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

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

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


“…the first edition published anonymously in London. Mary’s name appears on the second edition…” https://www.pinterest.com/pin/83387030570722338/


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

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

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

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


Conspiracy Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shelley versus Shelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Consider also what it was to be nineteen in 1816. Life expectancy hovered around 40 years… (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/davidjstokes/1800.htm and http://longevity.about.com/od/longevitystatsandnumbers/a/Longevity-Throughout-History.htm) This means that even a morose teenager had some measure of right to be contemplating death and its meaning, because our Mary would have rightfully assumed she was at middle age.

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

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


Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How incredibly sad. And how incredibly bigoted and sexist.

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

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

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

Quit trying to shove Mary in the attic.

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Girling Up Horror All Over the Place

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Still think you haven’t heard of her?

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


Author, Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[and further that]

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This remained so until her death at 81.

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


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

Even so, perhaps you are wondering…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Buzwell, Greg. “Daphne du Maurier and the Gothic tradition.” Retrieved 1/31 from http://www.dumaurier.org/menu_page.php?id=122

Crace, John. “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature. Retrieved 1/25/2018 from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/20/rebecca-daphne-du-maurier-classic-literature

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

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

House, Christian. “Daphne du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy.” Retrieved 1/15/2018 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10248724/Daphne-du-Maurier-always-said-her-novel-Rebecca-was-a-study-in-jealousy.html

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




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

What is it about clowns?

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

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

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


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

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

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


Clown Kachina (Koshari)

The Clown As Trickster

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

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

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


African clown (Ogbo)

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Clown as Allegory

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

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

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

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

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

Continues Williams:

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

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

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


Medieval European Clown

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

Is this why we find clowns neatly tucked into Horror?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this was true until about 1950.


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

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

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

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

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

And child psychologist Patricia Doorbar goes on to clarify:

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

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


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

The Age of Disposability was upon us.

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

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


John Wayne Gacy, 1976

The Return to Creepy

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


The Wasco Clown, 2014. http://www.huhmagazine.co.uk/7834/clowns-are-wandering-california-at-night-and-no-one-knows-why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




BBC News. “Hospital Clown Images ‘Too Scary’” January 15, 2008. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7189401.stm

Brady, Tara. “No Laughing Matter: Why Are We So Terrified of Clowns?” The Irish Times. Sept. 9, 2017. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/no-laughing-matter-why-are-we-so-terrified-of-clowns-1.3209215

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey. Pdf excerpt retrieved 10/31/2017 from http://podcasts.shelbyed.k12.al.us/shutchings/files/2015/05/TheHeroJourney.pdf

Little, Becky. “A Brief History of Creepy Clowns.” Sept 13, 2017. Retrieved 10/31, 2017 from http://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-creepy-clowns

Williams, E.A. “Bakhtin and Borat: the Rogue, the Clown and the Fool in Carnival Film.” Philament 20(2015) : Humor. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from http://www.philamentjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/20_WILLIAMS_150204.pdf




Good, Evil & Supernatural Horror: Does What You Believe Color Your Fiction?

I once read an essay (now long lost) that suggested Catholic Horror writers wrote better Horror…

I don’t remember the argument or the examples, but the question has stayed with me well past my own conversion to Catholicism. I deny, of course, that I converted for the Horror. But it is fun to say. And it also means this is a question that has dogged my reading and writing career.

Is it true? Do Catholics write better Horror? And more importantly, does what you believe affect not only choices you make in writing Horror, but the quality of the stories you tell?


The Question of Faith

One of the most interesting facets of Horror fiction is that it perpetually asks: what is the relevance of faith?

Modern characters are often nonreligious, agnostic or atheistic, and are left defenseless to confront the evils of the world – up to and including the demonic – all without the slightest understanding of the immensity of the situation. This is a blessing to Hollywood, which gets to explore all manner of special effects on the way to the protagonist’s discovery that whatever it is, it is directly from Hell, and there is no cure for the evil coming for them…

And it makes things easier for the writer, who doesn’t have to worry about knowing obscure and arcane facts, who can “learn” right along with their characters, and who can feel equally “safe” in making up solutions that eliminate or “postpone” the problem – even if it means passing the evil onto someone else – preferably a minor antagonist who “deserves” it.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have all manner of “reality” ghostbusting television shows to thank for replacing that void which not only religion, but folk and fairy lore used to occupy. We can refer or defer to them as the “authority” on how supernatural things happen, and even lessen the importance of why.

We are innocent, after all – all of us. We never, ever deserve the evil that roams the world as punisher.

But isn’t this delivery of supernatural fiction from a position of ignorance the reason modern Horror is more two dimensional than ever? Do we need a belief system in order to “dress” the details of a real religious crisis?

Is the problem that we no longer believe in a real religious crisis?

I have wondered about this for a long time – especially since I left my own Protestant church with a crisis of faith about the same time that a good deal of mainstream America was doing the same – the 1970’s. And one has only to ask “what are the main Protestant denominations today?” to see what the national restructuring of faith resulted in – a loss of consistency, a loss of definable doctrine greater than sola scriptura – or God’s Word alone.

Yet the Catholic Church was not immune from parishioner defection.

Everyone, it seemed, was having a crisis of faith – not only at the time when science and technology was again on the rise – but at the time when a U.S. President could be assassinated, when a Civil Rights leader could be murdered in the light of day, when our own government was caught in lies that went back centuries, and the first cracks in the American Dream became visible.

