Women and Horror

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Shelleysharpejuliet

There’s an essay in the New York Times Review of Books tomorrow 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.

130pxyellowwallpapercover

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.

Statue

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?

(As part of my program of complete overextension, I’m also guest blogging at Laura Benedict’s Notes from the Handbasket today as part of her Octoberguest! Series. More on the dark side….)

37 thoughts on “Women and Horror

  1. Allison Brennan

    Wow, I came on just after this post! Yeah!

    Alex, I hear you about genre identity. I suffer from the same problem, and while it wasn’t truly a “problem” at the beginning, it’s become a bit difficult now. And when I launch my supernatural thriller series it’s going to be a huge test–are my readers going to come with me? Or are they going to balk at a slight change of direction?

    I love Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson. I’m going to check out THE YELLOW WALLPAPER because I haven’t read it. The authors who influenced me the most were probably Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe. When I read THE STAND I was changed. I read everything he’d written up to that date. What I loved about Poe was his imagery (which is ironic, because I don’t write overly descriptive narrative.) To a lessor degree, Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark. I remember reading WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN? when I was about 14 or 15 and being riveted and terrified. And Agatha Christie satisfied my need for mental puzzles. In college, Ayn Rand became a favorite of mine. I think my reading was a bit eclectic because other than devouring mysteries, I read pretty much every genre, including science fiction. I remember taking a class before I dropped out of college called, “UTOPIA, DYSTOPIA and MODERN POLITICAL THOUGHT” which opened up a whole world of books like the HANDMAID’S TALE that I’d never discovered before. Maybe that’s why I love Star Trek when they show a perfect society . . . and then you see all the problems with it when implemented (but I tend to be a bit jaded in this area!)

    As a young kid, Lois Duncan and Joan Nixon Lowry were two huge influences on me. And of course Judy Blume.

    Thinking about this has made me realize how narrow my reading choices have become over the last decade. I used to be far better read before I had kids . . .

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, your reading list above could be a carbon copy of mine. You’ll love “The Yellow Wallpaper.” There’s a really good BBC adaptation of the story, too.

    I sympathize with your worry about your thriller readers following you for your supernatural stories – I don’t know why some people balk at supernatural, since it’s just another way of being thrilled, with some spiritual food for thought thrown in, but some readers really don’t want to go there. I should ask more questions about why that is.

    I think you will pick up some people like me who live for it, though!

    Reply
  3. M.J. Rose

    I just came over to this blog after reading the NYT article to find your address so I could send you huge congrats for being in that article – its massively important to be in something like that. I hope you do something special today to celebrate!!!!!!!!

    (And I still don’t know where I belong and doubt I ever will:)

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thank you, MJ – that really means a lot to me. I don’t know where you “belong” but to me you’re boldly going where not many people dare to go- writing strong, openly sexual women in thrilling and psychologically complex settings.

    Hmm, I see a pattern developing here… women authors not quite fitting into genre tracks. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    Alex, many congratulations about the story! Very well deserved.

    You wrote: “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.)”

    With that apt description, my question is why more women aren’t committing murder?

    Reply
  6. R.J. Mangahas

    Wow, Alex. Congratulations. I think it’s fabulous that you’re mentioned among such company. I’ll be sure to pick up my copy of NYT tomorrow. I also admire Sara Gran’s work. The shift from COME CLOSER to DOPE was simply great, because the quality of story was just as good from the supernatural to the straight crime.

    As far as three author’s who have influenced my writing, well that’s sort of hard. However, here are the first three that came to mind:

    1) Ira Levin — mainly because he wrote brilliantly in both thriller (supernatural or otherwise) and crime or a combination of the two. And because that’s the style that I am trying to write in. Actually, he is one of the main reasons that I chose to write seriously in the first place.

    2) Edgar Allan Poe — just because

    3) Tess Uriza Holthe — It was her book WHEN THE ELEPHANTS DANCE that pushed me as well. Though a newer book, it gave me something to shoot for. Even though it’s not a supernatural thriller. Come to think of it, there were some parts that did have supernatural bits and given the context of the story (WWII) I guess it is sort of a thriller. That and she broke (for me anyway) the boundries of how Filipino people are generally portrayed in fiction. Usually they’re depicted as house servants. With Holthe’s book, they are main characters.

    As far as your statement about why MORE women aren’t writing horror, I have to agree with that.

