Scandal at the HWA: How Big is Too Big?

It may seem peculiar, but I go long periods ignoring the Horror Writers Association.

It’s not really a big mystery: I don’t belong to the Horror Writers Association, and I confess, I have no professional interest in it.

While some may say it is because I have not been professionally invited (not having sold the “easy to achieve” $25 in professional sales – a statement, by the way, I contest and protest), it is more than that. After years of watching the HWA, I grew to dislike the cachet of the association.

And after a recent attempt to visit the HWA website to “see what’s doing” among the “Professionals” (a somewhat annual task I perform and one which typically leads to my quick exit with an eye-rolling angst), I discovered that scandal – yes scandal – was brewing. Had brewed. For the last two decades.

And I missed it. The question is: should you?


What’s On YOUR Resume?

Now, it is important to note than any organization with the sheer numbers of membership and length of existence as the Horror Writers Association and which manages its history without a major public scandal is doing pretty darn well.

And it is also important to state that any organization of this breadth and depth is also the mirror of every other governmental entity it is fashioned after – responding to insinuations or outright accusations with denial, defensiveness and eventual action. Typically, such an organization seems to move at glacial speed when immediate speed would be better for all. And perhaps that is why the scandal (as it were) took wing at all.

Then again, important accusations were made.

And if you are a writer whose goals include becoming a member of the illustrious HWA, or if you proudly already include it on your resume, perhaps you should make yourself aware of the observations of malcontents and decide for yourself. Because if you are a writer, you should not only have principles, but stand by them. And if you join an organization, any hint of scandal or complicity becomes all yours by association.

As a writer, critical thinking goes with the territory.

This means you take nothing for granted – especially the more sensational something is rumored to be. However it also means being aware that one is responsible for one’s own decisions, and that sometimes those decisions carry consequence.

There was, in April of 2016, an eye-opening post from established writer and Bram Stoker Award winner Brian Keene titled, “Why and When I Will Begin Boycotting the HWA (UPDATED x3)” at

I was astounded to find a legitimate laundry list of unsavory allegations with regard to the operations of the HWA since the early 1990’s.

In this case, the scandal is really about an observed and disturbing pattern of behavior noticed by some members who objected strenuously enough to them to distance themselves permanently from the HWA.

And while some might call them “mere” allegations, these allegations are no joking matter.

They include allegations of embezzlement, and assertions of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in prestigious award nominations, as well as those which include abuses of trust, the breaking of organization by-laws, exposure of the membership directory to a known stalker, and adulterated awards voting process, missed office elections, and more (according to a blog post by author Brian Keener). And they are – to some folks – serious enough in mere allegation form to warrant not only disappointment, but to generate real professional differences in what is acceptable, forgivable, and even forgettable.

I am thinking the HWA should be adult enough to handle that, and would wish dissenting members well in their departures. And then perhaps would also take a serious look at how the ivory castle might be viewed by outsiders looking in…at least for the sake of the future and its future members. And while officers of the HWA did respond to the allegations AND the post, one cannot help but also feel a bit underwhelmed.



There inherently remains a professionally imposed chasm… a qualifying of complaints, as though only “approved” peers of the HWA might have legitimate opinions, or may voice concerns. It is that ever-present sense of superiority that clings to the HWA which is not only hypnotic, but strangely repellent.

For example, as an occasional visitor and potential member, I have always felt “dismissed” by the organization’s public face, a consequence of that persistent and elitist tone. Whether the HWA is right for the genre or for other people, I cannot say. I can only say it is clearly not right for ME. Keene’s observations only confirmed the existence of ghosts I whose presence always seemed to loom large behind the professional tone of the organization.

These are not ghosts which should be exorcised with denial. Rather, they should be met with apologies, and revised procedures, with real attempts to mend fences.

So I find Keene’s comments vitally important –especially to writers like myself who (for whatever reason we are not widely published at the moment) are left feeling uncomfortable at best with our impressions of the HWA.

Says Keene of his catalog of allegations: “The list is to demonstrate that somewhere along the line, the train came off the tracks and it has remained there, regardless of which administration is in power. I stand by my assertion that it is important to list these, as it demonstrates a pattern. And as Jeff VanderMeer said on my public Facebook page, ‘ I’ve had nothing to do with HWA for more than 15 years because of the pattern.’ The pattern is the entire point.”

I mean if our patterns of being unpublished writers matter…

Sometimes an organization becomes too big to save. The question is: is the HWA there yet?

Sometimes such an organization becomes everything it claims to warn and fight against. And when that happens, leaders within that organization have only themselves and their own hubris to blame.

And then in November 2017, there rose the spectre of the sexual harassment dismissal of a prominent writer/editor discussed in the post of blog File 770 titled “Horror Writers Association Bans CA Suleiman from StokerCon” authored by Mike Glyer at

As a female writer of Horror, this comes as no real surprise, but a real disappointment… and yet another item to join Keene’s list of HWA public relations  and image problems.

And while the HWA has taken steps to correct the trajectory of such damaging allegations, they are a large organization and large organizations typically wake up late and under-achieve repairs in their attempts to be fair but litigiously aware.

For many, it just feels like too little, too late.

In self-defense mode, they do not see what outsiders see.

We have in this latest “scandal” an oblique- though-Science Fiction writer’s view of an HWA casting couch. One has to wonder, how long has that been there. But then, don’t we all really know?

Isn’t the lack of the elevation of women writers in our canon and the almost total lack of writers of color tell that tale?

Having prestigious female editors – no matter how accomplished – does not make up for that, and I will tell you why: if female writers or writers of color cannot get published in the handful of “acceptable,” HWA-approved,  sometimes-appearing-in-literal-print magazines, they do not get paid that “easy to achieve” $25 minimum in sales to warrant membership in the HWA, which in turn limits further acceptance in publications, which in turn limits nominations to or acceptance by HWA-sponsored or infused awards, or Best Of publications.

The drowning of real voice continues. The banishment of dissent is complete.

And if the officers of the HWA are slow to rise, or are inadequate in their rising to act on such patterns, such accusations, such scandal…doesn’t that in itself suggest that the HWA has perhaps made itself obsolete?

I would hope not. There should be something salvageable in a noble purpose…

No, I would hope that it is all about wariness of legal reprisals.

But for the world it looks like too much tolerating of an obnoxious and unwelcome relative at the holiday gathering. It looks, smells, and tastes like complicity.

And it looks like arrogance.



The HWA & the Future of Horror: What’s In It For You?

I want to make clear I am not seeking to participate in the “bashing “of the HWA, but I do agree with many of its critics that we all need to be paying attention here, because they have the reputation of representing the entire genre.

I think the idea behind the formation of the HWA was not only honorable, it was timely. And I do think that in their own way and at least initially with good intentions, the HWA has thought itself to be the best bet for the genre to offer a guiding hand if not a guiding light as to how the genre can grow itself, sustain itself, and monitor itself.

However I also think that power corrupts, and that the bigger a group gets, the harder it is to truly vouch for the reputations and honor behind its members and their actions. I do think it is possible for such a group to become too large to be serviceable to its original mission statement, and I do think the capacity for ego-led behavior to become self-endorsed increases the more exclusive and elitist the group makes itself.

The HWA was founded by writer Robert R. McCammon in 1984, a writer of the 1980’s boom times who had the foresight to see the genre needed a sense of direction.

Precisely at this time, Literary Critics were starting to founder under the weight of the 1970’s explosion in publishing of all genres and the internal discussion of the inadequacies of either Literary Critical Theory, contemporary writers, or both. The ability of Critics to help guide professional direction of national writers was simply overwhelmed. The capacity of the public to “weigh in” on a book’s popular value and potentially its quality had begun to erode the very concept of an “establishment’s” authority.

For those reasons, the HWA was needed as a mitigating source of information and recognition.

But with the onset of the Internet Age, the bomb-throwing began, and the victims are not only publishers, editors, Critics, booksellers, and writers – it is also those organizations like the HWA that are taking it in the teeth.

The simple fact of the mere size of the organization that may be a contributing factor to its undermining by scandal. But leadership cannot escape the taint of its members’ misbehaviors, nor absolve themselves of their own sins.

Because where ever there is absolute power, there is also the potential for just such a group to decide it is running things – all things – having to do with the genre. They can drift in their moral imperative until they become a parody of what they intended.

When that happens, it is typically accompanied by the sensation (and then the declaration) that they are responsible for the inherent production of all quality work in the genre, that they are the rightful judges, juries and executioners, and that they are entitled to omnipotence, to proper deference…

But I say that because you are fortunate enough to find a professional paycheck in traditional publishing, mentoring by old school traditionalist editors, and/or the promotional luck of traditional publication… this is not qualification enough.

Many more of us would have joined those ranks long ago if traditional publishing had not undergone an evisceration of its way of doing business to begin with. For those of us in the genre who would be interested in becoming editors, professional writers, or working anywhere in the old traditional system, the door is firmly closed and locked. Permanently.

To claim our unemployment and lack of mentorship means we neither have the dedication, the talent, or the value of those who benefitted from that older system is a dangerous fallacy to launch in the genre.

And I say, you are not Literary Critics. Therefore at best, you think yourselves better.

In a few decades, Critics will let you know the truth of it.

But I digress…

When it comes to being a Horror writer, there has – for many years – been nothing more prestigious than the credential of belonging to the Horror Writer’s Association. For some, it means a second look by editors, perhaps a qualifying reason to be considered in an anthology or a contest or an award, and always a validation of belonging…

There is also a titillation and ego-stroking moment when one considers that not just anyone can belong to its exclusive membership. Certainly there are now (after either pressure, financial incentive, or both) associate-style memberships – the chance to lay about on the periphery with one’s nose pressed up against the glass. But I am talking bona fide membership with all of its promised perks.

As a writer, one must weigh whether this is what one wants or needs on one’s resume. And while many novice writers are star-struck at the possibility of sharing community – even if it is in another room of the same house – with the likes of the Stephen Kings of our genre, hobnobbing with famous editors, and potentially sharing a publisher with someone special – one really should think about what joining means.

Oddly, writers are not typically joiners. So it is to me amazing that like lemmings, the HWA is the cliff we are naturally expected to flock to. To desire. To covet. To lust after.

Perhaps this is because I simply do not. In full disclosure, I have no interest in the HWA.

There is nothing personal in it. I simply want to do whatever I do on my own merit, free of fetter, rebelling against my own people-pleasing gene by not-adding more people to please. And my ego is just fine, thank you, without any stroking or promises of inside knowledge and secret handshakes.

Part a very important part of the reason I chose to abstain from pursuing the goal of HWA membership (of any kind), is that I have seen and read essays on the website which I found to be dictatorial, harshly critical, and elitist in tone.

And while I am familiar with the “editorial voice” (which conversely, many editors in their very tech-writing kind of thinking is bare-bones and to-the-point, void of sugarcoating and razor sharp in its directness) completely fail to hear themselves… What I read was – at least to me – patently arrogant. They included rants and polemics about the audacity of the unpublished to call themselves writers, about the absence of concern for quality or craft, the invalidity of online magazine publications, the conceit of self-made publishers and the self-published, the self-aggrandizing pats-on-the-back…

For an organization overseen by professional, traditional editors and writers we are led to believe embody the Establishment, the lack of listening to one’s own tone or the arrogance of thinking such a privileged position is ultimately validated either by years of experience or personal position in that very organization is flat-out offensive.