Pair that with the teenage years of the Baby Boom generation, and there was a whole lot of questioning going on. And churches of all faiths were caught unaware and reacted with indignant shock.

Evil 2

But this never meant we stopped craving religion, or some proof of it.

And for that proof, we cast our gaze to the very thing that robbed us of our faith: evil…the kind of evil that seems in its tenacity and freedom from judgment to run rampant in the world, savaging humanity without an apparent comment from God.

Why is God silent, if indeed he is there?

The question has haunted generations of agnostics who want more, of atheists who require tangible proof to believe more, and of the faithful who kneel in churches in the face of tragic events. And where Literature has long explored the theme, Horror has reveled in it.

Clearly humanity needs an answer, if not God Himself. We would not ponder and debate the question of His existence if we did not need Him in the most primal way – ask any psychologist, sociologist, or priest.

Faith is the scab over the old wound that never heals, the one we pick at, and point at, and deride others about for choosing faith, or choosing no faith, or the wrong faith.

Of course in our genre, we get to take matters of religion to the extremes. But we do so because the question of faith is that important to us – whether as witnesses to human arrogance, or as victims of those seeming above any laws. Clearly we need to know there is judgment of some sort… and if we can’t get God to respond, we will turn to the Devil.


The Devil as Default

We have long sought out evil in an attempt to flush out God.

It is the most basic attempt to tease God out of Heaven, to prove His existence to us, and more importantly, to prove our worthiness, our special place in His universe.

But we have also done so by placing evil in the laboratory and under the microscope in the hope of understanding ourselves – if not excusing ourselves.

Says Susan Neiman in her book Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, c2002): “Exploring evil as historical phenomenon becomes part of our efforts to make the world more comprehensible in theory and acceptable in practice” (Neiman 44).

Knowing how to recognize evil might offer us the opportunity to eradicate it, to give us hints on how to avoid its demonic gaze. So we attempt to define it by assigning categories of human behavior to it.

The irony is not lost on Horror writers, who often then weave the demonic right back into humanity. Who’s the Devil here? And why isn’t Satan the perfect vehicle for all of our troubles?

The answer is: because if we believe in the Devil, we are also wont to believe in God. And today, that equates for many to simple superstition.

But then Horror asks (when it is really good Horror)… what if religion is real?

As though such a question represents the purist, the most preachy among us, bad or weak Horror has therefore grabbed onto the Devil by his horns and thrust him into every subgenre and every trope sacred to our genre as though to ward off any further questions.

Today it is never just a witch, but the Devil’s personal favorite. It is never just a ghost but a demon from the Devil’s right hand. It is never just a werewolf but a personal brush with a hound from Hell. It is never just a mass murderer but one possessed. It is never just a vampire, but one bewitched by the witch who is the Devil’s personal favorite… and so it goes… ad nauseum.

Today, evil just IS…

We have no real relation to it, other than to be an innocent victim of it.

Whether we are trying to explain a terrorist act or a weak fiction plot, it is just easier to drag the Devil into it. It gives us permission to become hapless victims and righteous soldiers. Says Neiman, “Belief in Providence presumes that we are innocent long after we’ve begun to look very suspicious.” (199)

We have completely missed the message of evil.


The Exorcist and the Battle of Good and Evil

Of course, Horror took up the challenge. And the reasons for the success of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is not only why we have some pretty awesomely scary Horror to look back on today, but it is also why modern writers stay away from religious questions almost entirely in contemporary Horror fiction.

Blatty, it appeared, went just a little bit too far… not in his monster –the Devil was great in this on (and was even able to send his right hand demon for one of the first times in modern Horror fiction and as a result it was unique, and a worthy surprise for Horror audiences and lapsed Christians everywhere) – but because Blatty made the mistake of not letting the story speak for itself.

As Horror Critic S.T. Joshi says, “the sole function of his writing is to reconcile us to Catholicism…” (Joshi 61)

Blatty framed his characters in the exact moment of time in which we were living: many Americans in 1971 were no longer members of any church, even when we considered ourselves to be Christian. A growing segment of the population were self-identifying as agnostic, and many others of us were flirting with atheism while embracing our pseudo-enlightenment, rejecting the beliefs of our parents who we were coming to see as parochial and even ignorant. To a Catholic writer like Blatty, something needed to be done to herd us all back to the fold… to revisit the issue and necessity of faith.

While it is not so obvious in the film, the book reveals more of his intent… seeming “preachy” while it attempts to take a skeptical, modern reader and explain how true evil has no scientific explanation, and no solution other than what God can provide through established religion and faith. Says Joshi, “Blatty so insistently pushes his theology in our faces” that it virtually bankrupts any aesthetic value of his work (Joshi 61).

This is a consequence of Blatty’s attempt to demonstrate – much to many readers’ chagrin – that the atheistic mother of the possessed child has no choice but to exhaust all of the “logical” and “scientific” explanations for possession until the character must in abject desperation concede that only God and her reclaimed faith can save her child.

This is exactly where we all were with religion: we did it if we did it once a week, and the rest of the time we were duly enlightened.

In the book, there is the usual parade of psychiatrists, medical doctors, medications and therapies which because of our modern resistance to the metaphysical, must be explored in order to prove their irrelevance to the supernatural problem. We must be made to see ourselves in our faithless world, too busy and too oblivious to consider the truth that humanity is the unwavering target of evil. And indeed, the reader goes on this very tedious journey with her.

Blatty’s purpose, of course, is to show that true religious events are matters of faith – not science.

