclaimed blog RA for All: Horror at raforallhorror.blogspot.com, as well as the original RA for All blog at raforall.blogspot.com. She was a Guest of Honor at StokerCon 2017, and she travels throughout the year talking to librarians about broadening their horror collections.
Kaaron Warren is an Australian author whose work extends through four novels (Slights, Walking the Tree, Mistification, and The Grief Hole) and six short story collections, including the multi-award winning Through Splintered Walls. Her novella “Sky” from that collection won the Shirley Jackson Award and was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award. It went on to win all three of the Australian genre awards, while The Grief Hole did the same thing in 2017. She has also taught writing workshops and mentored newer writers.
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Let’s start by talking about influences, and I don’t want to confine this to just authors and their works—let’s also discuss female characters who may have inspired us.
Linda: The first real person that influenced me to write is my mother. She was a fantastic storyteller, and would entertain the nine of us with fables she made up. This made it feel very natural to create stories for me. Also, two strong female characters from the Star Trek television series were huge influences: Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) as the first Black female officer in a SF series and Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett), whose character said more with a look than words.
When I was in high school I loved Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Eudora Welty because of the music in their writing. After college I discovered genre writers Anne McCaffrey, Octavia Butler, Nancy Kress and Connie Willis. In horror, some of my female influences were Anne Rice, L.A. Banks, Elizabeth Massie, Marge Simon and Charlee Jacob. Looking back, I see that I read more male SF and horror writers than female because the field didn’t have as many in print as they do now, and even less Black female writers.
Kaaron: Influence came early in life for me. Later, I think people affected me in various ways, but these are the ones who helped form me as a person and, as part of that, as a writer.
The women in my life: My mother, grandmother, aunties. All of them funny, loving, strong and kinda wild, in their own ways.
The neighbors, and friends’ mothers. Being around so many different women and watching how differently they coped with managed life was a great influence on me. It made me realize we each have our own way, and that there are many ways to put dinner on the table.
One of my favorite things was listening to women talk. The deep dive they did into the stories of their own lives, and the way they’d tell these stories; I have deep nostalgia for those moments of eavesdropping.
In movies and TV, it was the women who broke the mold that I admired and was influenced by. Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase, which I must have watched on TV ten years or so after it came out. I still think of it, sometimes, when I need to make a tough choice in fiction or life that goes opposite to what others are doing. And Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park gave me a desire to be a free spirit (and to live in New York, but I haven’t managed that one).
Writers: S.E. Hinton, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Rosemary Timperly, Enid Blyton. I had little access to genre fiction, beyond my father’s collection of SF. You could say I was influenced in a way by the lack of women being published in the Nebula anthologies and the books he had on the shelves, and the lack of women genre writers in my local library.
I think we can all agree that the genre has spread to include more diversity over the last few years. How has that affected it artistically? Are we seeing a broadening of themes and tropes?
Linda: I’ve been writing and submitting since 1975, and remember there being very few female names in genre (horror and science fiction, in particular), to the point where I considered changing my author name to L.D. Addison so editors wouldn’t treat my submission differently because I was female. Later I talked to Nancy Kress after a workshop, and she said if I write well enough, it won’t matter if my name identifies me as female. I took that to heart, and here I am.
The genre is becoming more diverse, but it’s a slow process. The publication of work by women has added to the field artistically simply because of the quality, but we’re far from balanced. There are certainly more women than in the 1970s but we still see anthologies, conventions, etc. that are being called out in social media for not including women, minorities, other groups. I’m personally involved in initiatives with HWA and an anthology by Twisted Publishing (a Haverhill House Publishing imprint) to include more diversity.