Furthermore, the constant redirection of our genre by way of the HWA’s endorsement of conventions, awards, publications, publishers, writers, contests, and literary-style criticisms seems to present a conflict of interest. By their heavy artistic influence, are they not dictating the very future of our genre instead of being a forum for diversity and growth? Shaping what will be allowed to see the light of day?

While I don’t mind reading opinions, when those very opinions are not only cloaked in the guise of the HWA’s official “position,” but wield unfettered the Sword of Publication and Awards… well, things look subversive. Contrived. Controlled.

I see such overreach as a way to manipulate the type of Horror we see being published – as just another version of the Good Ole Boys’ system long lambasted about by the very writers and editors and publications the HWA is supposed to represent. When we limit the number of editors and slap a definition on “established” authors in the genre, I believe we limit the genre.



For example, we look to the HWA for our Best Of anthologies, for rankings of Horror publications, and Horror editors. We also tend to only see criticisms of independently published or self-published works and self-publishing authors – because those HWA editors and publishers and writers are the ones getting the readership boost of traditional publishing. This leads newbies to the assumption that all things flow through the magic hands of the HWA, or they are renegade, unendorsed rebel works of little or no merit.

For example again, it is from the HWA that we have seen a consistent criticism of contemporary, non-HWA writers and their works. These are the writers and works (we are told) which do not conform to craft, genre conventions, or literary standard. This is (we are told) what is bringing our genre down, ruining the genre, giving everyone a bad name which Literary Critics have been complaining about.

But the HWA – like MFA programs everywhere – are ignoring what else the Literary Critic is saying: we have too much repetitive drivel pouring out of published Horror. We keep reinventing FORMULA instead of story.

(As an under-published, unknown Horror writer, you can leave me and my work out of this. But you cannot exempt the HWA or MFA programs, or traditional publishing. Sorry.)

Literary Critics don’t have the time to troll the waters of us lesser-knowns, of small press publications, graphic novels, and comic books. What they are looking at is the Big Names of contemporary Horror and all of their followers… at the very traditionally published which the HWA spends so much time lauding above the rest of us.

And regardless of the status and glory of those Big Names, Critics are not at all happy about the (perhaps) better written Horror they have inspired, because as any reader can tell us, the storytelling is just not there and we are still consistently missing the Literary mark as a genre.

We do not improve that by making a Professional Writer’s association more exclusive with a centralized star-making power machine.

We do that by educating our writers earlier…when they are still in elementary and high school. When we actually separate writers from readers and teach elements of CRAFT.

We do that by getting our hands dirty. By trolling about in pulp and bad writing and honing rusty skills, milking the story-telling gene until we rediscover how Literature works within the subtext of our genre. We do that by random publication of stories in cheap magazines, by recreating that fertile field of creativity and writing mills that enabled stars like Lovecraft, Poe, and even Stephen King to rise to prominence.

I personally do not see that endorsed by the HWA. And what I have seen or sensed, has led me away from any interest in the HWA.

The bottom line is that whenever you trust groups of people, those with subversive agendas will eventually ruin everything – or attempt to. You should always look carefully at groups and professional organizations before you join…perhaps even hang back and study them and their doings for a while.

Ask questions:

  • Is the administrator/president someone who has been around awhile, has developed a reputation, and is someone with some kind of verifiable experience or track record?
  • Is there more than one way to find or contact this person?
  • Do you have enough information about the group to reasonably find it again if contact paths go silent?
  • If you submit work, is there some sort of arrangement in place to ensure that it is not shared without your permission? And how is it disseminated and handled if rejected?
  • Do you know other members, trust other members, or are you among the first members?
  • What are the net benefits that you receive as a member, and are they worth your trust?
  • Are you asked to pay dues, and if so, what do you get in return?
  • Is there legal accountability in the organization?

If you are joining a writers’ group, there is an element of trust you have to be willing to extend – especially if it is a critique or professional group. As the administrator of a Horror writers’ APA, I suggest you not only ask the above questions, but that you participate by monitoring your first work exchange or submission within the group – how it is received, processed, handled, and/or returned. Are you treated with respect? Is your work treated with respect? Is the end result not what you want – but what you need?

You have the right to the assurance that someone is taking reasonable responsibility for the protection of your reputation and your work as a member of that group – even if it is the HWA, and especially if you are paying dues.

I truly believe that being an officer of a group of writers is a position of trust – not a reward or proof of popularity, wisdom or righteousness. There is an inferred and innate obligation to look out for both the organization and the writers within it… to guard the mission.

If the HWA can’t or won’t do that…if it is too icky to handle scandals and accusations, maybe members should wonder where their money is going.

Isn’t it supposed to be about the genre? And isn’t that by default – you?

Some writers won’t mind the fallout. Some will decide to join the HWA despite any hint of scandal in the hopes that they will only have great things happen as a result. To them I say, bon voyage. Just go in with your eyes wide open.

After all, no one ever plans to be the victim of misadventure.





Greater Rocky Mountain Horror Writers APA welcomes writers of all stripes and levels, currently at no cost. Visit our recruitment and club webpage at



Why Is Mary In the Attic? Frankenstein & the Challenge of Authorship (An Open Salon Re-Post)

(In this Women-in-Horror month re-post from my defunct Open Salon blog, “The Horror” originally published on February 16, 2015, I want to share with you a second case of Literary gender assault which I referenced in the previous post. This is a real “controversy”… a debate, and a Critical argument being discussed in academia and elsewhere. What I ask you to do is to read this post and ask “why” it is even being entertained…)

Most women who write and read Horror are used to the idea that it is predominantly men in the driver’s seat of our canon. Most of us are fine with the works chosen to represent canon. After all, we girls have Mary, author of Frankenstein. Yet a closer look reveals the very real reason the arc of feminism has risen through the Critical ashes: because several “someones” have been trying to put our Mary in the attic since the publication of Frankenstein.


“…the first edition published anonymously in London. Mary’s name appears on the second edition…”


How many of know that there is (even today) a theory which postulates that the real author of Frankenstein was Mary’s husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley and/or any combination of he and his Famous Writer friends?

Why? Because a decent woman should not and – more importantly – could not write such a critically acclaimed work…especially a woman of nineteen.

This is hideous – even for our genre. Because what message does this send to young women writers of Horror? What does it say to writers of anything?

For those who have read my prior posts about Literary Criticism, this is where Roland Barthes and his dead authors meet the pavement of reality. We and our Critics need to think very carefully about how much biographical minutiae we really want to require in Literary Criticism, and how much it matters. We also need to recognize that if we do decide that biography is relevant, that – well, quite literally in this case – what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…


Conspiracy Theory

When one thinks of revising Literary Criticism, theories of conspiracy are not among the typical fare. Indeed, having any Critic of merit present such an argument – even in light of his times (and Critic was a man’s job in those early days) – flies in the face of modern Critical giants like Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and his own theory about the importance of keeping dead authors dead.

This theory that a large conspiracy took place to make Mary the author as a cover or a joke by a group of male poets and essay writers dredges up a Need-to-Know everything one can about every author and the circumstances of the birth of a work. It heightens the importance of copyright and the genesis of intellectual property, it takes the focus off of the work and the message of the work and makes it all about the author and the author’s times.

Is that really why a writer writes? So that Critics can thrash about in one’s personal and private existence and air the most intimate details of one’s life with the written work left as a mere afterthought? Is it really all about the writer? Do we want it to be?

One has to ask those questions and be prepared to answer them if one is equally willing to entertain the idea that Mary Shelley is our modern “who was Shakespeare” mystery.

One has to look at the motivations of all of the parties involved in such a conspiracy theory– including the very Critics who allege and support that a conspiracy was afoot. This started – after all – during a time in which decent women certainly didn’t write beyond invitations to social events and demure correspondence… and most definitely didn’t write like that (except that Mary’s own mother most certainly did). In fact, decent women were not to think at all about the world or its complicated subjects; it was not the place of women to speculate on the doings and the motivations of the doings of men. If it wasn’t about placating their husbands, raising children and looking pretty, about decorating the patriarchal parlor, proper ladies did not do it.

In such a world (argue conspiracy Critics), how could a nineteen-year-old woman with three illegitimate children to her credit write a work like Frankenstein – right under the noses of famous Romantic Poets like her husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley – or his friends also allegedly present that night in Lake Geneva– none other than Lord Byron and his personal companion/physician John William Polidori, who was also a published essay writer and who nurtured his own professional writing aspirations (Hitchcock 26-27).

Isn’t it more likely argue those Critics that such talent would have emanated from professionally established Writers and Poets? Didn’t Shelley himself admit to editing the novel in question?

Forget for a moment that “no poet of any renown would write a novel; no elevated person would stoop to read one” (Hitchcock 25). Forget the “shock” that “a popular poet would descend to write a novel, a new and not altogether respected literary form” (24). What would be the point in publishing it at all? If it could only be a professional amusement between poets, why drag it out into daylight? To put one “over” on the Critics?

Such would seem an awful lot of work with a serious risk of discovery and subsequent damage to a poet’s reputation… all for a giggle. Even given the indiscretions of youth, as well as the Idiot Gene that we all have encountered at one party or another, what is the likelihood that these young men would toy with their own tenuous reputations?

But Percy Bysshe Shelley admits to editing the work…He was present that night and many others…isn’t it at least feasible? Possible?

Many Critics thought so. Susan Wolfson and Ronald Levao state in their introduction to The Annotated Frankensten:

“Confronting a novel propelled by male adventures and transgressions, saturated in the languages and ideas of Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Godwin, Byron, Shelley, and contemporary scientists such as Davy and Darwin, a novel, moreover, known to have been shopped by Percy Shelley, many reviewers assumed that the author was male – probably Shelley himself, or some other deranged, atheist Godwin disciple.” (53)

Perhaps we should pause here a moment to refresh. Frankenstein was written in an estate house (Villa Diodati) at Lake Geneva once rented by Milton in 1638 (Hitchcock 24), Coleridge, Wordsworth and Byron were publishing contemporaries of Shelley, Byron was a friend and present during the alleged contest, the “atheist Godwin” was Mary’s father, and London newspapers of the time were publishing tales of “galvanism” in which Luigi Aldini “toured Europe during the first years of the nineteenth century, demonstrating how electrical charges could move not only the legs of frogs but also the eyes and tongues of sevred ox heads as well (Hitchcock 33).

All of these things would have had influence on our Mary, who at one time recalled “how discussions of at Villa Diodati of these scientific marvels had filled her with ideas” (34). Indeed, “poetry and science, Gothic horror and reanimation—these topic tingled in the Geneva air that summer of 1816”…(34) How could they not influence any imaginative, thinking young adult? But more interestingly, how could they influence only the male members of the Geneva party on that night of nights?