And to some degree, he succeeded. The message was not lost on many Catholics. And the possibility of demonic possession delivered upon an innocent child led many Protestants to rethink their baptism-as-lifetime-guarantee position. But it did not drive us all back into the pews. Instead, it ushered in the New Age and a re-visitation of spiritualism and tinkering with the arcane.

It also led to a certain reluctance among Horror writers to write anything which would label them as “preachy.” And so began the mad dash to found footage and staring for hours at empty rooms in the hopes of seeing a swinging chandelier or a door closing ever so slowly… the Devil became the default explanation for everything that could go wrong in a Horror novel.

But ironically, we seem to prefer that the Devil cannot be defeated…

We just don’t seem to want to believe in a God who makes us discover faith in a room full of demons.

We don’t want to bring in Christianity.

We don’t want anything that reeks of superstition to taint our big boy Rambo image, so we feign ignorance of religion and make the secret rites of the Catholic Church a rental option.

Fix and forget it. That’s our modern motto.

Never mind that our robotic obsession with living in a bubble might be abnormal, and the battle between good and evil, the normal. That would be too scary….and preachy.

It seems sad to me that we have ignored the greater message which does persist behind Blatty’s desire for a mass return to faith: that some things are just beyond our control because maybe-just-maybe we are not the center of the universe after all.

Yet we struggle with the concept of anyone – God or exorcist or deliverance minister – being the final answer to our problems. We are, it seems, too great a set of control freaks to let that be a default in our fiction. We’d rather just have the demon who cannot be completely banished, the mystery we cannot completely uncover. So we hide behind extinct or obscure cultures, and – if all else fails – we make things up.

This is true for Catholics and Protestants alike. Yet… do we write differently because of our own intimate beliefs?


Catholics, Protestants, and Atheists… Oh My!

Horror has always consisted of a diverse field of writers.

With regard to that essay I referenced at the beginning, I have not found one religious (or nonreligious) persuasion to be better or more prolific than another.

Do I think a belief system or lack of one influences writers of Horror? Definitely yes: whether we write to obscure or promote our own beliefs, or in fear of having those beliefs ridiculed or to spite our parents or Critics, or because we do not believe in one religion or in perhaps even in God, religion cannot help but impose its shadow upon our genre.

Do I think it makes us better or worse as writers?

I think the temptation to overreach is there, whether a writer subconsciously mocks or feels mocked or anticipates mockery. Religion must be entered into “just so” in our genre, lest it spoil the tale. As a result, our very personal position on religion or lack of it can affect our work for better or worse.

But I don’t think it is the determiner of our fates as Horror writers…although perhaps it will contribute something to style.

For example, in Horror, we have the Reformation to thank for separating the ways Protestants and Catholics look at the supernatural, starting with ghosts. Says Gillian Bennett in an introduction to the Seventeenth Century chapter of her book The Best 100 British Ghost Stories:

“Catholics and Protestants agreed that the souls of bad people would not be allowed to escape from Hell and the souls of good people would not wish to leave Heaven. The only place restless spirits could be coming from was therefore Purgatory, which was conceived of as a sort of holding pen where souls could be purged of sin. It followed that if there was no Purgatory, there could be no ghosts; but if ghosts could be proved to exist, the existence Purgatory was confirmed.” (Bennett 15)

Therefore Catholics believed in ghosts, Protestants did not. Toss in the modern reluctance to consider ghosts to be anything other than demons imitating loved ones to gain access to the soul, and we lose Catholics as well…but only publicly.

In private, we all ponder the existence of ghosts, and even play at “busting” them.

Yet our religious training in where we place them and whether they are or ever were human changes the way we write ghosts and demons and influences the belief of whether or not they can or should be driven to Hell…right along with who has the religious authority to do the driving…

So yes, our religious beliefs can and do affect how we tell a tale.

As an observer, I also believe Catholics are wont to write “deeper” in the area of religious problems like death and grief, ghosts and possession. I think the possibilities that await those who stray too far from God hold a certain terror for Catholics that Protestants do not anticipate or seem willing to entertain, and maybe that has to do with our early religious upbringings. But I think Protestants write better modern characters and situational Horror. And I think atheists write better Weird and subversive monsters than any of us.

Indeed, most of Weird fiction’s prominent and founding writers have been atheists according to Joshi. And many supernatural/spectral writers are Catholic. And of course many of todays’ giants are Protestants. So while religion or lack of it is most certainly an influence, it is not an indicator of success or failure – only a comfort zone for the kind of monsters we choose to write.

Most of us writing in Horror have lapsed in our faith a time or two, whether we were able to translate our own mystic fears and worldviews into our fiction or not, whether we eventually abandoned it altogether or not. It is the nature of the Horror genre that we question reality and our place in it. So it is also natural that we question surreality and its place in our world, that we poke at boundaries and wonder about it if something dares poke back.

Horror is not and should not be about driving the masses back into the arms of a loving God or into experimenting with the supernatural or declaring ourselves proudly above religion entirely. But it is about allowing ourselves the right to believe… even if it is only long enough to drive a demon out of this world, or to experience the what if of the moment.

It is about questioning, and sometimes…discovery – even discoveries we didn’t want to make and don’t know what to do about.

Not because Catholics or Protestants or atheists might write better Horror fiction, but because if the monstrous unseen really is out there, then the monstrous human is not the worst thing to worry about. And whether religion is superstition or not, some of us would rather not contemplate a world where we are completely, excruciatingly alone.

After all, there would be no one left to read our work…



Bennett, Gillian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire, Great Britain: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

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

Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternate History of Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, c2002.


