Women in Horror : Round Up

Well, this wraps up Women in Horror month and our series of guests posts, by women about horror.

Elvira, Hostess of Horror

We will do a quick link round up of all the posts so you can make sure you haven’t missed anything on our tour of movies, books and horrors from mythology, but first we just wanted to state the obvious. Women don’t only do horror in February. There are a huge number of talented writers, musicians, directors, artists and other female creatives out there living and breathing the horror genre. So while we hope our month of celebration has got you thinking about where you can find women doing horror and how women are treated or mistreated by the genre, we hope you won’t stop there. 

We recommend checking out, The Cultural Gutter, Popshifter, Ginger Nuts of Horror as great starting points. 

The blogs

K.A. Laity : The Haunting of Hill House
Snippet Sunday : Winter Tales
Kim Bannerman : Disability, Motherhood and Personal Autonomy
C.A. Yates : A Monstrous Love, Crimson Peak & The Writer
Jan Siegel : Fear of the Female in Vintage Fiction
Aditi Sen : Bengali Ghosts
Interview of Emma Bridges By Margret Helgadottir : Making Monsters 
Snippet Sunday : Respectable Horror
Su Haddrell : The Weird in the Normal
Jenny Barber : Short Fiction Queens
Kerry Fristoe : My Bloody Valentine 
Sharon Shaw : Women who Fight Back
Leslie Hatton : ‘What Have You Done to Solange’ Exposes the Legacy of Misogyny 
Snippet Sunday : Pacific Monsters
Angela Englert : Once, Twice, Three Times a Villainess: Karen Black, Sex, and Twist Endings in Trilogy of Terror
Amelia Starling : Female Spirits and Emotions in Japanese Ghost Stories
Snippet Sunday : Asian Monsters
Zoe Chatfield : Lost Cities (Unfriended)
Carol Borden : Cat People

Women in Horror : Cat People

Cat People (1942)

Carol Borden

Cat People (1942) is a fine entry into the tradition of films that cause modernity—and gaslighting—some trouble by having a woman turn into an actual panther. Well, not as much a tradition as I might like, but it’s a start. Based on, Val Lewton’s short story “The Bagheet,” and adapted for the screen by DeWitt Bodeen, Cat People was produced by Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur and shot by RKO noir superstar cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca during the war at an extremely low-budget. There is no gore or on-screen transformation effects. There are only the shadows, a woman’s fear of herself and her own sexuality.

Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is an illustrator whose work is published in fashion magazines, highlighting the most modern of clothes. She is from Serbia, perhaps a refugee fleeing the Nazis and the war in Europe. She is definitely fleeing her home town, a village she and her fellow townsfolk believe was settled by devil worshippers who escaped execution in the 16th Century. And Irena is definitely trying to escape her fear that there is something evil inside her. Big cats fascinate Irena and her favorite subject is a black leopard at the Central Park Zoo. It’s an animal that an old maintenance man considers a killer. One day, Oliver Reed (no relation) approaches Irena as she draws. She tells Oliver (Kent Smith) she is fascinated by the big cats. And really, who wouldn’t be?

As they become closer, Irena tells him the story of her town. They were devil worshippers and were executed by the Serbian King John, aka, Jovan Nenad (1492-1527). The worst, however, escaped into the mountains. Now their female descendants are cursed to become panthers when they are sexually aroused or jealous. Oliver isn’t put off by her story. He is a modern lad and believes superstitious worries can be defeated by rationality and the love of a good man. Almost convinced that she was letting a fairy tale frighten her off of love, Irena accepts when Oliver proposes.

But when at a Serbian restaurant with Oliver and her friends right after the wedding, Irena is spooked when a cat-like woman approaches their table and calls her, “My sister.” Irena knows in her heart that this woman is one of her kind, another cat person. At home, Oliver has been respecting Irena’s boundaries, sleeping in another room and not pushing her to be intimate, but Irena becomes so distressed that he confides in his co-worker and best friend, Alice (Jane Rudolph). Alice suggests a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Unfortunately for everyone, Dr. Judd is a terrible psychiatrist. Dr. Judd falls in love, or in lust, with Irena.

Cat People was made in a psychoanalytic time, a time with a lot of optimism about modernity and science. Dr. Judd reflects it, cynicism and all. He doesn’t just pursue a scientific understanding of the human mind, but believes he already rationally understands what is before him and that he already knows all there is to know. More tragically, Judd believes knowing something is enough to cure or protect one. To Judd, Irena is just another another woman with a sexual dysfunction that is coded as “frigidity” or Lesbianism (“My sister”), albeit with an interesting clinical lycanthropic twist. Less philosophically, Judd is convinced that there’s nothing wrong with Irena that a more modern attitude in general and a healthy attitude toward heterosexual sex in particular can’t fix. Failing that, there is nothing wrong with Irena that sexual intercourse with a man, regardless of her fear or lack of desire, won’t fix. It is an era when what was considered sexual dysfunction sometimes called for realigning a woman’s sexual attachments with what we now consider “corrective rape.” (If I ever had a “corrective rape film festival” it would feature a lot of movies starring Sean Connery). Oliver was ahead of the curve compared to Judd at a time when it was not conceivable that a woman could be raped by her husband, especially when he is trying to help cure her fear that she could turn into a panther and kill him when she really gets going.

In saying all this, it’s not that I think Cat People is anti-rational. It’s more that it respects that while we pursue reason and understanding, we remember that are not already, inherently reasonable, rational, or objective. It leaves space for the unknown and the unexpected—the thing that is unbelievable but nonetheless true. It’s easy to think we already know everything and being modern has led us to believe so for the just over a hundred years or so that we have considered ourselves living in the modern world. While we might believe humans can know or understand anything, there is still a lot to discover, learn and understand. I believe Dr. Judd wants to help Irena. I believe he believes that once she has sex with a man, she will realize her fears are irrational and will fade away. But Judd makes a mistake in believing that he is only concerned with Irena’s well-being. Judd is too attracted and attached to Irena to be dispassionately, rationally helping her. He won’t listen to Irena. He already knows. And already knowing the answer is not scientific, my dear doctor.

But however you feel about his methods, Dr. Judd makes for some great cinema. He hypnotizes Irena, allowing for a fantastic, phantasmagoric dream sequence. Afterwards, Judd tells Irena that he can help her and recommends Irena tell Oliver nothing about her fears. Irena, however, doesn’t believe Judd understands or can help her. Irena comes home to find Oliver and Alice together. Worse, Irena find out that Alice knows about her problems. Irena is angry, embarrassed and appalled that Oliver would discuss something so private with Alice.

