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!

Snippet Sunday : Respectable Horror

Respectable Horror front cover

As part of women in horror month we are having horror snippets all month. Here is something from Respectable Horror, edited by K.A. Laity.

Respectable Horror front cover
By S.L. Johnson

The Feet On The Roof
Anjana Basu

Mrs Sinha Roy walked on the softest cushions of feet imaginable. The toes were well formed, the big and first toes of an even height, with the others slanting away, each in perfect proportion to the other. The arch under the foot was as high as a ballet dancer’s or, as she preferred to say, as a Maharani’s, even though many Maharanis were known to have carried their dignity on the flattest of flat feet. The high arch ended in two cushioned pads of flesh on either side, equally perfectly proportioned. People stopped to admire her footprints in the dust on the stone flags of a thakurdalan, or among a mash of marigold petals and milk left over from the puja. As if the goddess Lakshmi had stepped out of her lotus flower and condescended to bless those mundane steps. No wonder, people said, that she had been so blessed in her life. The possessor of footprints like those was bound to lead a fortunate existence.
Fortune – it had overflowed like the pan of milk that had been set on the fire as she stepped over the threshold in a flare of red and gold brocade . Good fortune had overflowed from the three storeyed roof into the green curve of the garden that held the house in its embrace. Good fortune had covered Mrs Roy’s plump white and black bordered person, giving her a creamy gloss well into her widowhood. She had three creamy white daughters and an equally creamy son. The son looked far too like the daughters to be considered perfectly masculine, but when he grew older, a small moustache and crinkled waves of hair put him into the mould of the god Kartik and gave him distinction. Yes, Mrs Roy was fortunate. She inhabited three acres of prime property in the heart of Calcutta and sat idly at her exquisite ivory inlaid desk while the city’s promoters vied with themselves in promising her crores of rupees . Everyone agreed that she would need many crores to compensate for the discomfort of moving out of her twenty room house into a flat.

Women in Horror & Making Monsters

Making Monsters

Futurefire.net Publishing and the Institute of Classical Studies are currently working on a mixed fiction and nonfiction anthology titled Making Monsters, with a focus on classical monsters in fantasy, horror or science fiction short stories. They currently have a call for fiction submissions out with deadline February 28th.

 The book will be published in the middle of 2018, and edited by Emma Bridges and Djibril al-Ayad. Our monster editor Margrét Helgadóttir will have an essay in the book about the world’s monsters, based on her experiences with editing the Fox Spirit Books of Monsters. To celebrate the monsters and the coming Making Monsters book, she interviewed Emma Bridges about the background for the book and monsters.

  1. What inspired the book?

In October 2017 we held a public event entitled “Why do we need monsters?” at the Institute of Classical Studies in London, where I am based. At the event four academics who have researched different aspects of monsters shared some of their work. It was attended by a mix of people who were interested in contemporary monster culture (for example in films, novels and art) and those with an interest in the ancient world. There were some great questions from the audience and it also generated a lot of interest on Twitter, with people sharing their favourite monster images and so on via the hashtag #ICSMonsters. Certain themes kept recurring in the discussions we were having – conversations around monsters and gender, or monsters and disability, for example. The idea for Making Monsters came from that – it’s a great way of continuing those conversations and combining creative responses to monsters (poems and short stories) with essays written by those (including some of the speakers at the original event) who have an academic interest in the theme.

  1. What do you hope to achieve with the book?

I’m really keen to find ways in which the work which goes on in universities can be shared with the wider public – this kind of “public engagement” is a key part of my role here at the Institute of Classical Studies, which is a centre for supporting, facilitating and disseminating academic research in classical subjects. I’m hoping that the book reaches those who might be curious about either classical myth or monsters more generally, or who enjoy reading speculative fiction, but who haven’t necessarily read anything academic about any of those things. The fiction/poetry and essays by academics will complement each other well as they will draw together some recent research on the topic with new imaginings of classical monsters produced by creative writers. Along with many other classical scholars I’m particularly interested in the contemporary reception of classical myth – the ways in which ancient texts, themes and ideas have been reinvented in new artistic and cultural contexts by writers, artists and other creative practitioners – and it’s also exciting to think that the call for poems and stories will result in the creation of a series of brand new pieces of creative writing focusing on these characters.

