The Witch: What a Bookless Film Teaches Us About Writing in Our Own Genre


You might not have noticed, but one of the more critically acclaimed Horror movies that you didn’t hear much of not long ago hit DVD/Bluray release. The Witch, a 2016 debut from Robert Eggers, came at us from the Sundance Film Festival. And it came bookless – without fanfare, and without the promise of a sequel.

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Yet in theaters and in DVD stores, the film has failed to ignite, the sales not so stellar.

Why do Critics and some fans give this film the highest of marks, when it does not resemble what we have come to expect from “successful” Horror films? And specifically, if you have watched it and did not feel affected, why not?

The answer would be because this film is not conventional Horror: it is about Horror – it is how Literary Horror looks when filmmakers understand the importance of punctuating their plots with something deeper than splashy effects. This is an important lesson for writers of Horror to understand…Because even if you choose to write in-genre and somewhat pulpy fiction, you need to grasp just how to utilize words, setting, symbols, and psychological effects and then be able to deftly select from a smorgasbord of actual history, folklore, superstition, and disease (social and literal) to better enhance your Horror – to layer it in the intent of getting under the skin like a parasite. It’s why films like Insidious (the first one) worked where the plot and acting was less dimensional – there it is the imagery and the suggestions it makes to our subconscious that delivers the shivers. But it is also why so much 1980’s Horror worked – why Classic Horror still works…

When these ingredients are properly combined, films like The Witch, The Exorcist and The Birds result. The reliance on jump scares may still be present, but they are to a much lesser degree – relying instead on the direct connection to the personal fears of human beings – whether it is the reality of the Devil and his army of demons, or a preternatural and unsettling unification of nature against humanity.

In The Witch, there are pretty strong references to fear, terror and real Horror the way most of us imagine it. Yet a large chunk of our audience – the Horror audience – was unimpressed. Indeed, the reviews aren’t particularly stellar – especially among movie-goers and subsequently – Horror fans: according to film review site Rotten Tomatoes, only 55% of viewers liked it. But 91% of Critics did. Why the point spread? And what does this say about our genre?

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Tricks Are For Kids, Silly Rabbit

One of the first clues is the subtitle “A Folk Tale.” This film unabashedly shows its lineage to the viewer. For a murky, moody tale surrounding the Salem witch trials, it is not about the Salem witch trials – but the atmosphere created by the paranoia and dread such rampant fear invokes. Nested within rests the possibility, the suggestion that witchcraft and its consequences are real…the extension of which is the possibility that for the witch, perhaps not all is as it is promised.

We forget that the time period in question birthed the phrase “witch hunt” – a frenzied, irrational attack on anyone unfortunate enough to warrant a finger-point, whose differences or poor luck or gender was enough to justify their own persecution, torture, and death. But we also forget that tucked neatly away within our own religion are warnings about such fraternization with things unseen, with the dangers of envy, the vulnerability of being faithless.

We also forget that caught in the middle of such historical moments are real people, fearing that their own reactions or behaviors – however innocent –might be misinterpreted, costing whole families everything. We forget how easy it was to acquiesce to the momentum of the moment rather than take a risk, to see that the price of loyalty might well be one’s own life. We forget – especially today and in this country – what it is to fear the accusation of another that leads directly to death.

This is the importance of history, and of this specific time in our history. Because if we don’t see the mistakes that were made, we cannot prevent their cousins from rising as specters in the future.

And yet we have already managed to forget.

We make light of witches, even as our unpalatable history rests intact in Salem, Massachusetts. We amuse ourselves with the idea that our ancestors were simply superstitious, gullible, ignorant – not enlightened like ourselves.

We also make light of witchcraft, chiding ourselves into believing that if we play at it, we might be in charge of pre-selected consequences; we might dabble, be amazed, and then escape. Yet such is warned against in all religions; because in all religions are unwritten rules, forgotten wisdom, hidden Horrors. And the greatest Horror of all is not that one would be detected, persecuted and put to death… but that any such engagements might carry extenuating clauses in their contracts – ones that call for sacrifice of those loved other than the self.

But bad things, if they happen, happen to others. And we are all pretty certain sitting under our electric lights, that it is all superstition anyway.

Is that why we can sit disaffected by such a film as The Witch?

Indeed, much of our own religion today minimizes the possibility of the supernatural, the reality of a witch, or a ghost or a demon – all while handing us biblical verses mentioning those very possibilities. We have separated ourselves from those passages, determined to make them “symbolic” or “parables” or “metaphors.”

This film asks what if they are not? What if they are more – be it in the mind or the making?

Primitive humanity has always allowed for the unseen. And perhaps that is the problem: we seek to disavow our primal fears from our new, glossy, sciencey selves.

It’s why so many viewers might have missed the symbolism of the rabbit. To get it… to let ourselves be made very afraid we have to engage the folklore that might have its origins in very primitive truths.

While modern Horror fans are conditioned like Pavlov’s Dogs to quiver at vampire love and laugh at the startled scream after a scary face leaps from the dark of the theater, real terror – real fear – has more to do with things not-seen and things once seen that cannot be unseen…things that follow you because you saw them.

Tricks are for kids. The thing that wants your soul has something else in its toolbag. And it hides those things in the ordinary.

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The Devil In the Details

If you’ve ever had a bout of the Serious Superstitious, you know that once that roller coaster ride gets started, danger is everywhere. This means that whether you are writing Horror or watching it on the Big Screen, it is important to provide layer after layer of detail. Accurate detail. The imagination cannot be allowed to escape, to dismiss the entity come for you because the scroll saw marks are on the wood of the clapboards.

This is how The Witch ensnares the wary, the skeptical, the Modern Human. The senses are so burdened by detail, by the weight of the period the viewer can almost smell the farm animals, the sweat, the decay of crops, the whiff of goat.

This is not the same dark forest of Hollywood, but the thick tangle of copse and ravine that cradle our folk and fairy lore – the ones that left their echoes outside our safe houses, in the skeletal, wet-black branch that claws at our windows in a storm, that still lives as a microcosm in our National Parks, and spills forth from children’s book illustrations. This is the dark wood our ancestors walked and succumbed to… a wood where death happens, and where a scream goes unheard and unanswered.

If you have never had the privilege of walking in a natural wood, you cannot imagine the depth of the darkness, the ease of disorientation, the uncanny sense of being watched… or stalked. Nor can you appreciate the stories of our folk heritage that came from such a place, the legitimacy that wilderness gives them.

Yet it is why we tore down the woods, killed the wolves and the bears, and planted our tame crops to feed our domesticated animals to ourselves. It’s how we beat The Witch… we tore down her temple.

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We hung our pictures of blond Jesus, and separated ourselves from all but the most sacred of miracles, we philosophized Hell, and electrocuted our ghosts.

Yet. What if? What if even some part of the parable were true?

This is how we build great prose. This is how the Horror classics still terrify. When we read classic Horror, we allow ourselves to identify with and in a sense become the character whose very times and place are darker and more indistinct than our own. We suspend our belief and accept that of the character.

Modern presentation of character and scene are not the same. The character goes into a house…a modern house, just like all the others. There is no depth of description because it has become a stage set upon which the all-important action will occur. Yet it is anticipation of action that equates to dread. Those moments of anticipation are laced with the observations made by the mind – the analysis of shadow, the assessment of danger, the awareness of the rise of adrenaline, the shakiness in the legs and hands. All of that is dependent on detail.

So much detail. Like the tangles of knots in Celtic design meant to entrap the curiousity of fairies, rendering them harmless…the writer or filmmaker must overload the senses for mistakes and miscalculations to be made. We have to be ensnared. For that, we have to be persuaded to believe.

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Bookless, She Came From the Woods to Terrify Us All

I find it wonderful that this film comes without a book or promise of sequel. It is a folktale – a warning, a tale of caution.

There is so much here for the writer to learn from another artist’s medium. This is storytelling. At no moment does the viewer not feel the connection being made to much older stories – actual accounts of such things being used by Eggers to fortify his imagery. In this film, the story is firmly rooted in Horror tradition, in folktale tradition, in fairytale tradition… yet it is no also-ran. It is an outgrowth, another link in the chain of evidence of such storytelling. It is a modern rendition of the folktale told using the harsh and vulnerable times of Colonial America to do so.

This is a lesson in how to build on tradition in the way the British have managed… This is what has been so lacking in contemporary American Horror.

If a writer is willing to really watch this film, there are important lessons here about story-telling and the best delivery method for Horror: the primal one already there, just under the skin, just under the surface – the one that creates surface tension like the skin on water.

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This is not your ordinary night at the campfire, but the slowly unfolding tale of all that goes unforgivably wrong in human interaction and hides somewhere between deceit and coincidence. It is about failure, and desperation, and need for answers. It is about the things that hear you in your darkest moments and most hopeless prayers. It is about choices and faith and the relentless stalk of the predator upon the alleged innocent.

It is also about how we look at misfortune, how we primitively expect good behavior to be rewarded with all manner of blessings: how we seek to lay blame and accusation to rationalize and rebalance…Life. And then it is about how far we will all go to restore the balance – to re-conjure our own illusions about ourselves. How quickly do we turn… Such is the makings of some of the world’s greatest Literature – the rationalizations for so many oppressions and genocides and wars, for exploiting children and locking up women, for labelling people criminals and fanatics and less equal, for silencing whole generations and rewriting history… for hunting, trying, and burning witches.

That which does not or cannot conform is a threat to our theory of how the world works. Therein resides the deepest of human Horrors pressed out of the fabric of our secret fears.

Sometimes you have to sneak up on an audience, dragging them deep into the imagery of their own making… to hold up mirrors. This is why The Witch works for some and not others: some are afraid to see what else is reflected in the glass, to allow it out…

Critics love this film because so many layers offer so many interpretations of what the film symbolizes: the role of the nonexistent apple tree and its connection to original sin, the questions about faith and afterlife and coming of age of our nation, the nod to the dark ages of superstition coiled in the body of a recurring rabbit.

But there is so much more for the Horror fan, should he or she be willing to admit that the contemporary explosion in jump-scare Horror and found footage is a phase. Sure, such films are great for grabbing your significant other or reasonable facsimile in the theater; they are a summertime blast.

But do you really want to be scared? Exorcist-scared?

Then you’ll have to let go of the bar. Because Horror is bigger than flashlights under the chin.

Horror is about the Big Questions that unsettle us all.