    I know this comment seems a bit long, I just have a lot to say about the topic you wrote about this week Alex (maybe I should do my own post(s) on this subject 🙂 ).

    And congrats again on the article.

    Reply
  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, I completely agree about Ira Levin, of course, and Sara Gran – COME CLOSER and DOPE are two jewels of two separate genres. Amazing range, she has.

    You’ve mentioned WHEN ELEPHANTS DANCE before – this time I’m writing it down.

    Reply
  8. Rae

    Congratulations Alex! Well deserved!

    As for influential authors, I guess I’d start with whoever wrote the Bible – we all live our lives according to the belief system it lays out.

    Then, JRR Tolkien. The world he created has fascinated me from the moment I first read the book in the early 70s. And the underlying theme of “do the right thing no matter how impossiblel it is, and no matter what is the personal cost” is one that resonates hugely with me.

    Cheers,Rae

    (P.S. I’m thinking “Bouchercon a Go Go” sounds pretty good as the theme for our disco dance party in San Francisco 😉

    Reply
  9. Kaye Barley

    Alex – Congratulations on the NYT article! Loved reading it and loved seeing you receive this well-deserved recognition. Please just continue writing what you feel, ’cause those of us who are loving it would rather seek you out wherever you might be than see you get pigeon-holed just ’cause.

    My reading list has always been pretty eclectic, but I do always seem to come back to re-read some old favorites; Shirley Jackson being right there at the top of the list. Have not read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but feel the need now, for sure.

    And this quote of Gavin DeBeckers? “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.” oh man, Alex. That was dead chilling to read!

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Kaye, I think you’ll see what I mean about “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

    And if you haven’t read Gavin DeBecker’s THE GIFT OF FEAR, it’s really a must. It’s all about how we always KNOW exactly when we’re being threatened and who exactly is threatening us. It really gives you all the questions you need to ask if you’re ever in a dicey situation.

    Reply
  11. JT Ellison

    Alex, SO excited for you! Your recognition is so well-deserved. You’re one of the few horror/thriller/suspense authors I read simply because you take these huge themes and make them accessible. It’s wonderful work, and I love it.

    And now I have yet another list of new books to try. I’m diving into the otherworld for my new book, so all the influences I can get, I’ll take. So thanks, all!

    Reply
  12. Lisa Hendrix

    Congratulations on being included in such a wonderful article, Alexandra. I hope you celebrate tomorrow with purchases of multiple copies and a Cosmopolitan to drink with each one.

    For my part, I’d love to be compared to authors like Laura Kinsale, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels/Barbara Mertz, and Ellis Peters.

    My biggest influences in my early years would have been James Michener, Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, and Victoria Holt (I cheated; so shoot me). A strange mix, I realize, but my reading habits were and are very eclectic; as a kid, those are the authors I went back to time and time again (and yes, I started dipping into my parents copy of Hawaii at age 6 or 7). The writer who led me directly into romance, however, was the inimitable Kathleen Woodiwiss. I discovered her in my 20s and never looked back.

    Reply
  13. Dana King

    Congratulations, Alex. Not only fore the recognition, but because the authors you’re cited with have such historical figures. It’s not like they compared you to a couple of worthy contemporaries they just happened to have on their minds.

    The three that would get my motor running most would be to be compared to Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Ed McBain. The nicest thing anyone ever said about my writing was when a friend described a short story of mine as “Chandler-esque,” without knowing I thought he was the master.

    Good on you.

    Reply
  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, honey!

    I didn’t know you were doing supernatural in your next book. How cool! Actually I don’t understand how anyone who writes thrillers wouldn’t be tempted to deal with the otherworld at some point in their writing…

    Reply
  15. Fiona

    Alex, what a great topic. Congratulations! I’m so glad that they are going to introduce more readers to your work.

    You gave me a lot to think about. Hmmmmmm.First on my list is Kate Wilhelm. I read her short story collection “The Downstairs Room” when I was in High School. I got it at a library book sale. I think that book made me want to be a writer.Next on the list is Margaret Atwood. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the scariest thing I have every read.Last would be Lois McMaster Bujold. I love her space opera. My favorite book of hers is “Memory” but I love the whole series. What great women in her books.

    Reply
  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, I like your way of celebrating. I like your lists even more. That’s a great mix of authors – I haven’t read any of them in years and now I’m wondering why.