  1. What is a monster in your definition?

I think that monsters are often physical incarnations of humans’ deepest fears – they are imagined creatures, often with exaggerated characteristics (like having huge fangs or multiple heads), or whose bodies are hybrid forms combining the physical features of several different creatures. There’s often a sensory element to the way in which we envisage monsters too – they might be imagined as making terrifying noises, for example, or as being unpleasant to touch.

  1. What is your favourite monster?

Rather than having one favourite monster, I have favourite versions of particular monsters. So at the moment I’ve been thinking a lot about Steven Sherrill’s Minotaur in his novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, which takes the Minotaur out of the classical world and relocates him as an awkward, lonely and misunderstood character in contemporary America. It’s a really interesting exercise in what happens when we take a different perspective on a character who was traditionally seen as straightforwardly terrifying – Sherrill helps us to get inside the mind of the Minotaur as a character whose difference from the “norm” makes it hard for him to fit in. In a similar vein I really like the artist Howard Hardiman’s rendering of the Minotaur too – his is a melancholy figure for whom it’s hard not to feel sympathy, and on looking at that image I find myself imagining how terrible it must have been to be confined to a labyrinth, away from contact with the outside world except for the delivery of a consignment of humans for his next meal. For sheer gruesomeness in visual art, though, it has to be Rubens’ Medusa for me – she’s pretty terrifying!

  1. Do you think monsters play a role in our societies and cultures?

Since ancient times, it seems that humans have always imagined monsters in their stories and art – so, for example, in Homer’s epic Odyssey we find characters like the many-headed Scylla, who terrorises sailors by snatching them from their ships and devouring them, or the one-eyed man-eating Cyclops who is cast by the poet as representing the very antithesis of civilised society. I think that monsters like these have a role to play both in showing the extent of the human imagination and also in illustrating the things that people have always found frightening – often that’s about the fear of the unknown (such as the anxiety associated with undertaking a voyage across unfamiliar seas, as in the case of the Scylla), or about the subversion of what is perceived as the “correct” type of behaviour in any given society (as in the case of the Cyclops).

  1. Has this changed in modern times? Is it important to pay attention to modern incarnations and reception of classical mythology and literature?

I think that the continuing appeal of stories and films about, for example, werewolves or vampires, shows that the fascination with supernatural creatures who have the power to inspire terror has never really gone away! Where contemporary receptions of classical mythology are concerned, to me one of the most interesting things is the way in which old stories and characters are continually being revisited and adapted in new contexts. Any new version of a mythical story can influenced by, for example, the artist or writer’s own interests or personal beliefs and experiences, as well as by the contemporary political, social or creative context within which it is produced.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to practitioners for the journal Practitioners’ Voices in Classical Reception Studies and I’ve learned that the motivations for adapting myths in a particular way are as varied as the artists and writers who reinvent them. Looking at these new versions and talking to the people who produce them also helps me and others to understand more deeply some of the ancient texts which I study. By definition myth is fluid, not fixed – there is no one “correct” version of a story – and just as the ancient Greeks and Romans reinvented their own stories in new contexts and using different genres or artistic media, so that remaking of the stories still goes on now.

Thanks for joining us, Emma! Best of luck with the book!

Robin Kaplan, also known as The Gorgonist, has given permission to use her image “The Lonely Gorgon” as cover art for the book.

Read more about the forthcoming book Making Monsters here.