You have to be willing to ask yourself just how much of the real world is real, and how much is illusion. You might even have to wonder about life and death and what comes after, that if it is anything at all, there may be players in the game you cannot see and whose motivations you cannot sate or outmaneuver.

You might have to admit that we live at the mercy of others and the luck of fate, that we may have success or long life because we managed to avoid the notice of Others.

They say that most Horror writers do not believe in what they write about. Perhaps this is so. But I tend to think that at our very primal core, none of us is sure. We live according to our theories, and sometimes we think that the supernatural is a fun place in which to scare ourselves silly.

But if you really want to scare your audience or be scared with the audience, you have to be willing to surrender your talismans and amulets. You have to turn out the lights. You have to go naked into the forest, to wonder if you would have the courage to accept a terrifying death and be lost to the world, or whether you would be just curious enough – just innocent enough – to stray into the darkness and expect to outsmart what lies coiled there.

In the film, the protagonist is asked if she would like “to see the world, to live life deliciously”… What is most telling is how the audience wants her to say yes…even having glimpsed the hellish truth of the misery that drives the witch of the wood just to keep young and potent. Is the protagonist Eve, or ourselves?

We are never told what conditions await the signatory of such a contract with the devil. We are too busy imagining what the offer means, too busy justifying the needs and subsequent choices being made. And in the end we are left to wonder about our own roles and choices in the world.

We are left to wonder what this creature is, this Witch.

Is she us – bargaining away the lives and fortunes of others so that we might live the way we believe we are entitled to?

Have we mistaken desire for need for so long that we don’t want to know what happened to the baby, and we don’t see the tears behind the laughter as our protagonist is lifted in flight?

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Do we not care about the coworker we volunteered for lay-off, or the civilians caught in the crossfire of our wars? And isn’t that the Horror?

A lot has been said about The Witch as one of the genre’s best offerings in decades. A lot of Horror fans apparently don’t agree.

What I find unfortunate, is that this could mean we are not-seeing exactly what makes the Horror genre great: its ability to take the mundane, the everyday, the culture of contemporary society, and make it monstrous.

It could mean a percentage of Horror fans don’t want to think about why they might be afraid of something: they just want a good time.

Those are the Horror fans who will probably age out of the genre.

Because what stays with you in Horror is the stuff you can’t get out of your head…. And I’m not talking about old lady butts (of which I have one and it does indeed get scarier every day, but it is not Horror Mr. Shyamalan).

I am talking about the contracts we make every day with the devil… about that darker unknown that lurks in the woods of our minds, that fails us when we should have been better, and that eats our flesh and bargains our souls for a few more seconds of youth.

Horror is about the real world and the many things that crouch within it. It is about the long, patient stalk of a predator, and sometimes, about dying well. It is about what makes itself known when we are at our most vulnerable.

When it combines well with an audience educated in all of its nuances, such a story – whether on film or between two covers – is received like Hitchcock or Poe. But the catch is this: if we lose and continue to lose our connection to real life, then we are losing our Horror vocabularythe most valuable tool in our storytelling arsenal.

As writers we are unable to convey what raises the goosebumps on our own skins, to name the Horror – to conjure it behind the eyes of our audience. Nothing resonates because nothing is there. This is exactly how we have come to this place in Horror where nothing – and I mean nothing – is scary enough.

Without a shared vocabulary that includes an understanding of humanity and a willingness to be led virtually anywhere in our torrid and shameful human history, film goers and book readers will simply not get it… and Horror will continue to descend into less-scary, less meaningful works that currently mirror the two dimensions of what we have come to see as “normal” – and worseto consider as acceptable work in our genre.

If you want to write effective Horror, this means you will have to get your hands dirty. You need to crawl into that cave and summon spirits. You need accuracy and detail and the ability to overwhelm the needs of your audience. That means you need to understand where we come from – that very primal place where so many unlikeable things are possible, and happy endings do not come from stories with witches in them.

You need to story-tell. And that means first, you have to listen.

So pull up a bearskin. Study folklore and fairy tales. Tell ghost stories. Ponder those warnings in the Scriptures and other Holy Books. And watch The Witch… Let your mind slowly take in all in… And then watch it again.

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Brandy Maxie, Bone Woman: What Non-Indians Just Learned About the Power of Voice


As writers, it is a grail second only to the holy one of publication… finding and using your Voice…

And here in the last days of Women in Horror Month, comes Brandy Maxie – at once a beautiful, striking young woman and a single, solitary figure standing in tears and alone at the DAPL protest campground, being vacated under threat of arrest.

Some would say the reporter covered her because of that: a vulnerable and pretty woman is always good press. But I say the reason is otherwise. Brandy Maxie is a Bone Woman, a keeper of sacred Voice.

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http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/single-first-nations-mother-brandy-maxie-never-gives-up-on-dreams-1.3019612

Voice is about Knowledge, and Power, and Heart.

So clearly distressed, so clearly heartbroken, her words rattle the houses of denial where we all choose to live, a Powerful wind born of the earth itself. Her tears are transformative, even as she does not seem to know it yet – there in that news clip, there under threat of an arrest she doesn’t want.

Warrior woman. It’s on your shirt, my dear. Just read. And accept it. This is you.

She is the inner Wild Woman, the Mad Woman of creativity and true self once again made famous by Jungian psychoanalyst Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D.

This is the same Mad Woman we witness locked in Literary Attics, the same Wild Woman who dares to wear pants or cut her hair, the same Wolf Woman who devours that wildness raw because she knows and recognizes that essential part of her biological heritage which the Bone Woman summons back from the dead. The Bone Woman is the one who takes back the Power robbed from women. She is an archetype and a role model. Her existence is an ethnic proof of historic marginalism.

And we all need to see her, to feel her presence with our skins because she will not be easily forgotten in a willy nilly world.

How do we process this?

A woman standing on a battlefield of words and principles. Her tears cut like knives the flesh from our arms. Are we mourning?

How far back do we have to go to remember?

How do we sort out our misdirected, and self-aggrandizing vision of Native People from the very real one of people who share the exact same concerns as the rest of us?

We listen.

We listen to the Voice.

“Earth. Mother. Goddess. In every culture the voice of the Feminine emerges from the land itself. We clothe her as Eve or Isis or Demeter. In the desert she appears as Changing Woman. She can shift shapes like the wind and cut through stone with her voice like water. And when she approaches us with her open hands carrying offerings of white shells in arid country she reminds us that there was a time before drought when ancient seas covered the desert. She cannot be classified… I wish someone had told me when I was young that it was not happiness I could count on, but change.” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p.92

Why is it so hard?

Why can’t we look Native Americans in the eye and just say it:

We. Were. Wrong.

We were blinded by our own needs, mice in the grasses, seeing only what is right in front of our noses – and still seeing only that – those endless lands of milk and honey that promised what seemed like endless bounty. What we need to be endless bounty.

A blessing. Proof of our rightness.

We are still blinded.

We placed you at the edges of our world so we wouldn’t have to see you… to think about what we did in our hurry to define ourselves, in our rush to build our own world where you happened to be standing.

We welcome blindness… the excuse that it is winter on the plains, that the land is Federally owned, that Native People need “tending” for their own good. We gaze adoringly at our giant SUVs and dread the price at the pump, so we rationalize how the actual danger of a leak into the water supply for Native Peoples is so miniscule, it is worth the risk….

We pretend we know better. Like we did 100 and 200 years ago.

For far too many of us, Native Americans are tourist curios… quaint remembrances of a time when pioneers were being elevated to Hero Status and our Great Country was being formed on the backs of slaves and tenant farmers, in garment factories and tenements, in mines and railroad camps. They were brave, but misinformed, simple, and superstitious.

We mutilate what we cannot understand, what threatens our sense of self.

It wasn’t us. But it is.

(“Those who do not assimilate deserve what they get.”)

No other minority in this country today is repeatedly told what to think and how to think it.

(“To be named after a sports team is an honor…they should be grateful we remember them at all.”)

No other minority is disallowed a voice at the table.

And then there is Brandy.

Power comes when it is called.

First American. Native American. (that’s right, the whole continent is America…always has been…the name is not exclusively the U.S. right to claim…)

Of all the horrendous images we saw come from the protests, of all of the rationalizations of how those darn Natives just don’t get it… It is her Voice that connected the angry fist of protest to the stomachs of the rest of us…

“We know the quality of another’s heart through her voice. Not the sound, although it is a cue. Not through words, although they present an idea. I most often feel the tenor of another’s heart through tone and the feeling that enters my body when they speak.” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 186.

Brandy shook the World. Did you hear it? Did you feel it?

Her Voice spoke loudly in that moment. The shudder of fear and sadness, at the loss of something she had given her all for in peaceful protest, hoping against hope that at last someone would just listen… That someone would hear.

Her.

As a Mother.

As a Woman.

As a Voice.

Why is it so hard?

The question drove tears from her eyes without her saying so.

Why?

http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/north-dakota-officials-plead-protesters-leave-45678680

Why was it okay to move the DAPL from its course numerous times because its latent threat would not be tolerated by nonNative interests, when it is more than okay to dismiss Native People’s all-too-valid concerns?

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“140 Route Deviations….17 Route Adjustments….”

We cannot see you….

“The Dakota Access Pipeline is NOT on Standing Rock Sioux land,” crows a headline on the Pipeline Facts page….But that is not the point: it impacts the Sioux by being UPSTREAM. Sh*t runs downhill and so does oil. How many times were we promised that leaks and spills are not really a big problem? Exxon Valdez, BP Gulf Spill, and most recently the Denbury spill in Southwest South Dakota http://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/North-Dakota-Spill-Leaks-120000-Gallons-of-Oil-Wastewater.html … At what point are will willing to risk the lives of and health of People?

We cannot hear you….

Are Native American concerns less than those of the people of Flint, Michigan? Apparently.

There is a difference between what is needed and what is desired. The difference is in holding the power to disregard the needs of others to satiate the childish desire of self… it is called “social currency.”

And that is what made Brandy Maxie’s Voice the single loudest of the entire protest. It was soft, and simple, and honest… feminine. It came from a primal place that resonates with all hearts of the marginalized, and sometimes penetrates the man-made numbness of other senses. Perhaps it is because she is a mother, which is the first thing she said to define herself to an audience unseen and unseeing.

