I remember the day in junior high school when Charlotte asked to borrow a pencil during art class. It was a brisk, sunny afternoon in April. Everyone was in a good mood. I was happy to help an acquaintance I’d known since elementary school.
When the bell rang and class ended, I realized Charlotte had forgotten the favor. She headed out the door and down the hall without returning my only spare pencil. I followed and I’d almost caught up with her when she and a girl I didn’t recognize started slinging insults at one another. By the time we reached a set of double doors to the courtyard, the two girls were locked in a shoving and slapping match. The doors closed in my face. I pushed through to find Charlotte and her opponent on the grass, stripped to their skirts and bras, punching one another and screaming obscenities. I watched some of the fight, vaguely wondering if Charlotte would use my pencil as a weapon. Then I moved on to Algebra.
I let Charlotte keep the pencil.
The battle on the school lawn was nothing new to me. I grew up in a house full of women. Women were important. Women were in charge. Screaming, slapping, shoving, and verbal attacks were as common as kindness. Here’s some bad news for people who want to put women on a pedestal: We are not the sweethearts we pretend to be. We don’t tear off our blouses and punch people every day, but we are capable of that, and a good many other horrible things. We refrain as much as we want to, or to the degree that the people around us require our help or demand our gentility. When social pressure is intense, we find less overt, more diabolical ways to channel our aggression, for good or evil. We are not better or worse than men. We can be mean, petty, and selfish.
So how is it that none of these qualities surfaced in ninety-nine percent of the fiction I read when I was growing up? My personal library wasn’t restricted. In the novels and stories I consumed, there were countless female characters: lovable, desirable, unattainable, redemptive, angelic, or maternal, all were products of a society that wanted to believe women are better than men. I didn’t recognize these women. Where was the violent side of our nature represented? Men had their monsters. Where were ours?
Long before I found my way to horror, as a reader and a writer, without realizing it, I sought horrible female characters to confirm what I knew. In mainstream fiction I was drawn to transgressors who allowed a glimpse of the monster inside the female heart. Here are a few of my favorites:
Madame Thérèse Defarge (A Tale of Two Cities)
What a joy, in eighth grade, to discover Madame Thérèse Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities. At first she appears as a maternal figure swept up by the circumstances of the French Revolution. She is recognizable in a crowd because she never stops knitting. As we get to know her, we find she’s a cruel manipulator, an agitator and a bloodthirsty fan of the guillotine. Her knitting, which implies domestic comfort, is actually a means of communicating, in code, whose head is going to roll next.
Mrs. McIntyre (“The Displaced Person”)
In my teens I discovered the grotesque wonders of Flannery O’Connor. Etched in my memory is Mrs. McIntyre from “The Displaced Person,” set in the rural south soon after World War II. A prosperous lady, Mrs. McIntyre asks her parish priest to recommend a foreigner she can “help” by hiring him for less than his labor is worth. She opens her home but not her heart to a Polish immigrant. Anxious to do well, Mr. Guizac out-produces the other employees and costs two of them their jobs. Mrs. McIntyre makes a show of being kind-hearted, but when Mr. Guizac turns out to be a real person with ideas of his own, her charity evaporates. She stands by and watches a horrific accident occur. She has time to note every detail yet she does nothing to save Mr. Guizac. This scene is as shocking today as it was the first time I encountered the story, and while I appreciate the universal implications, it’s still a credit to O’Connor that she made the hateful protagonist a woman.
Eunice Parchman (A Judgement in Stone)
Of Ruth Rendell’s psychological portraits, the most potent are her novellas. A Judgement in Stone begins with this sentence: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” Four people die because their housekeeper, Eunice, is humiliated by her shortcomings. This is not social commentary, but a precise examination of a carefully constructed habitat. Panic drives Eunice. Her victims are a bit selfish and vain but not evil. She doesn’t kill them because they oppress her. She kills them because she wants to and because she can.
Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
In Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, we meet that most terrifying creature, the bad mom. Eva Khatchadourian doesn’t long for motherhood. (Many women don’t.) Eva has done everything. Her adventures have provided a lucrative career producing travel books. She compromises her restless nature by marrying a sweet man who expects a family. Arrogantly she decides to take a stab at maternity because, after all she’s accomplished, how hard can it be? With this laissez-faire attitude, Eva produces a son who hates her and who will become famous for his atrocities. Eva is baffled by her child’s nature and frustrated by her inability to nurture him. She’s unwilling to admit that having a child you don’t want inevitably leads to trouble. She compounds the problem by deciding to have a second child, reasoning that she can’t be this unlucky twice. What drives the story is Eva’s growing awareness that, although she may not be the worst mother who ever lived, she is accountable for putting something terrible into the world. Her only atonement is to accept that fact and deal with it.
Sheba & Barbara (Notes on a Scandal)
There are two horrible women in Zoë Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal (also known as What Was She Thinking?). The first is Sheba, art teacher, wife and mother of two, who has a passionate, juvenile affair with a fifteen-year-old student. The second is Barbara, the unreliable narrator obsessed with Sheba. Both women behave badly, but it’s Barbara and her cloak of respectability as a senior teacher and confidante who is gradually revealed to be a monster. Her steady manipulation of Sheba reduces the younger woman to a state of complete dependence. This is exactly what Barbara wants; not love, not friendship, not companionship, but absolute control over another person. It is a vivid and disturbing portrait of emotional greed.
These characters served a purpose in my life. We need to read these stories. When real women do awful things, we pretend that the behavior is freakish. I think this habit is unhealthy. By refusing to admit our violent impulses and unappealing motives, we keep women in partial shadow. We don’t accept women as complete and fallible. People who are infallible or unassailable can’t be real. How can they demand rights? How can they insist on taking charge of their own bodies and actions? I’m grateful to these writers for keeping me going, for not leaving me in the limbo of doubt that forms when society at large insists on a reassuring lie.
In the big world of publishing, however, good and redemptive female characters are still prized above scary ones. I’ve listed five favorites out of thousands of stories.
And I can tell you why there are so few of these characters running loose in the general fiction aisles: As a mainstream writer I’ve been told many times that my work is compelling, but my female characters tend to upset people; they’re not likable enough; they do dreadful things; they don’t seem to worry enough about the consequences of their actions; they don’t “come around” to normalcy.
To which I say: I’m not forming a prayer group here. I’m trying to get at certain truths about human nature. Niceness doesn’t come into it.
In pursuit of such truth, I made my way, a few years ago, from mainstream fiction to horror. I’m glad I did. This magnificent genre allows a fuller exploration of what is most dangerous and frightening in all of us. Lucy Taylor’s characters scare the hell out of me. Read her story, “Making the Woman,” and try not to cry. Sarah Langan’s heroines are sharply drawn and unsentimental. Sara Gran’s wonderful short novel, Come Closer follows an ordinary career woman who begins to merge with a supernatural entity set on destroying everything around her. Fran Friel cuts loose in Mama’s Boy, a portrait so horrific it challenges the Bates family for mother-son creepiness. Add to this collection the hair-raising stories of Livia Llewellyn. These gals—and many more—do not dabble in horrible female characters. They delve. They revel. They’ve created a body of work that demonstrates what women are really made of—everything. Just like men.
In mainstream fiction I found a few anomalies. In horror I’ve found a home.
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