    Dana, thanks, and I love your list, too. Isn’t it interesting how much you can infer about what people write from these lists?

    Reply
  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fiona, I completely agree about HANDMAID’S TALE. Terrifying.

    THE DOWNSTAIRS ROOM is a fantastic title – I haven’t read any Wilhelm, but that makes me want to. Space opera… maybe not so much!

    Reply
  18. Fiona

    Alex, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the depth of social commentary and exploration of gender politics and ethical issues in Bujold’s writing. Some if it is very dark, too.

    The DOWNSTAIRS ROOM was first published in the late 60’s and is a fantastic look at gender and other social issues from that time. I may have to dig it out and reread it next week.

    Oh no, my TBR pile has increased again.

    Reply
  19. Laura Benedict

    You’ve totally voiced so much of what I feel myself here, Alex. I appreciate it so very much. It took me way, way too long to discover my material and I only just glanced it with IM–but now I feel much more confident about being (as my mother-in-law would say) “my own self.”

    I too don’t understand why more women don’t write horror. I think horror gets confused with the activities of vampires and werewolves way too often. Horror is visceral. It lives in that old, old part of our brain–the amygdala. And when, as writers, we can connect with a reader on that level, we’ve done our job.

    Top female influences: Shirley Jackson, Margaret Atwood, Patricia Highsmith (for my current work, Angela Carter). How strange that I was talking to Pinckney just the other day about The Yellow Wallpaper. The mood of that story has haunted me for years.

    As to reviews–The big four really HATE my work. They can’t figure out what in the hell I’m doing. I’ll take that as a compliment, thank you very much. A number of readers seems to like it and that’s what matters to me.

    I say we lobby for our own damn section in the bookstore. There will be more of us, I think!

    Reply
  20. billie

    Congratulations, Alex – a well-deserved honor!

    And thanks for the words about finding one’s niche with the material. I’m in such a weird space right now with noveling but on some level I needed to read what you wrote today.

    Reply
  21. Becky Hutchison

    Wow, Alex! What an honor! I find your work really haunting and memorable, and I can see why you’re named alongside Shelley, Jackson and Gilman. Congratulations!

    As for which authors influenced my reading choices and writing, I’d have to say Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter and Elizabeth George. I first became interested in mysteries when I was vacationing in Arkansas one summer and the heat index was about 110. I stayed in the air-conditioned cottage reading three Elizabeth George books while the rest of my family did all kinds of outdoorsy things. I began to watch the “Inspector Morse” and “Poirot” reruns on PBS and A&E and was hooked.

    I read a ton of humerous mysteries at first, but once I started looking at several mystery-related blogs (like Murderati and The Lipstick Chronicles), I discovered a variety of writers outside that subgenre. So I’ve branched out into thrillers, suspense and supernatural (thanks Alex and other ‘Rati’s) and have learned a little something from everyone.

    Reply
  22. B.G. Ritts

    Well deserved recognition from a widely read source, Alex. It’s an exceptional juxtaposition of personal connection and public acknowledgment to be included with women you hold in such high regard. Congratulations!

    Reply
  23. Jake Nantz

    Wow, congratulations Alex!! That’s really something to be proud of!

    When I was young as a reader, I’d say the writers that really got me started were Shakespeare (no, seriously), Stephen King, and I guess Piers Anthony. Later it was Michael Crichton and then Michael Connelly.

    As far as writers I’d like to one day be compared to? Jeffery Deaver, Robert Crais, maybe early Patterson or Ludlum? Maybe Eisler (hell, I’d be happy just being told I looked like him, though that’s not even close to being true).

    I will say, about horror, that I’ve gotten much worse about scaring myself as I’ve grown. Read Christine at 15 and didn’t sleep in a darkened room for 3 nights…fear of a ghostly green man with a back injury rising up at the foot of my bed. Now, I have an almost-phobia about hospitals and about ghosts, so I PROMISE I’m going to have THE PRICE read by Nov. 3rd, but it’ll have to be read during the daytime. I’ll freak myself out and never get any sleep otherwise.

    Congrats again, and sorry I’m so late to the party!!

    Reply
  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Laura, I think you’ve hit your stride, now. CALLING MR. LONELYHEARTS is such a great combination of the psychological and supernatural… the Santeria is fun but the real horror is the unravelling of the women. Everyone’s in for a ride when that comes out.