“Your voice is the wildest thing you own…” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 188

The words Became… behold a Woman running with Wolves…

There on the muddy fields in the aftermath of a valiant protest effort, stood the very heart of what it is to be Native American today: dismissed, a mild point of interest, an entertainment that tritely represents the very real shame of what we’ve done to these people….

Yet.

Brandy shook the World.

Did you hear it? Did you feel it? The Bone Woman cometh… the voice of All Women…

According to Dr. Estes,

“Ideally an old woman symbolizes dignity, mentoring, wisdom, self-knowledge, tradition-bearing, well-defined boundaries, and experience…with a good dose of crabby, long-toothed, straight-talking, flirtatious sass thrown in for good measure” (Estes 243).

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Bone WomanWoman SisterhoodtmWild WomanSimply FeminineSacred FeminineDivine FeminineShaman ArtShaman WomanPuppet Lc

“La Loba (She wolf) “The gatherer of bones” – the 2 million year-old woman who sings bones to life again”

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/18999629656190673/

Did you hear the wind gathering its sacred Voices to itself?

Did you feel the shudder of Power as it drew a ragged breath and held up its daughter as a sign of change, its hands bloody from the birth?

Because change is indeed coming…thundering across the lands we see as empty and Native People see as Home.

Some of us have heard the rattling of bones; we have begun to awaken, to see for the first time our sisters, if not our brothers.

We see a real person standing there, frustrated, afraid for her people but also for her children, for the lives yet to be, unable to imagine what comes next in a world gone intentionally deaf and blind to her basic fears.

We are learning the lesson of the Power of Voice. Can you feel its tremolo echo through your own body?

What comes next is fearsome.

Awesome.

It is the awakening of Power and another kind of change. The change that comes with the resonance of Voice in a people marginalized for far too long. It comes when we at last begin to hear them. It comes when justice is summoned on a muddy battlefield the morning After the day Before…

“In Mormon Culture there is a saying, ‘I would walk across the plains with you.’

The translation is simple: you are tough. You are reliable. You can carry your own weight.” Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 131.

It is important to know, Brandy, that your Voice made itself heard, all in that simple moment of exasperation and surrender, broadcast in a news clip. You couldn’t have planned it. Power takes its own form.

You are a Bone Woman.

And the world quakes at your tears, the Power of not what was said – but what was meant – it is carried by a thousand ancient rivers all born of Women in this world…Changing Woman….

You are awesome. And I would walk across the plains with you… always wondering if I was worthy of your presence…

Brandy Maxie. Bone Woman, extraordinaire.

Shirley Jackson: Of Mothers, Daughters & Horror (a Women in Horror Month Perspective)


Mothers. They, as part of the parental power couple, are the villains in everything from psychoanalysis to career choices and marital partners. And while there may be many unjustly accused, all prejudices germinate from the same seed of truth – that all of us grow in the direction of our sun – and either flourish or wither beneath its gaze… Mothers can make us or break us.

“The first book is the book you have to write to get back at your parents… Once you get that out of your way, you can start writing books.” Shirley Jackson (Franklin 30)

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For those of us who write, there is perhaps no truer statement – especially if our youth was riddled by the constant misfire of incompatibility, of conflicting dreams and expectations for ourselves. But this is a good news/bad news proposition: it is bad news if the emotional worm bores into our souls and cripples our ability to write what needs to be written; it is good news if we can learn to tap into the honesty of the subsequently generated emotions and – through our writing – (instead of degenerating into psychic messes) work competently through the layers of universal truths.

It has been done before. And one of the best examples is that of Shirley Jackson, whose own relationship with her mother sadly tainted both her self-image and her self-confidence, but led to some totally awesome Literary Horror.

History and the Other Inconvenient Truths

Of all the women writers of American Horror, Shirley Jackson is queen. She set the stage and the bar for the writing of modern Literary Horror, influencing generations of writers in ways we never suspected, leaving us examples that are more easily digested when Critics attempt to explain how they look at our genre. While a lot of what she wrote might today be considered Young Adult fiction and is still taught at the high school level, the subject matter is pure adult – tapping into psycho-social behaviors that still shock and disturb, yet also resonate with our adult memories of our younger selves.

She didn’t set out to write Horror – her influences were typically Literary ones, her husband a Literary Critic. But her work held the roots of Horror in its curled fingers – and all because of her complicated relationship with her mother.

Horror has long been the Literary vehicle for expressing the conditions and humanity of the oppressed. It’s something women commandeered in their writing during the late 1800’s, following along the path that writers like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters had blazed. And like it or not, it was because of the second-class status of women and minorities that provided the impetus. When one group of people (then as often now largely legally and politically empowered white men) have absolute command over “Others” – be they women or immigrants or minorities – in which lives are lived subject to incarceration, psychiatric experimentation, homelessness, poverty, untreated illness, wretched working conditions, physical and or verbal abuse – terror is the result. Post-Traumatic Stress is the result. Mental illness is the result. Violent pushback is the result.

Women writers were often the privileged prisoner-witnesses when not victim to these events, bearing testimony from their own strata of society, often identifying with those they witnessed being mistreated when not suffering their own class-tinted versions. Sometimes these women were so moved that they attempted to represent the classes they saw suffering – such as Harriet Beecher Stowe with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (https://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/SAYLOR-ENGL405-7.3-UNCLETOM.pdf ) – the first successful attempt to bring due attention to the inhumanity of slavery, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2802 ) – highlighting the brutal consequences of mixed race life in Mexican Colonial California, or Ann Sophia Stephens’ Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter (http://www.ulib.niu.edu/badndp/dn01.html )– one of the first attempts to bring the plight of eastern Native Americans to light.

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Of course these stories were meant for other women’s eyes, written in overly sentimental and “emotional” tones that decried them women’s reading material instead of Literature, and they were at times every bit as ignorant and romanticized as “imagining” how others live can be. But they were also meant to unite and more importantly, to enlighten and then incite. Literature they became. And being embraced by generations, they also became transformative works that changed many early American minds about the plight of all “second-class” citizens.

Jackson serves this purpose in American Horror. In Jackson’s case, her stories reveal the “normal” lives of women of her generation (1916-1965) – a time and place close enough to our own that we seldom remember the constriction of society against women and girls even then. We tend to gloss it over, to misremember it with Donna Reed-like complacency. Says Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin:

“…tension animates all of Jackson’s writing. And it makes her perfectly representative of her time…The themes of Jackson’s work were so central to the preoccupations of American women during the postwar period that Plath biographer Linda Wagner-Martin has called the 1950’s ‘the decade of Jackson.’ Her body of work constitutes nothing less that the secret history of the American women of her era. And the stories she tells form a powerful counternarrative to the ‘feminine mystique’ revealing the unhappiness and instability beneath the housewife’s sleek veneer of competence.” (Franklin 5-6)

I remember the cracks that showed in the early sixties when I was a child, my own mother born in the 1930’s, discussing things across the backyard fence with other wives, the way in which there was still a tiptoeing around the man of the house, routine sacrifices demanded of wives for their husband’s public face and personal careers, the arguments and lectures about compromising the “appearance” of things, the dispensing with a mother’s complete life and career because the new one was the children she was expected to have for the good of the husband’s career advancement. My own mother did not learn to drive until her thirties… a demand she made after she suffered a miscarriage while unable to get herself to the base hospital in time.

We could argue that it is natural for people to forget the discomfort and unpleasantries we have survived – whether as a group, a gender, or an individual; so it is that today we tend to have conveniently forgotten what recent generations of women have endured, preferring to remind ourselves that once upon a time, things were much, much worse for our gender. It is as though distance makes it easier to look at. And it makes us wont to repress any criticisms of where we are now, lest we seem ungrateful for the advances we have achieved…or worse, rabble-rousing and unfeminine.

When we consider writing as a reflection of our own times – of writing modern Horror and revealing the truths of today’s social issues, we go wooden. We recognize that it is that very oppression which makes us decide whether we want to “come across” as militant and angry women, or “reasonable” and “compassionate” as we are taught to believe “normal” women are. It scares us as women and as writers back into complacency. Worse, it puts phantom voices in our heads, whispering what some people might think of us if we really said that…

We think about how our parents will respond, what our own mothers will think of us. We remain unsure of the consequences if we tell our secrets. We let this affect storylines and word choice, character development and how we evolve them. We think we can tell stories with half-truths and are surprised when editors say they are lackluster. We begin to belittle the very things that eat at our souls and take so long to work their way out of our bodies like splinters — sometimes leaving Literature in their wake, sometimes leaving orchards of trees bearing too little or shriveled fruit. We hear the criticisms of society and our parents… and we let them silence or mutilate our voices.

We may be survivors of something, but we don’t want to be called warriors…we don’t want to draw hurtful criticism, or worse – enemy fire – especially from our own intimate camp. We women, it seems, can be our own worst enemies…

There is even now a separation between protesting our circumstances as righteous anger, and behaving in a socially acceptable manner; today as before our patriotism might be challenged or our sexual preferences. It’s driven many a writer to Literature and genre fiction… Because it is there that the awful truth of damage and ruin can be revealed with less criticism, hidden in plain sight because it is a societal normal. It is there that any oppressors can “overlook” the rebellion, not seeing it in fiction because they don’t see it in real life where it is also hidden in subtext – coded as the way things are, or because they can belittle it as “women’s writing” as… pulp… inferior, toothless ranting.

But particularly in its preservation, an analysis of Literature in retrospective remains also the fact that we do see it – the oppression of times, the flaws of relationships, the vulnerabilities of self.

The work of Shirley Jackson is as much a loud confession and a work of rebellion as it is a recognized body of Literature – Horror Literature.

From her poisonous relationship with her mother, her constant reconciliation with the fact of a constantly unfaithful husband who she loved passionately and her mother opposed, the minimizing of her writing by everyone including herself, the professional ostracism of the Academic community, the struggle to raise children in the midst of so much and so constant criticism – it all led to private battles with her own self-worth and subsequent brushes with mental illness…all of which color her fiction with immaculately concealed screams.

Because of its honesty, the work becomes elevated.

Says Horror Critic S.T. Joshi of Jackson: “…I wish to place Jackson within the realm of weird fiction not only for the nebulous reason that the whole of her work has a pervasive atmosphere of the odd about it, but, more importantly, because her entire work is unified to such a degree that distinctions about genre and classification become arbitrary and meaningless. Like Arthur Machen, Shirley Jackson developed a view of the world that informed all her writing, whether supernatural or not; but that world view is more akin to the cheerless and nihilistic misanthropy of Bierce than to Machen’s harried antimaterialism. It is because Shirley Jackson so keenly detected horror in the everyday world, and wrote of it with rapier-sharp prose, that she ranks as a twentieth-century Bierce.” (Joshi 13)

This is high praise indeed, and praise overdue. But it is also a call to arms for women writers of Horror…horror in the everyday world….Do you not know horrors that like Stepford Wives we pretend not to notice lest they notice us? These are Literary links…world shakers….Inconvenient truths.