In order for things to change, the people making decisions on who to include have to take the time and effort to evaluate how they are making these choices. They have to do research to look outside their usual resource list. It takes mindfulness in the planning stages, not excuses later that they can’t find creative people that reflect the world we live in. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
Joanna: It’s so wonderful to see horror welcoming diversity! Seeing editors reach out to women and minority writers is exciting, and while Linda is right that it seems to be a slow process, I think we’re going in the right direction. I think diversity does broaden not only themes and tropes, but also styles, characterization, and setting, which gives a reader so many more options to connect with the material. I’m looking forward to seeing how diverse writers continue to bring in new perspectives and creativity.
Becky: With the addition of more women’s voices, we are seeing a broadening of the genre, obviously, but especially in the subgenre of body horror. I am particularly intrigued by how women are examining these issues in their work. But more than just adding more women, I think the genre is being even better served by the inclusion of more authors of color. Since horror is based on creating the emotions of fear, disgust, anxiety, and dread (among others), seeing it in the hands of authors who are forced to deal with being treated as less worthy in their day to day lives brings a whole new level of terror to the stories they create. Authors like Stephen Graham Jones, Gabino Iglesias, Carmen Maria Machado, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia are creating some of the best horror out there by consciously feeding off of their position as outsiders from the “mainstream culture.” The results are original, exciting, and truly terrifying tales of terror that critics and fans enjoy. Can you imagine the hole in the genre if these authors, their colleagues, and the future writers whom they all will inspire, didn’t have a chance to publish? I can, and that hole is a pretty scary thought in and of itself.
Has anyone ever attempted to sway you away from the genre? I know, for example, women horror writers who were offered nice publishing deals . . . if they wrote paranormal romance.
Linda: No one in the publishing field has suggested I write something else, but early in my career when I was collecting rejections, I decided perhaps I would be better at writing non-fiction. Since I worked in the computer industry, I pitched ideas to Essence Magazine in the early 1980s, which ended up with my being published there twice.
It was very exciting to see the magazine on the newsstand/bookstore and know people were buying it, but ultimately it wasn’t the weird poems and stories that were whispering in me all the time. The last thing I did was a proposal for a nonfiction book on programming, which got a lot of attention from a major publisher and almost happened. I consider it a good thing that it didn’t, because I later realized I didn’t want a career writing nonfiction, that I would rather have a day job and write what I wanted.
Kaaron: I’ve written mystery stories for a Science Education Club, but that didn’t sway me away from horror! I’ve never been offered a nice publishing deal for paranormal romance, nor for writing in someone else’s universe. Both things I think I’d consider, because all writing is exercise, I reckon! Any words I put on paper are practice for the real stuff, the stories that eat away at me and push me to write.
How has the genre changed for women since you’ve been part of it?
Becky: While I think women feel more empowered to show their dark sides, more importantly, publishers are more willing to put out horror by women, and I don’t just mean the creepy, atmospheric, stuff. I know women were writing dark, probing, raw, terrifying, and extreme horror before, but I didn’t see it coming out until the twenty-first century began, and then only from people like the now defunct Leisure Books. Now we have publishers putting out the same intense horror by men and women. Authors like The Sisters of Slaughter (Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason) are killing it (pun intended) with the pulp horror for independent presses, while others like Ania Ahlborn, Mira Grant, and Gina Wohlsdorf are putting out what previously would have been considered “unladylike” horror for the bigger presses and selling a lot of copies to people of all genders.
Another change I have seen is female leadership at the top of many of the smaller horror presses, from owners to acquisition editors, I am seeing women at or near the top of just about all of the horror presses. This is helping as broad a range of horror by women to be published as there currently is for male authored books in the genre, in other words, all types.
Linda: The genre has changed for women from when I began submitting forty years ago. There’s more women being published in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. When I first started, there were few women publishing, at least under their own names, and even fewer Black women. Now there are women releasing work in all areas of genre, and women on the business side (publishers, editors, etc.). The Black community is creating its own outlets for books, etc. That is increasing the amount of Black women’s publications.
