Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Interview: Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

In the fall of 2019, a remarkable book called Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction was published by Quirk Books. What was so remarkable about it? It was the first overview of the importance of women to the horror genre that was not aimed at academics . . . despite the fact that the book’s authors, Lisa Kröger (Ph.D. in Gothic Literature) and Melanie R. Anderson (assistant professor of English at Delta State University), were both largely academic writers. Unlike their earlier books together—Shirley Jackson, Influences and Confluence (2016) and The Ghostly and the Ghosted in Literature and Film (2013)—Monster, She Wrote was aimed at a wide audience (it even included whimsical illustrations!). It went on to win both the Bram Stoker Award and the Locus Award, and inspired Valancourt Books to introduce a line of Monster, She Wrote books. The authors also produce and host the Monster, She Wrote and The Know Fear Cast podcasts, and write individual works as well.

You both came from academic backgrounds, yet Monster, She Wrote is most definitely not written for academic readers. Was the book always conceived of for a broader readership, or did you first imagine it as an academic study?

MELANIE R. ANDERSON (MA): I don’t think we ever viewed Monster, She Wrote as an academic study. Unfortunately, academic publishing rarely reaches people outside of academe, especially articles in journals. After grad school, Lisa and I had many conversations about how to share what we were researching with a broader audience. Our first foray into this was our podcast The Know Fear Cast (which we host with another friend from grad school, Matt Saye). When we initially thought of a project on women writers of horror, we toyed with ideas like websites and blogs, but we landed on a book. We had written introductions to two collections of academic essays together, so it seemed like a natural next step to work together on a larger project that would move beyond academe.

LISA KRÖGER (LK): We always wanted Monster, She Wrote to be for a broader audience. Melanie and I have both worked in the academic realm for a while—and while we are both proud of the work we’ve done there, we wanted this to be more celebratory. It’s meant to be a fun read for people who really love the genre. I’m a book lover first and an academic second. When we were initially talking about how the book would take shape, I really wanted this to be a book that people would love, something they would want to keep around and read again. That also informed the beautiful artwork. The artist is Natalya Balnova.

The book’s reading style is light and breezy—you gotta love a book that compares seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish to the Kardashians. Did that style come naturally, or did you have to remind yourselves from time to time that this wasn’t a work for scholars?

MA: I’m so glad to hear this! For a book that was written by two people, and two people who have academic backgrounds, no less, I was really pleased with how the style and tone turned out, and I hoped for the same reaction from readers. I think this happened for a few reasons. Lisa and I had written together before and were comfortable with that process, and, of course, editing and revising helped. Even if my first draft was too “academical,” we could rework it and loosen it up. I think we’ve also both felt constrained a bit by academic writing in the past. I’ve always worked to make my scholarly publications as accessible as possible, so, for me, writing Monster, She Wrote let me free up my style even more. Now, I’ve had to revise academic language back into my scholarly publications!

LK: Thank you for saying that the style is “light and breezy”! I’m glad we were able to pull that off. Honestly, I did find that the tone came naturally. Academic writing can feel very unnatural to me, personally. It always felt to me like putting on heavy armor and trying to dance, so that has never been easy for me. But this book mimics my own natural style much more. Cavendish and the Kardashians . . . that’s basically a look at what my brain’s inner monologue is doing at any given moment! I don’t know what that says about me . . . but there it is.

I thought I knew the field of Victorian women horror writers pretty well, but you introduced me to a few I wasn’t aware of (like Mary Anne Radcliffe—no relation to the original Ann Radcliffe other than homage—and Charlotte Dacre). As you’ve researched these nineteenth-century authors, were you ever surprised by just how many of them there were?