States biographer Ruth Franklin: “Critics have tended to underestimate Jackson’s work: both because of its central interest in women’s lives and because some of it is written in genres regarded as either ‘faintly disreputable’ (in the words of one scholar) or simple uncategorizable. Hill House is often dismissed as an especially well written ghost story, Castle as a whodunit.  The headline of Jackson’s New York Times obituary identified her as ‘Author of Horror Classic” – that is, “The Lottery.” But such lazy pigeonholing does an injustice to the masterly way in which Jackson used the classic tropes of suspense to plumb the depths of the human condition.” (Franklin 6-7)

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“Dismissed” and “overlooked” is indeed the best way to describe Jackson’s body of work in its own time. Like other “greats” before her, her subjects found their way under her readers’ skins and held out to Critics an ornamentation of honesty so many of us are not comfortable with when expressed in plain English – the adolescent awakening of honesty, of not-liking one’s own parents and the societal implications of being not-liked back. It did not help that like many women who feel made powerless, she publicly embraced witchcraft – describing herself as a “practicing witch” although exhibiting more of an intellectual interest than that of more serious dabbling in the occult. (Lethem vii-viii)

This could only serve to push Critics further away from her, raising the ire of a more conservative public who cancelled subscriptions and declared themselves incompatible with such disturbing writing as found in “The Lottery,” denouncing it as “nauseating” “perverted” and “vicious”… (Lethem viii)

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Yet she and her fans endured. It was, perhaps, because Literature has a way of seeking out the subtext – of stripping away the witchcraft of character and plot and seeing world view – the truths of historic period revealed by the people who live them. This leads to a dedicated fan base – one that simply does not go away and signals to the Critic that there is something more in the writing. But this seldom happens during the writer’s lifetime…

Jonathan Lethem explains in his introduction to We Have Always Lived in the Castle (New York: Penguin, 2006, c1962): “Jackson is one of American fiction’s impossible presences, too material to be called a phantom in literature’s house, too in-print to be ‘rediscovered,’ yet hidden in plain sight. She’s both perpetually underrated and persistently mischaracterized as a writer of upscale horror, when in truth a slim minority of her works had any element of the supernatural…While celebrated by reviewers throughout her career, she wasn’t welcomed into any canon or school; she’s been no major critic’s fetish…” (xii)

And according to Franklin, even Jackson’s husband was distressed and perplexed at the professional ostracism:

“[Stanley Edgar] Hyman[an important intellectual and author of several major works of literary criticism] was a consistently insightful interpreter of his wife’s work. He bitterly regretted the critical neglect and misreading she suffered through her lifetime.” (Franklin 9) According to her husband, “she received no awards or prizes, grants or fellowships; her name was often omitted from lists on which it clearly belonged…” (9)

Yet her impact is undeniable – palpable, connecting to women and young women even today. Like many of her gender, Jackson’s writing has been left adrift – largely as consequence of an inability to reconcile real issues within the rigid interpretations of a Literature still evolving its theories and conjecture on how writing happens. But the public noticed – her public, often filled with young women who could identify… Because her writing captured the most important of Literary elements – resonance with generations of readers.

Indeed, we all have mothers who criticize to guide, we all have various infidelities that interrupt and scar our lives, children who complicate our decisions, Professional ceilings to crack our heads against when they do not collapse outright upon us. Jackson’s audience knows her vulnerabilities and feels her angst and subversive anger.

Joshi continues that the importance of her domestic fiction (which he describes as domestic horror) lies in the fact that Jackson “systematically attempts to present what may in reality have been highly traumatic events as the sources of harmless jests…it rests in its employment of very basic familial or personal scenarios that she would reuse in her weird stories in perverted and twisted ways; things like riding a bus, employing a maid, taking children shopping, going on vacation, putting up guests, and, in general, adhering – or seeming to adhere – to the ‘proper conduct’ expected of her as a middle-class housewife.” (Joshi 17).

Jackson’s fiction survives because not only is it truthful, but we can still see the truths as being in our lives today in various degrees. And, we are glad somebody has the brass to speak it.

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Mommy Dearest

So with all of these social battles, why is it that it is the one we have with our mothers that tops them all?

Perhaps because our relationship as women is most intimate with our mothers; here, all pretense is stripped away. They know our secrets. They know precisely our vulnerabilities. They know how to hurt us and have immediate access to do so. All of our future ability to trust others is attached to our parents – but most deeply to our mothers… So much so that they can scar us permanently, whether they are even present at all.

Mothers can’t win. But if they are or choose to be their daughter’s worst enemy, the damage is devastatingly deep. Where bad maternal and absent maternal relationships with daughters have been the subjects utilized in many great Literary plots, few have gone where Shirley Jackson went.

Classic Literature had long been where domestic abuse and the manipulation of inheritance laws became the source of many a ghost story, with mad women in attics, and the ghosts of dead babies and drowned young women facing pregnancy and ruined reputations littering the mythology of many a fine family, each generation – each era – having its own denigrations and disappointments, its own secrets. In that Classic venue most of the resentments and tragedies were handled by heroines who were vulnerable and ultimately, unfailingly “good.” Evil stepmothers, greedy mothers, absent mothers… it was the daughter who through her own inherent goodness would triumph at last.

So everything that came before set the stage for a shift in truth: that sometimes such mothering does not produce “goodness” but savagery.

The final spotlight wrought by Shirley Jackson came to shine upon the biggest resentments of all – the resentment of daughters against mothers who fail to protect them in their own attempts to protect themselves and their mutual reputations, and the resentment of mothers against daughters who impulsively disregard their hard-won advice or blatantly sabotage the best laid plans. Jackson’s writings seem to drag us into the world where best intentions and robotic obeisance lead to isolation and the celebrated road to Hell.

It was honest. Painfully so. And every parent and child has been there to some degree. We live our lives in constant push-back, testing the boundaries of our respective worlds, craving acceptance and praise, risking it all on impulse and frustration. We tend to live our lives specifically to spite each other.

So when we are not blessed with that Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds mother/daughter power relationship, the rough edges wound and eviscerate instead of nurture and heal.

Many a woman has grown up feeling that she was quite accidental, if not being told so. She becomes a burden, an inconvenience that constantly threatens the happiness of her family. She is a point from which it all potentially comes unglued and reputations can be slighted, she is all of the dreaded and unsightly mistakes of her parents. The pressure to get it right is often overwhelming.

Even when we say we don’t care, we do. After all, if our own parents don’t love us unconditionally, what possible life can we have in a world full of cruelties and misadventure?

It took Shirley Jackson to open that door. And she went as far as matricide in her writing. Imagine that in a Classic Literary heroine…

Says biographer Ruth Franklin in her new book, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

“This does not mean that Jackson actually wished to kill her mother any more than the frequent appearance of sexual molestation in her fiction means that she was literally molested. But it is clear that even from California, [her mother] Geraldine managed to insert herself into her daughter’s life in a way that Jackson resented, criticizing her appearance and offering unsolicited advice on household help, clothing, furniture, and other domestic matters.” (Franklin 350)

It simply means that the relationship between mothers and daughters is every bit as potent and potentially toxic as that often attributed to fathers and sons… Women are simply more societally pressured to suppress our rebellions.

And sometimes that suppression, the reluctance to consciously acknowledge the personal evisceration, leads to great Horror.

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Franklin continues: “On one level, the ‘explosive’ material clearly touched on her own feelings about her mother. All of Jackson’s heroines are essentially motherless, or at least victims of mothers who are not good enough…” And the character – Elizabeth – “ would be the first of Jackson’s characters to commit matricide; the act also takes place in her last two completed novels…”(350)

As writers, sometimes our characters have to say what we mean, to do symbolically what can’t be done in real life.

Still, the constant bullying by her own mother took its toll, both in Jackson’s mental health and in determining the direction of her fiction. And sadly, many writers know all too well this type of unsettling relationship with kin.

Continues Franklin,“Her [mother’s] letters to Jackson are masterpieces of passive-aggression, disguising harsh critiques beneath a veneer of sweetness. She needled Jackson constantly about her weight: ‘How about you and your extra pounds?…You will look and feel so much better without them’” (this written less than six months after her daughter’s birth), and then a year later stating in another letter in response to the successful publication of The Lottery: “‘We’re so proud of your achievements – we want to be proud of the way you look too, And really dear – you don’t do a thing to make yourself attractive.’”

Such is the relationship many of us share with our own mothers. Is it any wonder that this kind of private narrative leads to public art and writing that leans toward the Gothic, the dark, toward Horror and women’s issues? Toward Literature?

We Are All Shirley Jackson

It should come as no surprise then that during her lifetime she developed emotional struggles amid various degrees of mental illness spurred on by the stress of those fueled insecurities handed her by those she needed to trust. The result was the creation of dark-themed stories and novels with characters who could do what she could not.

In so many ways then we are all Shirley Jackson. Often we are like her: self-loathed, too tall, too awkward, and burdened with insecurities… We might be likely to assume that this was because she was at heart a writer – a creative person which is a title we stereotype into shyness and social dysfunction. But it had more to do with her upbringing, and a difficult relationship with a mother who seemed unwilling or unable to like her.

Says biographer Franklin, “As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson’s dilemmas feel: her devotion to their children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity. Several generations later, the intersection of life and work continues to be one of the points of most profound anxiety in our society – an anxiety that affects not only women but also their husbands and children.” (9)

Hers is the story of how the irritants of life and circumstance become the grit of sand upon which the pearl of Literature is made. It is a lesson in how one uses the honesty of one’s own life to shape a fiction that masks the truth of one’s times by the telling of one’s most intimate secrets. This is how Literary Horror is done – not by the overt caricature of shock and gore – but by the constant drip of the faucet everyone has and no one notices or chooses to ignore.

But the lesson is that we should never make excuses for those who have laid traps for us, never attempt to bury those hurts with substance abuse or spiraling illness and behavioral addictions. Instead we should let those wounds fester. Let the wood work its way out of our flesh, or let it lie there if it be resistant to our preferences… let it be the grit in the oyster.