In Search of the Interdimensional Beings of Horror: Where Are Our Writers of Color?

Most of the time, when we read Horror, we are simply looking to be spooked – to be creeped out, to be disturbed. That superficial-ism is largely the damage done by the 1970’s Horror Boom, when we rediscovered how very fun it was to turn out the lights and scare ourselves. I was there, reading and keeping myself awake nights by suspiciously regarding shadows that seemed to move when they should not.

It never occurred to me to look beyond the pages of the books I was reading to the race of the author, or to wonder why minorities – if they appeared at all – appeared primarily as characters in cameos, as early-plot monster-fodder, as the sinister representatives of secret, exotic societies of monster worshippers – but hardly ever as writers.

It simply never occurred to me to wonder why

Waking Up the Sleeping Princesses

It is like minority voices and/or those of people of color belong to some Lovecraftian interdimensional place in undefined space, beings who we cannot see, do not engage with, and cannot relate to except when they reach through that thin veil of our reality to hurt or insult us.

But it also like we have fallen asleep in our own fairy tale.

Hmm…. Perhaps WE are the problem?

No, of course that couldn’t be it; after all, the Publishing Industry has long been telling us why things are inevitably the way things are – because the voices of color “simply aren’t telling stories The Market will bear…”


“In terms of my own justifications, I find marketing interesting—that’s in Apex Hides the Hurt and John Henry Days. The marketing of culture—how we relate to it, how it finds us—is something that preoccupies me.” Colson Whitehead https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/10/colson-whitehead-on-zombies-zone-one-and-his-love-of-the-vcr/246855/

Oddly, when minority writers turn up writing Horror stories, they are inevitably consigned to the general fiction section, pitted against the whole of Literary Writing as though it has already been decided that minority writers don’t write Horror; therefore minority writers must be Literary instead. So minority-written Horror becomes all about “slumming it” in the genres.

Way to insult the both of us – genre writers and Literary writers. Are we supposed to be jealous or critical of these “outsiders” come to create in our genre? And why is anyone making it matter?

Rest assured, ‘Publishing has its reasons,’ we are informed; most of them dollar-informed reasons.

And indeed, in Publishing there are many arguments made and offered up for why minority writers are not as prominent. For example, we are often told not as many of them are writing. But isn’t that in defiance of where so many of our stories came from?

What are the odds, I wonder… that so many minorities do not produce published writers because the seed of storytelling is not in their genes…

Talk about your fairy tales.

And to brand all minority writers as Literary because they can’t help but write about minority experience which includes any number of fine Literary Theories, is – well – awfully racist sounding.

Are we revising minority voices out of our fiction?

Every culture in the world has stories. Every culture in the world has had them ripped off in some manner or other by modern-day published writers… From The One Thousand and One Nights, to the Aboriginal Dreamtime to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, we have been ripping off campfire stories since Homo Erectus rubbed sticks together.

No, I cannot believe that there are not people of color telling stories meant to be heard, inspired as every writer is by older, traditional tales. Right now, as they always have been.

We are also told that minority writers tend to tell stories that are not-inclusive of the bulk of The Market… But isn’t that in itself the purpose of good writing – to write to and for an audience that is known? To educate the rest?

I mean it seems racist yet again to assume that I as The Market’s pristine representative want to be catered to, and see no merit in “Other” or “Ethnic” writing.

Aren’t writers supposed to speak to an audience they know firsthand and cherish? To provide them with a warm blanket of prose and poetry with which to endure and navigate the world? Pardon you for speaking for me… someone smart enough to recognize that the work in question was not written specifically for me, and here I am the Other, open to giving a story its own space to inhabit…

Furthermore, are Publishers really going to suggest that there aren’t enough minorities to support (at the very least) a healthy niche Market of publishing if They are not as The Market seeks to define Them?

And why is anything in today’s business environment a failure if it at least breaks even or makes a modest profit? And what about all of those sermons to writers about the quality of the work for the good of humanity if Publishers won’t stand behind it, loss accepted?

Then we are told that (just like with our own rejected writing) only the Best find publication – as though we should overlook but subordinate the implication that minority writers tend (like all of us currently rejected) to not be good writers.

But how many really good writers do you commonly encounter who cannot or will not fit the whimsical parameters of a fickle, one-trick-pony Market? Does artistic choice make a writer truly “bad” or “unmarketable”? Or just make The Market and its machinery lazy and unimaginative?

No More Excuses: Now We’re Talking Kids, Futures, and Dreams

We are too often told that their children do not read, and so they do not read as teens and then as adults… therefore, there is no real Market for any of their fiction which may surface, or it is too negligible to finance.

Now this really ticks me off.

And which summons the paradox: do minority children read less, or read less when they discover they are not being invited to participate as readers? And then would they read more if we gave them more relevant stories to read? Would that in turn lead to more adult readers? And fan the already hot teen market?

Clarifies Jonathan Gottschall in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “Children the world over delight in stories and start shaping their own pretend worlds as toddlers. Story is so central to the lives of young children that it comes close to defining their existence. What do little kids do? They do story.” (7) And eventually, they do us. So why are we processing writing through a filter of white culture that ignores all others?

And exactly why the heck do we always expect minority children to identify with white characters, and believe it either doesn’t happen or shouldn’t happen the other way around?