Women in Horror : Bengali Ghosts

Ghost story from Bengal 

by Aditi Sen

Bengalis love ghosts. In fact, ghost stories are a part of Bengali heritage. Ghosts are serious creatures, they are very particular about where they live, and have unique haunting habits. Bengali folklore is full of spooky tales—let me share a very popular one.

Terracotta Cottages in West Bengal

In Colonial Bengal, it was fairly common for men to work in cities and live in temporary lodgings often referred to as “messes” in Calcutta, while their families remained in rural Bengal. The men would work all week, go home on Friday evenings, then catch the Sunday afternoon train to get back to the city to work. Sometimes, when there was a lot of work, they would not be able to go home for a month or so. This story is about Gopal Das, who lived in a mess and was unable to go home for almost a fortnight.

Gopal took the early afternoon train home. When he reached the station in his rural town, it was almost dusk. His home was a mile-long walk from the station. One thing that caught his attention this time was the eerie silence at the station. There would always be a few people sitting there, but the station was empty, something he had never seen before. The little shanty around the corner that sold tea was closed, adding to the silence. He had never seen the station completely empty before. The silence created a strange sense of unease, as if the whole village had fallen asleep. It was already night when he reached home.

The house seemed unusually dark and quiet. Electricity had not reached his village yet, but there were always oil lamps outside the door. His mother opened the door. She had a small lamp in her hand, that hardly lit anything; he could barely see her. She seemed extremely reluctant to answer his questions, mostly replying in monosyllables. But she did inform him that the rest of the family wasn’t feeling too well, so they had all gone off to bed early. She was waiting to serve him his dinner, and she too would go to bed afterwards.

He washed himself quickly and sat down to eat. Dinner was rice and dal (lentil soup). After a few bites, he realized that the dal was unusually bland. His mother was sitting by his side waiting for him to finish his meal. He asked her if there was any lemon to flavour the dal. She nodded her head and stretched her arm to fetch the lemon. It stretched, stretched, stretched and stretched… first it reached the window, opened it, then reached the lemon tree, plucked a lemon, and came back inside and gave it to him. End of story.

There is a post-script to this tale. The entire village had died of an epidemic. It was now a ghost village. The mother’s ghost was waiting to feed her son who she knew was coming home that day. This a very common theme for ghost stories.  My grandmother told this story to me when I was a child; later, I heard it from many others. The context differed but the core idea was always the same.

Bengali folklore has no shortage of large spaces that are completely occupied by spooks: villas, forests, marshlands, hamlets. One major reason for Bengali ghosts having huge spatial benefit is simply because they died in large numbers to guarantee it. Bengal was so often afflicted by epidemics that in a fortnight everyone in a village could be dead. In 1896, the plague struck Bengal. This was followed by cholera and malaria in 1906. The 1921 census revealed the average death rate to be around 30.3%. In 1925, 4,97,473 people had died of malaria[i]. It is only natural that haunted landscapes would be an integral part of Bengal’s collective memory.

Only recently, I realized how almost every ghost story I loved as a kid is an important piece of history. There is no glory in dying of small pox or plague. This is not a dramatic, memorable death. Epidemics often get reduced to mere statistics. These ghost stories exist as an attempt to move beyond those deaths, and allow the victims to somehow continue to live. A man may lose everyone he loves, but there is comfort in the idea that, even though she has died, a mother will make sure that her son doesn’t go to bed hungry.

[i] Palit Chittabrata, Popular Response to Epidemics in Colonial Bengal in Indian Journal of History of Science, 43.2, 2008, 277-283.

Women in Horror

A quick review my lovelies of Women in Horror so far here on Fox Spirit.