Honesty and mining our most private emotions in writing is the lesson we take from Shirley Jackson. If it is big enough in our psyche to suppress our writing, to tempt us into self-destructive behaviors, to make us fearful of actually saying it, it needs to be said.  And until we find a way to do so, writing will remain a struggle – clouded by emotions that block our words because left to fester unacknowledged in the dark they are cancerous.

We may have to – as Shirley said – write a lot of bad fiction to please our parents, to please who we anticipate will be judging our fiction. But in the end we have to stop caring. We have to tell the truth.

Because the truth will set you free.

 

 References

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC : McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, c2001.

Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c 2016.

Lethem, Jonathan. Introduction. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. New York: Penguin, 2006, c1962.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas: Horror From The Good Old Days


It may come as a surprise, but once upon a time folks liked their Horror at Christmas. One could surmise that the increasing hours of darkness, the howling of hungry wolves, and the entrapment of inclement weather were co-conspirators to the cause; it is far too easy to become preoccupied with one’s own mortality when the temperatures send frosty ghosts to drift across candle-lit rooms and skeletal branches claw at window panes while the animals in the walls scurry ever deeper to find warmth.

In so much dark and quiet there is isolation, and the ever more loudly heard “sounds of silence” echoing in your ears. We forget how very dark and how very quiet the world once was. And maybe that is why our modern ghost stories are often found lacking the connective tissue of eerie tales of yore.

Technology changed things; we haven’t embraced so much light since humanity learned how to make and keep fire. And we haven’t surrendered our senses to so much noise in our daily lives since…ever.

Poor, poor ghosties….all drowned out by our modern day distractions.

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God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

If we really wanted to detail the history of ghost stories and dark times, we might well have to revisit Darwin and his Theory and explore early human brain development – as far back as when the animal brain diverged into homo sapiens. We would have to give more than a passing nod to rural folk and fairy tales, myths and legends, to the very human fear of naming things we cannot control – all for the sake of mitigating the chaos when not outwitting it. Because “the ghost story is the oldest form of supernatural tale…” (Dziemianowicz  xiii)

So where has it gone? Have we simply shuttered it away with childish things and suffused it with jokes made at the expense of our own mortality, or have we simply catalogued it to death? To know for certain we have to look at the last time ghost story-telling was king…

The ghost story – as we recognize it today – is more the “modern” invention of the Literary crowd. And of course the British started it…

It was the Victorians who spurred the whole renaissance in scary tale-telling, all by focusing on an infatuation with toying with the senses and exploring mortality, gazing with fascination at the changes spilling forth from the open maw of the industrial revolution and measuring it against the loss of all things past. (Perhaps this is what happens in a strictly regimented, class-driven, repressed society exposed for the first time to the seemingly unlimited promises of a newly born culture of science.) But once our invisible friends rose from the primal ashes of campfires in caves and collided with the tradition of the Christmas serial, a ghostly bonanza of spectral fiction ensued.

That’s right: we owe our Golden Age of Ghost Stories to the weird collision of Christmas and the rise of publishing.

Many consider the writings of Charles Dickens to be the main transformative template upon which many modern Christmas traditions and many ghostly tales gone traditional had their start. And while supernatural tales were long told round winter fires in the dark months of brutal seasons in many countries, this is what happens when the right writer delivers the right tales at the right time – what we now consider the J.K. Rowling Effect – wherein entire national imaginations are captured and slain. Dickens in his time was every bit as powerful, his influence felt across oceans and continents. And he is still selling and influencing today…Which is not at all bad for a dead guy.

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With the explosion of print onto the scene, there were magazines both pulp and “professional,” newspapers and book markets seeking to pump up slower Christmas sales all jostling for the new reading public’s precious coin. Many indulged in serial publication of stories – profiting more when such were delivered by writers of Dickens’ Literary merit and standing, but taking off when connecting the supernatural with the intimidating darkness of winter months.

And what prompted him to write ghost stories? The wonderful answer is his own childhood experiences…meaning that the remembered telling of scary stories and folk and fairy lore in the short, bleak days of winter colored his imagination; the oral tradition begat the written one of telling ghost stories at Christmas. (http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/ghoststoriesforchristmas.html)

What Dickens did was Literary: he incorporated his own experiences into his stories, his own impressions – from socio-economic conditions of the London he knew to his own memories of supernatural tales told round the Yule. This elevated his tales just enough to win the hearts of his public and melt a few of the Critics’. His contributions then helped legitimize the tradition of ghost story, as well as to help inspire other Literary writers and even those lesser efforts in the creation of the subgenre. It became a kind of tradition for writers of every professional ilk and genre to try their hand at Christmas ghost story telling. Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Andersen, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, and William Locke are just a few of those Literary writers who went “rogue.” And Horror got some great foundational stuff from both the exposure and the expanded audience.

But Dickens also colored our views of the environment in which these Christmas ghosts appear. And he did it by changing our Literary and then literal expectations of the holiday itself.

Did you ever wonder why we expect White Christmases? How so many songs came to be about deep snows and blizzard conditions, bitter cold, and the starving poor? Bits of coal and prowling elves? Did anybody else have childhood trouble trying to reconcile the birth of baby Jesus with snow and wise men in deserts?

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It was Dickens. Or rather, it was the whole of Britain with an unprecedented weather event often referred to as a “mini ice age” had while in his youth that colored our imagining of the holiday. He did what he did so well and we wound up permanently entangling his magnificent tales with weather patterns none of us have seen much of since, and sweeping the images of an Arctic landscape draped over the English with snowstorms of soft powder drifting like clouds of sugar on Christmas Eve over toy stores and holiday lights even in this country…Just visit Bedford Falls…

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Or look again at The Shining… that almost-Christmas tale. Sooo much snow around the isolated “manor house” that the connection to those English ghost stories is unmistakable. Yet today most of us do not have Christmases with mounds of snow and spiritual awakenings. And as for ancestral mansions, well, we are admittedly at least working on that piece of the equation

All this time, I thought it was rotten luck – the number of years a White Christmas failed to make an appearance in my life – even here in Colorado or the mountains of New Mexico, the hills of Indiana or the swamps of Florida. No snow. No reindeer tracks. And worse, even fewer ghosts. How tainted was my expectation of the holidays…

From Shakespeare to Washington Irving, there seems to have always been some spooky business afoot during the darker days of winter. And maybe that comes from early Christians commandeering earlier (and probably scarier) winter celebrations to affix the new beliefs upon the skeletons of the old…Bones tend to poke through now and again…

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But it was Dickens who through the Miracle of Modern Publishing solidified the trend as a campy tradition. Says editor Richard Dalby, “After Dickens’s A Christmas Carol first appeared in 1843, ghost stories became an ever-popular and essential ingredient of weekly and monthly magazines, especially the Christmas Numbers…xi-xiii). Today, whether Christmas remains in the story or not, the oppressive atmosphere of those once-wintry months remains – the cold, dark isolation, gloomy weather and gloomier estates…these are now standard Horror conventions – mandatory for ghost story telling.

And it all morphed again slightly once it crossed the pond: “the ghost story became equally popular in America, following the success of Dickens and his disciples…” (Dalby xii). Whether it was cheap imitation, British envy, or a thirst for our own Literary traditions mixing with social evolution, the ghost story form was embraced by women’s periodicals as a vehicle for expressing the concerns of women’s rights and children’s rights and henceforth civil rights. With the rise of the pulps and a more literate general public with money to spend, the subgenre took off in this country. Even though it languished in the literary dens of iniquity referred to as “Sensation” fiction – a consequence of any writing designed to illicit emotion and inflame passions – flourish it did, leading to what is often referred to as “The Golden Age of the Ghost Story.”

But then the electric light banished the dark with a flick of the finger. And for the ghost story, it was THAT finger.  Soon, if it were not for Halloween and teenagers eager to explore the concept of death, the ghost and its stories would have been banished completely back to superstition and folklore. But maybe that is not altogether a bad thing… Piggybacked on the traditions of Halloween, a good ghost story can garner quite a few miles…And more importantly, the good ones get remembered.

So isn’t it a shame we seem to have abandoned that Christmas tradition? And why exactly do we whine about bad ghost stories when no one is really working the edgy, Literary ends of the subgenre?

While some may argue all versions of the ghost story have been done, I say maybe we just gave up digging around in our darker folkish roots a wee bit too soon.

Ghosts are, after all, so much more than fragments of the human soul. Sometimes they aren’t human at all.

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The Return of the Christmas Horror

“Santa Claus…

How vile your name upon my tongue. Like acid, hard to utter without spitting. Yet I find myself incapable of speaking little else. It has become my malediction, my profane mantra.” – Krampus the Yule Lord, by Brom

It’s been a long time coming…But change and Horror is once again on the wintry breath of the Holidays. The ghost story is back…slightly amended, twisting backward upon an even older arc to restart our imaginations. We are talking about the fearsome mythologies and folklore of old…all of which count as ghost story.

It doesn’t mean we get it right – there is, after all, such a thing as poetic license. But back to the depths indeed we are called.

We can easily admit that our enduring affection for Halloween just doesn’t get enough reciprocal Literary love, and that simultaneously, many of our later efforts have indeed been wanting. Something was missing – something unnamed and unnamable. But wait – the door knob has begun to turn…slowly…deliberately. Something has been waiting for the opportunity to present itself for a dramatic return… That something is old, and dark, and distant enough in our proper memories that when our primal blood curdles, a new spark has been loosed. That spark has manifested in the form of…

The Krampus.

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For those who might think it a simple and modern take of Santa gone bad, the news is much more interesting: the tradition of the Krampus is far, far older…far, far darker. It comes indeed from a time when stories whispered in bleak isolation took on such lives of their own that eventually it became difficult to discern which came first – the story, or the creature in it (whether real or misinterpreted, imagined or misremembered).

Krampus, it is said, is “not really an individual’s name, but a class of entity, e.g. ‘vampire’ not ‘Dracula’” (Ridenour 14). Imagine that…a class of entity….implying other entities, and oh so, so many interpretations…

Isn’t this the very thing that made Lovecraft, Lovecraft? Isn’t this the very thing that animates our graphic novels, our video games, our superheroes, our fan fiction, our movie sequels, our darkest fantasies? Mythic monsters, demons of folk and fairy tales, that whole concept of hell-and-afterlife thing? Of wars between gods and humanity as puppets or prizes?

