Category Archives: literature

Women in Horror Month

Enter, you. You’re a writer. You’re a horror writer. You’re a woman.

***

You go to see a new horror movie. It is filled with young ladies in peril, and then in various states of undress (still in peril), and then in various states of dissection (still in undress). The camera fawns over their destroyed bodies. The one who entered the movie broken gets to live. It’s the reward for her suffering. You come home disappointed. “Well, I could have told you it was going to be like that,” your male roommate says. “If there’s a half-naked girl in the trailer, you know the movie’s going to be rapey.”

***

You are an ambassador of your gender, so you better be good: in your writing, in your attitude, in your openness to overture. Someone generous is taking a chance on you, so don’t disappoint, or you’re the last lady horror writer they will ever try. Don’t scare them off.

***

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Women in Horror month comes around and everybody’s a statistician. Editors lay bare their numbers, and many outlets’ submission data does show that women submit fiction less than men, a fact duly blamed on the female writers for not submitting enough. Not being brave. Of course, you as a woman have never applied for a job for which you feel underqualified, and you have never negotiated a raise. In your current workplace, you don’t engage in as much self-promotion as your male peers. This isn’t just because you’re trying to be nice. You know that a good girl follows the rules and waits her turn and doesn’t push her luck, or herself, onto others. After all, you wouldn’t want to come across as too abrasive. You also notice that some of these outlets only ever seem to publish men, so no wonder you wouldn’t have submitted there. You know when you’re not wanted.

***

You write a story that includes some discussion of gender issues. You worry you’re overdoing it. You worry you’re going to be labeled as a writer with a political agenda, mostly because you are a woman writing about gender. If you were a man, you would be writing a story. But you are a woman and you are writing a polemic. You do it anyway.

***

You are invited to an anthology. You hope it is not just because you are a woman, or because you are young, or because you are (half) a minority. But even if it is, oh well. You believe the editors are trying to do the right thing.

***

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Women in Horror Month is here and it’s a giant popularity contest, even more than writing already is: let’s-name-all-the-female-horror-writers-we-can-possibly-name! You don’t look at the lists, because you know you’re still not on them, and that worm of self-doubt that lives inside your brain doesn’t need any more to chew on (why do you even try?), thank you. Then you feel bad and jealous, and bad because you feel jealous. You re-read the manifesto, “In Which We Teach You How To Be A Woman In Any Boys’ Club,” and remember that progress for one is progress for all. Besides, you feel shitty about promoting yourself anyway – how dare you, who the fuck are you? Then you feel shitty about not promoting yourself – you’re a dumb ass and you deserve everything you get.

***

You go to see another new horror movie, a sequel to one of your all-time favorites. You anticipate that it will be terrible, and it is. It has also introduced a brand new rape-and-captivity subplot to explain the origin of all the evil. It’s our punishment for her suffering. The fact that this movie was made is punishment enough. You wonder what it is with blind old recluses and rape these days. The young female lead rests on her side in bed, her breasts lovingly pressed together by her tight white camisole.

***

When you were young, you couldn’t count any women among your favorite writers. You can’t understand any of the female characters you read as humans, let alone as women. The boys in your American Literature class chortle about them, about how their male creators defined them solely by their “easy” sexuality. Your favorite writer in high school admitted that he never writes female characters, because he knows he would be bad at it. He’s kind of right. But you are also bad at it, and you are a girl! Your best friend, another girl, tells you after reading your novel draft, “Either you have a serious problem with women, or do.” And you know it’s you. You were raised on classical British literature and you love big heroic adventure arcs (like paladins, more paladins please) and what’s more, you hate yourself. Then you read The Bell Jar, and that changes everything. Then you read The Haunting of Hill House, and that changes everything again.

***

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Congratulations – you have helped fill an anthology’s diversity quota. Collect $200. You hope your story doesn’t convince somebody never to read another lady horror writer.

***

You and your roommate have seen a lot of horror movies: bad ones, good ones, so-bad-they’re-good ones. You have also noticed that you have never seen male rape depicted in a straight-up genre horror movie. “That would be the worst thing,” your roommate says, shuddering. “As a guy? That would be the most terrifying thing to watch.” You reply, flatly, “Yeah, well, that’s how it is for women, all the time. And we just have to deal. We just have to get used to it.” On-screen, some anonymous woman is crying and afraid.