Alice is the first person to decide that Irena is not just haunted by superstitious fears, but is, in fact, transforming into a panther. Oliver turns to Alice for comfort and support. Alice admits that she loves him but would never do anything to threaten his marriage saying, “I’m the new kind of other woman.” Irena already knows Alice loves Oliver, though. And she becomes increasingly hurt and jealous. This leads to one of the most eerie stalkings of cinematic history. As Alice walks down the street, she thinks she hears a growling panther in the shadows. And at the YWCA, a panther (Dynamite) growls from the shadows and tears Alice’s bathrobe to shreds as Alice, terrified and vulnerable, treads water in the center Y pool. Irena then appears to ask Alice if she’s seen Oliver. Alice’s decision to believe Irena seems less a product of “feminine intuition” and more a decision to trust her instincts and not to deny her experience. Something happened at the Y. Alice doesn’t know how it happened, but she’s not going to pretend it didn’t. That’s how you end up dead.

After Oliver decides to divorce Irena and marry Alice, Irena menaces them both at their work. Oliver and Alice are now pretty sure Irena is a cat person. Dr. Judd, however, is still convinced he can fix Irena. He decides that what Irena needs is the love of a good man or at least the love of a terrible pschiatrist and he makes moves on her in her own apartment. Irena rebuffs him, but he continues and she finally transforms into a panther and slashes him. Because he is the kind of mental health professional who carries a sword cane, Judd draws a sword from his cane and stabs her. Wounded, Irena runs back to the zoo and opens the cage to the black leopard letting it kill her.

There is some crossover with another Val Lewton film, The Seventh Victim (1943). Both films share themes of Satanism, suicide and men who fall for troubled women. And both share two actors and at least one character: Dr. Judd. It is in The Seventh Victim that Dr. Judd’s terribleness as a psychiatrist is underscored. I mean, what therapist would be prepared for a woman who actually does turn into a panther? In The Seventh Victim, we discover that Judd has a reputation for sleeping with his patients—and perhaps worse. There is also a character played by the same actress who played the Serbian cat woman in Cat People, Elizabeth Russell. In The Seventh Victim, Russell plays Jacqueline’s neighbor Mimi. Mimi is terminally ill and decides to go out and enjoy herself one final time before she dies. Dressed up for her last fling, Mimi looks a great deal like the woman who calls Irena “sister” in Cat People. Is Mimi the same woman? Do Cat People and The Seventh Victim occur simultaneously? Is Dr. Judd that unlucky a psychiatrist? (And will there ever be a Dr. Judd, Occult Psychiatrist series?)

The sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), is another Val Lewton production, this time directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise and with another screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen. As with Cat People (1983) it is less satisfying to me than the original. It unfortunately completely lacks all cat people and suffers in some ways from its title. It does bring back the original cast as Oliver and Ann’s daughter Amy becomes friends with Irena, who might be a ghost but even I admit is probably not. Irena helps Amy through a difficult time—including a woman who tries to kill her, played, again by Elizabeth Russell. Curse of the Cat People is a thoughtful and melancholy film—and a bit disorienting to watch with Cat People. But again, there are no cat people. Even Irena appears only as a maternal and protective human albeit ghostly figure. And cat people are what I am here for.

Cat People was remade in 1982 starring Nastassja Kinski as Irena Gallier and Malcolm MacDowell as her brother, Paul. And director Paul Schrader unleashes all the power of 1980s color and style. Giorgio Moroder and David Bowie even provide the soundtrack. But in trying to make Irena’s secret more shocking–that she can only sleep with her own kind, i.e., her brother, it loses some of the power of the original. And it sadly adds rape back into the mix—this time making Oliver the rapist, which is just sad. It’s not like we are much more comfortable with women’s sexuality in 1982 or even 2018 than in 1942, no matter how much we would really like to be there.

Women in Horror : Lost Cities

Lost Cities by Zoe Chatfield

In April of 2015, I sat in a movie theater as I had done so many times before. Lights dim, trailers play, opening credits roll. But unlike times before, as I sat there, watching two characters – a boyfriend and a girlfriend – talk and flirt via Skype on screen, I heard my own voice playing out through the theater speakers. I am certainly not alone in the category of people who always find it a little odd to hear themselves in recordings (Is that really what I sound like?) And boy, is there a difference between hearing yourself talking in a video taken on an iPhone and hearing yourself sing through the giant speakers of a theater. It’s even more overwhelming when the song is one that you never wanted to share with people in the first place.

**

I am a part of a band with two friends that I’ve known since my freshman year of high school. We formed the summer after our senior year, and recorded 11 songs total (split into two releases) at the end of that summer and during our freshman year of college. We recorded “Lost Cities,” along with the other songs on a single microphone in the living room of a family friend’s illegal apartment in Hartford, Connecticut. (The apartment was in a building meant for businesses – the spaces for rent were intended as offices and studios. There were only shared bathrooms in the hall and he had rigged a shower in his kitchen that definitely wasn’t supposed to be there). I stood closest to the microphone, singing the melodies and the words I’d written. Emily stood a step or two behind me, singing harmonies, and Athena sat at a little Wurlitzer keyboard.

Some of the songs I was eager to share, happy with how they’d turned out. One was about my friend’s relationship with her boyfriend and how I thought they needed to break up. I liked it because I’d managed to use the ridiculous metaphor – and image – of someone wearing rainboots in a desert to talk about the state of their relationship in a way that I thought turned out to be pretty clever. It was also fun to sing, and we managed to write the song using only two chords on the piano without it sounding annoyingly repetitive. “Lost Cities” was also about love, but unlike my song about wearing rainboots in the desert, it was not one that I wanted to share. The song originated from a story familiar to many children of divorce: upset over a relationship that just needs to die already. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, and the fact that I was an eighteen year old still living at home, I was incredibly hesitant to perform it after putting music to it with the band. I was resistant to record it and put it online. It took debating and deliberating and a little bit of pressuring from peers. Finally, I gave in. We performed the song at gigs, we recorded it for our online release.

We uploaded the songs to Bandcamp with an album cover I (poorly) designed myself. It featured a picture I’d taken of my sister around the age of four, standing against a mural in New York City that consists of a tide of hearts dropping down from a helicopter like bombs. Besides promoting on our personal and band page on Facebook, we did nothing to announce the music to the world, and expected little to come of it – the songs were now out in the universe, for mostly just a few supportive family members and nice friends to listen to. Out of all the songs we recorded, this was the one I was most sensitive to, the only one I really didn’t care to “promote”. So of course, this song would become the one that now has over 1.5 million plays on Spotify, that has been heard by people in 58 countries around world.  In essence, it seems to be the song that will never die. It continues to, fittingly, haunt the band. It definitely continues to haunt me.

To say the least – given the complete lack of professionalism both in our recording and promotional process – we never expected to be contacted about licensing our song to be in a movie. What’s more, when we first agreed to it, we didn’t know the details of the movie we were licensing the song to.

**

At this point, I think I should provide more information about the song. Each verse begins with the phrase “Lost cities, what a pity” and goes on about a failing romance; for example, “No one knows when it’s time to accept a lost love and say goodbye.” The chorus plays off of wedding vows – “Til death, til death, til death do we part. Til death, til death, til the death of this love.” Then, Emily sings “ooo’s” that emulate the sound of wedding bells. 