Shelley versus Shelley

I say these conspiracy Critics must be fair in their use of historic and biographical detail. What Percy Bysshe Shelley was exposed to and influenced by, so was his wife.

Some may feel the need to “compromise” by saying that the possibility of editing by Shelley would indicate that he at least co-authored the novel… to which I ask, where are the residual checks for the editors of Harry Potter or Tolkien?

Editing is not writing. Editing is about organizational and compositional guidance. It is about streamlining the flow of consciousness, the application and follow-through of logic and the rules of grammar. It is not creating…it is shaping the created. It is about dressing up a story in its finest attire.

And indeed Shelley admits to “editing” the work and Critics have long complained that his influence is indeed “obvious” and that “the manuscript shows assistance at every point…so extensive that one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator” (Wolfson & Levao 11-12) – which is in itself if true a sign of poor editing – and that while his hand in the novel improved some technical quality, it also threatened the integrity of the novel in places where he clearly insinuated himself (Wolfson & Lavao 54).

Does that not imply that it would have been a far different novel had Shelley written it? Or is it merely evidence of … editing not by a professional editor?

Distinguished Professor of English Literature, author and essayist Anne Mellor says something important in her review of the evidence. Mellor, “while acknowledging Percy’s improvements on several levels—from grammar and syntax to narrative logic, ‘thematic resonance,’ and the ‘complexity of the monster’s character’ – also notes Percy’s own missteps: rhetorical inflations and Latinizings, a penchant for imposing ‘his own favorite philosophical, political, and poetic theories on a text which either contradicted them or to which they were irrelevant’ and revisions that distorted Mary’s intentions and ideas [my emphasis]” (Wolfson & Lavao 54).

And isn’t his admission that he functioned as agent, and both his and Mary’s admission that he functioned as editor(Hitchcock 70-73) good enough for conspiracy Critics?

If not, one should look at supporting evidence; for example, despite the loss of the original draft manuscript, what of the copytext manuscript which “argues very strongly against’ the story of Mary-as-scribe “(unless it is an elaborate hoax that they [Percy’s advocates] and their conspiring friends cooked up to fool future scholars)” (Wolfson & Levao 54)? J.W. Polidori confirmed Mary’s “busyness” the “day after” her inspiring reverie, and the only surviving “draft she worked on shows a lively and affectionate relation between the older published poet and his talented lover” (54). Some might say this is merely more evidence of those willing to contribute to conspiracy. But at some point, one would have to be willing to suspend an awful lot of logic.

Furthermore, it would seem that if this document could be used or cited as evidence against Mary as author, then it should also be evidence for Mary. In fact, for Critics who accept Mary as Frankenstein’s author, it is this and other existing documents that bear the greatest weight:

“Here appear numerous local rephrasings in Percy’s hand, most (but not all) retained in the publication of 1818, occasional teasings of Mary about some of her habits of style, and a few ideas about local plot developments. Although Percy was an encouraging, attentive reader and a caring adviser, Mary’s primary authorship is confirmed by documents (letters and memoirs) containing comments from everyone who knew them – Byron, Leigh Hunt, Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, Godwin – that refer to her working on Frankenstein and regarding the novel as her project” (54).


And why does this Critically intense scrutiny of the author – if the rightful author were Mary, stop at calling her a nineteen year old woman? Where is the acknowledgement of her professional pedigree, upbringing and present company?

Her parents were well-known writers and activists – William Godwin – a philosopher, publisher and social critic, a “brilliantly popular writer in the 1790’s,” her mother Mary Wollenstonecraft, a feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, both parents being acclaimed novelists and essay writers (Hitchcock 27)). Our Mary had been writing since she herself was ten years old, had been a reader in her father’s vast library, the lover and wife of Percy Shelley. Her entire life had exposed her to the arts and the writing community along with the likes of Samuel Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Milton and Lord Byron to fuel her imagination. She was a daughter of activists coming of age during the rise of the Gothic, surrounded by poets and philosophers.

Now place her in the times of rising technology – the era of electricity and science. Place her at those contemporary and surprisingly common séances and lectures on the possible reanimation of corpses. See the arcs of electricity that were common affectations of lighting demonstrations and the rise of the Gothic period in literature, the rise of the Victorians as social culture.

Now remember what it was like to be nineteen. Remember the raw emotions, the primal fears, the easy way in which monstrosities rose in the imagination and dreams came vivid in their visitations in the night. If you are a writer, remember how rich and tactile an experience it was to write at nineteen. Remember the ideas? Remember how easily monsters came unbidden? Remember the perverse joy of Horror?


Then consider what it must be to witness the death of a child, to be surrounded by infidelities, disinheritances, public scrutiny, suicides, the endless pursuit of creditors, children birthed and dying out of wedlock… to constantly try to hide or disguise the decline of wealth, to be young and in love as passionately as you are afraid of the changing tides of your times. Imagine all of this in your primal imagination on a dark and violently stormy night with the reading of ghost stories and the ultimate challenge of writing one of your own as a contest of youth.

Consider also what it was to be nineteen in 1816. Life expectancy hovered around 40 years… ( and This means that even a morose teenager had some measure of right to be contemplating death and its meaning, because our Mary would have rightfully assumed she was at middle age.

Consider to be wrapped in all of that, and to be a writer. Consider the company she kept—in fact, visit the world of the Romantic Poets for a real taste of the Gothic…

Even using the very rules of conspiracy set about by those anti-Mary critics, one has to acknowledge that Mary had the necessary background – the chops as it were – to have done the deed herself. She had motive and opportunity.


Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Many modern Critics admit that Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s finest work, that much of her subsequent novels (and yes, she most certainly did write other novels) were lackluster by comparison, seemed somehow distracted and not as focused. But our Mary was also widowed by then, and lost even more children to untimely death.

Try writing novels and not having real life impact your voice and plot. Try being a woman with a complicated reputation in those times. Try keeping a roof over your head.

Perhaps the pressures of being a woman, and a writer, and the possible author of a work like Frankenstein weighed heavily – even like a burden upon her.

Then if all else fails, look at Harper Lee, who it was once said believed that she had nowhere to go but down after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Truths do not matter. What matters is what the writer believes when she is writing.

How do we know why Mary’s other novels were not as successful? How do we possibly get in her head?

Again, I say that Roland Barthes is right: we don’t belong in writer’s heads. We as Critics or readers don’t have a right to their history. We need to appreciate the work as the work.

Maybe we don’t even have a right to know for sure that Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelly wrote Frankenstein. But she said she did. Her husband said she did. All of the people who were there that night at Lake Geneva said she did. They have even found peripheral information – letters, journals, etc. corroborating those very claims – from people who knew the players of the time. No one alludes to a conspiracy but those odd, dissatisfied Critics who believe a woman of nineteen could not have possibly written a work of merit – especially if she were married to an established writer, a man of position...

How incredibly sad. And how incredibly bigoted and sexist.

It is for these very types of reasons that women in Horror today feel skeptical of the publishing machinery that makes canon fodder of them and meteoric successes of more men than women in our genre. We have to question because there are just enough idiots out there to give us cause.

Case in point: every biography of Mary Shelley includes mention of the controversy, mentions the one idiot doubt of her authorship of the work known as Frankenstein. The disenfranchisement of her work has become associated with her very history and tainted the wondrousness of the novel itself. The only male author subjected to the same scrutiny is Shakespeare. (My, Mary, what good company those skeptical Critics have put you in….)

And to the Critics who believe that a nineteen-year-old could not possibly write such worthy stuff, I say that Percy Bysshe Shelley was not that much older, and gee whiz look at H.P. Lovecraft and what his childhood nightmares did for him. I say quit trying to make controversy where historically there is none.

Quit trying to shove Mary in the attic.

We need young women writers in Horror. We need them because they become old women writers in Horror. We need them for vision and the carelessness and impetuousness of youth. We need them and our canon needs them.

The birthing of Frankenstein as a novel is one of the most documented and argued cases of inception we can summon into argument. How it came to be, when it came to be, why it came to be and a list of all the pedigreed witnesses to the birth are available for anybody who wants to do a little research and reading. Ultimately, there is little foundation for supporting the theory of a conspiracy; it’s not only unlikely, it’s just plain weird.

So get off her. Let her breathe. Our times and modern Critics are busting Mary out of the attic prison sexist Criticisms have attempted to make for her. And there are bigger reasons for leaving it to rest than Conspiracy egos can support. Bigotry has had its time, its opportunity, a socially constructed stage upon which to prove its allegations. Nothing came of it except one important truth:

She’s our Mary. She is the rightful birthmother of Frankenstein. And we as readers and writers of the genre couldn’t be more proud or defensive of her right to be. No matter who she was married to or partied with on one dark and stormy night.



Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: a Cultural History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, c2007.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley: a Biography. New York: E.P. Dutton, c1987.

Wolfson, Susan J. and Ronald Levao, eds. The Annotated Frankenstein by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, c2012


Girly-Girly Horror: Daphne Du Maurier & Gothic Romance (Because It’s Women-In-Horror Month)

For most of us who read and write Horror, there is an almost automatic tendency to cringe when we hear the word “romance” associated with our genre. Even with blockbusters which have encompassed the one-time popularity of amorous vampires to taunt us, we of the Horror genre prefer the more suspenseful, monstrous-scary kinds of relationships in our fiction.

Romance, we insist, is a whole ‘nother creature – one we banish happily to the Harlequin aisle. Romance is girly-girly stuff.

But not so fast. Because if one really embraces the genre we have come to associate with psychos and monsters and a host of demons and witches, then we must embrace our beginnings in the classics – including our beginnings in the medieval romance and folktale fairy princesses which begat the Gothic Romance and Gothick (so christened with the ‘k’ by writers like Victoria Nelson to differentiate “new” Gothic from Medievally inspired Gothic ) subgenres which lead to where we are.

It is Gothic Romance – the provenance of writers like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and one Daphne DuMaurier – which put Horror on the map (and in particular, the Literary map).

Forget what you think you know about romance. Because it is these ladies who put the paranormal into romance and laid the groundwork in setting and characterization for a lot of modern Horror.

If you want to understand and appreciate our genre – especially including the role of women who contributed to its modern shape – you need to read Gothic Romance. And I suggest strongly you start with a book called Rebecca.


Girling Up Horror All Over the Place

For most of us, our exposure to romance left us covered in a kind of gauzy, glittery, pink-fairy-wing kind of stupor, or drenches us in the stereotypes of bodice-ripping erotica. It is far too saccharine for our Horror tastes. But that also means that we have had our heads turned by pulp romance, which – not unlike pulp Horror – is a subgenre that caters to a specific audience. Before and alongside that type of romance is Gothic Romance – tales that leak in sinister designs from drafty castles and isolated manses, tales that reek of the supernatural and dark, dark secret histories.

It is at once a genre of deft flexibility, and perhaps that is how and why women writers so expertly and effectlively took charge of it.