There’s still a huge amount of work to be done before things are balanced, but at least the work has begun. Roundtable interviews like this help to spread the word. Conventions that put in the work to include guests of honor highlighting women and others’ contributions to the genre is very important. For example, Ann Marie Rudolph and William S. Lawhorn, co-chairs of the 2018 World Fantasy Convention, included GOH women from all over the world and myself as Toastmaster. Other conventions, like Multiverse (multiversecon.org), the multi-genre literary con in 2019, are recruiting women for their programming committees.
Leadership changes, like you [Lisa Morton] as president of HWA, and what you’ve done to make sure there’s equal representation in decision making, etc., is invaluable. Change comes from the publishing gate keepers, that is, the people who are reading work and making publishing decisions. For example, editors Christopher Golden and James Moore of The Twisted Book of Shadows anthology recruited a diverse editorial team as first readers because they wanted a more inclusive professional-level final book.
Any publisher/press that is putting out work from the usual suspects is being called out in social media. My hope is that these folks see they can’t do business as usual, but have to be mindful that they live in a world of many different types of creators and readers and they have to work a little harder to reach out for submissions. Being inclusive isn’t just the right thing to do, it is a financially good decision to make.
Has the #MeToo movement impacted the horror genre?
Becky: I think it has. In the culture of the genre there has been a huge shift toward the public support of women and their equality as authors and their safety. There have always been sexist people involved in our genre, those who don’t think women can write horror. But there have also been those who used the close and trusting Con culture to make passes at and even sexually assault women. There were always men in the genre who stood up for women in horror, but often that “standing up” was behind the scenes—privately letting harassed women know they were on their side. Since the start of the #MeToo movement, I have not only seen more women willing to step up and call out offenders and demand respect for their works instead of accepting being bullied, but also, I have seen male authors publicly take a stand next to these women and declare their support openly as well as condemn the offenders. This is a huge shift.
We are just beginning to see the #MeToo inspired books come out. Two of my favorite authors who are openly confronting issues of sex and gender in their horror stories are Damien Angelica Walters and Carmen Maria Machado.
Linda: The #MeToo movement has affected every part of life in this country, the creative world and every genre. Women on this planet have endured abuse, misuse, and disrespect for too many generations. I hope the growing movement will inform the younger generations more than anything else that every human deserves to be respected. It remains to be seen how deep the change will go, but I’m hopeful.
Should female writers be consciously working to change the “woman as victim” cliché?
Becky: This is a question I struggle with frequently. A colleague of mine went to Bouchercon this year, and after she returned we were discussing this issue as it pertains to crime fiction and horror. So much of it is predicated on violence being done to women, and while in horror, we have plenty of women, who fight for themselves (and win), there is still way too much violence against women at the heart of the genre. Of course, as women in the genre, we should try to change this cliché; however, so should every writer in the genre.
The hard part here, though, is that horror requires a victim at some point in the story (if not multiple times). Someone has to be a victim of the “monster” for the story to work, regardless of their gender identity. How we navigate this sticking point is tricky. I think all authors should be conscious of who the victims in their stories are, and work toward equality for all victims. Let’s not forget the non-binary characters too. Everyone needs their chance to be attacked by the monsters. I am joking, but only a bit. Since the genre requires a human victim, and said victim’s specific gender identity doesn’t really come into play for this requirement, we should all be trying to make sure all genders are represented. However, women in horror can help by leading the charge to call out those (of all genders) who continue to make women the primary victims in their tales.
Kaaron: Like Becky, I struggle with this one. For me, simply removing women from victimhood doesn’t achieve any kind of equality or positive end goal. The fact is that violence against women does happen, at horrifying levels. It happens against non-binary people, too, and against transgender people, against people of color, and against men. Part of what writing horror is to me is exploring why. Why are some people driven to commit acts of violence, be they a random punch on the street or systematic abuse of spouse and children? What drives this violence? Writing is about working through it, seeking some kind of answer. Not a solution; I don’t believe that’s even possible. But by holding up a mirror to it, by looking it in the face, maybe we can affect some change. Fiction is a way to reach those who are not already “converted,” to maybe reach some of those perpetrators of violence and give them something to think about.