LK: The amount of the Gothic writers in the early nineteenth century didn’t surprise me, but that is also where my dissertation and subsequent academic studies have focused. I was shocked, however, by the amount of Victorian/Edwardian ghost story writers that came a few decades later. The number of women writing and publishing at the same time as Charles Dickens really interested me. In school, I rarely heard about any of them—you’d have thought Dickens invented that kind of story in a vacuum. And we honestly only scratched the surface. Women were publishing widely during that time—and they were prolific. So many of these women made entire careers and supported families on the money that they made publishing. Some of these women even owned and edited magazines.

MA: I was surprised by how many women wrote ghost stories and made a living doing it. In grad school, I was studying twentieth-century American literature, but since I was writing about ghost stories, I wanted to expand my reading, and that was how I discovered that women were major players in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century supernatural fiction. I, too, had fallen into the trap of thinking of Dickens as the central figure of nineteenth-century supernatural letters. However, between Lisa telling me about the eighteenth-century Gothic writers and one of our professors, who was an expert on Gothic literature, recommending American and British women’s ghost stories for me to read, I had an embarrassment of riches. And I’m still stumbling upon more as I read and research.

Why do you think so many of the women you cover in Monster, She Wrote are still relatively obscure? The ones who are better known—Charlotte Riddell, Ann Radcliffe, certainly Mary Shelley—seem to be those who stayed mostly within the Gothic/ghost/horror genre, while those who wrote in a greater variety of genres seem to be far less read. Does it have to do with the fact that some of them only wrote a handful of genre-specific stories, or is it decades of sexism at work?

LK: That’s a complex question with a complex answer, but I’ll do my best. Some of it is because these women were publishing in formats that were meant for wide consumption, meaning that they were the popular lit of their day. They were the penny dreadfuls, so to speak. The paper was cheaply made, and people just didn’t keep copies. That’s the bane of genre. It isn’t always preserved in the way that “high literature” is. There’s probably also some sexism there too. Academics, for instance, were much more careful about preserving Lovecraft’s fiction than someone like Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who published as Frances Stevens at the same time as Lovecraft. So, her stories have not been as widely anthologized and discussed, even though she was publishing sometimes in the same issues as Lovecraft. And there’s also the genre bias too. In some academic circles, genre is just not as well respected, so it does take someone making an enormous impact (by writing a staggering amount of stories in one genre) for them to stand out. Sometimes when writers write across genres, the horror stories can be forgotten. Take Joyce Carol Oates, as an example. People celebrate her as a fantastic writer, but they sometimes forget that she writes spectacular horror too.

MA: I do think choices have been made about whose work is reprinted and/or anthologized that historically have favored male writers. Lisa cites a good example with Lovecraft. But there’s also the genre angle that Lisa mentions. I think it’s great that you’ve listed Riddell in the question, but I first heard of her because of her social realism novels. And this was something that happened to Edith Wharton. She is a canonical American writer, but that status is primarily due to her realist work and not her supernatural work. I read The Age of Innocence in college before I ever knew she wrote ghost stories. Same with Elizabeth Gaskell. When realism was preferred by the movers and shakers, writers’ ghost stories were ignored, and, since women were writing a lot of ghost stories, that led to a vacuum. I hadn’t thought about this before, but I wonder if Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley might have survived because they were so popular at their time and at the forefront of literary movements that later would be taught: the Gothic and Romanticism.

One of the things that I took away from Monster, She Wrote was how often these women seemed to be involved in social or political causes (in the book’s conclusion, you note that, “These genres of fiction are instruments with which women writers can shake up society . . .”). Should modern female horror writers take a lesson from these spiritual ancestors, and do their own shaking up?

LK: Horror is inherently political, even when it doesn’t mean to be. Horror pushes at people’s boundaries, to make them examine what they fear. How is that not political? I look at something like Night of the Living Dead. George Romero has said in interviews that he cast Duane Jones as the lead because he was the best actor, not because of any kind of race identity. But Jones’s race did make a powerful political message come alive within the movie. There’s no escaping that. Similarly, Mary Shelley was making a political/social message with Frankenstein—and I think she was very intentional in that. But, like the Romero films, it is also just a great horror read. So, to answer the question, yes, writers, please shake things up! But also, don’t forget we write horror because it is fun. We want to tell a great, scary story. So, writers today, tell us a story that awakens our senses, as Ann Radcliffe would say. And shake up society when you do it. Sometimes, simply putting pen to paper and telling your story is one of the most political things you can do.