2nd Feb – K.A. Laity on the House on Haunted Hill
4th Feb – Sunday Snippet Winter Tales
5th Feb – K. Bannerman on disability, motherhood and personal autonomy in horror
6th Feb – C.A. Yates on A Monstrous Love (crimson peak)
7th Feb – Fear of the Female in Fiction (victorian)

On the 9th we have Aditi Sen with Bengali Ghosts 
11th is a new Sunday Snippet from Respectable Horror
12th we have the Weird in the Normal by Su Haddrell
16th Women who fight back by Sharon Shaw
18th Snippet Sunday with Pacific Monsters
20th Once,Twice, Three times a Villainess by Angela Englert

We have more great stuff coming up so do check back to see what’s happening on WiH here on the Fox Blog.

Women in Horror : A Monstrous Love

‘A MONSTRUOUS LOVE’: CRIMSON PEAK AND THE WRITER

By C.A. Yates

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak gets a rough deal. Routinely (and boringly) dismissed as not being “horror” enough because it’s not chock-a-block with scares and icksome carnage and because it has the temerity to feature what appears to be a bosom-heaving love story, it seems to have been largely overlooked. Del Toro’s work is always beautiful to watch and Crimson Peak is no exception, but I have a soft spot for it because it takes the usual outcome of such stories and, well, smacks it on the backside.

Most gothic romances are not the love stories the Cyril Sneers of this world so enjoy denigrating. Almost none of them end with a clichéd guy-saves-the-day-and-gets-the-girl denouement. Take Maud Ruthyn from Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, a heavy influence on Crimson Peak. She is married at the end of the novel but no one comes to save her at the end of her story. She escapes her wicked uncle and his machinations by herself. Gothic romances are, in essence, about the journey to adulthood. Heroines are almost invariably very young women, of marriageable age but only just, thrown into circumstances beyond their control that test them to the extreme. After her ordeal, the gothic heroine more often than not gives up her childish dreams of adventure and accepts her prescribed role in society, usually as a wife and mother. The genre is not admiring the strength these women show so much as it is punishing them for their desires and admonishing them into accepting their proper place. These are cautionary tales. Edith Cushing, our heroine in Crimson Peak, however, rips up the rulebook and eats it for breakfast. Hers is not simply a journey of self-discovery that’s going to put her back at hearth and home; Edith sets out to make sure she is who she thinks she is or, perhaps moreover, become what she wants to become. What is that?

A writer.

Edith Cushing is an iconoclast, determined to set her own course, to write her own narrative. Of course she is limited by the time and circumstances she is living in but when she is given the opportunity to step outside of that, she embraces it. Right from the first frame, Edith is literally telling her story. Everything is a flashback because we start at the end of the story. She crowds the camera with her close up, face slashed and bleeding, but that half smile… man, has she got what she wanted or what? Against all the generic odds, Edith has created her narrative largely under her own agency. Of course there are times when others are directing proceedings and she is uncertain, afraid even. This is still a tale of self-discovery, of self-affirmation. There are lessons to be learned, a story to be written, and the movie is peppered moments of significance that have a direct connection to writing – the act of writing and the creation of story itself, illustrating and strengthening Edith’s goal while foreshadowing the fulfilment of her chosen fate.

Near the beginning of the movie, Edith’s father presents her with a pen with which to write her manuscript. It is obvious he encourages her passion even though he does not fully understand it, being a man of a more practical nature. As he says himself when he gives her the gift, ‘I’m a builder, dear. If there’s one thing I know the importance of it’s the right tool for the job.’ Although Edith eschews it, declaring that she wishes to type her work because her handwriting gives her away, she keeps it with her and it saves her life later on (proving the pen is mightier than the sword, but perhaps not the cleaver). 

Upon meeting Thomas for the first time, Edith doesn’t seem particularly impressed by him, and echoes her previously scathing tone when she makes fun of him about his meeting with her father. Not the behaviour one might expect from a gothic heroine on encountering her love interest. It is not until he picks up her manuscript and voices his approval that Edith is prompted to give him a more favourable second look.  Likewise, her awkwardness around her returned friend/admirer, Alan McMichael, is somewhat mitigated when she discovers his interest in and commonality with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – they are both ophthalmologists and share an interest in spirit photography.