Ah but it is so easy to rumor that cults and weird traditions still linger in isolated places, just enough peculiar parades and effigies and misunderstood rituals to fuel the imaginations of those of us bathed in the false security of artificial light, tainted with just enough exoticism that we cannot look away, and just enough of our ancestry that we can feel those unseen eyes upon us. And so such legends capture our primal attention…punctuate our darker nights when the power fails…

How much blood lineage is enough for an entity to track our whereabouts? Our offspring? Our sins?

Krampus represents a return to darker things at the Holidays, and yes – a diversion from the “true meaning of Christmas” which has been so long obscured by the commercialism of Christmas that even the faithful have wandered into zombie territory. We are all ripe for the return of the Krampus and all of its kind…Primal, punitive, judging. We have taken our safety and freedoms in this world for granted. We ignore our obligations to each other by pretending we are too busy to see injustice. We have turned up our noses at superstition, and considered the scientific act of relegating religion to that category. We think ourselves untouchable…on par with the unseen.

The Krampus reminds us that such hubris has been the source of supernatural come-uppance in the past. And opening our imaginations to the monsters and demons of our darker histories might well serve to remind us of why we needed our religions to begin with, of the importance of living honorably.

Even dark entities abide by rules. Does it not then beg the question of who set those rules, and provoke the question of why humanity would be exempt when all other creatures are not?

And does that not lead right back to the backbone of the ghost story – the execution of justice?

And does that not in turn lead right back to Christmas, which for Christians implies the coming of the ultimate judge?

Ah yes, Commercial Christmas pales in the light of the gifts of heaven or hell… And the Krampus is bringing us right back to our point of origins…reminding us that there is no light without the dark.

And the greater the light, the greater the dark…

“America’s recent love affair with the Krampus, like any infatuation perhaps, tends to distort the object of its interest…” (Ridenour 10) Perhaps we should be more aware of what we make light of. What if we have summoned into our awareness the sword of justice from more primal times? One can only imagine the amount of justice-letting about to ensue…

Because just as we have distorted the ghost story to fit a Hollywood Blockbuster, we have distorted the meaning of Christmas and its lessons of our place in a dangerously unstable spiritual hierarchy; we have blissfully forgotten upon which plane we reside.

As one of my own fictional story characters once said, “On this level, we are all meat.

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So why not embrace the concept of the Krampus and his ilk? The timing could not be more perfect, with so much of the world still at war with itself, with the ever constant battle of “the Other” so ever-present and just out the front window when it isn’t right in our own homes. When has there been a greater need for justice when the loudest, most obnoxious voices are the most visibly rewarded? When the simple, quiet person just trying to survive is the one who is imprisoned, humiliated, murdered, castigated, blamed and disappeared because his or her existence becomes a random affront to someone else – someone who seems to get away with it sometimes under the very gaze of the world?

Don’t we all crave judgment? Don’t we all cry out for justice? And don’t most of us understand that unless it comes from some all-seeing entity, it will not happen at all?

x9

And of course this begs the question: how innocent are you?

Enter the Krampus…a handy instrument of the immortals who might be watching our every thought and move. Draped in Christian accoutrement but ever so much older and less inclined to mercy… Doesn’t every one of us in a moment of selfish disenfranchisement crave the reality of his existence? And don’t we all hope it is not us who he comes for?

The Krampus is a gift to modern Horror. Here is our opportunity to take back the fundamental concept of primal judgment…of a vigilant and swift executioner of justice. Once again we can deck the halls with things quite converse to the saccharine holiday we hijacked from its original purpose, reawaken those personal awarenesses of our own stupid mistakes and arrogances that will not go unpunished or ignored if original religion and mythology are to be believed…even reawaken the fear…

Come on. Get Literary. Resurrect our dark holiday tradition.

Write a ghost story for Christmas… root about in the old, forbidden stories. Turn out the lights. Look your demons in the eye.

I dare you.

 

References

Brom. Krampus the Yule Lord. New Yor: Harper Voyager, c2012.

Dalby, Richard, ed. Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories.New York: MetroBooks, c1995.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, Robert H. Weinberg & Marlin H. Greenberg, eds. 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, c1993.

Moon, Jim. “Christmas Spirits Part I: The Origin of Ghost Stories at Christmas” posted 20 December 2011. Retrieved 11/30/2016 from:  http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/ghoststoriesforchristmas.html)

Ridenour, Al. The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, c2016.

The Haunting of America’s House: Have We Killed the Ghost Story?


One of the most difficult subgenres to write successfully in Horror is the ghost story, and through a century of technological intrusion and religious minimization, the task has not grown any easier. Speculation abounds: have we exhausted the medium? Have we outgrown the concept? Has everything already been done better than we can do it today?

Critics are not sure. Some are of the opinion that the masters of the medium have come and gone along with the “perfect storm” of timing – specifically the literary finesse of a better classically educated writer and the vulnerability of an audience enduring that absolution of all sin – the technological twin projectiles of electricity and the industrial revolution. Others speculate that we are somewhere on the cusp of reinvention because “in short, genres evolve – often through the influence of both aesthetic and economic factors” (Bailey 108).

Either way, there is a truth to acknowledge: our ghost stories – American ghost stories – are failing. Miserably. The question I have, is why? The British in particular are still pulling it off. And although we even might have bested them briefly, in the early 1900’s, when Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Francis Marion Crawford, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James were still part of mainstream reading, we’ve lost that precious story-telling thread: the connective tissue between the ghost and what it represents.

Real Ghosts Scare People

The last time I read a really good ghost story, it came from Iceland. The book was I remember You by international crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir… I cannot praise this book enough for bringing the power of the ghost story back to mind, and any writer who gives me nightmares is welcome on my permanent bookshelf.

How did she do it? She did it by invoking the power of local folklore muddied with the trope of the True Story, and weaving it together with the most famous of the ghost story conventions – the search for revelation and justice, creating empathy for the ghost even as she created terror of its presence. Sigurðardóttir used the possibility of a real ghost of a real person to scare the sound sleep out of us. And it worked. Because real ghosts scare people…not their image, but their possible reality and what that means for all of us.

So what are we missing?

I didn’t have to go far for the answer: we are missing the ghost. Somehow, we have managed to drift away from the actual haunting and turned the haunted house into a circus of absurdity. We have taken one of the most powerful representations of world view in Literature and neutered it, drenching it in distracting contests of evil that by their combined sheer weight, make truth and accountability impossible.

Too many times our ghost fiction is relying on a kind of absolute worst-case scenario… as in Dale Bailey’s recounting of “David Martin’s 1997 crime novel Cul-de-Sac, which pays deliberate homage to the tradition of the haunted house tale. The ill history of the eponymous house reflects the protocols of the formula: Cul-de-Sac began as a vast pre-Civil War hotel that drained the resources of its owner, served at various times in its history as a military hospital and an insane asylum, and became the site of a brutal decapitation murder. The locale is rumored to be the home of Satan, and visitors hear strains of a ghostly piano and encounter infestations of flies…” (Bailey 109).

Ye gods!

This is what the American ghost story has morphed into. And if you don’t think it is a parody of itself, read the classics, or another crime writer like Sigurðardóttir, for example – whose more subtle handling of crime and ghost are lightyears ahead of our game and seated in the real tradition of ghost story telling.

It is almost as though we have lost faith in our own ability to conjure up a ghost that can adequately scare us on its own. And maybe we have. Clearly we are not doing it right: what is more terrifying than the possibility that the afterlife is not at all what we expect it to be, and that any of us could become trapped where we don’t want to be – away from the eyes of God, away from the comfort of others, away from all chance of absolution, alone with our sins and ourselves, denied even the judgment and punishment that ends it all?

What has happened to us? The answer seems to be rooted in that infamous and ongoing battle with Britain over ruins.

That’s right. Piles of stone. Because we don’t have any. Whine, whine.

Being bereft of actual historic ruins that date back into the earliest history of man, we’ve had to improvise. For most of us, home is cookie-cutter suburbia. And when we ran out of ancient Indian burial grounds and curses, when we stopped being world savvy and we rediscovered and fully embraced Poe and his Fall of the House of Usher it occurred to us: maybe it wasn’t about the ghost after all, maybe it was the house…the home, the family, the American Dream…

What if the haunted house is the stand-in for our own twisted sense of entitlement? Eureka…

Apparently, that is most certainly something we could sink our teeth into. Says Bailey, “as long as houses remain a central symbol in American culture, our writers are likely to inhabit them with the anxieties of our day-to-day lives” (109).

This is bad news for traditional ghost story lovers. The promise is one of mundane familiarity, of boring detail, of the self-centered spoiled brat spawned in effigy as the Me Generation (I can say that being born in the thick of it), of – even worse – a kind of revisionist historical view. We have successfully re-written our past out of our spectral fiction. And we have excised the Literary root along with it. We managed to convince ourselves that the ghost is secondary… a mere appendage to wave at our vanishing birthright.

In lieu of castles, abbeys and moors, we went straight to our three-car garages and 900 square foot living rooms. We choose to mourn our own poor choices instead of taking responsibility for them, finding our worst fears materializing in our pantries and mud rooms and personal gyms… Why deal with the uncomfortable truths when you can sit on your overstuffed couch and convince yourself you earned it and the gigantic flat-screen TV guaranteed to blind any ghost in the room?

See, what I find truly sad, is that here we have an opportunity as writers to re-awaken our collective sense of responsibility by invoking the traditional ghost story. And we abdicate. We default to security cameras and found footage.

Certainly, we don’t have those awesome castles and moody moors… but we do have historic tragedies, nationally protected battlefields, ghost towns (ironically), and some pretty awesome and eerie scenery of our own. We don’t have to lurk in a covered bridge to imagine angry peoples cheated of their own heritages, to understand beheaded horsemen, exploited immigrants, stranded pioneers, massacred natives, massacred miners, fires, explosions, collapses, fraud, intimidation, theft, murder, financial ruin, domestic abuse, suicides… we’ve had them all right here without a single castle or downed abbey. For every crime there is an offender and a victim. And every one of us lives our lifetimes built on blood.

For certain, many ghost stories are meant to be nothing more than campfire tales. But do we need more than that to summon the kind of depth that follows us into the dark? The Critics think so. And they may have a point.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Boo. Boo Hoo.