***

An anthology you are in is accused of reverse discrimination because it is populated solely by female writers. It is accused of having a political agenda (because reinforcing the status quo is never political; only disrupting it): promoting shoddy women over competent men. Other people launch defenses: you have to over-correct to break structural inequality; many anthologies are essentially male-only because no female writers were chosen or submitted to be chosen; it’s important for our society to make sure marginalized voices are heard and the male voice permeates SF/F/H as it is. Meanwhile, you are hit with a soft psychosomatic blow to the stomach. Oh no. What if you are actually shit?

***

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You attend a Superbowl watch party with about 50 other people. When they air the trailer for the next season of Stranger Things, everyone cheers loudly. You are much more subdued. Your coworker leans over and confesses he has yet to watch this show. You say, “Yeah, it’s good. I’m not as enthusiastic about it as most of these guys, because…” “Because you’re a writer,” he guesses. “…Because I didn’t like how it treated its female characters,” you finish. “Like I said,” he says, laughing. “Because you’re a writer.”

 ***

You are lucky. You were supported, by both men and women with more clout and experience and influence and power than you. You try to believe in yourself enough to trust that this support had nothing to do with quotas, nothing to do with anything except your writing. You believe, as good girls always do, that SF/F/H is generally meritocratic – certainly more so than your day job, anyway.

 ***

You have been published since you were 21, and you still feel like an interloper who wouldn’t fit in and wouldn’t have anything intelligent to say. So you are still, mostly, quiet. You find it amazing how confident men are in talking about their work (young men, old men, much-younger-than-you men), how confident they are in talking to older and more established writers, how easy it must be for them to see themselves in their idols. How nice it must be, you think, to feel like the place at the table is already set for you.

 ***

It’s Women in Horror Month, and you read some article asking Where Are All the Women, Are They Just Not Writing?  And you slowly bash your head against the wall.

 ***

Movies Pictured: It Follows; Under The Shadow; The Witch; Darling

Soundtrack: “Sick” – Salem

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a walking study in demonology

In responding to accusations that her character Amy Dunne in Gone Girl perpetuates misogynistic stereotypes, Gillian Flynn says:

the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish … I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.

And also, in explaining her predilection for writing villainous women in general:

I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.

As someone who is writing her own female villain right now, I would like to suggest a few of the noteworthy “bad girls” that came before her and helped to inspire her – female villains that are authentically scary, violent, and arguably evil (I’m generally uncomfortable throwing around “evil,” despite writing in horror). They’re also so enrapturing that you just can’t look away. Clearly, there are many other types of female villains – the Bad Nurse, the Vain Actress, the Jealous Wannabe. The girls on this list, and the one I’m writing, are what I’ll call Superpredators.

Merricat Blackwood, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

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It’s to Jackson’s credit that you don’t quite realize it at first, but Merricat is a mass-murdering little psychopath who kills nearly her entire family for no reason and allows her older sister to take the blame. She exhibits no remorse and no regard for anyone except herself (and maybe her cat) – even her “care” for her older sister is ultimately an attempt to resist any undesired change in her life regardless of the cost she inflicts on others. She’s completely lacking in empathy – completely absorbed by her own logical system, a self-made witchcraft – and completely fine with that.

Tomie, Tomie, by Junji Ito

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Tomie was also born bad to the bone, but she’s more demon than psychopath. Always appearing as a beautiful, conniving high-school girl, Tomie breaks up relationships, ruins friendships, and inspires murder. Inevitably, she always winds up on the wrong side of somebody’s knife, but Tomie is unkillable – an eternal embodiment of the cost of desire. I’ve always thought there was something very bold about Ito’s decision to make his demoness both unquestionably evil at the elemental level and also a perpetual victim of horrific, very human violence.

Beloved, Beloved, by Toni Morrison

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Beloved was the first female character to scare the shit out of me, because Morrison writes her so incomprehensibly alien, so “not right.” She is clearly dead yet clearly corporeal, and imposes an oppressive gloom over a makeshift family that is already struggling uphill to stay together. Like Tomie, Beloved reflects the evil of human society and the darkness of the human heart. Her ultimate childishly selfish objective is to drive everyone else away from her mother using whatever means necessary so she can have her mother to herself – and, apparently, to consume and destroy life.

Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Daisy is oft-dismissed as an ineffectual non-character, but I consider her a non-violent, slothful psychopath. Daisy is vapidly selfish, does not demonstrate capacity to feel for anything except objects (over-the-top melodramatic performances aside), and I think there’s a compelling alt-reading of this book in which she murders her husband’s mistress in cold blood and manipulates her brutish oaf-husband to have her cloying lover killed because he’s begun to inconvenience her. The fact that none of the male characters see this is demonstrative of how well she’s learned to game them.