When, ordered by Edith’s father who knows some of the truth, Thomas rejects Edith, he goes to town on her writing because he knows it will hurt her most, trashing it as ‘absurdly sentimental’ and naïve. He faults her lack of experience and advises her to ‘return to her ghosts and fancies’. Her deficiencies are made clear as well as public and, perhaps for the first time, having been moved by his previous endorsement of her work, Edith is truly tested. She is not going to get everything she wants simply because she is determined. Writing is work and she must experience life rather than have it handed to her if she is to succeed. Her nose is bloodied but not broken because the passion of Thomas’s speech, the anger with which he delivers these blows, build the foundation of what is to come next. When he returns the manuscript to her the following day and encloses a letter explaining the reasons for his outburst, she is given a second chance at the story and, taking his “notes” on board, Edith seizes the opportunity, running to him even as her father, who both tethers her to her mundane existence and was responsible for Thomas’s admonishments, is being brutally murdered.

Once at Allerdale Hall, the reminders that there is a story at stake continue apace. For example, upon stepping into the Hall for the very first time, Thomas asks his new wife if the place looks ‘the part’. With its sinking floor, tattered roof, and creaking skeleton, how can it not? Soon after, in an attempt to discover what has transpired sexually between her brother and Edith, Lucille attempts to shock by showing her an erotic fore-edge illustration on a book in the library. They sit surrounded by piles of books as the new bride confirms her husband has been ‘very respectful of her mourning’. It is also not for nothing that Edith makes real contact with a ghost in the house for the first time after her first physically passionate encounter with Thomas – a moment that is played out, and abruptly ended, on a writing desk. As her naivety diminishes, she truly begins to make progress with her story.

My favourite moment, however, comes when Lucille, having been discovered in flagrante with her brother and having literally forced matters to a head, stands calmly in front of the fire reading Edith’s manuscript. ‘You thought you were a writer’, Lucille observes disparagingly. ‘You have nothing to live for now,’ she says, as Edith prevaricates over signing the papers that are essentially her death warrant, and then throws the entire manuscript into the fire. It is in that moment that Edith fully realises her power as a writer and takes control of the situation. Her story is internalised, it is powerful, and it is hers. As Lucille herself is finally able to speak her truth, to assert her narrative, explaining about her baby and the ‘monstrous love’ she bears her brother, Edith formulates a plan; she has already palmed the pen, the very tool of writing, and sees what must be done. And do it she does. Right in Lucille’s chest.

All along, Lucille’s has been the main rival to Edith’s narrative. In the end, however, Edith has the better story and, moreover, she has imagination whereas Lucille, worn down by abuse as a child and desperation as an adult, is simply mad (the madwoman in the attic is a very gothic trope indeed). Make no mistake, our heroine wants romance but in an older sense of the word; in the sense of tall tales and faraway lands, and of tales in her own language and not that of the society that has never taken her seriously. She is dismissed by Mrs McMichaels as being set for spinsterhood and Ogilvy, the editor she shows her work to, focuses on its presentation rather than the story itself. She has yearned for opportunities to shape her work and when she crosses the path of a woman who has lived a life full of such opportunities, with Lucille, finally she can really get her teeth into it. Opportunity plus Imagination equals Victory, and so her narrative prevails.

The movie pretty much begins and ends with the close up of our heroine’s wounded, tearful, exhausted face. If you pay attention, you can see she begins to smile. As we listen to Edith’s monologue, which is, not incidentally, suggestive of someone composing the opening paragraph of a novel, we know she finally has what she has always wanted She has her story.