**

We pondered over the type of movie and scene the song would be used for. None of us were particular fans of the romance genre, and assumed that that our song about love had landed somewhere in that realm. Probably something super cheesy. That was a guess we all agreed on. Some kind of break up scene. Or a couple getting into a big fight. Maybe one of them storms off, slamming the front door of a little apartment they share, as I sing – “destroy yourselves already, you’re halfway there….” Maybe a somber, lonely person is walking down the street as we sing – “don’t you see there’s no home, no home left for love here.”

I suppose we weren’t completely wrong in our guesses. There was a couple in the movie. And they did go through turmoil. However it came as a surprise (although looking back – we probably shouldn’t have been that surprised), that the song would actually be in a horror movie. (I guess “til death do we part” works better as literal than nuanced while playing in the background of some scene). The movie, Unfriended, originally debuted at a Canadian film festival before being picked up by Universal Pictures and re-released in theaters internationally about a year later. The movie takes place completely on computer screens (good for us – not only did the song play, but it showed the character opening it up on Spotify, our album cover and title sitting in the corner of the screen. This was particularly exciting for my little sister. She was seven at the time the movie came out in the United States and very proudly talked about how she was famous now. Don’t worry, we didn’t let her watch the film.) Six friends, including the couple I watched as I first heard myself subtly singing in the background, are on a joint Skype call when they start getting messages from a classmate who had killed herself the year before. You can probably fill in some of the blanks here… the ghost starts messing with them (the big game changer is that she’s using online platforms to communicate and haunt them). If you don’t want spoilers for this movie that’s been out for a few years now, don’t read the next sentence. Long story short, everyone periodically dies.

The last two people to die are the couple that start the movie off. In the beginning, they are flirting and happy. By the end, infidelity has been revealed. They’ve watched their other friends die in disturbing ways. “Lost Cities” plays twice in this one and a half hour time, in conjunction with the sad spiral their relationship takes. My songs about failing relationships and distaste for rom-coms may already be clues to a larger attitude of mine: an overall cynicism about romance. So it was definitely a little satisfying for the song to be a prelude for the scene when the couple in the movie dies. Much better than some normal break up scene when you know the couple will find each other again in the end. When you know there will be a happy ending. This had no happy ending. In that way, cheesy horror movies will always be more honest than cheesy romantic movies. Romance reveals our desires, our fantasies, what we wish our lives could be. Life rarely pans out to these dreams. Horror reveals our fears, our downfalls, the reality that we break under pressure, we regret mistakes when it’s far too late, that we are all imperfect people, and in this movie, bad people. It is more violent, more extreme, and at times, more otherworldly than our realities. But beneath the cheap scares, there is a truth. If I had to choose a genre for this song to appear in – this song that I had a fear of sharing at all – I’m glad it was horror.

Women in Horror : Japanese Ghost Stories

Women in Horror: Female Spirits and Emotions in Japanese Ghost Stories
by Amelia Starling

Summer in Japan is ghost season. The windows of every bookshop display tales of spirits and monsters, nestled between strings of paper lanterns. During the humid, uncomfortable nights, people huddle together to share these stories. There is nothing quite like the prickly, icy feeling of fear crawling over your skin to fend off the relentless heat.

Forget the floating white sheets with unfinished business, who will disappear to rest peacefully once their task is complete. In Japan, there is a detailed classification system for different kinds of ghosts. The word rei is used as an umbrella term for the ghosts of deceased humans (in Japanese it is written as 幽霊, with the first symbol meaning ‘faint’ or ‘dark’ and the second meaning ‘soul’). There are many categories of rei. There are the shiryō; ghosts who haunt loved ones and sometimes attempt to take them to the land of the dead, kosodate-yūrei; ghosts of mothers who died in childbirth and return to care for their children, and jibakurei; spirits that are tied to a specific location.

Whilst rei can be male or female, the prevalent image of them is female. A typical rei is a woman with long, prehensile black hair, wearing a white burial kimono. She has no feet; instead she hovers above the ground. Each rei haunting is unique, as each human life and death is. As such, there is no standardised way to deal with them. Each has its own reasons for haunting, and its own terms to be fulfilled before it rests.

Here we meet Okiku, the heroine of ‘Banchō Sarayashiki,’ a well-known Japanese ghost story. In a plot, she bravely helped to save the true ruler of Himeji castle and overthrow his imposter, and protected herself and her lover by defying an undesirable suitor. In revenge, the suitor framed her for the theft of a gold plate and hoped to blackmail her into marriage. When Okiku still refused, he killed her and tossed her body into the castle’s well. There she remains as a jibakurei, her wronged, restless spirit forever counting the plates in search of the missing one. People stopped visiting the well after dark, for fear of confronting her wrathful spirit.

Okiku’s untimely, violent death caused her spirit eternal torment, and spread fear to those she once loved. But there is another category of rei which present their feelings in much more harmful ways. When people die with strong emotions, such as rage, jealousy, or hatred, their spirits remain connected to the human world, enacting vengeance on anyone or anything which crosses their path. They behave more like forces of nature than ghosts, being powerful enough to inflict illness and death and even cause natural disasters. Of all the types of rei, these are the ones which no-one ever wants to encounter. These are the onryō. Aside from their abhorrent deeds, what makes onryō so terrifying is that they can seldom be reasoned with or banished. Unlike other rei, their desire for vengeance is insatiable.

The story ‘Of a Promise Broken,’ collected by the writer Lafcadio Hearn, features a tenacious onryō. A husband promises his dying wife he will never marry again. But soon he does, triggering the onryō of his deceased wife to rise. She haunts the new wife every night, ordering her to leave the house. If she tells her husband why, she will be torn to pieces. Sick with fear, the new wife tells her husband and he orders two samurai to guard her whilst she sleeps, for one night he must go away on business. When he returns in the morning, he finds the samurai in a bewitched sleep. His wife’s decapitated body lies on the ground. Beside it floats the onryō, with her wild, unbound hair and dishevelled white burial gown, clutching the torn off head…

It is an old Japanese belief that women are more susceptible to high levels of emotion, which makes them more likely to transform into rei (and in particular onryō). This perhaps explains why the dominant stereotype of a rei is female. Many rei stories are about young women who are betrayed by lovers, die tragically during childbirth or from sickness, or are murdered for their defiance like Okiku.

It’s unsettling to consider pitying something so horrifying, but knowing their stories it’s easy to understand Okiku’s and the deceased wife’s motives (if not their actions). In life, they were honest and true. Their mistreatment ignited their emotions, and gave them no choice in what they became. They induce fear not only because of their unnatural actions and appearances, but also by providing a glimpse of the corruption emotional upset can create. With understanding them comes the realisation that we could also become them if the circumstances arose.

These ghost stories are not just about death and hauntings. They are also full of heartbreak, anger, rage, and jealousy. Traumatic events leave their mark on the physical world, which yūrei are tragic reminders of. Feeling these emotions makes us human, and the legends of the onryō show us that they can be the scariest things of all.