For Becky: are the librarians you speak to ever surprised when you talk about women horror writers?
Not really. Women have been writing super violent thrillers and suspense books for years. Patrons love them. Women writers who hug the edges of horror like Gillian Flynn, Lauren Beukes, Lisa Jackson, and Sarah Pinborough are huge library favorites. I think they are more reluctant to talk about horror in general (beyond the bestsellers) by any authors, rather than those by women in particular. Librarians as a whole are not huge horror fans; it scares them too much. Since they are afraid to read it, they then get worried that the books may be too violent for their collections. But then I remind them, “Have you read a recent James Patterson novel or any of the Stieg Larsson Lisbeth Salander novels? Those books are extremely violent, more so than most horror.”
I’m betting almost all of us here have encountered that odious old saw about, “Women can’t write horror.” Is that attitude still around, and if so, what do you say to counter it?
Kaaron: I’m sure that attitude is still around. I mostly get a more personal “How can you write horror?” because people can’t understand how I can have an apparently normal life yet write about the dark heart of humanity. I was recently at an event where my book table was next to the table of a local politician, and she asked me the question. I told her that she and I were probably motivated by similar things: The world around us. That we wanted to make changes if we could, that we found so much of the world unfair and terrifying, and that we wanted to make a difference. I said that I was trying to sneak my way in to those who would otherwise be harder to reach. In storytelling, you can get to people who otherwise would not want to listen.
As far as countering “women can’t write horror,” it’s a bit like the “women aren’t funny” argument. What they’re saying is, “I don’t like women’s horror stories, and I don’t find women funny.” I’m not sure what you can do to counter that. Lists of women horror writers won’t help someone who has already decided they don’t like what women write.
Joanna: Before I even read Kaaron’s answer, I thought of the whole “women aren’t funny” argument—but maybe it’s because I’ve been watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. While I haven’t personally encountered this prejudice, I believe it is still around; for some people, I suppose it is difficult to let go of outdated traditional ideas about who gets to do what. If I encounter such an attitude, I think I would just have to ask them, why? Why, specifically, do they believe women aren’t good at horror? Maybe it’s the professor in me, but I always think if I ask enough questions, I can help the other person get to the root of their preconceptions, and, with any luck, help to dismantle those which prove to be unfounded.
Would you ever write a rape scene, and if so, how? I wouldn’t do it simply because I think it’s been so overused.
Kaaron: My first published short story was about a rape. It wasn’t about a male character then being motivated to seek revenge or anything like that, though. In the end, it was about a so-called loving and gentle man who made the rape about him, rather than the woman it happened to. It was about the gentle horror that lies within, the daily slings and arrows that we live with.
It has absolutely been overused as a motivating plot point, but it is a fact of life, albeit an utterly horrifying one. This stuff happens, and for me, not writing about it, if that’s where the story is heading, is denying an awful truth.
Joanna: Probably not. It’s possible I might obliquely refer to it, but I can’t see myself actually writing one. If I addressed rape in a story, I would want it to be for a purpose beyond character motivation, which seems like a cheap reason to bring in such a traumatic experience. I recently read Carmen Maria Machado’s collection, Her Body and Other Parties, which concludes with a powerful story in which the word “rape” is never even mentioned and no rape scenes occur, although it becomes clear that the entire story deals with the fallout of a sexual assault. I thought that was an excellent example of how to address this type of horrifying experience in a very real and effective way.
With so many outstanding new women writers coming into the field, why aren’t we seeing more female horror writers in the bestseller lists?
Kaaron: Are we seeing much horror on the bestseller lists? Maybe more lately. Bestseller lists are so dependent on manipulation, from what I can tell. You need to be with a big publisher in order to get the distribution and reach required to make the lists. It’s a matter of timing as well; sales within a few days of release, that kind of thing. So perhaps the question is, why aren’t we seeing more female horror writers with the big publishers?