MA: We did note several writers throughout the book who were actively involved in social or political critique or protest. Horror plays on fear, and it can be transformative and transgressive. This mix makes it a perfect vehicle for exploring historically marginalized experiences. The horrors of being a woman in a patriarchal world can be portrayed through genre fiction with monsters, ghosts, etc., and have an underlying social critique. So, while women authors have been and are involved in activism in addition to writing, I think that in a patriarchal society, just the act of a woman writing a story focused on women and their experiences shakes things up socially and politically.

In the introduction to your chapter on women authors during the pulp magazine era, you mention the importance of female editors as well as writers; and before the chapter on modern paperbacks, you discuss some of the women artists who created the striking images that sold so many of those 1980s and ’90s novels. Do you think that the influence of women in these non-writer positions within the horror genre might be greater than many readers know?

MA: I think so. One of the seeds of Monster, She Wrote came from our curiosity about how many women were writing for pulp magazines, and I was surprised how many there were once we started looking at the work of academics like Lisa Yaszek and Eric Leif Davin. And before that, I knew nothing about Dorothy McIlwraith, who was lead editor of Weird Tales for a time in the 1940s, and Margaret Brundage, who was such a popular and influential cover artist for Weird Tales in the 1930s. I’m not sure how to quantify their influence, but I love that they were there, and that other women must have been involved as well. Being an editor choosing writers and stories is certainly an important gatekeeper role, and the cover illustrations would’ve been most readers’ first interaction with the magazine on stands.

LK: Absolutely, yes! When we first started this book, we wanted to include all the women who built the genre. On our list, we had editors, artists, directors, screenwriters, and even the horror hosts, like Vampira and Elvira. Even reviewers and influencers on social media help to shape what we see as horror. After all, writers don’t write in a vacuum. Inspiration is collaborative. But our editor had to (gently) remind us that we needed to rethink how we wrote this book; otherwise, it would have been a thousand pages! But yes, non-writer positions are absolutely so influential in building up and shaping the genre. Again, I think about the book as an art object. Everyone who makes that book is important, not just the writer. The writer conceives the story, usually through reading books and watching films that have come before. Then an editor shapes the story. They are magicians! And then an artist or designer brings an idea that only existed in the imaginary realm into physical being. Tell me that’s not alchemy.

In the last third of Monster, She Wrote, you devote a fair amount of space to both YA writers like Suzanne Collins, and writers like Kathe Koja who have turned to YA after writing adult horror fiction. Why do you think YA horror has become so popular with women writers over the last twenty years?

LK: I don’t know, honestly, but if I had to guess, I’d say that most of us found horror in childhood. I know I grew up on a steady diet of Vincent Price and books by R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike. There was one book I dearly loved, called The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright, which got a mention in the book. Plus, women know how close to horror adolescence can be. Our bodies are changing in a very public way, not just for us in ways we can see, but in ways that change how the world interacts with us, men especially. It’s scary. Plus, there’s blood and hair . . . not to get too graphic, but there’s a very good reason that werewolf narratives often accompany puberty narratives. I think women enjoy writing YA horror because it is a strange kind of comfort food for us, but also because it helps us make sense of what was a very strange part of our lives. Plus, it’s like handing the horror “rulebook” down to the next generation. There’s something fun in that.

MA: I agree with Lisa that YA audiences are at just the right time in their lives to gravitate to horror. YA wasn’t as defined when I was growing up as it is now, but I often gravitated toward haunted, creepy reading. There’s a curiosity about scary things at that time in life. And while there may not be the same content of an adult horror book, a YA horror by a woman can address similar themes women face, but place younger characters into those situations.