Sources:

‘Banchō Sarayashiki’ (Himeji castle version): https://thewillowweb.com/2017/06/21/japanese-ghost-stories-himeji-castle-okiku-well/

‘Of a Promise Broken’ by Lacfadio Hearn: http://www.vaultofghastlytales.com/2013/03/of-promise-broken-by-lafcadio-hearn.html

Bio:

Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist who loves travelling and collecting stories. She is a graduate of Creative Writing from the University of Winchester, and lives in the UK. She blogs about folklore and fairy tales at http://thewillowweb.com, with particular interest in Japanese folklore. She is also a content editor for Folklore Thursday. You can follow Amelia on Twitter @amyelize.

Women in Horror : Once, twice, three times a villainess.

Once, Twice, Three Times a Villainess: Karen Black, Sex, and Twist Endings in Trilogy of Terror

by Angela Englert

Karen Black initially rejected Dan Curtis’ TV anthology Trilogy of Terror (1975), joining the production only after her then-husband, Robert Burton, was cast in one of the film’s sparse supporting roles. So she was the star, but she did it for her dude, which is appropriate given the movie’s ambivalence about women’s empowerment. Afterward, she may have had cause to regret it, as she believed that her performances in the film – because there were many – typed her as a horror actress. She was probably right, and she wouldn’t have been the first whose fearless brilliance in a genre movie closed doors rather than opened them. But she was fearless, and she was brilliant. Even if Trilogy were a proper theater-release film, her work would never have been acknowledged by the Academy, not in a movie where she gets chased for a third of it by a puppet, but no one will ever persuade me that Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror didn’t earn herself a statuette, even if it might have been shaped like a Zuni doll.

Trilogy was based on three Richard Matheson short stories, and they each bear the hallmarks of the spring-loaded twist endings and pulp horror he excelled in. If the punchlines seem a bit dated better than 40 years on, it’s at least partially because we’ve been audience to so much they have influenced in that time, from Fight Club to Puppet Master. The three vignettes featured in Trilogy center on three very different women, all played by Black, each taking the lead character’s name as the title of the piece. While there is no continuity among them, Trilogy ends up naturally being about all the ways a (white, heterosexual) woman in the 1970s could be victimized, not neglecting how she might best victimize herself. 

The first story, “Julie,” is probably my favorite, and it’s still disquieting and quite fresh. Julie teaches at a college, and Chad (played by Black’s husband, and I’m not sure whether that makes this one more or less icky) is her student. We first meet Chad when he and a friend are sitting in the quad rating the attractiveness of the women around them. When Chad spies Julie, herself much more on the Velma than the Daphne side of things, he finds himself wondering what she looks like “under all those clothes.” It’s an idea he can’t shake, and so he pursues her with the unblinking predation of a Duran Duran song. When Julie yields to his advances, he takes her to a drive-in movie and drugs her soda. With Julie unconscious, Chad abducts her and at least takes pictures of her in sexually provocative poses. Later, he will use the pictures to blackmail Julie into a nonconsensual affair and – it is implied — pretty much any depraved thing Chad can imagine. The twist is revealed to Chad abruptly, as Julie suddenly refuses his commands during an assignation and declares herself bored. Julie explains, “Did you really think that dull, little mind of yours could possibly have conceived any of the rather dramatic experiences we’ve shared? Why do you think you suddenly had the overwhelming desire to see what I looked like under ‘all those clothes?’” It turns out that Julie has been psychically topping from the bottom, as it were, using Chad’s sadistic exploitation for her own jollies. And now that she’s bored, she has poisoned Chad’s drink – nice touch, Julie – before moving on to the next unwary victim, cloaked again in the habit of a plain, nebbish teacher.

I think what bothers me most about “Julie,” and Julie for that matter, is her monstrousness depends on how she relishes the feigned powerlessness that makes her a victim of abuse. Not a D/s relationship, but assault, coercion, loveless abuse. If she were only a black widow luring men, especially a wicked man like Chad, to their doom, that would be relatively unremarkable, and it’s not hard to understand a powerful person wanting to be dominated in a sexual relationship. That’s a cliché. But Julie wants to be victimized, and she puts down elaborate roots in a life where she has fashioned herself into an ideal victim. It’s not simply about destroying Chad’s soul, if he has one, and it’s not simply about lying in wait, laughing behind her hand at his presumption of her innocence, though she seems to enjoy that, too, in the end. Maybe if Black’s portrayal were less persuasive, Julie’s portrayal would be less persuasive, and it would be easier to write her off as a kinky monster whose inconsistency is in service of a plot that takes a hard right turn into a twist ending. But Black gives Julie too much interior life to believe that, and we see this in her public humiliation by Chad, her private displays of grief for her concerned roommate. That’s where the real creepiness, the insatiable wrongness in ”Julie” asserts itself. It speaks to twin destructive myths about women’s empowerment and enjoyment of sex that still lurk in our culture everywhere from pornography to romcoms: that women make themselves powerful only at the expense of men and that women fundamentally want to be – let’s say overpowered by men. And that’s disturbing as hell.

Black similarly played both sides of a very bad penny in “Millicent and Therese.” Of the three stories, this is one that probably has aged the least gracefully, only because the twist – surprise, sisters Millicent and Therese are one person with two personalities and a blonde wig – seems fairly hackneyed by now. But I have to say that Black’s portrayal of the two “sisters,” plain, obsessive Millicent and gorgeous, licentious Therese, is convincing enough that it’s still possible to doubt the plot you see circling for a landing is what’s going to happen until it’s over. I particularly admire her zeal as Millicent, who anticipates Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis in Halloween with passionate harangues about Therese’s inborn evil, seducing their father and murdering their mother, and her own plans to stop her, once and for all. And Black’s  self-satisfied malevolence as Therese is similarly unimpeachable.

The last part of Trilogy is the story that has made the biggest pop cultural impact, a one-woman play that has Black as Amelia, a woman torn between filial duty to a codependent mother and being an independent adult with a boyfriend. Amelia’s strained one-sided phone conversations with her mother and boyfriend are masterful work by Black, as she tries to juggle a standing dinner date with mom and a birthday dinner with her boyfriend. There’s so much emotional weight shifted in these scenes, particularly as Amelia finds herself rationalizing her mother’s demands to her boyfriend, abruptly starting a fight with him. Her loved ones alienated, Amelia’s night takes a bizarre turn for the worse as she’s chased around her apartment by her would-be gift to her anthropologist boyfriend, a surprisingly resourceful, possessed Zuni warrior fetish doll. The whole thing might have been silly, but Black sells it all, making her struggle with the toyetic, fanged symbol of her thwarted independence immediate and visceral.  After jamming the doll into a blistering oven, Black’s jagged smile reveals a final character in the story’s twist ending. Amelia has destroyed the doll, but becomes possessed by the Zuni warrior inside, who now waits to cut mother’s apron strings along with mother’s everything else.

