Under My Skin
by Seanan McGuire
When I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more in this world than to grow up to be Marilyn Munster.
The fact that Marilyn was not a real person didn’t sway me in the slightest. The fact that her family, while monstrous, were the soft, sweet, and silly version of such things didn’t bother me either. Marilyn Munster danced with vampires and dined with werewolves, and she did it all while wearing sensible shoes and pretty dresses. She was their outsider, their window on the wider world that they wanted nothing to do with and which wanted nothing to do with them, and she was amazing. If I could have left my ordinary world for hers, I would have done it in an instant. Even knowing that the reality of the Munsters was probably a lot less sedate and survivable than the sitcom wouldn’t have slowed me down.
(I was a kid. I was fully capable of holding the conflicting thoughts that “this is real” and “this is sanitized and simplified so that my mother will let me watch it.” Childhood is a wonderful time.)
Marilyn wasn’t real, and I never got to grow up to be her, but I credit her with a lot. Mainly, with my ability to keep pushing into a genre that didn’t always seem to want me. This was the 1980s: a great time for horror in general, not such a good time for little girls who were fascinated by scary stories, yet couldn’t find very many that treated them with any agency. Stephen King was my rock during those years. His books almost always featured at least one central female character, often my age, for me to follow through the stories. When they didn’t, well. I wasn’t greedy, and I had already learned to trust him enough to go with him even when he wanted to tell me things, show me things, that little girls were not supposed to see.
(In a very real way, Stephen King—product of his time that he was, foundation of our genre that he became—taught me about representation. I didn’t need him to write absolutely everything for me. I just needed some sign that the authors who told the stories I adored knew that I was out there, knew that I needed to be included.)
Still, I thought horror wasn’t for me. I thought, in a very real way, that I wasn’t allowed. A surprising number of stories were willing to let me be the monster—were willing to paint me as somehow feral, blood-toothed and terrible, all for the crime of being female—but not that many wanted to let me be the scientist in the gleaming lab of silver and steel, ready to take the world apart and stitch it clinically back together into something horrible, something unthinkable, something new. I was permitted to consume. I was not invited to create.
Then, my high school boyfriend—a sweet guy who played endless games of Magic: The Gathering with me, tolerated my love of going barefoot and wearing long skirts to hide my toes, and kissed me like it was the best idea anyone had ever had—handed me a book he’d enjoyed and thought might be up my alley. Skin, by Kathe Koja.
The world tilted on its axis.
Skin was about emotional addiction, body manipulation, loving too much and too hard and too intensely. It was about turning the world inside out with silver and steel, yes, but also with blood and bone and sinew. It cut, and it cut deep, and it had been written by a woman, it had been written by someone who knew what it was to be told that she could be a monster but only on someone else’s terms, and I fell a little bit in love with her on the spot, sixteen and gawky and enthralled.
Kathe Koja wrote several books for adults—she’s currently writing for young adults, and while I’m sure those books are awesome, I’ve never gone looking for them, because I know I would be disappointed in them in unfair ways. I would judge them for
not being Bad Brains or Strange Angels or Skin, and that’s not right. People get to grow and change and start telling different stories, when those stories are the ones clawing to get free.
Kathe Koja’s work is violent and free, virulent and freeing. Everything of hers that I’ve been able to track down has tilted the world again, and it hasn’t always been tilted back. Lots of people had been willing to tell me that I could be a monster; she was among the first to tell me that I could make monsters, if I wanted it enough. For that I will be eternally grateful to her, no matter what stories she chooses to tell in the future.
Although I will always, I admit, be waiting with the monsters, hoping she comes back to show us something terrible and new.
Seanan McGuire is the author of the “October Daye” urban fantasies, the “InCryptid” urban fantasies, and several other works both stand-alone and in trilogies or duologies. In case that wasn’t enough, she also writes under the pseudonym “Mira Grant.” Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (as Mira Grant) was named as one of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Books of 2010. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo Ballot.