The Women I Have Known

The Women I Have Known
by Mary SanGiovanni

As a horror writer coming up in the first decade of the new millennium, I’ve had the opportunity to see the dual perspectives of women’s place in the horror genre, the former reflecting where we used to be, and the latter reflecting how much progress we’ve made. While that progress has been incremental, possibly even more so than it feels to me now, I tend to think of it as being somewhat bifurcated. In the earlier half, many men and women horror writers alike (and I venture to say, this may be the same for directors, actresses, video game designers, artists, etc.) looked to male role models as a blueprint of sorts for how to structure their careers. In many cases, men’s trailblazing in the field was more prominent and often formed the bigger portion of inspirational or education background for creative types in horror.  

Shirley Jackson

However, there have been women crafting terrifying and beautifully dark stories for at least a century. We have been making significant contributions to horror dating at least as far back as 1817, with Mary Shelley’s publication of science fiction/horror novel Frankenstein and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s early feminist short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in 1892. Following on the heels of gothic horror writers like M. R. James, we had Daphne du Maurier, many of whose numerous novels and short stories were adapted later in life to film. Alongside James, we had Marjorie Bowen, immensely prolific writer of supernatural tales, and Francis Stevens, considered by some critics to have been one of the primary founders of weird horror and the woman who invented dark fantasy. I’m not sure any woman horror writer, or indeed, any horror writer at all, could deny the influence of Shirley Jackson’s work on classic quiet horror. Her stories, often featuring dysfunctional co-dependent relationships and ghosts (of one type or another, literal or symbolic) that haunt those people, while considered quiet horror, have undercurrents of cruelty as brutal as any extreme horror today. Throughout the late seventies and, more predominantly, the eighties and early nineties, many notable women wrote but fought tooth and nail to be taken seriously, women like Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Rice, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Karen Taylor, Lucy Taylor, Tanith Lee, V.C. Andrews, Charlee Jacob, Nancy Collins, and Lisa Tuttle. And all these women are just a sampling of the women out there producing the dark fantastic.

I find all these women inspirational, because they broke convention, tapped at that glass ceiling, and provided a precedent to subsequent female horror writers looking for a legitimate place in a field they loved, a field that, by our very gender, we are often acutely in tune with. To me, that’s around where the second half of our history comes in—when horror writers of both sexes and genders can equally, or almost equally, cite as many female influences as male. Likewise, readers can count among the treasures on their bookshelves as many scary books written by women as men. And going forward, with varegated and diverse sexual and gender identities finding more acceptance and support, I feel the pinnacle of this half of our history may be reached when the gender of the writer is sincerely not considered at all, and opportunities and pay exist equally (and consistently in that equality) for all writers.

Damien Angelica Walters

Nowadays, I see so many talented new horror writers emerging with a better-balanced diet of inspirational and educational works in our field, women working hard and honing their writing to make their stories poignant and scary and finely crafted and accessible to the reading public, women like Damien Angelica Walters and Kristin Dearborn, Krisi De Meester, Amber Fallon, Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, and Somer Cannon. These women appreciate what came before, and enthusiastically have picked up the torch to carry on the fine tradition of creating horror fiction. And again, this is only a representative sampling of those who are writing horror today.

Among my own “generation” of writers, I often look to certain women as inspiration. I am proud of their accomplishments, because their victories are victories for all women horror writers, and in fact victories for all of the genre. Their creations contribute lasting work to our entire cannon of horror literature. I admire many of these women in particular because I see them going through the same things I am—culturally, personally, professionally, and demographically—and that makes me want to persevere

Cherie Priest

through difficulties and self-doubts as they have. And these are women whose prose is inspirational in the masterful weaving of plots and subplots, breathably real characters, and perfect turns of phrase. These women have found, in my opinion, the sacred middle ground of filtering the experiences and nuances of what horror is for women as well as men—how both process and react or respond—without isolating male readership. They have paved the way for fiction to explore different approaches to examining the human condition, to see horror through different types of eyes and ears. When I think of women like this, women whose presence often keeps me going, I think of writers like Sarah Langan, Sarah Pinborough, Elizabeth Massie, Melanie Tem, Kathe Koja, and Cherie Priest.  And I don’t think I need to reiterate that these women are among an even larger healthy throng of women writers keeping our genre strong.

In essence, I find many practitioners in our field inspiring. Their work and their work ethic has had a profound impact on my own, and I am proud to be a working contributor alongside such talented and supportive creators. While this month, the world celebrates their accomplishments, I feel they should be celebrated all year long, and in fact, celebrated indefinitely. Sisters in horror, you make me proud.

Mary SanGiovanni is the author of the “The Hollower” trilogy (the first of which was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award), Thrall, Chaos, Chills, and the forthcoming Savage Woods, and the novellas For Emmy, Possessing Amy, The Fading Place, and No Songs for the Stars and the forthcoming A Quiet Place at World’s End, as well as the collections Under Cover of Night, A Darkling Plain, the forthcoming Night Moves and A Weirdish Wild Space. Her fiction has appeared in periodicals and anthologies for the last decade. She has a Masters degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, Pittsburgh, where she studied under genre greats. She is currently a member of The Authors Guild, The International Thriller Writers, and Penn Writers, and was previously an Active member in the Horror Writers Association.

6 thoughts on “The Women I Have Known”

  1. I remember reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in school. I was a voracious reader and was always on the lookout for new authors to delve into. But… a woman? Yes, I wasn’t prepared to think of a woman writing such gripping nerve tingling fiction; I was young (no excuse), male (even worse excuse), and up to that time, of a mind to not consider something that thought provoking coming from a female writer. I went out and got a copy of “The Haunting of Hill House” after looking her up at my public library, and I was never so pleased to have been proven wrong!
    Great article, Mary! And I am pleased to say that I have read many of the authors referenced to in your article! And, people, if you haven’t read from these talented authors, make a list from this commentary and be prepared to expand your minds, and feed the little horror devil sitting on your shoulder sprinkling the anxiety dust over your imagination!

  2. Good article, but there are huge gaps in the chronology. We also have Anne Radcliffe (1764-1823), whose MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO was a standout in Gothic literature in the early 19th century (despite its labored rationalizations); Charlotte Riddell (1832-1906), who wrote a number of splendid ghost stories, as did Vernon Lee (1856-1935). “Francis Stevens” (Gertrude Barrows Bennett) wrote some excellent dark fantasies in the first half of the 20th century, and all those are just off the top of my head. Women’s supernatural/horror fiction is a wonderfully rich field.

    1. It is; I wish I had room to include all of them. I would be interested in seeing a comprehensive essay covering the writers you mentioned as well. I think it would be well worth the read. Thanks for mentioning them!

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