There was no reason particularly Dan Curtis needed to cast one actress to star in each of the vignettes, but it was a wise choice, not only because Black’s consistently excellent, but her presence also draws attention to the reverberating themes of women turning on themselves. Not only is she every heroine, but she is also every villainess. It’s all in her. Without an actress of Black’s skill, it’s doubtful how well any individual story would have worked. They each require so much of their lead, not only to be plausible and pitiable, but fierce, physical, forbidding, and she largely has to do it all on her own. It’s a rare accomplishment that rightly has given Black a share of immortality and has given women still today a mirror of themselves in the eyes of a society that doesn’t know whether an unfettered woman is friend or foe.

Women in Horror : What Have You Done to Solange?

‘What Have You Done to Solange’ Exposes the Legacy of Misogyny

By Leslie Hatton

Horror films have long been derided for using women—and women’s bodies—as props to be sexualized, violated, and discarded, with both Italian horror and American slashers being singled out for their misogynist portrayals of women. Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? represents a unique entry in the horror canon. Not only is it a tightly-plotted Giallo and an early slasher, it also upholds and subverts genre tropes and cultural expectations through its depiction of women. Even the title of this film seems different from the norm, seeming to question the morality of what was done to the titular character and the implied trauma that resulted from this mysterious and unnamed action.

Source : http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film5/blu-ray_reviews_70/what_have_you_done_to_solange_blu-ray.htm

Set in London, but using Italian dialogue, What Have You Done to Solange? chafes against the restraints of the typical Giallo by contrasting the conservatism of a Catholic girls’ high school with the sexually charged atmosphere of Italian cinema. Although the film is about a series of murders of young women, it is told through the plight of Enrico Rosseni, a young professor of phys ed and Italian at St. Mary’s school who is considered the “cool” teacher for being far less conservative than the rest of the cast.

Enrico is cool, all right. So cool that he’s cheating on his wife, Herta, with one of his students. Herta is portrayed as a vengeful shrew who clearly suspects him of infidelity but the film presents Enrico as the sympathetic character. When one of Enrico’s fellow teachers, Professor Bascombe, casually mentions that he suspects Enrico of having an affair with Elizabeth, Enrico confirms it. One would expect him to lose his job or be reprimanded, but Bascombe brushes it off, even suggesting that no one could blame him with a wife like Herta.

Still, Enrico is not the only man to exhibit despicable behavior in Solange. Professor Newton continually peeps through a hole in a glass window into the girls’ locker room, in a scene that is the literal manifestation of the male gaze. Also subject to the male gaze is the dead body of the first murder victim Hilda Erickson. Inspector Barth of New Scotland Yard passes around the gruesome crime scene photos to the staff at the school. In one of the more literal cinematic examples of misogyny, it turns out that Hilda has been stabbed in the vagina. It’s death by rape, with a large knife as the substitute for the penis.

For all its grisly detail, Solange is a gorgeous film. Prolific porn director Joe D’Amato lensed the film, and elevates what could have been a sordid exploitation film into something approaching high art. D’Amato uses extreme close-ups of women’s faces to convey an intimate understanding of the struggles that they are facing, or in one scene when Elizabeth and Enrico are making love, the pleasure that Elizabeth is experiencing. At other times massive wide-angle shots indicate the lack of power of the characters in the film, such as the imposing stairwell at St. Mary’s school, or the park in which Enrico and Herta are having a picnic.

When Elizabeth and Enrico are kissing in the boat along the banks of the Thames, the camera is voyeuristic but refined, with dappled sunlight and green foliage obscuring the two lovers’ bodies. This scene is also vital because it sets the entire narrative of the film into motion. Not only does Enrico become enraged at Elizabeth’s hesitancy to have sex, shouting “There’s always something that stops you from being a normal girl!” (using “normal” as code for “sexually active”), he also dismisses what he interprets as a contrived excuse: Elizabeth claims to have seen a murder take place, and as it turns out, it’s Hilda Erickson who is the victim. Instead of being sympathetic and tender, Enrico clearly feels like he’s owed something, and in typical macho fashion, denies the validity of what Elizabeth has witnessed, until the truth is revealed in the news. Rather than apologizing, he begs her not to tell the police, fearing for his reputation, not hers.

Elizabeth, however, has been damaged, and it’s impossible not to sympathize with her. She suffers from PTSD and continues to have flashbacks to the murder scene. Intriguingly, Dallamano uses this to give Elizabeth some autonomy. Both of her flashbacks take place in sexualized situations, which only exacerbates the feeling of sex as an act to which one must submit. Then she works up enough courage to let her voice be heard, coming forward to the staff at the school about what she has seen: it was a man dressed as a priest who killed Hilda.

Not all men in Solange are as despicable as Enrico. Shockingly, it’s Inspector Barth who calls Enrico out on his bad behavior. He calls Enrico into the police station for questioning, not as a murder suspect, but as someone who has something to hide. “You are thinking about something other than Hilda,” he accuses him, voicing something many watching the film are probably thinking, something which Elizabeth doesn’t have the freedom to say.

Image source http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film5/blu-ray_reviews_70/what_have_you_done_to_solange_blu-ray.htm

More students at the school are killed and so is a local woman, all in the same way as Hilda Erickson: a knife to the vagina. The teachers and staff members at St. Mary’s school are questioned, but despite the revelation that it may be a priest, none of the priests at the school are considered suspects. Only after Elizabeth is drowned in the bathtub is Enrico determined to find out the identity of the murderer. Is it his conscience making itself known or merely the desire to clear his name? We never really know. He and Herta, who for some reason decided to reconcile, start asking questions and eventually the truth is revealed. Her name is Solange.

Now we have a character in the film to attach to its title, as well as a face. Camille Keaton, the protagonist of the iconic rape/revenge slasher I Spit On Your Grave from 1978, is Solange. In this film she is unable to get revenge on those who destroyed her life. She was part of a clique with other girls at the school who had orgies with older college boys. After Solange got pregnant, her “friends” feared exposure and in a twist of internalized misogyny, convinced her to have an abortion. The experience was so traumatic that she has been rendered mute, and is suffering from “infantile regression.”

Here the film presents contradictory depictions of women. While the sexual agency of the young women can be seen as a good thing, Enrico is disgusted when he learns about it, suggesting that the girls are probably on drugs, too. The double standard is obvious: he can cheat on his wife with a student, but those same students shouldn’t be having sex of their own volition.

As it turns out, it’s Bascombe, Solange’s father, who has been killing everyone responsible for his daughter’s predicament, something which seems honorable until you consider the sexualized nature of the murders. In his shame and rage, he took on the role of vengeful vigilante. His daughter’s suffering is written all over her face at the end, but not even Herta offers her solace. Solange is presented as damaged and unclean, as if her trauma is infectious. Inspector Barth says it best in the film’s closing line, “Solange has been paying for everybody.”

Misogyny victimizes women in multiple ways: it characterizes female sexuality as bad while upholding male sexuality as good; it transforms us into chattel; and encourages us to harm our fellow sisters in order to be favored in men’s eyes. What Have You Done To Solange? reveals that the damage has come full circle. At a time when victims of misogyny are condemned, harassed, and disbelieved, we must ask the sobering question of not what was done to Solange, but why it had to happen in the first place.