Are all great ghosts Literary? Certainly not. But most of the best ghost stories are, even when they are not canon-class. Ghosts are always the after-image of something we have done… A ghost without a backstory is just a special effect. And we have seemed to embrace that formula which by its nature excludes the very humanity of ghosts and conjures unlikely scenarios to magically summon their presence in a plot. The focus is on the family-as-victim – more often the White Anglo Saxon Protestant family as victim. And to clearly not make things racist, the ghost is typically  entangled with legends of an anglo witch, a dead (or alive) psychotic murderer, or the very Devil himself.

We don’t know how to successfully include history or other peoples in our haunted houses without sounding trite. So we just simply don’t. And in creating so much of this kind of two-dimensional fiction, have we killed the American ghost story?

We’d have to turn out the lights to see… yet we are always in possession of artificial light, so we can better enjoy our artificial values. Does this mean despite the prolific dominance of technology that we are still really afraid of ghosts? That we have more than a few skeletons rotting in our closets which we are too afraid to acknowledge? I think it does.

Today the American ghost story is all hype, flash and bang with no substance. We are wrapped up in and consumed by our own sense of loss and fear of the future. What started out in the 1900’s with promise has all but languished on American bookshelves of late, victim of its own failed promises. Or maybe it is the premises that have failed.

Really. It’s Not the House That’s Haunted.

The first time I heard that phrase it turned me a bit on my ear. It was kind of thought-provoking, an interesting theory about ghosts, a reversion to “the purposeful ghost” of the seventeenth century whose dogged appearance was motivated by “the need to address wrongs, warn of danger, reveal secrets, or cure sickness” (Bennett 18). Such promise lies with those ghosts. Such promise in the phrase itself… But then we really tinkered with it, and before long it also smacked of our American penchant for “evil” … the need for speed in accelerating our terror element beyond the capacity of the story itself. And once we get started, we can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Here we are not revising or expanding the ghost story, we are simple trampling it. And the truly weird thing is that we are using things we profess to not even believe in to do it. Is it any wonder we aren’t scaring anyone?

One has to ask why a country so at ease in dismissing the interaction of God, Heaven and Hell in real life cannot keep our mitts off of Pure Evil for Evils’ sake (even in our fiction). And why is that supposed to scare anyone? If the Reformation purged the reality of ghosts from our midst (a view coincidentally enhanced by the electric light), how can any mere ghost hope to advance an agenda without it? Yet if we don’t accept the duality of magical thought – that neither good nor evil exist without the other – have we not reopened the very argument the Reformation was meant to seal forever? And doesn’t a reluctance to advance at least the questions asked by religion sabotage the ghost before it can walk? Is that why we dust off the devil so often?

Tradition would suggest so. Because the ghost story tradition is all about accountability, justice for the marginalized. If The Devil Made Us Do It, are we not absolved? Blameless? Innocent as newborn babes?

The British writers of spectral fiction clearly know this is a cop-out. And let’s face it, the Reformation started in their neighborhood. If anyone was going to be derailed by Protestantism in the ghost story, it should have been them. Yet there is no such disorientation in British ghost stories. The weird gyrations are all ours, and that makes the explanation all the more personal.

From what I see as a reader of ghost stories, the problem is the American aversion to the confession of sins. Maybe it is our Protestant roots showing, or maybe it is our more alarming contemporary tendency toward historical revisionism. But the ghost story is all about confronting our own sins and the American ghost story has morphed into a blame-the-victim plot point. By victim, I do not mean the haunted person, or the haunted house; no, our victim has become the ghost itself and everything it stands for

What better way to proclaim our own innocence?

We do not seek to empathize with the ghost, to solve the mystery, to bring it peace, to wish it well, to coax it into The Light. Instead, the hapless spirit becomes the tool of something bigger, larger, worse. The Worst. The Worst EVER.

That way, we can set out to banish it. We can blow up the house it inhabits, the very same way our dreams have been imploded by those we cannot quite reach as they build ever larger mansions above us.

Remember, it’s not the house that’s haunted. It’s poor us. We are the victims.

Yet we built the house. And the house is the problem.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There. You. You Who?

In his Critical look at the ghost story, American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, Dale Bailey states, “The contemporary haunted house formula dispenses not only with ghosts, but the ontological uncertainty – did anything spectral really happen? … Instead, the formula opts for a flatly prosaic depiction of the supernatural in which the house itself is sentient and malign, independent of any ghosts which may be present (and very frequently none are)” (5-6).

Vengeful ghost trouble? We’ll fix you… Responsible for building a wondrous country on a hideous legacy of genocide, child labor, slavery, and misogyny? No problem. Tah dah! It was the house…Evil happens. Not our fault then. Still not our fault.

Yet the house itself is a “tell.” And it is telling on us.

Says Bailey, “…the tale of the haunted house, while rooted in the European gothic tradition, has developed a distinctly American resonance…In part, I think, the answer grows out of the clash between American ideals and realities, the three or four key themes in American life to which the house, and especially the haunted house, naturally lends itself as a vehicle for commentary…Good haunted house novels… often provoke our fears about ourselves and our society, and, at their very best, they present deeply subversive critiques of all that we hold to be true – about class, about race, about gender, about American history itself. In part because of the formulaic construction, such novels frequently employ their settings not only to indict American culture, but to suggest ways it might be profitably reformed” (5-6)

Try hiding from that under your bedsheets…

So the house itself, in becoming home, also became a symbol of the American Dream and by its placement in neighborhoods, its illustriousness of walls, it defines who gets to participate, who is nurtured by the Dream and who is devoured by it, or worse, who is sacrificed in its name.

The irony is that no one is immune. Forget the ancient Indian burial ground: we are our own personal devils. Continues Bailey, “The afterglow of the American Revolution had barely worn off when a new generation of American writers began to suspect a startling and unpleasant truth: that they had toppled King George only to raise King Dollar in his stead” (7). The centuries since, have informed all of us that equity was not going to be part of the promise kept.

So where is the writer in all of this? Why aren’t we hearing a voice of outrage cast in luminous ectoplasm?

Maybe we’re just too busy trying to baffle ’em with bullsh**t. Or maybe we are afraid we won’t get published if we call it like we see it. Or maybe it’s a little of both.

Chaos is Not Enough

In reading Literary Critic S. T. Joshi’s critical essay on Horror author Peter Straub, I found phrases that seem to apply alarmingly frequently to the modern American ghost story. For example, we too often neglect to “account adequately” for a viable origin of the supernatural element, (Joshi 204), or even occasionally fail to commit to whether the supernatural is even really involved at all, leaving the reader to stew over the reality of events (205), or we sabotage the climax with an anti-climax in some misconstrued attempt to surprise the reader with some misbegotten truth (205). Too often we share what Joshi calls “an awkwardness in writing a plausible conclusion’’ (206), or even a “penchant for happy endings… [including] the complete elimination of the horror, whether it be natural or supernatural” (207).

Why are we doing this? And if it isn’t ignorance or ineptitude, is it fear?

In my opinion, Joshi nailed all of our coffins closed with one essay. American ghost stories today come across as lazily conceived, half-baked, over-anticipated opportunities for special effects. And if you love ghost stories – really love them – you know that the worst always happens in your own head.

The classics were written with this very awareness. We were not plagued with mundane details, the minutiae of ordinary life and boring characters designed to lull us into a false sense of security… because why pay to read what we all already live? Yet it seems we can’t stop ourselves. And the result is mind-numbing; we see more and more ghost story fiction that seems to be taking its tradition from screenwriting in place of Literature, utilizing the idea of the mind-as-camera, foisting us –willing or otherwise – into the long preamble of a supernatural event being developed as we read, absent of creative control and abandoning all hope of Literary intent.

Once again I discovered useful and appropriate phrasing within the context of another Joshi essay, this time on Robert Aickman, addressing the need for logic in supernatural fiction. Because I also see the obvious suspension of logic being used as an excuse for “mystifying” the reader, or dazzling the reader with alleged arcane detail that simply has no connection to events that the reader can make or appreciate…as though making the reader murmur, “I don’t get it” is supposed to imply that the writing is “deep” when it is just convoluted.

Therefore, I find myself in agreement with Joshi in his quote of L.P. Hartley, “a master of weird fiction…” who stated, “The ghost story writer’s task is the more difficult [i.e., than the detective story writer’s] for not only must he create a world in which reason doesn’t hold sway, but he must invent laws for it. Chaos is not enough. Even ghosts must have rules and obey them” (220).

So have we ruined ghost fiction and the story of the haunted house? I think not, but it’s time for a change from our current trajectory. We have explored this spur of the track as far as it goes and it is a dead end (no pun intended). We have to stop the chaotic dance that makes our spectral fiction read like a cartoon and Hollywood salivate. We are fiction writers, and our tradition is to poke the beast, not bribe it.

Is our haunted house really the American Dream? Maybe. But nobody likes a whiner, and right now, to write our ghosts disguised as mourning the ease of access to the American Dream which was itself a unique phenomenon in an unrepeatable period of American history is no less than whining. Our ghosts are better than that, and so are we. Maybe we should look at the poetic justice of it… And channel ghosts – real ghosts – in much smaller, age-appropriate houses.

Now that would be terrifying.

 

REFERENCES

Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, c1999.

Bennett, Giliian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

Joshi S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2001.

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa. I Remember You: a Ghost Story. New York: Minotaur Books, c2012.

Women in Horror Month: Have Women Changed What We Read?


Just in time for Women in Horror Month, I happened across an interesting statement that women now dominate the publishing industry. I also find it interesting that this has led to vocal concerns about what this change in leadership means.

Here in the genre of Horror fiction, we have been blessed with two very capable female editors for some time now – specifically Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran. They are at the top of our game, shaping and representing the genre in so many positive ways. How, I wondered, could this be a problem?

The Power of the Press, or How Many Tentacles Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

We may not like it, but it is publishers and the editors who decide what books and stories will be found in print. They are the kings and queens of content, representing the very censorship they espouse to abhor; they are star-makers, for good or ill.

Particularly in the Horror genre, the impression has been left in many women’s minds that this is male territory. We tend to believe that we are on a slanted playing field, and that it is either men or women who work under them who are holding us back. We default to Young Adult fiction, slip over to thrillers, hide behind ghost stories. We make excuses for our failures, when maybe what we need to do is re-dedicate ourselves to fitting into the genre…Because like the footprint of Big Foot, evidence that things have not improved has been lately harder to find. Part of the reason is indeed related to changes at the top, bottom, and sides of our genre.

