With Halloween is almost upon us, every major paper is running stories on haunted houses, scary movies, pop culture-inspired costumes and... horror fiction. One of the more interesting pieces, from Sunday's New York Times, concerns the role of female authors in the horror genre. After naming Mary Shelley as the “mother of horror,” author Terrence Rafferty points out that there have been very few women who have made a career out of scaring readers:
Until fairly recently, just about all the big names in horror, the writers whose stories dominate the anthologies and whose novels stay in print forever, have been of the masculine persuasion: Poe, Le Fanu, Stoker, Lovecraft, M. R. James, King, Straub. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s remarkable 1892 tale of madness, "The Yellow Wallpaper", manages to creep into the odd collection, as does Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” which is so disturbing that it induced a significant number of New Yorker readers to cancel their subscriptions when it appeared in the magazine’s pages in 1948. But for the most part, a woman’s place in horror has been pretty well defined: she’s the victim, seen occasionally and heard only when she screams.
Even the few notable exceptions (Gilman, Jackson and Shelley) are set apart from the true purveyors of the occult in that they only “dabble” in the unspeakable, never devoting as much of their time and ink to the supernatural as their male counterparts. Many of the women writing in horror often fall into the “paranormal romance” genre, including the insanely popular Twilight series, where the real aim is not to evoke terror, but to present an impossibly romantic alternative to reality. For many years, horror fiction, like video games and action movies, seemed to be an exclusively masculine sphere, only occasionally broken into by the female voice. Now, the Times argues, the tide is turning. Women writers are producing some of the most interesting and provocative horror fiction. Authors Sara Gran (Come Closer), Alexandra Sokoloff (The Price), Sarah Langan (The Missing, and The Keeper) and Elizabeth Hand (Generation Loss, and The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride) have received both critical acclaim and awards for their contributions to the genre. With works featuring female protagonists and narrators, these writers are following in the footsteps of Shelley and Shirley Jackson, creating psychologically rich dramas and returning horror fiction to its subtly-creepy roots. Horror can be powerful medium for feminist works. Monsters, zombies, ghosts, and vampires have been used before in both fiction and film to address social injustice. The end-of-the-world feeling that Elizabeth Hand and Sarah Langan capture seems similar to the terrifying and repressive future depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. Although some of the novels described by the Times are not overtly feminist, there's a sense that these authors are willing to take risks with subject matter that many male authors shy away from, including sex and sexual violence (Hand’s novel, Generation Loss, is narrated by a former rape victim). In a way, the supernatural seems a fitting setting for a discussion about the real horrors of madness, violence, and death. In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman draws upon her own experience with post-partum depression to create a chilling tale of madness and haunting, taking the hysterical-women stereotype and making it into something far more threatening, and thus far more subversive. Through playing with the boundaries of sanity and insanity, real and unreal, Gran, Sokoloft, Hand and Langan have created a new space for women in horror. Shelley's Daughters [NY Times]