Monday, October 27, 2008

Women and Horror

(cross-posted on

There was an essay in yesterday's New York Times Sunday Book Review called “Shelley’s Daughters”, about contemporary women authors who are writing in the vein of psychological horror opened by such visionary authors as Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

And I’m in it.

Right there beside three other contemporary female authors whose powerful and disturbing work I love: Sarah Langan, Sara Gran, and Elizabeth Hand.

Wow. The New York Times. I mean, coming from Southern California, specifically from philistine Hollywood, I have to admit this is a little freaky. That’s, like, a real newspaper from a real city, read by actual grownups. It’s so big. And it has so many words. People routinely take a whole day out of their week just to read that paper.

So that’s the first slightly surreal thing about this.

But the other, really surreal thing is – those authors. Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson and the lesser-known Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote a short story called “The Yellow Wallpaper”, about a woman's descent into madness when confined to her room to rest from an "hysterical condition" by her physician husband, which was an absolutely pivotal shift in my consciousness as a woman and a writer at the time that I read it. I’m linking to it so that anyone who’s missed it has a chance to see what I’m talking about.


If I had to make a list of three authors who had done the most to influence and inspire what I write, and a bit how I live as a woman, that would arguably be it. The top three.

So to be considered in the same essay with them, in such a public forum, is a shockingly intimate thing.

And it means that I really am writing what I think I’m writing. That other people see it that way, too. Now, that might be sort of the point of all this writing to begin with, and I guess I’ve been becoming more aware of that from other reviews that I’ve gotten and from letters I get from readers and feedback I get in person at signings.

But I’ve never had it driven home in exactly this way before. That I am. Writing EXACTLY. What I think I’m writing.

Maybe other authors here don’t have the same genre identity problem going that I do. But look, it gets confusing. Depending on which bookstore or library you walk into, I’m shelved in horror (if there is even a horror section, which these days there usually isn’t), sometimes mystery/thriller, sometimes fiction and literature. I go to mystery, thriller, romance, horror, and even sci-fi/fantasy conferences, and have readers at each. Add to that the fact that as a screenwriter I would work on projects that could start out as adventure thrillers and end up as musicals, through that special process Hollywood calls “development”; and add to THAT my own personality disorder – I mean, chameleon nature - and the fact that my own publisher is careful not to call what I do “horror” – which by all accounts is a dead genre, at least for the time being…

Yes, I’d say I’m confused.

And it’s also frustrating because I know it’s hard for people to find my books. There’s no consistency. It’s worrisome - how many people just give up? I can’t tell you how often I’ve asked my agent if I should just write a straight thriller for the next book, and he always says, No, it’s going to take some time, but you’re doing something that nobody else is doing, and people will find you.

Well, reading that article made me realize that he has it right – that not many people at all are writing this kind of thing – and that’s why I got that shock of recognition seeing my name with Sarah Langan, Sara Gran and Elizabeth Hand, who ARE writing this kind of thing. What it is, is feminist horror. Or since the Right has somehow insidiously twisted “feminism” into as dirty a word as “politically correct” - even just feminine horror.

That’s what galvanized me about Shelley, Jackson and Gilman when I discovered them, growing up. Not just that they told ripping good scary stories, dripping with perverse sexuality and unnerving psychological insight, but that those stories were from an unmistakably and unrelentingly female point of view. About oppression and patriarchy and a kind of madness, but prophetic madness, that comes with always being the Other.


Let’s face it – women have a lot to say about horror. We live with violence on a much more intimate and everyday level than most men do. A walk out to the parking lot from the grocery store can on any given night turn into a nightmare from which some women will never fully recover.

I think security expert and author Gavin DeBecker got it exactly right when he said “A man’s greatest fear about a woman is that she’ll laugh at him. A woman’s greatest fear about a man is that he’ll kill her.”

Women know what it’s like to be prisoners in their own homes, what it’s like to be enslaved, to be stalked, to be prostituted, what it’s like to be ultimately powerless. And they know everything there is to know about rage, even when it’s so deeply buried they don’t know that’s what it is they’re feeling.

(When I start to think about it, the mystery to me is why more women AREN’T writing horror.)

Now, I’ve been writing for a long time, and I’ve known for a long time that that’s what I was exploring in my writing. And because I’ve worked in Hollywood and had to, you know, eat - I’ve learned how to couch that in entertainment, even write primarily about men, when the real story in the story is what’s happening with the women.

But we get caught up in all the chaotic day-to-day of being authors, especially fairly new authors, and we sometimes forget what it is we’re trying to say. We forget the mission statement.