Debbie Weldon/AP http://www.phillyvoice.com/boy-trying-trick-teacher-haircut-goes-viral

“In this Feb. 28, 2017, photo, 5-year-olds Jax, left, and Reddy smile after Jax got a haircut similar to his friend’s at the Great Clips in Louisville, Ky. The story about the two boys and their racial harmony went viral online after Jax told his mother that he wanted to get his haircut like Reddy so that their teacher wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. “

Ah, don’t tell me children don’t get the real story…

But the rumors don’t stop there. They go on to sprout the theory that even if more minorities did write stories, the Market wouldn’t be able to interpret them – laced as they would be with cultural jargon and slang, and life-situations that The Rest of Us simply could not relate to… like Straight Outta Compton, the message would be lost on The Market, with no chance of Recognition or award; that the characters would not be identified with.

But at what point does something become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Wouldn’t it be truly amazing if we could learn something about each other through our art?

And that quickly, we are right back where we started…campfire myths.

Only this time, the Neanderthals are us.

Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.

The Publishing Industry is first an industry: it aims to protect itself by serving a market it perceives to want certain things.

It self-censors…

Maybe it even believes its own manufactured trends…

But it endlessly quotes what it refers to as “Market Demand” or “Public Interest.” Now, part of this is fairly and rightly rooted in a publisher’s need to make money, because making money allows for the payment of authors, artists, printers, editors, warehouse folk, transportation folk, bookstore folk, library folk, etc. But it is also rooted in a very dated idea of just who “The Public” and “The Market” really is….

For example, we hear how “people don’t read print books anymore” and that “people want certain types of books with certain types of heroes – read: stories about white heroes in white cultural situations…

My life has been so full of white people, I never noticed…Worse, I never noticed that people of color had little choice but to read the same…I’d like to think I was too busy reading, but the unavoidable truth is that somewhere in my own egocentrism, I chose to not-see.

And it is past time we started to realize that there is a whole universe of beings out there that we have been relegating to the fringes of our publishing dimension.

And some of them just might be…gods… Perhaps, crusty, cranky ones like Lovecraft’s versions…but perhaps ones whose voices we need to make us tremble in awe…

I look with the eyes of a white child raised in the 1960’s and 1970’s, whose father fought in Vietnam, and who accidentally encountered a Vietnamese-American writer like Violet Kupersmith, only because someone left her book at the desk to be re-shelved… It was Horror – told the old-fashioned way, cloaked in traditional myth and storytelling.


Her bio: “Her mother’s family fled the country by boat following the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975. Her parents met in Houston, Texas, where her father was a librarian and her mother was living in a convent… Violet attended Mount Holyoke College, where she injured herself many times playing rugby and began writing the ghost stories that would eventually become The Frangipani Hotel.”) http://www.violetkupersmith.com/violet/

I wonder what I am supposed to not-get as a representative of The Market. What was I supposed to resent? Why wasn’t she in my genre? We need voices like hers.

I get it.

I got it.

I loved it.

Like it or not, our world is changing. We are homogenizing, we are beginning to see enough value in each other that color is beginning to fill our families with rich, new cultural diversity. You can rejoice, or move to another planet.

The question becomes:

Are “people” not reading anymore because less people are exclusively living the white experience? Do today’s potential readers want to see themselves in books that are NOT being published?

One has to wonder. Even I wonder… And working in a bookstore, I can testify that yes, it appears that Publishers are right, and our customer base is largely white…

But then who wants to come into a 50,000 square foot bookstore and be directed to one tiny little section devoted to history, or sociology/cultural affairs, or psychicly deduce which writers of the rows of stacks are of a given color, and which of those were “allowed” to depict true characters and real experiences?

Listening to the Flutes and the Chanting

What is blatantly clear to me, nested all comfortable in my Horror genre, is that writers of color – especially in Horror – are excruciatingly hard to find.

From educational disparities, to vacuums of encouragement and mentoring, to “pressure” from the Ivory Tower (pun intended) to congratulate the self on “rising above and never looking back to save the drowning people who will surely overturn the boat,” people of color face unique challenges – additional challenges to being published that those of us in preferred shades of color do not.

And we don’t want to admit it because doing so makes us feel like that much more of a failure for having the advantage and still not getting the job done…

This is a tool our own race uses against us constantly to exploit our own sense of inadequacy, and to keep our heads turned, our noses to the altar stone. We are teased by an implied if not implicit wink and a nod… even as we are rejected. Always it is the fault of …The Market, the one god in this dimension whose whims select but a few for Eternal Fame.


Daniel José Older photographed by Ashley Ford.


Says Daniel Jose Older in a wonderful essay on the matter titled, “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”:

“The publishing industry looks a lot like one of those bestselling teenage dystopias: white, and full of people destroying one another to survive.” (238-239)

It’s true: look at how the acolytes of The Market, the would-be priests to the beast, rip apart and publicly dissect even the successes in our industry. Look at the sour grapes and the bitter envy.

Meanwhile, locked outside are writers and readers of color – a whole ‘nother Market…

I don’t tend to think that this is insidiously planned, although I could be wrong. I think we have become insidiously institutionalized to believe that this is the Way Things Are and that Nothing Has Changed. We have been asleep at the wheel , waiting for the kiss of the prince– even if not especially – at the wheel of the Horror Van.

Horror has long been a Literary tool for expressing dissent with the norm, with exposing the horrors of real life by the manufacture and exploitation of monsters. It has been the venue for feminism and civil rights, for truth-telling and condemnation of unacceptable social behaviors. So why have the most powerful voices of those issues been largely silenced or minimalized to the point of pulps and limited interest publications? Why do we label authors and not works? Why do we not trust readers to find the works designed to speak to them?