Women in Horror : women who fight back

Shadows of the Mind: Women in Horror Who Fight Back

by Sharon Shaw

[Contains spoilers for the films The Descent (2009), The Babadook (2014) and IT (2017)]

I’ve been experiencing a lot of “I can’t do this” over the last couple of weeks, and, counter-intuitive though it may sound, watching horror movies is sometimes the only thing that can cut through the treacle that my brain becomes when I’m experiencing a depressive episode.

Why counter-intuitive, you ponder? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Horror has something of a poor rep when it comes to the portrayal of women, particularly, and for a significant portion of the genre this is well-deserved. It’s not unique in this; the traditional action movie, with its male-power-fantasy framework, is frequently guilty of having women characters who are thin on the ground at best, and thin full stop when they do turn up. Their agency is often lacking, and far too often their presence is mainly in order to take the role of prize, to be awarded when Johnny Template achieves his goal at the end of the film. While I am no stranger to the practice of empathising and identifying with someone who is of a different gender, sexuality or culture (I think it’s a great habit that everyone should get into as early as possible), it can be a bit isolating when you can’t find characters who look and feel like you that behave in ways that are meaningful, reassuring and strengthening. It can be even more isolating when the society you’re trying to fit into expects a certain type of behaviour that doesn’t match yours, and there are few examples to tell them different.

And I do mean few examples, not none. The action story plays with anger, giving guidance on how we can push back against frustration, and it can be a power fantasy for women as much as for men (the early Alien and Terminator movies and Mad Max: Fury Road are some of my absolute favourites). But I don’t think “frustration” tells enough of the story, and it’s fascinating to me how those examples all contain strong elements of horror; not just playing with anger, but with fear.

Horror is (or should be) what we experience when we witness the subjugation of someone who is already physically weaker and more vulnerable. Repetitive, boring or downright bad horror does nothing to challenge the status quo; women start out as vulnerable and end up as dead or driven insane. Slasher flicks and torture movies that just replicate this pattern are the worst because they reinforce it and numb the audience to true horror, eliciting the “freeze” response, so they end up laughing instead. There’s no fighting this reaction; its intent is to keep you still long enough that the predator doesn’t see you, and all you can do is wait for it to pass. If the message is “can’t win, don’t try”, then the story is worse than useless. If, however, the characters are framed as victims initially but are able to come back from the brink, even when the process is flawed or incomplete, this has great lessons when we ourselves feel trapped by fear.

The Descent (2009) is, for the most part, a story about a group of women who face their challenge with planning, determination and an innate drive to fight, no matter what. It does end on the consequences of the freeze response, but like the Little Match Girl, where the protagonist succumbs to cold and exhaustion even as she holds the key to her salvation in her hands, reads to me as a cautionary tale against it.

The Babadook (2014) shows a complex fear of emotional responses, and how the refusal to process or even acknowledge them can manifest as deadly threat. Amelia’s monster is a complicated creation of dismissed trauma, unaddressed grief, repressed self-doubt and shame. Eventually it threatens her son, and while he is able to stand up to her, Sam is too small and frightened to tackle the demon; she is the one who must hold her ground against the Babadook.

Amelia models a core of self that still remains under all the terror, that stubbornly refuses to let the monster have full sway over her house, her child or her mind. The moment that breaks me and gives me wings every time is the expression on her face when she plants her feet and roars at her antagonist, “YOU ARE TRESPASSING IN MY HOUSE!”

By distinguishing throughout the film between his mother and the Babadook (when Sam yells at it to go away it’s always slightly to the side of Amelia) he gives her the key to its eventual defeat and us a clue as to how we can tackle our own unwelcome reactions – by personifying them slightly outside of ourselves we may enable a detached confrontation which gives us half a chance of success.

Amelia also provides the massive revelation that accepting the presence of such a huge and hideous beast in our basement, while we may not be able to outright destroy it – or even want to, if it is bundled up with the loss of things we loved and have no desire to forget – is a form of resilience. If we give it regular attention, nurture if necessary, and make sure our loved ones (at least the ones who cannot protect themselves) are kept safely away from it, then we need not fear that it will once again grow huge and stalk unopposed through our house.

IT (2017) presents a take on the impotence of existential fear in the face of someone who has known a different kind of immediate, life-threatening fear. While trauma can cause manifold problems of its own, the necessary steps to heal it have the potential to inoculate and protect in times of crisis.

While Bev is damselled slightly by her capture and role as motivation for the boys to reunite and take on Pennywise (a specific choice for the film adaptation), there is something powerful in his inability to kill her, and particularly in his frustration that he cannot even make her afraid of him. She has been targeted by the monster through symbols representing her own body – hair and blood – which are initially terrifying, but she is able to reconcile with them in part because of the support she receives from her friends. They acknowledge the gore in the bathroom that her father cannot see, they help her to clean it up, and as a result she knows they are stronger together than they will ever be apart – and it is Bev who feeds this back to them at their moment of separation, even recognising that this is exactly what Pennywise wants.

This is what gives fire to the inner voice that commands her to strike at the clown twice, and at her father when he finally turns on her openly. In the book it is hinted that It is behind Mr Marsh’s obscene and violent behaviour, but for me the strength here is that he is not – Bev has already experienced a child’s greatest terror; that of the parent who not only fails to protect you but is themselves a threat to your very life. She has faced, and fought, this emotional betrayal, and the void that lies behind Pennywise no longer holds any fear for her – let alone the hyperdontial clown.

Fear can easily be the dominant emotion for a woman. It’s not overwhelming for all of us, and obviously it can affect those who aren’t women just as much (what with it utilising those pesky brain chemicals we all share in some measure). But socially, statistically, women (including anyone whose gender wasn’t designated correctly at birth) experience more vulnerability than men. We are soaked in it throughout our lives; we are often expected to suck it up and get on with life despite it. The #metoo movement and how widespread it is makes that clear; behind each one of those stories is guilt, shame and trauma, all of which are rooted in fear.

And this is why I think a horror movie – a good horror movie – can serve as a great power fantasy for girls and women. When they’re done right they’re like a gut-wrenching fairy-tale, and while the “stay inside the circle” story serves its purpose for young children, sooner or later this must give way to “how to fight the beasts outside the circle

“. We cannot stay sheltered forever. If some form of trauma hasn’t already taken away that safe cushion of dependence, life will eventually. We need guidance on how to handle it when it happens, and how to recover from it afterwards, and if we find the right stories, we will have exactly that.

***

Bio:
 
Sharon Shaw is the co-host of The School of Movies podcast, where she and her husband Alex have spent several years reading (some might say way too) deeply into the films, and occasionally TV and video games, that make up the pop culture landscape. She is also the editor of Alex’s book series, The New Century Multiverse, and a voice actor in the audio drama productions of the same.
 
 

Women in Horror : My Bloody Valentine

My Bloody Valentine: Jaws in a Mine
by Kerry Fristoe

“…like a doll’s eyes.”