I think part of it is that we are writing interesting stories that don’t fit a mold and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to change that. Bestseller lists are not always groundbreaking stuff (there are always exceptions, of course) but what I want to write and what I want to read is the stuff that does break rules and boundaries. I want to be surprised and blown away. Women horror writers are giving me this at the moment; amazing short stories across the board, from one side of the globe to the other.
Becky: I agree with Kaaron completely. Pure horror does not make the bestseller list often. Even with the mega bestsellers like Stephen King, we hear all the time at the library from patrons, “I don’t like horror.” Then we ask, “Who’s your favorite author?” And we get “Stephen King” as an emphatic answer. However, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t reading horror in large numbers. Most horror is not with major publishers that work to get authors on the bestseller list, but from working in the library, I can tell you people are reading plenty of horror. And, at the library, they will read whatever they can get their hands on. But being on the bestseller list is not where we find the most interesting things being written these days.
Kaaron’s second point, though is the most important when we talk about women writers. Women are currently among the most boundary pushing authors, period . . . no matter the genre. I think Ann Leckie’s SF Imperial Radch series, anything by Roxanne Gay, and Gillian Flynn are examples of mainstream female authors right now who are pushing the boundaries in their work; finding readers, men and women, who want to probe the dark corners of fiction. Gillian Flynn in particular and her bestselling success with Gone Girl was a game changer. She created a story which took over the popular media landscape and it featured an awful, horrible, evil woman as its protagonist. When it first came out I loved it, but I was worried that the average American reader was not ready for Amazing Amy. I am so happy I was wrong.
There is also an established guard of female horror writers who have been around for a long time and have won many genre awards, but are starting to get noticed in more popular media, like Caitlín R. Kiernan and Tananarive Due, for example.
A new generation of women horror writers like Lucy Snyder, Gwendolyn Kiste, Damien Angelica Walters, and Stephanie Wytovich are starting to really hit their stride with stories, poems, and novels that are both disturbing and beautiful, grotesque and lyrical. And then there are authors like the Sisters of Slaughter, who can write a super entertaining and gory pulp horror story that rivals any man, ever, and people love them (myself included).
It’s not the authors. We have always had excellent women horror writers. But now, readers, of all gender identities, are more willing to see women as authors, full stop. They can be just as dark and just as gross as any man. And, in a weird twist of sexist fate, readers seem to be more willing to let women horror authors be everything—gross or beautiful or both at the same time—more so than men can get away with.
When you sit down to write a new story, do you ever think about the gender of the characters, or is it always dictated naturally by the story? I have, for example, occasionally envisioned a story at first with a male protagonist, but then realized it became more personal if I flipped the gender.
Joanna: I think about gender the way I think about any other aspect of a character—something that makes them who they are. And while I definitely contemplate gender, once a character has entered my mind, I usually don’t end up changing their gender. I’m not sure why that is. I’ve changed character names, looks, and even personalities, but rarely do I change their gender. In that sense, maybe it is dictated naturally by the story or the character her/himself? Even when I’ve toyed with the idea of changing the gender of a character, I find it changes the color of the story.
Gender was something I was extremely conscious of in my short story, “The Thing in the Trees” from Nightscript IV, which is about a transgender man who takes a new position as a forest ranger. It just wouldn’t have been the same story if it was a transgender woman, or a cis man or woman. Playing with gender and identity in that story was really interesting for me, as a cis woman, getting into the mind of someone who has had the experience of being a woman and who is now, finally, recognized as a man. There are all these variables that make us who we are, and gender is obviously a major part of that—of the experiences of the character that have shaped them into who they are.
I do think it’s fun, though, to consider flipped gender retellings of the classics—mostly flipped in the form of male-to-female. Frankenstein’s monster as a woman? Lovecraftian secret societies as experienced by women? The latter was something I worked with in writing a story that’s coming out in the next issue of Black Static, about a college student who joins a strange sorority.