I can’t help but think this is a self-perpetuated problem inherent to the Publishing industry.

Older continues, “The publishing industry, people often say as if it’s a gigantic revelation, needs to make money and as such, it responds to The Market, and people don’t buy books about characters of color. This is updated marketing code for ‘you people don’t read,’ and its used to justify any number of inexcusable problems in literature…” up to and including commentary such as “The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book…because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover – or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way…” (237)

Older further states that when agents and editors are typically asked what they might do to mend the lack of diversity in publishing, the conversation degrades into a blame-the-victim mentality, deftly managed with comments such as, “the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected” which as Older clarifies, “is the language of privilege – the audacity of standing at the top of the mountain you made on the backs of others and then yelling at people for being on the bottom.” (237-238)

Where publishing argues that people of color do not read, perhaps the substantiating argument is backward. Perhaps people of color would read if there was something out there that they could relate to.

More importantly, why isn’t it important to publishing to inspire people of color to read, to improve reading scores because reading stories that matter to them naturally leads to reading more, more often and better.

We must admit, there is nothing – and I mean nothing – more frightening to white privilege than an articulate, well-read person of color who can aim their vocabulary with laser precision at issues of social concern. But it seems sad to think that this is why “of 3,200 children’s books published in2013, just 93 were about black people according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Books Center at the University of Wisconsin.” (236)

And yet if the question is occurring to me, I have to wonder what people of color are thinking…

So how do we fix this…really fix this?



Dimensions Are Right Next Door

Unfortunately, the editors and agents may be mostly right. Change will have to start with writers of color, and the motivations of their intended audience. But they are wrong to think it stops there.

It stops with US. It stops when we don’t see the potential rising right in front of us and give it a chance.

In an essay by Laura Tohe titled “The Stories From Which I Come,” we see how what we start in the classroom is framed by Publishing choices. Tohe states:

“In the early 1960’s I didn’t read indigenous writers; I didn’t know any existed. Every day at reading time, out came the further monotony of Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot…Hearing and reading stories in English regularly, I thought only non-Indians were writers or could be, even though when I was twelve, I secretly longed to be a writer. What stories could I tell? Who would be interested in my stories? How does one become a writer? Instead I told my parents I wanted to be a pediatrician when I grew up.

I didn’t realize until much later that my writing life really began with my mother’s stories and the stories my relatives told as I was growing up. Not until I graduated from university with a degree in psychology did I stop writing ‘in secret.’“ (176)

Imagine how she might have soared being seen and nurtured as a young writer. And how many others just like her are in classrooms right now, or lost to other “professions” by hopeless default because their writing doesn’t “fit” a myopic, colorblind Market?



I love Horror. I don’t care who writes it, as long as it scares me. I love it when I learn something in addition. I cannot imagine that I am alone, and if even a percentage of The Market as currently defined agrees with me, then why aren’t we all worth courting?

Perhaps publishers are thinking that now is just not the time to take that kind of a chance… But I can’t help thinking maybe it is precisely the time. Here we are in the bonanza of all marginalist times since the 1800’s, with antagonism and horror being done to so many people of color and differing religions and cultures… when coincidentally and suddenly The Market isn’t buying much of anything at all…

Why not give the new majority something to read, to talk about, to inspire and educate the rest of us? And why not market to this Market?

So where are our writers of color? Right beside us… Where they have always been – pushed into an alternate dimension by our own desperate jostling for recognition. The question is more accurately not about where they are, but why isn’t their own voice, their own way of storytelling valued for what it can teach the rest of us?

Pucker up. I don’t know about you, but I feel horrified. And maybe even a little cheated.


Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books, c2012.

Older, Daniel Jose. “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” Manjula Martin, ed. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, c2017.

Tohe, Laura. “The Stories From Which I Come.” Janet Burroway, Ed. A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c2014.

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)


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.


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)


“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)


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.


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.


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.



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.












“Getting” Weird: When a Subgenre is a Subgenre and its Shadow is Over More Than Innsmouth (Part One)

Here’s the question in debate: Is Horror a subgenre of Weird Fiction, or is Weird Fiction a subgenre of Horror?

When I returned to college and began to comprehend the organizational structure of Literature as established by Literary Criticism, I thought it would be fun to apply the substance of what I was learning to Horror. Why? Because I was convinced there was structure in Horror.

There had to be. Right?

But what I found not only surprised me; turned out it was interesting, too…Because Horror – having long been the splinter in the flesh to Literary purists – had only the structure and spurts of structure authors and Critics had sporadically given it. And once we left English soil, American Horror’s plan to re-invent itself instead resulted in a kind of Literary disorientation rife with distracting rumors and its own mythology.

To my surprise I discovered that there was no canon; there was historically no established Criticism by Critics other than essays and articles created to roundly condemn the genre as genre (and its writers by association); and that the very genre name was something even its authors historically argued over.

Horror – as the red-headed-stepchild of speculative fiction – continues to emerge from the darkness in this country, shedding forms as it grows, morphing from one interpretation to the next as it blindly seeks to discover and define itself.

No wonder the Critics are frustrated and our writers seem to wander and careen about the genre…

How then do we have a discussion, let alone a debate? Answer: we listen to the words of our best writers and the constructive comments of new Critics…. Then we all need to participate in the careful examination of points presented.

When Horror Was Horror, or Was It Ever?

Perhaps the first and most surprising thing for this child of the sixties to trip over was the discovery that Horror was not always Horror. In fact, the name “Horror” for the genre was a relatively “recent” attachment. Horror – as we know it – began with names we no longer call it.