Callisto, Xena: Warrior Princess

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Try as I might to root for bad-ass and rather boring Xena and idealistic jokester Gabrielle, it was unstable, evil, hyena-laughing Callisto, a female mix of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Apocalypse Now‘s napalm-and-surf-loving Kilgore, who always stole the show. She was such a shameless fiend. Callisto wasn’t born bad – she was driven mad by watching bad Xena kill her family. Like any classical supervillain, Callisto is completely warped by her desire for vengeance over Xena, which she also frequently mistakes for a desire to be Xena.

Katie Featherston, Paranormal Activity

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It’s hard to pick just one female horror spook – they are all over the place, and are usually the angry victims of a patriarchal society – but I went with Katie, the demon-possessed heroine/antagonist of the Paranormal Activity series, because her transformation from relatable girl-next-door to a non-human uber-monster is so shocking and tragic. Katie is also the victim of the patriarchy, having been saddled with the demon by her brother-in-law, and despite her unthinking post-possession brutality, the PA series loves her like Scream loves Sidney Prescott – she’s the bleeding heart of the franchise.

Maybe it’s because I’m absorbed with horror that I think there’s no shortage of evil women. The horror-related question I’m asked most often by friends is “why do all ghosts seem to be women?” and no matter how you answer (I have several stand-by explanations, and I’m sure there are many others), there’s no avoiding the very close relationship that women have with evil, or at least the dark, in horror. Things are different in political fiction – there are some morally corrupt Mata Haris, the Bond Girls who are on the wrong side of Western civilization, but they’re the women Flynn would dismiss as vamps. A lot of political novels have either one female character – a love interest or ingenue, flat with goodness – or no female characters (except a revolving door of prostitutes). It’s easily argued that politics and governance are a man’s game, but real life shows that women can very easily be political villains, no matter whether you think that’s Margaret Thatcher or Jane Fonda. Lady Macbeth aside, I’m not sure fiction has quite reached its full potential on this front. But I hope my girl Carly will be a worthy contribution.

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“bad houses hate our warmth and our human-ness”

Title quote from one of my favorite monologues on haunted houses, in Rose Red (which itself is heavily inspired by The Haunting of Hill House).  The speaker is, of course, a ghost who embodies the “bad house” in question.

The Paris Review has a great essay on the modern economic context of haunted houses.  It touches not only on economic crisis but Jentsch’s (“where one is unclear as to whether an object or figure or a person is inanimate or somehow alive”) and Freud’s (“Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden, and has come into the open”) definition of the uncanny, as well as a place the author calls the Happy Murder Castle.  It’s a winning combo that digs into the psychology of horror:

The Happy Murder Castle was disquieting, uncanny, possessed of an uneasy sense I’ve rarely felt in any structure; I’ll admit there are times I’m tempted to call it “haunted.” We tell ourselves ghost stories perhaps because we truly believe in the paranormal—or perhaps because we just need a word, a term, a story for that vague feeling that would be too silly to admit otherwise.

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“Do you still think such-and-such? Do you still believe so-and-so?”

Philip Roth provides a shrewd class in Literary Analysis 101 – a class that a lot of people (readers and writers) apparently didn’t take.  Particularly relevant for people who write about fictional politics and politicians, I might add.

Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction…

The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make — their density, their substantiality, their lived existence actualized in all its nuanced particulars, is in fact his thought metabolized…

The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel’s action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern — in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things — that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply “the arrangement of the parts,” the “matter of size and order.” The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel…

The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.

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“There is nothing in ‘The God of Small Things’ that is at odds with what I went on to write politically over 15 years. It’s instinctive territory.”

Arundhati Roy, on being a political writer of fiction and non-fiction

“There is nothi…

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birds of a feather

Stumbled upon this neat little interview between two of my favorite film-makers, Joel and Ethan Coen, and my favorite writer, Cormac McCarthy.  No idea McCarthy isn’t a fan of magical realism because “it’s hard enough to get people to believe what you’re telling them without making it impossible”.

I’m not sure he’s getting the point – at least as I understand it – of magical realism.  For me, magical realism (and a lot of spec fic in general) has always been about acknowledging the reality of the unexplained.  It creeps into so much (read: everything) of what I write because I feel like I’ve felt angker, or creeped out, by things that I can’t explain – especially when I lived in Indonesia.  Which is why I prefer the term speculative to fantasy – fantasy implies that it’s not real.

Still, it’s a cute little interview.

definitions

Dawid Michalczyk: “One Afternoon”

I just had to say that Asimov’s has the best definition of spec fiction I have ever seen:

“A good overview would be to consider that all fiction is written to examine or illuminate some aspect of human existence, but that in science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the Universe.”

That’s really beautiful.

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