Following in the tradition of Grizzly in 1976 (Jaws on a Mountain), Snowbeast in 1977 (Jaws on a Mountain or Jaws Is a Yeti), Piranha in 1978 (Lots of Tiny Jaws in a River), and 1980’s Alligator (Jaws in a Sewer with Hunky Robert Forster), the 1981 Canadian slasher, My Bloody Valentine (Jaws in a Mine, Eh) features brutal murders reported as natural causes by local authorities to save a town from financial ruin. I started to write a detailed description of who played whom in each of these modern classics, but it was going on way too long, so I made a handy chart. Oh, and I’m not being snarky about the modern classics line. I dig these films.

Handy Chart™

 
Chief Brody
Chrissie
Hooper
Hooper/Quint hybrid
Mayor Vaughn
Quint
Shark
Grizzly
Christopher George
Two girls eaten by a bear
Richard Jaeckel
Richard Jaeckel & Andrew Prine
Joe Dorsey
 
Grizzly bear
Snowbeast
Clint Walker
Random vacationers eaten by a Yeti
 
Bo Svenson
Sylvia Sidney & Robert Logan
 
Yeti
Piranha
Bradford Dillman?
Teenage backpacking couple
 
Kevin McCarthy
Dick Miller
 
Tiny mean fish
Alligator
Robert Forster
Sewer workers
Robin Riker
 
Dean Jagger & Jack Carter
Henry Silva
Alligator, duh
My Bloody Valentine
Paul Kelman
Blond woman in mine
Lori Hallier
 
Don Francks
 
Harry the miner

 

Two miners, dressed in coveralls and gas masks, walk through a debris-littered mine shaft. They stop in a deserted corner and one of them undresses, revealing that she’s a beautiful, blond woman. As the pair caress each other, she tries to remove her partner’s gas mask. He resists her efforts and they continue with their tryst, breathing harder. As he grasps both her arms and lifts her, she closes her eyes expectantly, and he impales her on a pickaxe.

I’ll admit, that opening rivals Chrissie Watkins, clinging to a buoy, and the unexpected first kill in My Bloody Valentine sets the stage for the carnage to come.

It’s February 13th in Valentine Bluffs, Nova Scotia, and the entire town is preparing for the first Valentine’s Day dance in twenty years. The tradition ended two decades before when selfish mining supervisors, impatient to dance the night away with their dates, left the mine without ensuring the safety of their men. After a sudden explosion buried several miners, the townspeople rushed to dig them out, but they were too late. The rescuers got there just in time to see Harry Warden eating the remains of the others. Harry’s ordeal left him a little short on sanity. He runs amok, killing the men responsible and is committed to an asylum, vowing that if the town ever holds another Valentine’s Day dance, he’ll kill them all.

Apparently, they forgot about Harry and his promises. As the decorating and general character introductions continue, Mabel, the town person-named-Mabel, dies a grisly death at the laundromat and gets stuffed in a dryer. Not wanting to cause a fuss right before the Fourth of July Valentine’s Day, Chief Brody Newby (Don Francks) tells everyone it was a boat accident heart attack.

“This was no laundry accident.”
-Hooper, chewing on a Tide pod

The chief goes on with his day, the way you do when you find the mutilated body of a friend in a clothes dryer. He figures it’s an isolated incident. You know, probably kids. Everything changes when he opens a heart-shaped box of chocolates containing a human heart. I prefer caramels, myself. He cancels the dance and calls the sanitarium in a panic, looking for Harry. While he waits for a testy clerk to find Harry’s file, those darn kids decide to foil the chief’s non-plan and throw a party at the mine anyway. They start out partying in the canteen, but a few intrepid souls head down the mine for a little kinky mine fun.

By now we’ve met the cast of characters. Paul Kelman plays TJ, the mine owner’s son, who had the audacity to leave town and come back, so people look at him funny. Axel (Neil Affleck-not that one) is TJ’s former best friend who now dates his former best girl, Sarah (Lori Hallier). Keith Knight (Fink from Meatballs!) is the big, good-hearted Hollis, and Alf Humphreys plays Howard, the asshole.

When Chief Newby finds more corpses, he heads to the mine to stop the party—and the murders. Guess what? He’s too late. My Bloody Valentine is chock full of creative kills. The director, George Mihalka, and effects crew take advantage of the mine’s dark, claustrophobic setting to ramp up the spookiness factor and the murders are straight up gory. Harry favors pickaxes, boiling water, and even a shower to fulfill his promise to Valentine Bluffs.

I have a soft spot in my heart for My Bloody Valentine. I saw it in the theatre when it came out—with a boy! I had seen Friday the 13th in the theatre the year before. MBV has more heart (teehee) than the Voorhees family picnic and the characters are more likable. I don’t think I made the Jaws connection at the time, but I may have seen Jaws and the gang of copycat killer bear/Yeti/fish/gator/octopus/swarm of bees/other shark/still other shark/piranhaconda films one or two more times since then.

“Anyway, we delivered the coal.”
-Harry Warden

Women in Horror : Short Fiction Queens

Women in Horror: Short Fiction Queens
Jenny Barber

Welcome to the 9th Annual Women in Horror Month! As any horror fan will tell you, women have been an inextricable part of horror short fiction for centuries.  From Mary Shelley, Amelia B. Edwards, Edith Wharton and Cynthia Asquith, to Shirley Jackson, Lisa Tuttle, Alison Littlewood, Priya Sharma, Tananarive Due, Nadia Bulkin and a vast and varied collection of other modern horror writers creating stories that span from the subtle supernatural to the surreal to the terrifying.  Women in horror can do it all, but for a multitude of reasons, tend to have a lower visibility for their work than the male of the species.

This time last year I took part in Mark West’s Women in Horror Mixtape blog where a motley bunch of fiction fans talked about their favourite horror shorts from women –  it was great fun to do and many excellent recommendations were made. (Check them out here – http://markwestwriter.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/the-women-in-horror-mixtape.html )  So when Aunty Fox put out the call for posts for this year’s WiHM, I knew a mini mixtape was the way to go because, a/ my short fiction love affair was started by anthologies and single author collections of horror stories way back in my preteens; and b/ any excuse for a list!

So here for your reading enjoyment are five of my recent favourites –

Ripper by Angela Slatter, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2016 (ed. Paula Guran)

First up is ‘Ripper by Angela Slatter. I’ll freely admit to being a huge fan of Slatter [www.angelaslatter.com] ever since reading her story ‘Lavender and Lychgates’ in the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #22 anthology (ed. Stephen Jones).  (And if wonderfully told dark fantasy/fairy tales are your thing then immediately acquire yourself copies of her two collections – Sourdough and Other Stories, and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, as the linked short stories are a-maz-ing!) But I digress… 

‘Ripper’ concerns Jack the Ripper and the mysteries surrounding the murders, as told by new copper Kit Carswell.  But unknown to the other coppers, Kit is actually a woman masquerading as a man, desperately balancing police duties with the need to care for and financially support her ill family while keeping the secret of her dual identity.  It’s Kit’s status both as a woman and a police officer that inspires the infamous Mary Jane Kelly to approach her and share the information vital to connecting the victims and luring the Ripper out; but despite things going horribly wrong for Kit and Kelly, it’s Kit’s intelligence and heroism, and the dead women of Whitechapel, who prove the key to the Ripper’s downfall.