Explains Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier and the Gothic Tradition”:

“Gothic fiction possesses a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. The sublime landscapes and imperilled maidens of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), for example, seemingly bear no relation to the city streets and macabre body transformations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) or to Henry James’s psychological ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898), and yet all three tales are, undeniably, Gothic. Regardless of their entirely different storylines and settings all three share the traditional Gothic qualities of a disturbing atmosphere, a carefully described landscape and setting, a sense of the uncanny and the impression that events are out of kilter with the rational world.” (Buzwell)


Change, as we have seen even in our lifetimes, is survival for fiction. It has to move with its readers in order to move its readers.

This is something we see regularly in Horror: monsters evolve, ghosts change tactics and motivations, monsters drift between human origins and supernatural ones. This has to happen or our audience becomes too sophisticated, too conditioned to be easily disturbed, our stories flat or trite.

It is an easy conclusion in hindsight then, that “Romance” was doomed to change, and that the Gothic period of writing would bleed from real world wounds, from actual histories being lived by the readers the stories were being written for. We forget that stories about the 1800’s were once “modern” and that readers understood first-hand the travails of their protagonists.

But this is why Gothic Romance evolved from its more straight-forward origins. Readers of the 1700’s and 1800’s could only identify so far with medieval times and cultural constraints. Readers always tend to look for stories written with them in mind, preferring their habitual devouring of story pressed through a prism they can at least imagine; readers need to see themselves in fictionalized tales.

Gothic Romance descends from stories wrought from the romance languages, making use of medieval tales of knights and ladies in distress. Where “Romance and Gothick” are not (according to the critic Northrop Frye) “two separate literary movements, one high and one low drawing from the same sources, the Gothick should be regarded as the foundation of the Romantic” (Nelson 97).

But change happens slowly, unevenly. There were writers – female writers of the Gothic – writing well before Gothic Romance became fashionable. They wrote in lesser known publications for women, and their names are harder to remember, their works harder to find. Unfortunately, it far too often takes writers with the panache, style, and timing of J.K. Rowlings and Jane Austens to awaken fame, fortune, and opportunity for others.

With the deft pens of writers like Charlotte Brontë, whose work Jane Eyre was the main transformative work to lift The Castle of Otranto (also considered the first true modern Horror story) into what we see as “modern” Literature, the genre of Gothic Romance exploded onto and all over the publishing scene, borne by the imaginations of women who it appears, saw things a little differently.


In her book Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural, Victoria Nelson asserts that men and women write Romance differently, and with the rise of Gothic Romance, women transformed the genre by refashioning the protagonist and the conclusion of early romance into what has become coined “the Female Gothic.”

Formerly, male writers were wont to write tales in which “[a helpless young woman is pitted against] a devilish villain whom she is going to be forced to marry (The Castle of Otranto [by Horace Walpole]) or who forcibly ravishes her (The Monk [by Matthew Gregory Lewis])

“In the female-authored Gothicks that followed Walpole, in contrast, the single heroine (whose point of view we usually inhabit) escapes the villain’s clutches and marries the young man. Where the early male Gothick writers, drawing directly from the medieval romance tradition, used a faux-medieval aristocratic cast of characters, the women Gothick writers frequently introduced a bourgeois female protagonist into the mix. Where male authors favored supernatural elements, female authors – most famously [Ann] Radcliffe herself – like to titillate their readers with ghostly, chill-inducing phenomena before revealing the human agency behind them.” (97-98)

And with the advent of this new perspective and the emergence of publishing venues for women and their readers, the Gothic Romance was unleashed. Gone was the tendency toward the male-favored tragic ending, and in came the more female-friendly happy ending. But along with the surge in female storytelling, came the disfavor of Literary Critics of the time.


Long seen as sensational, overly sentimental writing, it took writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters to capture Critical respect. Says Nelson:

“Literary critics have not been kind to Gothick romance. Fred Botting has dubbed contemporary women’s romance ‘Girly-girly Gothic’ after Mark Twain’s label ‘girly-girly romance’ for the identical literature of the nineteenth century. Traditional Gothick scholars and literary critics alike have delivered scathing and condescending critiques and commentators have noted the continued low status of the women’s romance in mainstream culture despite being statistically the most popular literary genre.” (106)

Enter Daphne Du Maurier, a woman whose most preeminent work, Rebecca, has sold well over 3 million copies, some 4000 copies per month since 1938 and has never gone out of print (House), yet who could not in her lifetime garner the least Critical respect (facts to which today’s Stephen King fans can relate).

For far too long her work was considered “standard” women’s fare, and not in the same class as writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters; and one must recognize that the Curse of Bestsellerdom is an enduring one – one that has been around as long as there have been Literary Critics who cannot fathom the fickle passions of the masses.

Far too often it takes decades, if not centuries, after an author’s death for Critics to reconcile knee-jerk reactions to sales figures with what is really going on in an author’s writing. Recounts Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature”:

“In some respects Daphne du Maurier was a victim of her own success. Her prose was so smooth, and her stories so packed with incident, that her gifts as a storyteller often overshadowed the more serious aspects of her work. It is only when you look beyond the surface polish of her stories that you begin to notice her brilliant and eclectic use of Gothic imagery.” (Buzwell)

Still think you haven’t heard of her?

Ah, ye of little faith, O Horror Fans…she is also the author of one of Horror’s most iconic stories, tagged (and therefore probably misremembered) as “Alfred Hitchcock’s” The Birds…


Author, Author

All too often we have our attention directed to authors acknowledged and endorsed as Canon Greats, and we tend to not question the absence of a name here or there, as though there is a kind of security or gilding of the Critic’s lily in propping up “established” theories of Literary evolution and the roles certain authors allegedly play in it.

We shy away from those labelled “popular” or “mainstream” authors as thought their contributions are somehow less valid, less impactful. And we often do this whenever there is the slightest whiff of controversy – too often assuming that the lack of a Critical voice to say otherwise somehow legitimizes the exclusion of an author in the discussion of genre.

This tends to happen historically most often to female authors. And while we are getting better at deflecting such tendencies, we do little to clear the air of suspicion for deceased and historically significant writers as though to do so will cause our own reputations to be sucked into the vortex of unsavory scandal – or worse, will make an enemy of the Literary Critic/academic community.

Daphne Du Maurier is just such an author. Despite numerous accusations of plagiarism during her career – all of which reached legal resolution in her and her publishers’ favor, the cloud of disgrace associated with those defeated claims continues to disparage her reputation and deprive her of her rightful place in genre history.

Legal confirmation of her innocence is a matter of record. And yet Du Maurier is seldom mentioned with or within genre references and Critical essays with any regularity. It is as though she is being disparaged as a “girly-girly romance” writer – a pulp writer – a sentimental sensationalist instead of what she was – a Gothic writer who strongly influenced not only Romance, but the Horror and Suspense/Thriller genres.

It is time that changed. And Horror should be the genre coming to her defense. Both Rebecca and The Birds were genre-changers for us, building directly upon the psychological terror platform of Edgar Allan Poe.

But it is also time for modern women in Horror to demand Critical engagement in such circumstances as the accusation of plagiarism – not only against Du Maurier, but also against Mary Shelley (who some claim published Frankenstein under her name after her husband wrote it). Ugly rumors and greedy grabs at sensationalism should be met with immediate Critical address, and not allowed to hang over the work and reputations of such writers.

Especially because this happens historically and disproportionately to women – accusation and Critical ostracism – women need to call it out for what it is: a form of professional bullying which needs to be stopped by the nearest thing we as writers have as a governing body: the Literary Critical/Academic community. Mention of accusation is one thing; but reputations should cease to be impugned once the law has ruled on the issue. Such writers should not be omitted from works referenced in genre discussion, or from Critical analysis.

For years I have sought and expected to find essays on Du Maurier’s work, perhaps even Critical expositions. Yet references have been rare and piteously fleeting when found. I find this to be shameful, especially if not only an American issue.

And while Du Maurier is not as “well-known” in the United States as she is in the UK, not as widely read perhaps, and even possibly avoided due to her reputation for alleged anti-American sentiment in her day, her work is more than worthy of attention in this country, her name the kind which belongs on reading lists.

If a writer inspires the readership of a genre, changes the genre, and is referenced as an influence by other writers (as Daphne Du Maurier frequently is), he or she is Literarily relevant – deserving of Critical attention and (if necessary) defense.

Rebecca is one such story… It is often remembered with the same misty reverence by its intensely loyal fans as Jane Eyre…

The story of Rebecca grabs the reader from the very first line: “Last night I dreamed I went back to Manderly…” and it holds the reader entranced with the kind of language that mesmerizes Stephen King fans – accessible language that makes each scene familiar, identifiable, relatable. It is a woman’s story, one that penetrates into a common innocence, a common need for loving and being loved, the sense that we will never quite belong and whole histories await to bedevil us even as they precede us.

This is the what makes Du Maurier a favorite among favorites. With so many of her stories, we can not only imagine her heroines, we could be them.


Says Christian House in his article for The Telegraph titled “Daphne Du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy”:

“In August 1938, Rebecca caught the zeitgeist, drawing on the glamour of country society and the feeling of impending catastrophe that permeated the pre-war years. Put coarsely, it is a novel about a dead woman and a house. Both of which were drawn from the author’s life.

“‘Mum used to get fed up talking about it,” says [her son Kits] Browning. “She did get so irritated with people calling it a romantic novel. Because she always said it was a study in jealousy.'”

[and further that]

“The seed of the Rebecca story lay in Daphne du Maurier’s jealousy of her husband’s first fiancee … (House)

So firmly nestled among Du Maurier’s success were those facts of her life — and that in the end, it makes her even more human, even more intuitive as a storyteller. And yet like all women writers, there was always lurking in the shadows the problem of being a woman in a man’s world. Continues Buzwell:

“As a child du Maurier often wished she was a boy. In part this was because boys at that time had greater freedoms and opportunities than girls, but with du Maurier the desire went further. She even invented a male alter ego for herself, named Eric Avon, along with a colourful past for him in which he had been to Rugby. Eric Avon was adventurous and fearless, qualities that Daphne du Maurier had in abundance but which she was never fully allowed to express because of her gender.

“As a writer, du Maurier was able to explore this masculine side of her nature vicariously through her fiction. Many of her most famous books, including My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand have male narrators. Even the very early tale The Doll is told from a male perspective, the narrator finding himself rejected by the woman he loves in favour of a mechanical doll – something which, inevitably, has devastating implications for his own identity. The more you look into du Maurier’s work, the more wheels within wheels you begin to see, and the darker the imagery becomes. It is only when you look beyond her narrative brilliance that you begin to see the haunting darkness and complexity of her work.”


Such wishes and imaginings are – if nothing else – the ghost that walks among all female-authored fiction. We always second-guess ourselves, our worth, our potential and our right to success. We wonder if we would have fared better as men, if our work would have found better Critical reception had the byline been male.

This is natural in a patriarchal society, even when we hope things are better for us than it was for women who preceded us, even when “things have changed.” We all too often find that they have not changed so very much, and there are just enough mines in the minefield that we can never truly be sure of our footing.