Linda: I have switched the gender of the characters in a story depending on the gender of the main character in the last story I finished, because I want to keep things interesting for myself. The basic needs/desires/pain that any character deals with doesn’t depend on the gender of the character for me, the differences come in expression/motivation of emotions. In my new book I’m playing with different things outside the basic male/female concepts. I find it much more interesting when written or visual work surprises me with a different take on an old idea where the savior is a woman, the saved a male or when transgender, etc., characters are involved. F4 by Larissa Glasser was so wonderful, not just because there were transgender characters, but it added energy to the fantastic action and storyline—I was very sad when I finished reading it.
How do you feel about women-only anthologies? Are they effective in introducing readers to new voices, or are they a form of literary segregation?
Joanna: While I dislike the notion of literary segregation, I think that we are still at a point, particularly in the horror genre, where there are far more talented women writers than are well-known or viewed as canonical. A part of me thinks we shouldn’t need women-only anthologies, but the world we live in is imperfect, so at this point, women-only anthologies serve an important purpose in terms of equity and recognition. As an example, I’m teaching a Gothic/Horror literature class, and in putting together my reading list of short fiction spanning from Gothic to modern horror, I discovered that almost all of the authors I chose were men. It was certainly humbling, as a woman horror writer, to have to actively seek out work by women. So I was glad to be able to pull Nightmare’s Women Destroy Horror! and Dark Region Press’s Dreams from the Witch House from my bookshelf and be able to focus on female voices in horror. These types of anthologies have certainly introduced me to writers I wasn’t familiar with. So until or unless barriers of inequality finally dissipate, I’m glad to have women-only anthologies to read, and I think the same could be said of POC anthologies.
Becky: I really hope we can one day get to a point where we don’t need women-only or POC-only anthologies, but like Joanna, I understand their necessity. When I talk to librarians about making lists and displays for patrons, I talk about trying to make your lists reflect the national makeup. Make sure you have fifty-fifty male to female representation and at least thirty-three percent (minimum) POC. I also caution them to not only have heteronormative stories. I check myself in all the work I do, too. A few years ago, I started to be more conscious of having inclusive representation in my work and I was shocked at how overwhelmingly white and male my lists were. Even my POC authors were mostly male. We can all do better, but until being inclusive is the norm, what we do reflexively, we all have to work to level the playing field. That being said, I recently reviewed an all-female horror anthology that was collected and edited by a man. While it was a good collection, I feel like the introductions to the historic, most of them all but forgotten, women and their brief biographies were not as strong as they could have been if a woman had written them. The nuance in the dichotomy between being a woman, a wife, a mother, and a writer was missing from those important framing pieces.
Has the advice you’d offer to new female horror writers changed over the last ten years? And I’d like to start with Joanna, to hear what you’d say to other new female writers.
Joanna: As a new writer, I’m not sure I have any sort of authority to offer advice! But I do teach writing, in the form of Freshman Composition, and what I try to impart to my students is always to find their own voice. Their writing simply isn’t going to look like the elevated academic texts we read, and that’s okay. Imitation can be an excellent method of honing your skills; I practiced imitation for many years as I was learning to write. But ultimately, you have to find your own voice. I think this is especially important for women writers because we have grown up with a largely male canon, and so learned what “good” writing was from male writers. And if you step into any MFA program, you’ll find countless students trying to emulate Wallace, McCarthy, Hemingway, etc. They’re great writers, to be sure, but their rather masculine form of writing is not the only form of good writing. So for other new women horror writers, my advice would be that you don’t have to emulate King, Straub, Campbell, or McCammon; your own voice is likely to be infinitely more compelling than any imitation, so read widely, read diversely, imitate, and then don’t.
Kaaron: I agree with Joanna that finding your own voice is vital. I’ve probably been giving this advice for longer than ten years, though! I think recently I’ve been reminded of the importance of mentors, so my advice would be to try to find one early on, possibly through one of the paid mentorships available in a number of places.
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