‘Ripper’ is an excellent tale of mystery, magic, ghosts and women working together to try and survive the men around them and Slatter proves her storytelling skill with prose that hooks you from the start.

Kiss, Don’t Tell by Cassandra Khaw (audio narrated by Mae Zarris-Heaney), in Pseudopod #563

PseudoPod 563: Flash On The Borderlands XXXIX: Teratology

Cassandra Khaw is relatively new to me as an author – I’ve greatly enjoyed both her Lovecraftian Noir-ish Hammers to the Bone as well as her paranormal rom-com Bearly a Lady; I’ve also come across her short fiction in venues such as Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, The Dark Magazine and Clarkesworld Magazine, to name but a few. (Go hunt them down and read!)

But the story I’m recommending today is her flash fiction ‘Kiss, Don’t Tell’ which can be read or listened to over at Pseudopod – it’s a gloriously lyrical musing on hunger and the essence of monsters, with the unnamed narrator teasing her human lover about his ex. Khaw has an outstanding gift with language, weaving a gorgeous story that dances a visceral tango in your brain, unleashing seduction and danger with a poetic playfulness and a throbbing rhythm that gets under your skin; and I highly recommend listening to Mae Zarris-Heaney’s narration as it takes an already darkly sensual tale to whole new levels of woah.

The Curtain by Thana Niveau, in The Dark (December 2016)

The Curtain

And now to Thana Niveau [http://thananiveau.com] and the terrors of the deep!  I’ve read various Niveau stories in anthologies and magazines across the years and though I’ve barely scratched the surface of her prolific fiction output, from what I’ve read so far, ‘The Curtain’ is my favourite of hers.  It’s creepy, enthralling, and darkly entertaining, and gives the account of Martin, a diver, who goes treasure hunting the day after a storm. However, the storm damage has unleashed things that were best left contained and as Martin dives more wreckage, he uncovers bodies and the terrible secrets of the deep.

This is a story that oozes with terror, taking an already mysterious underwater world and twisting new horrors from it.  Niveau is adept at ramping up the tension until the inevitability of Martin’s fate becomes clear, yet also expertly creates a sense of wonder for the underwater environment. It’s well worth reading this story multiple times, as there are many small touches that take on new meaning once you’ve sailed passed the ending and come back for more.

Jade, Blood by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, in Nightmare Magazine #60 (Sept 2017)

Jade, Blood

Form the sea we move to the cenotes of the Yucatán and ‘Jade, Blood’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia [www.silviamoreno-garcia.com].  I’ve enjoyed Moreno-Garcia’s short fiction in multiple venues, as well as her editorial tastes in the anthologies she’s edited (She Walks in Shadows and the People of Colour Destroy Horror edition of Nightmare Magazine are two particular favourites) – and happened to come across ‘Jade, Blood’ when I was catching up on my Nightmare Magazine reading. 

‘Jade, Blood’ tells of a lonely and unloved young woman, whose life as a novice leaves her empty and unsatisfied until she discovers a local cenote and looks deep into its water. The ensuing euphoria puts her meaningless convent life into sharp relief and she seeks to recapture her experience with a multitude of offerings to the cenote.  It’s a quiet tale, beautifully told, shaping an atmosphere of growing religious ecstasy and veneration for the ancient and bloody rites.

Collect Call by Sarah Pinborough, The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women (ed. Marie O’Regan)

We end with a haunting tale from Sarah Pinborough. [https://sarahpinborough.com] Pinborough is a multi-genre, multi-format, powerhouse – you want crime, fantasy, romantic fairy tales, horror, thriller, adult, YA, media tie-in or screen writing, she’s got something for you and all are well worth checking out. 

I found her story ‘Collect Call’ in The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women (ed. Marie O’Regan – an anthology that’s well recommended as you’ll find a wide range of female horror authors, both classic and modern, in its pages.) ‘Collect Call’ is beautifully told and manages the trick of being both quietly understated and peppered with short sharp bursts of potential threat.  On the face of it, it seems a simple tale – a man is stuck in a deserted town and is waiting for his dad to give him a lift home. During the wait he is joined by a slightly unpleasant woman also stuck in the same predicament but unable to get through to her own family, and both must wait while darkness approaches.

Pinborough has a deft touch with weaving strands of melancholy and hope, while delivering both sweetness and menace in a story that touches on the mysteries of death and human connection.

Once you’ve tried these stories, don’t forget to check out the authors other work, as well as the anthologies, magazines and editors mentioned!

Women in Horror : The Weird in the Normal

The Weird in the Normal.

by Su Haddrell

I’ve never really had a fear of anything. No real phobias. I grew up clambering around rocks and hanging out with six foot tall lads, so by that point nothing really scares you because you can’t fear anything if you want to join in the fun. I was pretty desensitised by horror from a fairly young age. I blame Monty Pythons Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, who forever made viseral blood and guts scenes seem obscenely funny to me. But I LOVE things that weird me out. Things that stay in my head, nudging me and prodding me to savour them even though they’re strange or grotesque.

I don’t get scared by horror stories or films – they don’t make me want to keep the light on at night. But sometimes things freak me out because I keep thinking about them and that’s when I know I can use it in a story. My favourite female horror writer is Poppy Z Brite. I loved the wistful dreaminess of Lost Souls but it was Exquisite Corpse that captured me. Somehow Brite had managed to make the grotesque into something beautiful. The detail in the level of description drew me in and I found I couldn’t look away – I was swept along into the horror of it as much as her characters. She takes the normal bright lights of New Orleans and turns them into something dark – hot, slick nights that mask the stink of blood and rot beneath crowded streets and forbidden debauchery. By reading Brite, I learned that when writing horror; the devil is in the detail. The texture, the smell, the colour, the sound. The way a moment plays with your senses is what allows it to hang in your memory.

When I started writing horror, I found that I didn’t write messy bloody horror. I wrote weird, creepy horror. I wrote horror that savoured the strange. I like writing about normal people doing normal things when something odd happens. And then escalates. The squirming of a creature out of the corner of your eye. The unusual habits of the stranger sitting opposite you. All these ideas touch on that fear of the unknown. That ‘WTF’ sensation of not knowing what’s going on, but knowing that it’s not normal and being desperate to know more regardless of where the path takes you. I think that even if you don’t think you’re scared of anything, good horror will mirror a deep unknown fear. When you read it, you’ll blink and take a breath. Suddenly you’ll realise that your still mulling over that weird creepy moment a few days later. It twists and circles in your subconscious whilst you’re daydreaming on your lunch break or about to drop off to sleep. Good horror will crawl beneath your skin and settle there just long enough to remind you what fear is.

Sleep Tight.