And when we read prominent women writers, we tend to discover troubled waters beneath the prose. This is how we write ghosts without actually writing ghosts. For example, Buzwell explains how Du Maurier builds on the tradition of ghosts as built by Ann Radcliffe:

“Daphne du Maurier’s work also contains echoes of Ann Radcliffe, whose novel The Mysteries of Udolpho came to epitomize the first golden age of Gothic literature. In Radcliffe’s work the seemingly supernatural is nearly always revealed to have a rational explanation. Du Maurier’s work exhibits similar characteristics. In Rebecca, for example, the sinister character of Mrs. Danvers is just that – a character, not a malevolent ghost; while Rebecca herself, who dominates the book without ever making a single living appearance, is a ghost only in the sense that she haunts the imaginations of the living protagonists. This psychological element contains echoes of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw…”

Indeed this is the magical recipe for originality in Horror: the taking of a device from a traditionally-established writer and altering it subtly with the result that the difference jars the plot and the reader alike. But it must always ring true.

This is how we know Du Maurier is not only Literary, but a writer of the feminine Gothic where the female protagonist’s own insecurities has captured us and simultaneously modernized the ghost story, providing the scaffolding for another generation of writers to build upon.

Yet female authors, when they do well, tend to come under scrutiny. Since the early days of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, a woman’s ability to come up with her own ideas is always suspect, and an illogical and random variable constraint of possible talent is arbitrarily assigned to her capacity as a writer. The success and similarities of Rebecca to the absolute conventions and themes of Gothic Romance made Du Maurier a target. Plots repeat in fiction. And they often repeat more noticeably in subgenres. Yet even as she was dogged by accusations of plagiarism for Rebecca, Du Maurier won all court decisions, and still the spectre of accusations haunted the author all of her life. She lived in mortal fear of disclosing publicly the secrets and details of her own life, of her writing process, of her faults as a woman. (De Rosnay 186-191)

This remained so until her death at 81.

And despite numerous attempts at interviews and accommodating the curious, Du Maurier was at all times a typical writer – insecure, private, perhaps even a bit paranoid of the intentions of others. But she was something else: she was a pivotal player in the Gothic Romance genre, a not-too-distant relative of the Horror genre.


She should be mandatory reading for writers of Horror, particularly female writers, and writers of the ghost story. She should be on a required reading list for Classic Literature.

Even so, perhaps you are wondering…

Why Daphne Du Maurier? What leads me to choose her as my Women-In-Horror Month writer? Why not Charlotte Bronte or Ann Radcliffe?

Because Daphne Du Maurier is least known in this country and for all of the wrong reasons.

So much of her work has been repeatedly made into films by directors who overshadow her name as an author – (The Birds) Alfred Hitchcock, (Don’t Look Now) Nicholas Roeg, (Jamaica Inn) Alfred Hitchcock, (My Cousin Rachel) Roger Michell, and (Frenchman’s Creek) Ferdinand Fairfax…and because even when we read her work, we get caught up in her stories – haunted by them – without remembering who wrote them.

Yet she is a vital part of Horror genre history. She is a major contributing player in the psychological American roots of Horror writing and filmmaking. Who among us does not count The Birds among the most relevant, inspirational, and yet disturbing Horror of our lives?

The absence of Daphne Du Maurier from our reading lists and our analysis of the history of Literature, especially Gothic Romance and subsequently Horror, has cheated us. We are blinded to a significant Literary connection to our classical roots and – most importantly in Horror – to our British roots.

Du Maurier is a transitionary writer for Horror fans and authors. She is where the Gothic romance becomes the Gothic romance. Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey are the noises we hear in the dark. Du Maurier is the frisson.

If we are going to improve our knowledge of our own genre – especially as women writers – we need to re-evaluate how we study Classic Literature. We need to abandon the idea that our educational system has the money or wherewithal to broadly educate us in such a way that we can see the Horror from here…Instead we have to look for the Horror ourselves. We have to educate ourselves.

Having abbreviated reading lists in our schools and reduced exposure to Literary Classics in general makes this worse. Writers who are not Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters are almost ritually abandoned in our Lit classes. And the seemingly deliberate avoidance of the Gothic in general as a subgenre except as a setting device is another.

Yet especially in the assessment of contemporary American Literature, we bemoan the lack of continuity with our past, with the lack of originality, the absence of fire that animated so much early English-language Literature. This complaint has spilled over into genres and subgenres like Horror, where so many of our rejections reflect this professional frustration.

It is time Horror recognized Daphne Du Maurier for her contribution to our genre. It is time we stepped up. It is one thing to excuse such childish, professionally irresponsible avoidance and ostracizing behavior when we read about it as history. It is another when we realize our own silence reinforces the inaccuracy and injustice of prejudiced exclusion.

It is time we opened our eyes. The British continue to outpace us in accomplished Horror writing. We continue to flop about like dying fish out of water.

I say wade in. The water is fine. The water is still mostly British. And when it comes to studying women’s writing and the Gothic Romances, nobody does it better than Daphne Du Maurier.

Go on. Scare yourself. You’re gonna love it.



Buzwell, Greg. “Daphne du Maurier and the Gothic tradition.” Retrieved 1/31 from

Crace, John. “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature. Retrieved 1/25/2018 from

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1998.

De Rosnay, Tatiana. Manderley Forever: a Biography of Daphne Du Maurier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, c2017.

House, Christian. “Daphne du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy.” Retrieved 1/15/2018 from

Nelson, Victoria. Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, c2012.




Author Biographies: Can or Should You Separate an Author From Their Work?

For most of us, one of the harder challenges of writing fiction is deciding what to put in those little, abbreviated bios that editors want.

We agonize over the details. We do our best to find some outstanding characteristic of our lives, our qualifications, ourselves to share with strangers. Maybe even to impress or endear those very strangers to us.

For the most part, those brief bios are meant to be introductions: brief summations of why we might be qualified to call ourselves a writer – mentioning relevant university degrees, real-world jobs, past publication, or professional organizations (often depending on the story or the publication), or even a synopsis of the story in play– but also to shed just enough light on personality that we see a bit of author as a person. In sum, these succinct profiles are blurbs of the author’s life – not full on biographies. And that is a more fortunate thing, as it turns out.

Because if existing author biographies are any indication, actually having one written about you might not be the perk it sounds like. For example, we seldom think about the harder reality that today in particular, anyone can find out pretty much anything about our private selves. And they will. And they will publish or promote the most unsavory of these details. For all of us would-be and under-published authors, those short little author bios are – in reality – the least of our worries.

At what point is some information too much information? And should an author’s life and philosophy be kept separate from their work? Does who the author is, really matter?

In the world of reading, analyzing, reviewing and Criticizing an author’s catalog of works, author biographies can enhance our appreciation for an author, or ruin everything.


What Do We Know and When Should We Know It?

I have always loved reading author biographies. I love them because they teach me more about the struggle to write than the writing.

As a writer, this is important. I’m not sure it is significant at what point on which train J.K. Rowling decided to write Harry Potter. But am I curious about why…about her decision making process in the writing, about her background and where she developed such a keen marketing savvy that it puts Amazon to shame.

Yet for some, knowing the details of a person’s life – like Lovecraft, for example – leaves them proudly proclaiming a distaste for the works themselves. They may declare a deliberate omission of the writing because of how the writer lived his or her life, how they THOUGHT. In short, they disapprove.

When and whether to separate an author from their work has been part a long discussion. And such things took a particularly evil and pronounced turn after the Holocaust, when scientists had to sort out whether to keep ill-gotten scientific results gleaned from torture, or to abandon it all as a condemnation of how it was derived.

One point of contention may well be intent.

While an Artist’s beliefs are not actions; their work is action. And there is a significant difference in belief and incitement to degradation or violence.

Where do we draw the line?

This is a tougher question than we think. We cannot step anywhere (for example) in the United States where we are not stepping on stolen ground, adoring older structures that may have been built by indentured or enslaved hands on property that once belonged to someone else, or even constructed for the purpose of insuring the taking or keeping of property thusly gained.

We cannot even brag on technology without facing character flaws: what of Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who gave us our Space Program in exchange for overlooking his service as a member of Hitler’s SS? Or perhaps we justify that today things are less threatening when we consider that the founder of Facebook was alleged to have stolen the concept from fellow students at Harvard University. Perhaps when we benefit from advances or enjoyment, we are fine with wearing rose-colored glasses.

We manage to be myopic when it suits us. But at all times, humanity is faithful to its tendency to commit all manner of sins. And when considering the Arts and writing, this becomes important. Because when an Artist’s work reveals something too easily forgotten or buried about a time or place, that work – no matter how despicable, gains a value.

Looking at Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a recurrent visitor on the banned books list is a perfect example. The use of racist language places the book in a time capsule that in these more allegedly enlightened times should make us uncomfortable, yet it reveals nevertheless an important question as to whether or not the book still serves a purpose. That it does, but now perhaps presents an additional purpose, keeps it relevant. The language and context are now important things to discuss. And perhaps that raises the age when the book should be read, but it does not negate the most important message of the book: Life for many of our fellow citizens is often unfiltered and unpleasant…. It is time we look at what is under the whitewashed fence.

H.P. Lovecraft has long been the Horror poster child for these arguments. But he is by no means alone. In fact, there have been times when the flaws of many of our greatest American writers have all been paraded past us like they are qualifiers for greatness.

If you are a writer, that probably gives you pause. And it is certainly not why I read author biographies.

Like all writers, perhaps I seek a community awareness, some reassurance that the best writing often does come from enduring horridly difficult times, dashed childhood dreams, flawed thinking, lost friends or absent or invisible ones, the bitch-slapping life of poverty so many of us wind up in, the sense of being outcast, downcast, and just plain lost.

As Arts people, we have long endured the rumors: that the true geniuses among us are fatally flawed characters… They are not only misfits, but drunks and drug addicts, mentally disturbed and disrupted individuals, living tragic, abbreviated lives we all should envy for the permanence and quality of their life’s work.

It makes it hard to want to be successful if one must sacrifice one’s life, health, and sanity to the cruel gods of creativity. And it makes one wonder what could possible go right in a writing career if one isn’t spectacularly flawed enough?

But is it true? Must we be ruined human beings to be successful writers? Or perhaps the right question is: is it ever NOT true?

After all, part of being human is being flawed…is living. We are all damaged, to some extent, by our own navigations of life and by the intrusion of unwelcome others within it. Whether it is having the unloving, nasty family of Poe, or the loss of support family members and terror of racially different people like Lovecraft, we create our own mental baggage that we perpetually lug around with us in our writing.

Likewise, we experiment with different ways of soothing the open wounds, of denying the pains and humiliations of living.

Who among is NOT thusly shaped and affected?

Like with writing, it is what we DO with those bits of baggage that makes or breaks us.

It is always comforting to know other writers overcame, and that many needed to. It is sometimes helpful to know how, or to see that Art is shaped by the strain of battle…it is born in turmoil.

But it is always helpful to realize that living a life in the Arts by its very nature is one of struggle, that in fact it may well have called to us because we can SEE the intimate connection.

Yet when should we know the gory details?

How much is too much information?