Before Monster, She Wrote, you edited together a collection of academic papers called Shirley Jackson, Influences and Confluences. Why do you think that Shirley Jackson’s popular recognition seems to continually grow?

MA: I think the twenty-first century is finally Jackson’s time. Genre fiction is popular now, and I think we are at a point that her incisive portrayals of women’s experiences can be appreciated in ways they couldn’t be in the 1940s and 1950s. Critics often didn’t know what to do with Jackson. Modernists loved her language, the way she got into her characters’ heads, and her uses of folklore and myth, but they didn’t understand why she wrote genre fiction, or included genre elements in her more realist work. Her ability to see horror in the everyday and her use of ambiguity are masterful. And for my part, I think The Haunting of Hill House is a turning point and touchstone in haunted house literature.

LK: Shirley Jackson is our queen! I think people are relating to her work because she was a master at her craft. I don’t think you can write a haunted house book today without recognizing Hill House as the ultimate haunted house. It changed the game. Jackson also had a pulse on what it means to be an outsider. It haunts all her works. She knew how to craft a “normal” setting that is wholly unwelcoming to whoever is cast as “other.” That kind of narrative will never become outdated, which is why I think her star isn’t fading.

Several times in the introduction to your Shirley Jackson book, you mention the influence of her work on film as well as literature. What are some of the films—outside of specific adaptations of her work—where you most see her long shadow?

LK: When I first started reading adult horror fiction, I immediately turned to Stephen King. I loved (and still do love) the worlds he was able to create. But now, having read Shirley Jackson, I can’t read or watch The Shining without seeing Hill House. Every haunted house today is some version of Hill House. That’s one reason I always enjoy Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. There’s a footnote in that book about Jackson—I think that’s a metaphor for horror today. It all has a footnote mentioning Shirley Jackson.

MA: I agree with Lisa that every haunted house story, written or filmed, since Jackson, most likely has some debt to her work. In that collection of essays, we included a piece by Bernice M. Murphy about how Jackson’s character Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle fit into and extended the “bad seed” trope, particularly in film. I feel like Jackson’s influence can be seen in the classic Twilight Zone as well. It’s hard to look at anything that involves the uncanny, ambiguity, and possibly domestic or suburban horror and not think of Jackson’s work.

The work you’re doing with Valancourt Books right now—a series of releases of works by women authors, each with introductions by one of you and branded to resemble the distinctive look of Monster, She Wrote—is a wonderful way to learn more about some unfairly-neglected writers. Do you get to choose the works? If so, how do you make these choices?

MA: Valancourt Books’ mission to bring lost and neglected titles back to the attention of readers is amazing, and working with them to do a little of that restoration with our series has been great. The press has a better idea than we do of what is available for publication and what that process entails, especially if something isn’t in the public domain, so they came to us with ideas. But we definitely were involved in conversations about candidates for the series and what was possible, which was very fun.

LK: The team at Valancourt Books is doing fantastic work. They already have done so much research and they have a vast catalogue themselves, so a lot of the time, they already had ideas. But we did collaborate quite a bit on which authors we wanted to include. They already had a past with the Gothics, so Manfroné was an easy choice. The stories that are in the public domain are also easy choices. It gets trickier when we can’t get the rights to a story (or if we can’t track down who owns the rights). Sometimes, too, we found that older stories have distasteful subject matter that today’s readers won’t want to see. Racism was rampant in the pulps, which can make publishing tricky to navigate. We talked a lot about what was not worth reprinting. And sometimes, heartbreakingly, we’d have a novel to reprint only to find that pieces of the narrative were missing. The text just was gone—disappeared to time. So, we may never see those stories reprinted. But I do love the stories we did have. Lisa Tuttle is someone I really wanted to see more widely read, so I was ecstatic that we got to be a part of getting that one in print. It’s a dream to work with Valancourt and see more books in the world.