Women in Horror : Disability, Motherhood and Personal Autonomy

“I Never Saw You As A Mother”: Disability, Motherhood, and Personal Autonomy

by K. Bannerman

When Marc Quinn’s statue, Alison Lapper Pregnant, was revealed in Trafalgar Square in 2005, it sharply divided the art world. While the piece was originally inspired by the lack of positive representation of disability in public art, it was met with disgust by some critics, who described it as ‘like some 19th-century fairground exhibit’ and ‘rather ugly’. It’s a powerful piece, partially because it addresses disability, motherhood, and a woman’s right to control her future. Yet some critics seemed to ignore the fact that the subject is a real person, and reduced her positive portrayal into one of revulsion.

What does it say about the audience when they interpret an actual person – one who is firmly in control of her own representation – as ugly? Does it dig into the viewer’s personal insecurities, their fear of losing control? Does it frame motherhood as a prison, in which one has no agency or self-determination?

The trope of the disabled mother, which appears from time to time in the horror genre, plays upon those same insecurities. However, while it’s often played for shock value, it can also be subverted and challenged, depending upon the character’s ability to control their situation. Two examples illustrate this wide gulf between authority: the pregnant women revealed at the end of ‘Bone Tomahawk’, and the recently-pregnant matriarch in the episode ‘Home’ of the television show, ‘The X-Files’.

‘Bone Tomahawk’ follows a group of characters who are taken prisoner by inbred cannibals in the American West. Spoiler alert: the strongest and most masculine characters are killed, while the injured, the old, and the female characters triumph and survive. However, as the movie draws to its conclusion, the women of the cannibal tribe are revealed to be quadruple amputees, who hold no power over their existence and are used only for their reproductive qualities. All personal autonomy has been stripped away. They are seen as utterly without value by the survivors, and left behind.

In diametric opposition, Mrs. Peacock from ‘Home’ is in complete control of her situation. She is originally framed as a victim from the perspective of the main characters, and the audience is invited to be horrified by her situation. In fact, this was the only X-Files episode to get a viewer discretion warning, as censors felt it was too upsetting for the general public. However, the story soon revealed that she is in complete control. She is not a victim, for her boys have placed her at the top of their family unit, and she wields motherhood like a weapon, sometimes with murderous results. At the end of the episode, Mrs. Peacock is the one doing the leaving.

The use of disability or motherhood to provoke a negative reaction is not new in the horror genre, but using these subjects to symbolize victimhood subtracts from the reality of such an experience, where real people navigate their lives with intention, purpose, and strength. How we assign agency to the subject allows us to elevate the characters from helpless to powerful, from victim to victorious. It encourages an audience to see disability and pregnancy, not as frightening or imprisoning, but as a genuine expression of the human condition.  

  1. When Fox Mulder turns to Dana Scully and admits, “I never saw you as a mother,” he seems to be commenting on her expression of compassion. However, seen through the lens of the episode, perhaps the comment can be interpreted as a nod to Dana’s ability for leadership, calculation, and sometimes ruthlessness.

Snippet Sunday : Winter Tales

It’s Women in Horror Month, so throughout February we are going to be doing snippets from horror books in our collection. This week Winter Tales edited by Margret Helgadottir.

Cover by S.L. Johnson

 
The Wolf Moon
Sharon Kernow

‘You shouldn’t come here. I deliver so you don’t have to come here.’ 
Despite the hate shining out from the storekeeper’s eyes, Diana remained calm as she replied. ‘If you didn’t miss items from my list, especially when I’ve paid for them, I wouldn’t have to.’ Her tone was mild, gentle. If something a little snide sneaked in, she could hardly be held accountable.
Old Man Carver gazed at her as if he would like to snatch up one of the sharp gardening implements that happened to be a turn and a pace within reach, use it to split her down
the middle. Instead, he seized the list she had placed on the counter, his teeth clamping together, his fingers bunching into fists. His tight grasp threatened to tear the paper as he scanned for the items she had underlined that he had failed to deliver. His boots booming on the boards as he hurried to get the missing components were the only sound in the store. All else had fallen silent.
As one of the products turned out to be on a top shelf, soft curses followed, uttered under the man’s breath but carried in the stillness. During this time, Diana kept her gaze forward though she was aware that her back was unprotected and vulnerable. Not that she believed the other women of the village had the courage to stab her, and the men… They would do other things before slicing her open. Those capable of murder did not regard any part of the flesh as sacred, even the hidden, secret parts of a woman.
She hated their stares more than the thought of an attack. An assault she could react to; she had no protection from the blaze of their glares. She shouldn’t have come here, had come
in part to torment these people with her presence. She survived almost entirely self-sufficient, but winter months were hard, and some would exchange her preserves for coin so she could bolster her other provisions.