The answer is not that easy. But Literary Critics have finally begun to address the issue themselves, and all because production of possible Literature is outpacing the number of Literary Critics needed to READ it all… a collision of facts derived from living authors and suppositions and allegations made about dead authors forced a radical idea to the surface.  Just how connected ARE authors and their lives to their works?

By 1967, we had so many more living authors producing published works, it became vividly apparent that knowing details about an author – especially ones still alive and verbally kicking – was having an effect on Critics. And French Literary Critic and theorist Roland Barthes wrote a detailed essay on why the knowledge of an author’s intentions paired with biographical facts should have no bearing on the Criticism of their works.

It is this very essay that created a schism in the school of Literary Criticism, which had up to this point used an author’s biographical information – facts like politics, religion, prejudices, preferences, lifestyle, class, etc. – to decipher their catalog of works.

But with the increasing amount of living authors, Critics began having difficulty divesting their judgment of author lives, of author intentions, and author blowback.

Tremendous verbal battles have spilled their vitriol all over the recent decades (most notably for Horror fans in the verbal barrage between esteemed Literary Critic Harold Bloom and Stephen King fans), and which has had a terrible effect on both the field of Literary Criticism and how we all see various authors and their works. In fact, the worse consequence had been the inserting of the uninformed opinions of the common reader into the Literary Critical academic process.

Once again, the function of Literary Critics is not to devolve into mudslinging arguments about writing quality with the secular crowd, but to present academic arguments to other academics for or against the admission of a work or catalog of works into the Literary Canon based on Literary Critical Theory.

The introduction of the concept of the author’s intimate life details having no bearing on the decision is an important one.

Because without it, we must keep asking that pesky question: at what point should we know, and how much should we know?

Maybe the MORE important question is: in knowing it, what should we DO with the knowledge?


The Whole Dead Author Thing

One of the dangers of reading intimate details about a favorite author is never looking at their work the same way again.

Whether you are “just” a reader or a budding author or Critic, knowing the backstory is not always a good thing.

Words and situations take on new nuances. We begin to ascribe hidden meanings, possible subtext, and autobiographical details to stories we once loved for their own sakes. And we may get it all wrong…because then we begin to drag in our own interpretations based on our own experiences…which have NOTHING to do with the writer’s works or what he or she INTENTED…

The truth is, once we know about an author, their loves and losses, their frustrations and failures, we often lose the magic that their work represents. We start looking for the author inside their work.

And I can tell you as a writer, that is never the intent of the writing. The story is meant to stand on its own, to sneak up on the reader and send a familiar chill down their spines. I want them to see something of themselves in my stories, not something of ME in them.

Of course I am in them. They derive from my own memories, my own fears, my own revulsions and yearning for justice. But no one character is me. No one story is true. No one reader is invited to dissect me psychologically.

Therefore in my opinion, knowing “too much” about me as a writer and person might well get in the way of the magic I intend to conjure. It’s like having a pesky reporter behind the curtain with me in Kansas, giving away my tricks.

Yet I also can’t help but be grateful for the biographies I have read about other authors.

Could it be there is a time and place to know an author more intimately?

I do believe so. And sadly, for the most part I think that time comes after an author is dead.

While I also believe it helps to read biographies only after one has read a catalog of an author’s works, so as not to taint any reading of them, I find that reading such details as one finds in biographies leaves me reading new works and rereading old ones differently.

If the catalog is fixed, then I begin to look at them slightly askew like a Critic might look at them. But because I am not a Critic, I find it changes things in subtle, sometimes uncomplimentary ways. The work does lose its magic, and that is replaced by a study of and appreciation of technique.

Now, as a writer, that is exactly where I need to be. I need to see how the trick is done, and appreciate how a writer took some event or memory from their lives – no matter how major or how trivial – and turned it into something living.

But what I must resist doing, is making excuses for an author. And if we have certain details of an author’s life, that is exactly the natural thing to do…”of course, the book was not as good…his wife had just died, after all…”

We also tend to blanket “approve” certain sentences or paragraphs that the editor in us might suggest should not go unchallenged…assuming that it was the opiates, or the fury of battling unsympathetic Critics. If one is going to learn about an author’s technique from the finished product, we simply cannot be running in front of every word with a broom and dust pan.

And on the reverse side, we cannot devalue the importance of a work because we find out the author was, for instance, a bigot.

So at what point does knowing an author become detrimental?

I think it is when and only when we excuse an author for the wrongdoing.

Lovecraft is the obvious example in Horror. Many of his opinions were nothing less than offensive, odious attitudes toward immigrants and women.

But reading his fiction, we weren’t supposed to “know” that. Deduce it, yes. But to condemn Lovecraft’s writing on the basis of his failures as a human being is also to overlook the whole of the human condition.

We are – all of us – flawed. And history has come to place Lovecraft on the wrong side of political correctness, the wrong side of morality.

Yet as a human being, Lovecraft also reflects a period in our history, in our developmental growth and national psychology. At the heart of Lovecraft’s work is nothing less than irrational fear. That’s what bigotry, racism, misogyny and religious persecution is all about. So as sadly pitiful as his beliefs have come to be, he not only represents the time in which he lived, but sadly, even a subculture that exists still today in this country and all others.

Lovecraft is a lesson in humanity. His writing is a showcase of our flaws, many of which many of us still proudly display, and that should give us pause and cause for discussion.

But should we elevate the work of such a man?

I say with Lovecraft yes. The reason is because even in his writing Lovecraft was not advocating for violence against those he feared. He was simply displaying his fear by using some pretty amazing monstrosities and nightmares to emphasize the terror that beat in his bigoted, misogynistic heart. In other words, he reflected us…humanity….and our struggle to accept each other.

This is not the same as someone who “preaches” in their work to rise up and destroy other people, other genders, other nations, other religions.

The key here is whether a work is Literary by depicting or revealing a truth about ourselves or is a manifesto – incendiary and inciteful, meant to groom hatred.

If we started tossing out Art because of the thoughts of the Artist, we would be left with nothing to make us think.

Poe, like many writers of his time, was a drunk and an addict. If we throw out his work as ill-begotten gain born of drug trips and poor judgment, we need to lose the Beatles, Roman Polanski, and every Weinstein film ever made.

This is not to say we excuse the offender.

Rather, it means that we weigh the value of the message of the work. Some of the best Art has come from those dying for penance, whose secrets were the acid of their souls which in turn generated cautionary tales for the rest of us.

When a writer is still alive, it becomes a harder choice. Because then we worry about financially endorsing a behavior, for funding a lifestyle that may include reprehensible behavior. A look at how we are responding to Hollywood’s outing of sexual assault is the perfect example.

But we can also see when a writer is dead, that when his or her art imitates life – comments on it – it can elevate a work to Literature because of the mirror it becomes. It becomes useful. It becomes a teaching tool… a prompt for meaningful conversation.

Which brings us back to those little, abbreviated bios.

They should be honest. But they should also be constructed of things that are not presumptuous. Because in the end we will ALL be outted… especially if we (it turns out) are any good at what we do.


So When Should We Read Author Biographies?

I think the answer is: when it is helpful.

Biographies contain lives. They introduce flaws that will expose your heroes as human beings. You might discover that you like their work more than you like them. But you may also find yourself encouraged, inspired, comforted in knowing that this road you are on has been traversed by many.

You may find that failure is part of the process. That sometimes rejection is a blazing sword to the heart, and that like you – writers of the past have suffered from many of the same problems – be it writer’s block, bad parenting, cruel Critics, ill health, mental struggles, lost love, betrayal, poverty, addictions, homelessness, the question of self-publishing, the search for mentoring, and a belief that all may well be pointless.

You may find that some of them were Poe, or Lovecraft, or Dante, or Shakespeare. You may even find an awkward kinship with a select few.

Biographies will tell you things about why you feel as you do, about the commonality of lives lived in service of the Arts.

And it may cause you to realize that we might not really like our idols, especially on their worst days…Just as sometimes we don’t like ourselves, or fear being thusly revealed to others…

This is the case of Lovecraft for me… I adore his monsters, love the British Horror atmosphere he managed to transplant to America for us to savor. But reading him is to see the more distasteful aspects of his quirky, misfit personality, to realize how little we have changed. Reading him also makes me worry about myself, and my flaws. It makes me agonize over those darned little bios.

The trick is not to rationalize. We are none of us saints.

The trick is to take biographies for the lessons they offer us: that there is hope we can communicate our deepest fears and anxieties in story form, that we can entertain as well as educate, that we can hope to persuade and shape our times by holding up a hand mirror to those who need to see the images therein.

By all means, don’t deprive yourself. Just know that once the genie is out of the bottle, he will not be put back in. Be sure you are ready for the capriciousness of magic.

Beware the power of enchantment. And then go forth anyway…


Recommended Author Biographies

Ackroyd, Peter. Poe: a Life Cut Short. New York: Doubleday, c2008.

Franklin. Ruth. Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life. New York: W.W. Norton, c2016.

Gaiman, Neil. The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins, c 2016.

Joshi, S.T. I am Providence: the Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft v.1. (& 2). New York: Hippocampus Press, c2013.

King, Stephen. On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2000.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft: the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. London: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: the Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. London: Chartwell Books, c 2015.

Ramsland, Katherine. Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice. New York: Plume, c1982.

Skal, David J. Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula. New York, Liveright Publishing, c2016.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley, a Biography. New York: E.P. Dutton, c1987.

Sturrock, Donald. Storyteller: the Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2010.

Winter, Douglas E. Clive Barker: the Dark Fantastic: the Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, c2002.

The Horror of New Adult Fiction & the Over-Categorization of Writing

Sometimes trying to figure out where to find a book you want is as hard as trying to figure out where you would market your own.

These are troubling times. Not only have we lost our Horror section in most bookstores, but now if marketing departments raised by the internet get their way, we will have to look in yet one more subsection: New Adult Fiction.

That’s right…New Adult… the new next stop after Young Adult Fiction.

And we may have the internet to blame… because it is demanding we change the way we think.


Chunk Change

I don’t know about you, but I am not liking this tendency toward condensing, homogenizing and labeling everything under the guise of search-ability without the consideration of individual characteristics that make both ourselves and what we do unique.

We are living in the age of generic categorization… an overarching, nonspecific set of search terms that are “chunking” fiction like they “chunk” blocks of information on the internet.

What I can’t figure is how this is helpful.

As everything we do – whether work or leisure – is bent toward the unique demands of social media and the internet, we are seeing an unpleasant and taxing requirement to change the way we think. And this is not as savvy as it sounds because we are taking the very unique way that humans already and naturally think, organize and catalog information and stipulating that there is only one way to think of things – the internet way.

Everything comes down to a “search” word, a “key” word. And then all the tags and categories unite in a set of blinking Christmas tree lights that sometimes work and often don’t.

No wonder our kids have self-image problems; we have invented a whole new system for pigeonholing everything from blogs to people.

The internet has given rise to a new Age of Minimization, and popularity is based on wanton flamboyance or how much one is willing to pay.