And the mission might change, too, so subtly that we’re not aware of the change.

I know why some authors don’t read their reviews. I understand how it might be better to just write by your internal compass, and not worry about what gets said in print. And whoever said that if you’re going to read your reviews, you have to read them ALL as truth – the good and the bad – I think that person has it right. And I’ve read some whopping bad ones, and I have to – cringingly - admit the truth of them. (And there’s sometimes unexpected gold – I’ll always cherish the bad review that ended with: “I’ll buy her next book, but I’m not looking forward to it.”)

But now I understand a little better the value of outside criticism. Sometimes in all the day-to-day chaos, someone can suddenly remind you exactly who you are, and what you’ve been trying to do all along.

Authors, what would be your ideal list of three other authors to be compared with? Or who would be your three authors who influenced you the most as a writer? And/or – have you ever had a review that reminded you exactly what your mission was?

And readers, who would be the three authors who have influenced you the most as a person?


Morgan Mandel said...

Mary Higgins Clark
Dick Francis
Sideney Sheldon

All 3 are easy to read authors and that's also my style. I want people to lose themselves in my books and my characters without worrying too much about figuring things out.
Morgan Mandel

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Great mission statement and some classic authors, there, Morgan! MHC really is the Queen of Suspense, love her.

Other Lisa said...

Hemingway, Didion, Le Guin - compact, precise pose combined with powerful ideas.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wow, impressive and diverse list, Lisa. Really makes me curious about what kind of books you're writing.

Other Lisa said...

Um, well, at this point, books represented by a really great agent that haven't sold yet! :)

Really wonderful write-up in the NY Times, Alexandra. And I went and read the Yellow Wallpaper story. Now I really want to read your book!

Kathryn Magendie said...

I can't say who influenced me - my brain won't work like that and I wish it did. Author's names fly out of my head soon after I've read their book and turned to the next one--unless I make some kind of contact or I write a review of the book, something to brand the author in my weary weird brain.

But, I can say that all the books I read as a child were what influenced me the most -- Black Beauty, The Black Stallion books, Call of the Wild! If it had a horse, a dog, or a wolf - it was mine for the reading.

The blog looks great by the way - love the new photo!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lisa, I think you'll find yourself turning "The Yellow Wallpaper" over in your mind for years to come.

Kat, those books make perfect sense for you - you are such a wild child. And you're writing books and authors DOWN, now, right? I hope all my scolding wasn't for naught.... ;)

Kathryn Magendie said...

*laughing!* um...yes! of course! um...I am! (okay, sometimes...) Right now I've been reading for reviewing so much...but, I am getting better at NOTICING things and then filing them away in my pea-sized head with the frenetic brain nestled...

By the way, I linked you to my MSN blog in my writer's/editor/s tips today:

Becky LeJeune said...

I think that you are absolutely right in that more women should be writing horror.

I wish I were writing more. I read so much that there would be any number of authors I could say influenced me. I would have to say my top one would be Stephen King, though, as cliche as it might seem.

First off, because I am such a big fan of the horror genre, I feel like he's played a huge role in making it more mainstream with modern readers - even high school English classes are now reading him. Most important to me, though, is that as a writer he is constantly evolving his style. It's nice to have an old stand-by that you know you can read and enjoy, but I know that every new King book is going to be different from everything out there and from everything else he's written. If I were writing, this is something that I would definitely strive for.

the walking man said...

I could never understand the "not reading the reviews," all commentary has some value no?

Of course when I was performing and doing slams the criticism was immediate and brutal. ha ha ha ha Kinda hard to get out of hearing that particular joy.

I agree with the assessment of women and their disregarded fears by most men. But I grew up with strong women and most of my male friends think I am somewhat twisted in that regard. *shrug* too late to change now.


Edgar Guest
Stephen Crane

Congratulations, Alexandra, on the review in that bastion of "not real America." Maybe next time you'll get picked up by the Billings Montana Gazette.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Becky, of course King is that shadow that looms large for me, too. It's not even reading - it's like being sucked into an alternate dimension and just living whatever is happening. He has an hypnotic power like no one else... except maybe Ayn Rand, for me.

I wish you were writing more, too! Just do it!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Walking Man! I need to link to you.

I could have called Brautigan and Bukowski for sure, but the rest of your list makes total sense, too.

I know what you mean about performing - all writers should do it, just to realize that written criticism is a walk in the park, comparatively.

Re:the Billings Montana Gazette- what makes you think I haven't been? ;)