It may come as a surprise for many to realize that women have been historically knee-deep in the publishing industry for a very long time – as writers, editors, and publishers. But what most don’t realize is that women really were formerly relegated to working with women’s writings and/or under male supervision, and continually berated by male Critics. It is only now that women have infiltrated the entire industry. This has to mean something. Female editors – tending often to be readers if not writers themselves – have their own reasons for wanting to contribute to the evening out of that playing field. Surely this means change.

And at long last, there is more than one tentacle wrapped around that light bulb and vocal witnesses holding the chair.

According to David Comfort in his book An Insider’s Guide to Publishing (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, c2013), “Publishing today is a matriarchy. There are many reasons for this…nearly two thirds of books are purchased by women. A recent Associated Press survey found that they account for 80 percent of the fiction market” (190).

What effect has this had on that fiction market, the reader, the quality of our contemporary fiction? How has this affected our genre of Horror? The mind boggles at the possibilities…

In the earlier days of fiction, women were more often content generators – writers of specialized fiction for specialized magazines and newspapers – and support personnel for much of the same. In those days, every task, hobby, and function was sharply divided between the world of men and the world of women.  One did not stray out of one’s circle of influence; one had a role to maintain, a reputation to keep. Specific books were written largely by women, for women. Women had Sensation Fiction, men had Literature.

That in itself affected who read what, what saw print and under what circumstances. So doesn’t it make logical sense that if conditions have changed and more women are in positions of publishing and editorial power that what the reader reads and who does the reading would also have changed? Is that why more women are reading fiction than men? Or is there a more insidious reason?

According to Comfort, “[Waxman agent Jason Pinter] suggests that perhaps men read less because the titles available to them are chosen by women agents and editors” (190).

The implication is that women in publishing have pirated the genres and groomed them into – heaven forbid – women’s fiction.

Not that women don’t get it. Women have been reading what men prepared for them for years… But it sounds a bit like the shoe pinches on the other foot.

But what if they are right? What if women are changing the genres?

Is this a bad thing? Wasn’t it time to change the light bulb?

What’s Good for the Goose Fits Nicely in Tentacles

I find the question most interesting. Most genres naturally slant toward one gender or the other in content. We don’t see much male Romance nor Romance written by males, we tend to maintain male-dominated Science Fiction (both in authors and protagonists), we evenly divide Sherlock Holmes from female PI’s and police detectives in Crime and Mystery. In Horror it still trends toward male protagonists, and male-authored novels except in the traditional ghost story sub-genre, which flirts with Gothic Romance when it doesn’t go all Lord Dunsany.

Sure there are exceptions. But it is the rarity of the instance that causes the speculations to rise. One crack does not the glass ceiling break.

Who can say why – despite more women being in “control” of more published works – that more men are known by name in the genre than women? Are men performing better? Or are we simply predisposed to believe that out of habit? And if we do blindly believe it, has it affected our reading and publishing choices?

Sometimes it has to do with genre formula. Sometimes it has to do with how the Muse dictates it. Sometimes it is more a matter of convenience or character believability.

But one fact remains true: there remains a clear reluctance in men to read female-generated fiction in male-dominated genres. Why is this, and do men have a point when they interpret women’s writings as prose only women can identify with or feminist psychobabble?

When women write, are we not writing through a feminine perspective that has an exclusive feel? Is it because as women writers we automatically assume that men won’t even pick up our stories, let alone like them? In angst, do we just go on and write for that default female audience?

Audience and our awareness of it is very important – even in fiction…maybe especially in fiction. I have begun to wonder if there should be – at some point – a time when Feminist fiction is outdated, outmoded, and no longer needed. But then I am reminded that despite advances in hiring women in publishing and having two awesome women editing Horror fiction, we have not yet quite arrived in Horror, although we are ever so much closer. Some of our number are still learning to think better of ourselves for a reason. And maybe just maybe that means male readers are right, and we are still not mastering the universal voice we need to have in our entire body of female-authored fiction. Maybe we are accidentally on purpose ignoring our potential male audience.

As a woman, I constantly ask myself: why is it that I can read a male-authored story with a male protagonist in a male situation and still identify with that protagonist and still like that author, yet many female authored stories alienate even me? What are we doing differently? And why is it that sometimes it doesn’t matter?

Maybe it has more to do with the writer’s intended audience than we want to admit. Doesn’t reading opposite gender-slanted stories seem awkward? Don’t we quickly and unapologetically put them down?

And does it make a difference if a writer believes everyone and anyone will read his or her words on a deeply subconscious, molecular level? If that belief is reinforced by an anonymous if not general consensus?

I think that men have a valid difference in their reading preferences, because as a woman writer and reader of Horror fiction, so do I. From sentence structure to pace, from content to protagonist, men prefer their fiction differently than most women. Genders tend to process experiences differently, so doesn’t it make sense that genders would read and relate them differently as well?

Women tend to prefer background and character development. Men tend to prefer action and character tests. Women are generally satisfied with the suggestion of violence, men generally want nothing sugar-coated. Women often value the details of sex, men very frequently want the whole romantic thing left to the imagination…even if every cover illustration suggests otherwise. Men are visual, women are intellectual. We’ve heard it all before…

These are all arguments formulated in earlier times that still have at least a germ of truth to them.

So what do we do with that? Does it mean that woman (by their professional ascension) have ruined men’s fiction?

I don’t tend to think so. Particularly in Horror, we have been long overdue for more Literary influence in the genre – especially in American Horror. Women have either brought that concern with them, or it coincidentally arrived at the same time as the New Critic – but either way, women have always trended toward the classics and Gothic Romance from our English Literary roots. As a result, what I see in female editing is a distinct trend of appreciation for craft and well-constructed stories which meshes nicely with male editorial preference for capably executed storytelling. We seem ever closer to the proper blend of homogenization that will truly elevate our genre.

But I do believe that we need that balance of male and female editors and publishers. Too many male editors is the reason so many women had legitimacy issues in our writing past. Isn’t it logical that at least subliminally there might be a little payback in play?

Women have been saying for years that if women are reading and writing more Horror, isn’t it at least interesting that more men than women tend to find honorable mention, if not publication?

To which many men retort, then they should write better Horror…and which may or may not be right.  It’s the statistic that is interesting. Especially if men do as Mr. Pinter theorizes and avoid female written, female-edited stories in any genre.

Horror, then, is an interesting genre in which to study the potential differences in the ways the genders read and write. Horror thrives upon the emotions that orbit violence – implied or otherwise. How that information is relayed does seem to depend on gender.

Raised By Women. With Tentacles.

One reason we shouldn’t be too alarmed by this trend of more women identified as contributing agents in the world of fiction publishing and another reason we shouldn’t feel threatened by it, is that women typically raise the bulk of us. Women teach us our first words, introduce us to books and storytelling, read to us, teach us to read and write, weave the folktales, myths and legends (both urban and urbane), even planting the seeds of our first childhood Horrors – losing Mom, not fitting in, being bullied, being chased by night monsters…

If we have any exposure to Literature, most likely we have Moms and the heavily female educational system to thank for it. We also have them to thank for the rebels who write superheroes and bloodthirsty monsters, romance and westerns, aliens and sleuths. Because whether we write to please them or to spite them, we write what we write because of their imagined presence somewhere in our minds.

And there is good news for those who fear a heavy female contingent of editors and what they might bring to the table.

Women, by and large, have been more lenient in their judgment about what people want to read versus what Critics want written. Women tend to sense that there is room for all of us on the playground. Some of this has been because women have at times found they were hazed a bit harder than male counterparts. Check any canon list and you will still find more male names than female ones. This doesn’t mean women don’t write as well as men generally, but it does mean many women are more comfortable in the subgenres and that many Critics of the past have found more to praise in men’s work Literarily than that of women.

Yet one cannot descend too deeply into that argument before one bumps up against the reality that those Critics were men of their time, and subject to the automatic belief that women did not have particularly educated thoughts, that women were not capable of critical thinking, and should not trouble their fragile minds and mental stability with complicated thoughts that distracted from domestic responsibilities. How, in their universe, could any woman write anything with Literary depth?

It has taken ever newer generations of Critics to realize the narrowness of that thinking, and to value the voice of Feminism in fiction – the inescapable cry for equality for race, religion, class, and gender, the Literary representative of the underprivileged, the marginalized, the missing and the forgotten, the children and the aged.

Isn’t it fascinating that so many women also labor in areas that resonate with equality for all? For instance, consider the field of Library Science, where there is always an endless battle against censorship, and the right of all people, all classes and all genders to read and write…

Inequality still lurks, even with the best of many men’s intentions. The proof remains in the pudding…pay discrepancies and fewer women in the board rooms are merely the most visible evidence. It is not much different in the world of writing. We still have a way to go.

Why else do women clutch at pseudonyms and anonymity in their writing if it is not a vain attempt to be judged merely upon writing talent? And if a body senses it, is not at least a ghost of it still there?

Times change. And part of that change is the reconsideration of genre writing as a potential source of some Literary writing. This is good for women and men. It means we are a little bit closer to looking at writing instead of who wrote it… (Pardon me, my Post-Structuralism is showing…)

But the most important thing is that if women have raised the bulk of all writers, why wouldn’t most of them edit with the same broad considerations? Is there a difference in a female editor who doesn’t like your work and a male editor who doesn’t like it? Aside from the occasional exception, I doubt it. Power of any kind has the added power to corrupt. There are good editors and bad, regardless of gender. Just because they don’t like your style or your particular story doesn’t make them evil…just human…

And if history has shown us anything, it is that women in any industry like variety. They appreciate capably written stories more than gender or subject. They defend the right to write, the right to be read, they loathe censorship.

I’m not sure I philosophically agree with Mr. Comfort. I don’t think we are more female-dominated in the publishing industry, but we are certainly more evenly infused. This cannot help but mean that women do indeed influence what we read. Perhaps they are also improving it. But we also need the input of male editors and agents to complete the transformation. Isn’t that sound biological reasoning?

Change is indeed everywhere. Who is to say if women are behind it, in front of it, or just running alongside? Change is good. And all genres seem in the midst of some kind of elemental metamorphosis that involves the whole publishing animal…

Horror seems to be…and like a pesky wet gremlin, it appears to be growing and getting better because of it. Can’t you feel it in the tentacles, slipping around your legs? Does it really matter if they are girlie tentacles?