Forget for a moment what this means for poor people, poor countries, struggling businesses, small businesses, and those who want nothing to do with the internet. Let’s look at the sales pitch we were given when the internet became not-free (because if you have to pay for hardware, software, support, protection, and access…it isn’t.)

Let’s talk about the world of all information allegedly at your fingertips.

Turns out, the world’s information is not so easy to catalog. The easier solution? Base search-ability on everyone’s ability to pay…

I don’t know about you, but I still have trouble finding things on the internet – even information I know exists.

Turns out… when it’s not about censorship, it’s all about paying for SEO … Search Engine Optimization. And if you don’t pay for it, you don’t get it… SEO is all about getting an item, a website, an information byte “out there” and found within the first ten search item results on your search engine (like Mozilla or Google). It’s about indexing the internet and (unlike the sales pitch of the internet) not getting all of the information on a particular subject, but the top few who paid for the exposure.

Sure. If something “goes viral” it can foil the system. But if people cannot find the item, how likely is that?

Take this blog. I have exclusive and personal knowledge it exists. Yet if I type in “Zombie Salmon” on Google, it must be somewhere on the last page of options. I personally have never “nexted” my way far enough to find it.

In blogworld, WordPress has SEO…as long as you either pay for it on your own domain, or if you include WordPress in your search criteria. “Zombie Salmon WordPress” brings up this blog.

But how many people know this? Especially how many people know this who set out to form a business or write a book, or simply try to find information?

Turns out, not as many as you think.

And I’m not just talking about dinosaurs like me.


The Case of Over-Thinking Versus Not Thinking Enough

Originally, the founders of the internet wanted it to be academic, free, a source of vetted information…like an Encyclopedia Britannica only one everyone could have in their homes.

But then came the enormity of the task, and the land-grab, wild west, survival of the craftiest mentality. The surrender has been ominously complete… just look at the fear of “fake news”… (which should not be so hard to expose…just research the facts or lack thereof given). No one wants to be the Bad Guy and call a spade a spade, or unvetted information what it is: lies. So we have unceremoniously left it all out hanging out there. And sometimes the bearers of misinformation have more money than the rest of us, putting all manner of things – categorized correctly or not – in the top search results.

All of this reading and researching and vetting is work… uncelebrated, unrewarded, unrecognized work.

So it is no wonder that no one wants to actually read a book to classify it in a system that has worked since…well… 48 BCE in Alexandria. It is far easier to call it a one-word something, and wait for the check in the mail.

Clearly, the internet has “better” ideas for classification… especially ideas that glorify youth to the point that no one else in the whole wide world has ever had a better thought or process.

Talk about divide and conquer. But many of us old folks are not irritated at youth – only the ones who blithely declare that because they are young, they are smarter. We know better: we were smarter once, too.

In this internet age of reinvention, the reinvention is happening without looking at anything that has been tried or gone before. We are unceremoniously throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

And New Adult fiction is the perfect example.

It has been created to “help” the category of book-buying audience that is more sophisticated than Young Adults and Teens, but not yet ready to fully embrace Real Adulthood.

New Adults are those between ages 18 and 30. You know – the ones we expect to cast votes and go fight in wars.

And apparently, knowing one is a New Adult or writing for New Adults is supposed to insure that audience finds product written especially for them, and everyone lives happily ever after.

(Interestingly, one of the things that identify children as children is the need for products designed especially for their age group so as to not confuse or overwhelm them with topics they are not mature enough to process.)

Kinda makes you want to rush out and declare yourself a New Adult, doesn’t it?

We are wolves in internet clothing, apparently trying to eliminate genres entirely, declaring everything to be some level of Literature (hint from a genre writer, it is not). We are classifying everything by age, as though this ensures that product is placed neatly into the proper audience hands (hint: reading level is about maturity not age). And, we are tossing one-word descriptions into the cataloging mix which look suspiciously like genre headings (hint: you are not fooling anyone and the old headings worked just fine for centuries of book hunting).

And besides requiring yet another level of cataloging (age and subject), what does this actually accomplish?

So I am thinking that some marketing group somewhere thinks that 18-30 year-olds would be traumatized by reading Real Adult fiction, and potentially need therapy just after reading a blurb that is meant to tell a potential reader what a book is about.

Are we really raising a generation that needs this kind of coddling?




Pardon me, but…WTF?!

Having actually been in a university with kids some thirty years my junior, I can say that particular age group has taught me a few things about Life…I am convinced that they are not only quite capable of surviving the experience of reading Real Adult Fiction, but I am fine with being tended by them in my nursing home. They are smart, unnervingly savvy, politically involved and wide awake – something I most assuredly can not say about many of my own generation (see recent American Presidential election).

And yet, the marketing push continues…even though I am not seeing publishers bite the apple yet: I have not seen any spines proudly announcing they are New Adult titles, or seen any calls for submission of New Adult Fiction.

There is, however, at least one how-to book on writing New Adult Fiction…

Write it and they will come…

I’m remembering what it was like to be sixteen, and thinking not.

I remember sneak-reading my Mom’s Rudyard Kipling books, paging through her Pearl S. Buck novels long before I had any New Adult thoughts.

I remember eagerly awaiting the day when I, too, was a Real Adult. And I wanted to read what grown-ups were reading. I might not have been ready to participate in adult discussions, but I wanted to listen to them.

Note to marketing departments: teens upward are still in sponge mode; they are curious, adventurous, bold and timid at the same time, eager to model adult behaviors and desperately searching for themselves in all of the data.

Why in the world do we want to filter that? I mean if you aren’t willing to filter the internet, get out of my fiction.

Quite setting limits for young and new adults and thereby for older ones…


Eldritch Adult Fiction

Surely, this would be the next step: fiction for geriatrics… You know, nothing too traumatizing for Grandma, like those cozy mysteries where talking cats solve crimes.

And of course it would provide a nice segue for aging writers who can no longer write authoritatively of their day (because it is now long past). Yes, in Eldritch Adult Fiction there would be rotary phones, carbon copies, and mimeograph machines. We would be free to live in eternal denial of progress, perpetually checked out of the New Adult world because it is too scary anyway. And, we wouldn’t have to try to keep up with changing technology or slang or fashions.

All of our protagonists would need liposuction, blood pressure meds, and Viagra. They could wear polyester and pants with elastic waistbands, conduct their seances before 8 p.m., and their murders before the early bird. And best of all, our audience would know exactly what our literary references meant…and truly understand what it is like to slide inevitably toward our deserved ends.

If this strikes you as absurd, imagine how writers must feel contemplating forcing our writing into one more age-restricted category.

I may be old, but often my characters range the spectrum of every age I have been.

And as a writer, I may write for an audience – a Horror audience – but I don’t care hold old a reader is. If a reader can follow my wordy sentence structure and understands or can look up any challenging vocabulary they find, then they are welcome read what I write. I’m pretty sure most writers feel the same way.

My point is, sooner or later we have to realize that the Arts (being subjective) have a limit in useful cataloging.

And I suggest this to marketing departments with grandiose ideas:

  1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
  2. Treat writing like Fine Art (catalogued by medium/genre, by artist, by style /subgenre, by period)
  3. Let the audience decide what they are ready for

It’s high time we acknowledged that the internet by its limited capacity to catalog the world’s offerings in any complete and useful way is too overambitious to be of any ultimate and conclusive value in guiding the cataloging of information in general, let alone fiction; that in the end, we still need humans and the way humans think.

We also need to acknowledge that some of our best discoveries have come because of the questions we asked in our searches for information – whole questions, not key words, not with results that are money-driven.

And we need to flat-out state that our strength and versatility as an Art-producing species relies on our quirky and out-of-the-box thinkers, the misfits, the socially awkward, the true individuals of our kind.

Diversity in all things makes us better.

Why on earth do we expect to find anything of value in a one or two worded box?




Creepy Clowns: New Trope, or Very, Very Old One?

What is it about clowns?

We either love them, or hate them. And it seems we decide which side of the fence we are on pretty early in childhood. It’s a position that never seems to change, even as we grow older. But why do we fear them at all? Aren’t they there to bring us happiness and laughter?

And why does dressing as a scary clown cause so much emotional distress?

Surely it can’t be Stephen King’s fault… Even though those of us who saw the first incarnation of It on television that November of 1990 probably still can’t get the images of Pennywise as played by the incomparable Tim Curry out of our heads…


No, our fear and dread of clowns goes much, much deeper.

And the real explanation is yet another reason why Horror is such a complex, subtext-laced genre – one which has so many tentacles in cultural, social, philosophical, biological, and psychological sciences.

Because if we are going to understand how clowns are connected to our deepest, darkest fears, we are going to have to look at our all-too-human beginnings.


Clown Kachina (Koshari)

The Clown As Trickster

For many primitive cultures, clowns serve a function that is only in part comedic. The comedy of such clowns is meant to be a distraction – a tool for nudging or shifting the attention from the worldly to the spiritual by exaggerating behaviors, mores, and the absurdity of humanity’s natural hubris. But the non-comedic and true purpose of clowns is instruction. And much like the recorded encounters of common people with fairies and beings of folk tale and myth, such meetings are pregnant with danger.

Clowns are spirit-beings, capricious, dangerous creatures who trick hapless humans into seeing the world obliquely, spiritually, respectfully in spite of our personally contrived perceptions of normalcy (with which we continually edit the world to our own satisfaction).

Depicted in ways that exaggerate, mock or distort human physical characteristics or behaviors, our early ancestors saw clowns for what they are: forces of nature that sometimes struggle to imitate an imperfect humanity, but always have an agenda. Their images were rendered as curious, sometimes comical, yet other worldly and never quite human. Often our reciprocal imitation of the clown imitating us is equally disturbing, the use of paint and masks and props meant to communicate that a clown is indeed something to be wary of.


African clown (Ogbo)

Worse, the motives of clowns are always unknown. Sometimes they distract nastier spirits from their intentions against humans – like a rodeo clown distracts the bull. But more often they seek to teach humans by utilizing a rather unsettling series of actions based within a complicated theater of the absurd.

As such, encounters with clowns are better experienced as cautionary tales; because clowns are travelers along the borders of perceived reality and the supernatural one in which all manner of spiritual dangers reside. Therefore within many primitive cultures, such intercourse with the world of spirit requires the presence of and interpretation by shamans, medicine people, priests, and sorcerers. Insanity, possession, and illness can result from these encounters if proper protocols and interpretation are not followed.

What is certain about clowns recounted in this primitive dance is that such beings from the Other World operate according to rules that do not apply to humans, but within the web of which there are serious human consequences. As such, those rules are unknown by most humans; and when recounted, they seem comical and absurd even of themselves. To navigate such meetings then, is a precarious and dangerous affair – something our primitive brains still recognize when we stare at the toy clown sitting in the rocking chair in the moonlight.

In primitive traditions, clowns are simultaneously both sacred and base mischief-makers. But they are always dangerous, their intentions never fully revealed.

Their lessons are always taught by deceit and rough handling. They are seldom sympathetic or empathetic to their human subjects.

The clown is, according to Joseph Campbell, an enduring archetype of myth (Campbell [5]). And as such, we already know him intimately… perhaps, too intimately for comfort.