Those earlier names made it clear that stories told under the genre umbrella were largely sensational short works designed for quick chills and thrills with their folk roots showing: Ghost Stories, Spectral Fiction, Supernatural Fiction, Thrillers, Tales of Terror, Gothic Fiction… Critics were quick to point out their campfire glow, their dependence on both superstition and the naiveté and/or rural links associated with the illiterate and uneducated masses.

In other words, the genre was considered childish and unsophisticated; it was most certainly not for a mature audience tuned to the marvels of modern scientific thought, and it was not a genre that represented our best profile. And as the genre blossomed at the precise time of the industrial revolution and the birth of technology, it was an unwelcome reminder of times ruled by emotions instead of analytical thought.

So emotion became both the hallmark of and the motivation behind the choice of genre name. The choice seemed likely: Horror was what you were promised in those early publications…. terror…fear…creepy… scary….eerie…frightening….amazing…astounding…unbelievable… indescribable… tales.

The parade of adjectives led directly to the name “Horror.” And it did so because it managed to encompass and corral all of the many subgenres that were developing their own rules and authors. This is not to say that all of those subgenres are subgenres of Horror… but that “Horror” was hung as a name over all of the writings in the genre – whatever its proper name should have been…

We cannot know what would have happened in the vacuum of a printing press-less world. Writers were already sharing and bending terms to their purposes, and perhaps it was Critical derision that resulted in the spotty criteria writers used to define and clarify subgenres. But despite the best efforts of some editors and some writers, terms and definitions began to swim and swirl in the creative currents until many became inseparable from each other.

Meanwhile even as the first publishing boom was happening and pulp dotted the writing landscape, a small detachment of writers began writing something “new”… and they were calling it “Weird.”


It was the emergence of the Weird tale – a proliferation of the strange, the supernatural, the cosmic dominated by unique group of writers who knew their fiction was “different” than the norm, and who did not consider themselves so much “horror” writers that sparked the venom anew of earlier Critics and now hold the academic interest of contemporary Critics.

But something weird happened to the Weird: while it began before Lovecraft, it seemed to culminate with his efforts, thereafter sliding into a combination of hackneyed Literary efforts and Critical disinterest. For Critics today, there is a noticeable pair of bookends surrounding this period, and to at least one modern Critic, the thread that made the Weird so fascinating a kind of story has been all but lost.


Says S.T. Joshi –the most prominent of Literary Critics now laying the Critical groundwork necessary for Literary Criticism in our genre – “It is my impression that what has frequently been termed the ‘ghettoization’ of weird fiction – especially in America – occurred as a direct result of the pulp magazines. All of the standard ‘genres’ we now recognize — mystery, horror, science fiction, western, romance – either grew out of the pulp magazines of the 1920’s (even though the pulps as originally conceived at the turn of the century were by no means specialized in terms of content) or received considerable impetus from them…” And here Joshi asserts “As a result, weird material in particular disappeared almost entirely from mainstream magazines, since there seemed to develop a notion that such material now had a market of its own.” (Joshi-Modern Weird 4)

One has only to look at the assortment of magazines to see the coalescence of our genre into semi-firm molds of subgenre. Early writers had already began to weigh in, discussing in essays exchanged in letters and Amateur Press Associations the nature of what was being written – all as part of the argument that the genre had a glimmer of Literary offerings. But just as things might have been becoming clearer, the paperback was born…and back to the primal mud our genre crawled… and it may have taken the Weird with it.

The official market “tagging” of the genre by publishers as “Horror” sometime in the 1970’s all but obliterated the earlier discussions. Weird fiction – which had its own audience and writers – became an alternative adjective instead of the noun it was intended to be. Publishers – not being Critics – saw a sales-driven mission of lumping everything together into a broad category – whereas Critics and writers are wont to separate and define. Editors were somewhere in the middle, and have been trying to argue their way out for some time.

But perhaps the most damaging and consequential result was what happened to the rest of us… because the publishing boom did something else – instead of enlightening us all to the history and progression of the genre, it simply ceased to clearly define subgenres and instead vomited up a plethora of terms for which none of us had immediate association. No wonder we lost the ability to build on the Weird tradition in this country; we lost our vision of tradition altogether.

Those of us “coming of age” in the genre of the 1970’s and 80’s were awed by the tossing about of terms, certain that those who were using them knew what they meant. We never dreamed that they did not. And it has been the genre nerds who woke us up – the Lovecraft fans, the passionate heirs and curators of the Weird.

While the rest of us were luxuriating in the massive deluge of scary and strange stuff, even pretending we understood the term “Gothic,” we were losing everything we had gained in genre awareness. In this country, it was the Weird fan who kept us grounded by adhering to a bold and determined declaration of ‘genre.’ Those of us not disciples of the Weird were ignorantly adrift in a flotsam of alleged subgenres that shared and cross-pollinated names and distorted conventions.

While Horror was exploding onto the popular fiction scene, it seemed that American writers became disoriented instead of inspired. It did not matter that writers referred to what we now consider classic works; we did not feel the connection to recreate it. If you read American 1980’s Horror, what started out as inspired eventually becomes circular and redundant. Today’s American Horror is still stuck in that rut, prompting many of us as writers and fans to return to Lovecraft and Poe to try to figure out where we lost that thread of continuity while others try to hide behind the concerted effort to force the genre into a more Literary straitjacket.

I don’t know how it feels for European writers, for British writers of the genre… But here in the U.S. it is confusion resulting from our lost or disordered history that seems to dominate and dog our fiction. It prompts both editors and Critics to say we don’t comprehend what has already been done or done to death in the genre.