    And it doesn’t surprise me a bit that YW is one of yours, too.

    Reply
  25. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Patricia!

    And Billie, I figured you were deep into the writing these days – we haven’t seen you for a while. My take is that your writing is as multileveled as you are, so it takes that much longer to synthesize it into something concrete. Believe me, I know the feeling. But it’s worth doing right.

    Reply
  26. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Becky, I’ve never read Colin Dexter, but judging by the rest of your list he should be right up my alley. More TBR, sigh.

    Glad to hear we’ve been educating you on sub-genres! Our work here is done. 😉

    Reply
  27. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Beeg, yeah, you get the thrill of it, exactly.

    Jake, for me it was THE SHINING – I could not read that book unless someone else was in the room with me. And that was in the daytime!

    I actually had a very disturbing dream last night prompted by Mo Hayder’s THE TREATMENT, which I believe is the most horrifying book I’ve ever read. And it’s billed as a thriller. I say it’s horror – real horror. She’s brilliant. Heartbreaking.

    I read the book a few weeks ago and tried to reread it this week to look more closely at how she did some of the things she does – but about 70 pages into it I realized I just couldn’t live through it again. It was even more painful the second time.

    Reply
  28. Lois

    Congratulations! What a great article to be included in. I must admit I haven’t read your work, because I thought I didn’t do scary, but I like the way you’ve explained it here, especially “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.” which took me back to a soccer tournament about 8 years ago when everybody was wearing black ribbons because two days earlier a mom from the sponsoring club had been murdered in a grocery store parking lot. Anyway, I will now seek our your work.

    Reply
  29. pari

    Alex,Sorry to come so late to the post; I bet you’re not even reading now . . . but MEGA CONGRATS! What a thrill for you and for us.

    I’m not sure these authors have influenced me, but hope they have:

    Frances Hodgson BurnettOrson Scott CardEdith Warton

    All of them are wonderful storytellers in different ways and I aspire to their skill.

    Also, just wanted to second, third and forth the comments about The Yellow Wallpaper; it’s one of my all-time favorites.

    Reply
  30. Tammy Cravit

    I know I’ve come late to the party, but I was working (and hence offline) yesterday.

    This is a hard question for me, because I look at it in two ways. If you look at the writers who’ve most influenced the creative direction of my work, the list would include people like Marcia Muller, Faye Kellerman, and Jodie Picoult, people who can tell compelling stories and make them rich enough to feel, to taste, to smell. And certainly, being compared to any one of them would absolutely make my decade.

    On the other hand, I tend to look at the people who have influenced my identity and ethic in terms of what it means to be a writer, to be a part of the ecosystem of writers that makes us ultimately all successfully, and who helped drive home the “core self” of me as a writerly person. To me, that’s the far more important list, and I don’t think I could do it justice with just three, either. But here are a few:

    – Laura Lippman, who gave me a copy of Marjorie Williams’ unparalleled anthology “The Woman at the Washington Zoo”, which showed me a style of narrative I never got to experience writing for my local newspaper ten column inches at a time.

    – My first newspaper editor, a grizzled old newsman named Russ Stockton (who is now deceased, a fact that grieves me greatly). One of my first stories for him involved talking about my experience as a rape survivor, page one above the fold. Russ taught me in word and deed that writers need to be fearless in their pursuit to tell the truth, and not to pull punches.

    – Sue Grafton, who made time for an interview from a small-town newspaper reporter and was beyond gracious with me even though I caught her four days before she was leaving on a trip.

    – Elaine Charney, the first teacher I ever had who taught me to love learning for its own sake.

    Sorry to drift slightly off-topic, there, but I think my most formative influences haven’t been writers at all.

    I’ve expanded my comment slightly on my blog, for the curious: http://www.actsofmalice.com/post/17

    Reply
  31. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lois, thank you. That’s a profound and tragic image – the black mourning ribbons. And exactly what I am compelled to write about.

    Pari, your influences are so eclectic – but all have the same complex QUALITY. No surprise at all about “The Yellow Wallpaper”, either!

    Reply
  32. Naomi

    Alex:

    I’m late to the party (was on retreat in Montecito this weekend!), but I wanted to send my CONGRATS on the NYT article!!!!!

    I am so proud.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Allison Brennan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.