Women in Horror: The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley JacksonI would probably vote Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House the finest American novel if I were the kind of person who believed those sort of hierarchies mattered. All that matters is that this book is enormously good. Jackson was a stunningly skilfull writer who wove a kind of magic that retains all its astonishing power half a century later. There are ghost stories long before it, and of course many after, but there aren’t many I’d mention in the same breath. Jackson would be remembered forever just for writing ‘The Lottery’, a short story that still packs a wallop, but she didn’t stop there.

She wrote several novels that shine with a rare genius for dislocating reality just enough to make you trip over your assumptions. Sometimes I think We Have Always Lived in the Castle is just as brilliant as THHH but then I think who cares? They’re both brilliant. And then there’s Hangsaman and The Bird Nest — and all the humour, too. Horror and humour both require impeccable timing.

There’s something indelible about the experience of wandering through Hill House. I’ve taught it before and each time I have had students become firm fans of Jackson. I can’t read the opening lines without shivering:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The book wraps you in that same mantel of unease. You can’t trust what you’re told and you’re right not to trust it, but Jackson is so meticulously precise like those firm floors and neat bricks that you start to believe and then just as suddenly you’re lost. And alone. Most of the story is filtered through the hapless Nell — Eleanor Vance. Freed from the shackles of her late mother’s sick room, and her sister and brother-in-law’s suffocating paternalism, she’s at first elated by the opportunity to be on her own with no one to tell her what to do. She’s thirty-two but finds herself on the side of the little girl who refuses to drink her milk in a roadside cafe because she doesn’t have her ‘cup of stars’:

…insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it.

It’s impossible not to sympathise with Eleanor and her fragile newfound freedom as she joins Doctor Montague’s psychic experiment crew which he hopes will prove the reality of spectral phenomena in the legendary house. The bohemian artist Theo offers a sharp contrast with her confidence and sophistication, alternately befriending Nell then growing impatient with her neediness. My students are always dead certain that Jackson tells us Theo is a lesbian, but being asked to prove how they know that brings them up against Jackson’s primary skill: leading the reader where she wants them to go without their realising how they got there.

Even now I find myself re-reading passages to figure out how she does what she does and the magic is often elusive.

It’s somewhat puzzling that Netflix has greenlit a series based on the book. Perhaps they will eschew the novel and invent a backstory. It’s hard to imagine a visual adaptation better than the 1963 film directed by Robert Wise with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom along with the irrepressible Russ Tamblyn. When I’ve taught it in my horror film course, students who sniff at B&W films end up breathlessly rapt during the ‘knocking’ scene. There’s nothing much in the way of special effects: the knocking on the walls, Harris and Bloom terrified, and a door that almost seems to breathe. But when Nell whispers, ‘Whose hand was I holding…?’

Shivers.

Women in Horror Month

February is women in horror month so this year I have invited some of the finest creative dames I know (some, there are many more awesome ladies out there) to take over the Fox Spirit Blog with articles about horror. 

Elvira, Hostess of Horror

The brief was simple, I want female perspectives on horror, all kinds of horror, in all kinds of media. So while we will celebrate books and female creatives during the series, the real celebration is that all the articles are by amazing women. 

I bring you Women in Horror Month presented by The Speakeasy Radio & All Media and friends. 

We kick off tomorrow with the Skulks K.A. Laity on The Haunting of Hill House.