The Clown as Allegory

In Literature and film and all of the Arts, the Clown is never just a clown.

It is the very irksome nature of clowns that keeps us off balance enough that we might just learn something in spite of ourselves, and for that reason, writers and artists and playwrights have used them generously in their works.

Some even say that the presence of the clown represents the writer or artist him- or herself. According to E.A. Williams in an essay which addresses the Literary roles of the clown in film, poetry and prose titled “Bakhtin and Borat: the Rogue, the Clown and the Fool in Carnival Film”:

“Defined by their unfamiliar and alien status, these characters are metaphorical reflections…of some other’s mode of being. Consequently, these masks ‘simply do not exist’ beyond their function as outsiders or others; they function only as ‘prosaic allegorizations’ or ‘prosaic metaphors’ that reveal and subvert the falsity of official culture at the same time at the same time as they serve to endorse certain folk truths.” (Williams 110)

In other words, like their handling by primitive cultures, clowns in film and Literature – by their seeming out-of-place and out-of-step – are there to draw the attention of their audience to something else.

Continues Williams:

“Clown and fool characters instantiate carnival inversions of mainstream culture, but they are less directly connected to their author’s intentions and the world outside their texts.” (111) But they do “’degrade official culture by eliciting the audience’s laughter at the ideologies they parody. But unlike the rogue, neither the clown nor the fool takes pleasure in letting the audience in on the joke…clowns and fools are also distinct from rogues in that they can seem otherworldly” and furthermore “do not understand the extratextual world [;] they clearly do not belong to it, remaining detached from the audience’s reality.”

Clowns remain uncontrollable, yet control the stage upon which they inform their audience. Whether we laugh because the clown makes us uncomfortable, or because it causes us distress over its point can be a mystery even to ourselves. Yet in clowns we tolerate what is otherwise unacceptable behavior or commentary. We readily accept satire and parody, mockery and offensive imitation with nothing more than laughter. This is something comedians understand, something poets like Shakespeare mastered, and something even contemporary writers use often in building supernatural characters. Clowns can give us our voice.

As Williams says, “it is because these characters are ‘not of this world’ [that] they possess their own special rights and privileges for degrading the ideologies of the world’s official culture.” Indeed, these figures continually “espouse offensive or objectionable feelings in their words, actions, and thoughts. Moreover their bizarre behavior distinguishes them from the audience, granting them an exclusive ‘right not to understand, the right to confuse, to tease, to hyperbolize life.’” (112)


Medieval European Clown

This makes the use of clowns in film and Literature invaluable – even when the clown archetype is subverted, hidden beneath human characterization. It is with the use of the clown that Literary motifs can be achieved, hidden symbols revealed, themes punctuated.

Is this why we find clowns neatly tucked into Horror?

Very likely; clowns can be the vehicle through which Literary messages can be coded, where deeper issues can be critiqued and even mocked. But it remains the over-arching and very primal discomfort at the simple sight of a clown that for Horror writers and Horror audiences provides the artistic coup de grâce. This is because we still have Freud…and we still have our primitive minds to thank for the unsettling creepiness of clowns.

Explains Tara Brady in her article, “No Laughing Matter: Why Are We So Terrified of Clowns?”:

“The Freudian id is not the only psychoanalytical trope in play. In his (increasingly voguish) 1919 paper, The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud postulates that we are frightened by something that is simultaneously familiar and yet unfamiliar, a thesis that finds parallels in contemporary neurological research into fear and pattern recognition. Clowns, by this account, are both recognisably human, yet visibly distorted, what with those elongated feet and bulbous noses.”  ( Brady)

And indeed it is the very appearance of clowns that is indescribably, primally disturbing…

Yet it is one thing to tuck clowns neatly into boxes lined with fine Literature and theatrical plays – where we can take them out and analyze them in the safety of academia. It is quite another when –as in primitive times – they rise to trick us and unbalance our perceptions right in real life.

Sometimes this occurs with an unwelcome gift from a well-meaning relative, a unexpected find in an antique shop, or maybe by our proximity in being a little too close to a satirized reality… and the absurd truth of the moment.

Yet we seem fixated on the perceived “loss” of the cheerful clown; and in that way, we are made afraid of our “new” obsession with creepy clowns. We fear things have changed within us somehow, and not for the better.

Asks Becky Little in her article, “A Brief History of Creepy Clowns:

“Why exactly have creepy clowns become such a trope in pop culture? After all, didn’t they used to be happy and cheerful? Well, not exactly, according to Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns.

‘It’s a mistake to ask when clowns went bad,” he says, “because they were never really good.’” (Little)

And this was true until about 1950.


Bozo and Friends: the Re-Purposing of Clowns & the Illusion of Happiness

It doesn’t help that for many of us, our formal introduction to clowns came at the hands of children’s television shows and as pitchmen for hawking hamburgers. Such re-purposing of the clown from supernatural trickster to camera-ready advertisement could only conclude in disaster for both humanity and the clown in general. Indeed, if there was a plan, it backfired.

Within a brief few generations, we were encouraging our children to love clowns, to trust clowns, to embrace the happiness they were said to represent. Yet many children did not get the message, carrying within their very DNA an unspoken Horror of clowns. For those kids, the world of It makes raw, perfect sense.

In fact, according to one University of Sheffield Study as reported by the BBC in 2008, Researcher Dr. Penny Curtis said: “As adults we make assumptions about what works for children.

“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.”

And child psychologist Patricia Doorbar goes on to clarify:

“Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd.” (BBC)

Still the Public Relations machinery was in gear, and what children they could not bribe with cartoons, prancing poodles, and birthday parties, they sought to lure with a burger and fries.


For some, it worked. But we barely had the opportunity to fall under the spell of the happy clown when it all ended. Almost overnight, the magic of clowns was gone –replaced by the magic of television, and then by the Power of Adults, who could so easily replace one clown with another, one actor with another, one product with another.

The Age of Disposability was upon us.

The last heyday of happy clowning was when children knew the names of their avatars: Bozo, Clarabell, Willie the Hobo, Chuchin, Freddie the Freeloader… Once clowns were officially made back into fools, most of us emotionally checked out.

So is it not surprising that the archetype would rise from the ashes, and to do so wearing the mask of Horror? Clowns have always had dual natures. And they are fickle, capricious teachers.


John Wayne Gacy, 1976

The Return to Creepy

The most disturbing concept of the clown drifted into our imaginations with the rise of a serial killer. John Wayne Gacy murdered 33 known victims from 1972 to 1978 in Cook County, Illinois, and performed as Pogo the Clown for charitable events, parades, and children’s parties. And despite the heinousness of his crimes, nothing stuck in the American imagination like the fact that he performed as a clown for children.

This was in all likelihood the beginning of the Creepy Clown phase in American subculture. And while one can argue that it is much easier to mock what one truly fears, we should also be asking why we found it so much easier to find the clown at fault than the man behind the mask…

True to form, we took our fears to excess. Gone was the “happy clown” who had then existed for a relatively brief historical period. And back is the one that haunted our primitive dreams, presently disguised as a serial killer who surely was more than that, and whose image masked something older, more terrible and insidious – now, when we have so deftly banished shamans, medicine people, priests and sorcerers from our sophisticated lives.


And at the precise moment when circuses – our official “home” for clowns and clowning – were coming under fire for animal abuse by watchdog groups like PETA, the world we had fashioned to contain clowns and what they represented to us for good or ill was also falling, changing, becoming unrecognizable.

Within the microcosm of the falling Big Top, we could see our own failures and losses. The innocence of the circus (and therefore all things American) was being tainted; the idea of carnival workers was becoming a source for assumed criminal behavior – the carnival the last hiding place for misfits, Others, and those who did not belong as seen through so many lenses of inequality (class, culture, race, physical deformity). We liked everything having its place, popping out merely to entertain us and then leaving town. We never imagined it was us under the tent. Indeed, so much more was coming down with the tent poles…

Formerly a place where magic existed, the circus and carnivals became symbolically an entirely different and potent place where magic was twisted to fit a new need: anger, violence, mockery, revenge. Circuses and carnivals with their clowns and costumes, their masks and mischief, suddenly became threatening. And clowns were their spokesmen, the entities of Horror when they did not conjure it.

Yet we left it there –precisely there. After Stephen King’s It, we seemed unable or unwilling to investigate the mystery of the clown further…we were…distracted.

Until suddenly in August, 2016, when the peculiar, occasional “sighting” came to an international head.

According to Becky Little, “Creepy (and fake) clown sightings spread across the U.S. and other countries, creating a kind of viral clown panic.”


The Wasco Clown, 2014.

Speculation for why clowns began “appearing,” of course, runs rampant. But although one could venture more scientifically or sociologically founded guesses, one also has to consider the far reach of the Internet, the average person’s need for fifteen minutes of fame, the underground popularity of such characters as Slender Man and other fanfic memes, and simple perverse human curiosity.

Although, one peculiar coincidence lingers to tease the American mind:

“Andrew McConnell Stott suggests that the clown epidemic may be related to an orange-haired, rival entertainer.

‘It all peaked during the election period,’ says McConnell Stott. ‘I think if you look at the heightened absurdity in contemporary American political discourse and public discourse, the clues are there. Something I thought fascinating is that scary clowns were sighted primarily in at-risk communities, like rust-belt communities or rural communities; places that have been hollowed out by economic stress. Scary clowns were seen on the peripheries of these communities; they didn’t go up to people and wave knives in their faces. They were glimpsed in windows or stood under streetlamps. Just enough to freak everybody out, but not to endanger them. Reminders of a previous age. The return of the repressed. And then. Donald Trump was elected and the clowns were never seen again.’” (Brady)

(And if that isn’t food for Literary thought, you haven’t been paying attention…)

Still, as we sit on the eve of another decade of clown-induced dread and Horror wrought at the hands of the remake of It… One should consider this:

Anything we cannot understand or interpret, anything wearing a mask and hiding its true intent, anything we cannot see completely or assess the level of threat of (yet has at least momentary power over us), we fear. Peculiar, unpredictable or inappropriate movements, unsettling eye contact, behaviors, and clothing… anything not “right” to our vision, that reeks of the unfamiliar, the “other,” and the “exotic unknown and unknowable”….all of those things summon the image of the ancient clown – the one which made its appearances before campfires to teach us how unimportant we are in the world – that clown scares us.

Because when it comes to supernatural influence, there is nothing at all we can do about that; there is no one we can call. And if it comes from that dark and mysterious place between the two worlds, there is probably no place to run…




BBC News. “Hospital Clown Images ‘Too Scary’” January 15, 2008. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from:

Brady, Tara. “No Laughing Matter: Why Are We So Terrified of Clowns?” The Irish Times. Sept. 9, 2017. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey. Pdf excerpt retrieved 10/31/2017 from

Little, Becky. “A Brief History of Creepy Clowns.” Sept 13, 2017. Retrieved 10/31, 2017 from

Williams, E.A. “Bakhtin and Borat: the Rogue, the Clown and the Fool in Carnival Film.” Philament 20(2015) : Humor. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from