Melanie, I’m especially intrigued to see that you provided the introduction for Valancourt’s The Women of Weird Tales. Did you choose the stories? In Monster, She Wrote, you talk about the difficulty of both finding these stories and gathering information about the authors; I know that many of the stories are available through online sites like pulpmags.org, but even those present difficulties in tracking down particular pieces, so . . . was there anything unusually hard in assembling Valancourt’s Weird Tales book?

MA: Yes, finding the pulp stories can be maddeningly difficult for many reasons. My primary responsibility was writing the introduction for The Women of Weird Tales, so I didn’t set up the initial slate of stories. The cast of writers for the book came from mentions in Monster, She Wrote, so I was pretty familiar with them. I did find more information about Greye La Spina while writing the introduction, though. The stories in the book are pretty much the ones Valancourt suggested based on availability, except for La Spina’s “The Antimacassar”; Lisa and I suggested that one.

Lisa, you’ve started to write fiction. Considering how deeply versed you are in the fiction of the past, do you ever have an extra dose of imposter syndrome to overcome?

LK: I am the walking embodiment of imposter syndrome. I am finally beginning to put my fiction out there, but I am also a terribly harsh critic of my own work. I’ll write something, and then I’ll read stories by someone like Lisa Tuttle or Elizabeth Engstrom and think, “What am I doing? I can’t do this!” I have an acute awareness of the tradition I’m stepping into, and that’s heavy sometimes. But then I remind myself that my fiction has room to grow. And I’m telling these stories because it is fun! Comparison is death to creativity. I remind myself of that a lot.

If you could have a reader come away from your work with one thing, what would it be?

MA: The realization that every step of the way women have been writing dark fiction, and they’re still doing it. And, as a result of that realization, I hope the book and the Valancourt series give horror fans more to read and draw readers who don’t think of themselves as horror fans into trying some subgenre.

LK: At the end of each woman’s biography, we included a suggested reading list. That was intentional. In part, we wanted to include the writers that we didn’t have in the main text (due to publishing space or sometimes lack of information on the author). But we also wanted to make our book interactive. We wanted those pieces to be invitations for our readers to go out and read more. That’s the beautiful thing about this history of women writing horror. There are so many stories to read! And more women today are writing horror than maybe ever. It’s almost too much for one person to read. Our book is not comprehensive. Not even by a little bit. It’s just a beginning. After they read our book, I want people to just go out and find their new favorite writers.

Lastly: you end Monster, She Wrote by noting that “the future is female.” How conscious are you of your place in that future, and where do you plan on taking that future next?

MA: I’m not sure I’m conscious of my specific place in that future, but I’m excited to see what writers create. As a reader and academic, I’m really curious to observe what happens and, hopefully, get to keep sharing and commenting on it in my writing, podcasts, and teaching. Lisa and I are working on a second nonfiction book, this time about women and the occult, and that’s led to interesting research. And I seem always to have an iron in the fire in academic publishing. For instance, I co-edited another collection of scholarly essays on Shirley Jackson that came out in June of 2020.

LK: I don’t know if I consciously think of my place in the future. I love seeing what women writers are out there creating. As a reader, that excites me. Mel and I do have a second book, hopefully coming out in 2022. It’s called Toil and Trouble, and it’s a kind of history of women’s interaction with the occult in America and how they have used the occult as a form of rebellion. I’m really excited to see that one make it into bookstores. I’m also working on fiction and screenplays; imposter syndrome be damned. I’m part of the NYX horror collective, which focuses on women creating horror in television, film, and new media (like podcasts). We recently produced 13 Minutes of Horror: Folklore, which ran on Shudder from August 13-September 13. We did an online film fest alongside it. The 2022 theme is Science Fiction Horror. Whatever my part is in the future of horror, I’m excited for it.

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and 150 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert. Her recent releases include Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction from Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852-1923 (co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger) and Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances; her latest short stories appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2020, Speculative Los Angeles, and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other  Spectacles. Forthcoming in 2021 is the collection Night Terrors & Other Tales. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and online at lisamorton.com.