That in turn has caused a resurgence of interest in the Weird – and in Lovecraft specifically. We may not understand what we feel, but we know we feel it in Lovecraft’s shadow. So we sit there in it… enveloped in tentacles, begging Cthulhu to tuck some Horror in our minds. Editors feel it, too: we are awash in Lovecraftian-themed anthologies, struggling to recapture the elements that make Weird fiction so effective a storytelling device. But then we ran into a complication. Whether it is subgenre or genre, where are the rules?

Suddenly those of us who thought we could write it find no guidance and empty references to unnamed conventions and undefined formulas.

What is Weird Fiction? And if so many people can reference it, why can’t anyone define it?

We thought it was us.

Yet the more we set out to understand what was “wanted by the genre” (itself a paradox because we have abdicated who the authority of the genre is and publishers are never the genre even as this is who we continue to look to even now), the more the structure of genre evaporated. Our conventions are convoluted and polluted. Our fiction is substandard and hybridized and we feel it but cannot name it. The epiphany will come from Innsmouth…of that we all seem certain.

What we have to realize is that the train came off the rails with the hand-over-fist American publishing boom of the 1980’s. We buried the essays and drowned the voices of the early genre writers with a flood of new writers seeking careers in storytelling. Certainly a peek at all of the financial reasons is self-explanatory, but only a handful of thoughtful editors who placed important Critical writings and author commentary in the front matter and endpapers of classic collections of the genre kept our history from completely going dark. When we began to follow the Pied Piper and call the genre Horror, we ceased to see what else it might have been.

Weird Heroes: the Literary Critic

Now we are scraping all of these commentaries together, and our first Literary Critics are having the task of sorting out exactly where the genre was heading before the boom of reading, writing, and publishing that inflated the 1980’s into a wanton writer’s market. As already stated, prior to that time Horror had been addressed by many other names, and had already established a long and tumultuous history of impoverished writers condemned for their artistic choices.

When the emergence of the mass market paperback created the explosion of affordable fiction which seeded the Horror boom, it also created a generation of readers who knew the genre by one name only: Horror. For most of us, “Weird” as a term has no traction in our memories, and there is no clear understanding in our composition of contemporary writing. We are Horror writers, we say… and isn’t “Weird” just a synonym for “strange?”

Mieville 2

This is where newer writers need the Literary Critic – or at least those with Critical analytic capabilities such as writer and Critic China Mieville – who can help put our socks on straight. Mieville not only helps us greatly by reminding us that the “invention” of the tentacle heavily influences the texture of what should be considered Weird, but that “Weird fiction [shares] with Surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that [is] in fact saturated with the uncanny.”(Mieville  xiii)

Our hackneyed understanding of the Weird has now spilled into our own interpretations of what we are trying to write, or think we are writing. It is presenting a problem for some Critics, who themselves are trying to unravel a clear understanding of what the effective Weird was and now find themselves awash in what some writers are calling Weird fiction that appears to be not. And sometimes it is when something is diluted that the pure solution becomes more obvious.

The more Critics look at the original writings and writers of the Weird, the bigger, more viable its legitimate core seems to get…So much so, that some are starting to propose that Weird fiction encapsulates Horror, and not the other way around.

Asserts S.T. Joshi, “Strictly speaking I regard ‘horror’ as a subset of the weird, since fantasy of the Dunsany or Tolkien type is just as much a branch of weird fiction as any other, and ‘horror’ itself must be subdivided into supernatural and nonsupernatural horror” (Joshi-Modern Weird 3). For Joshi, the impervious structure needed to provide a broad foundation for subgenres is already fractured when attempting to apply the name “Horror” to the whole genre – a Critical sign that it cannot be the parent of Weird offspring and is therefore not the correct name to use.

Mieville proposes that “Traditionally, genre horror is concerned with the irruption of dreadful forces into a comforting status quo—one which the protagonists frantically scrabble to preserve. By contrast, Lovecraft’s horror [Lovecraft being the towering genius among those writers of fantastic fiction for whom plot is simply not the point] is not one of intrusion but realization.” (Mieville xii-xiii)

While Mieville’s description of the Weird simply seems to differentiate between what we perceive as Horror and what we experience as the Weird, he actually has something in common with Joshi. It is important to note that like Joshi’s interpretation, in Mieville’s look at the two in the context of a Horror versus Weird as genre argument, it is again the Weird that provides greater Literary foundation which seems more potent and Literarily promising than any singular assemblage of the moving parts of Horror.

This is not to say that sometimes the argument for Weird as a more likely independent and Literary genre doesn’t get – well – weird…

Another – and I find odd – part of this dissatisfaction with the term “Horror” is encapsulated by Joshi’s exasperated question, “What other mode of writing is designated by an emotion?” As Joshi interprets it, “horror” is a term rendered even more inadequate for him as a Critic because “The term ‘horror’ also suggests” – and he emphasizes – “(falsely, to my mind) that the arousal of fear is somehow the prime concern of weird writing” instead of the more Literary depiction of world view. (Joshi-The Modern Weird 3)

Never mind that Lovecraft himself went down this path…

I find that this part of the argument against the term “Horror” implies that the word “Horror” as applied to genre involves only the emotion of fear and not its cousins – dread, discomfort, disturbance, disgust. I find that both Horror AND Weird fiction has some of those elements on a regular basis (as apparently does Mieville (“Lovecraft’s stories …move tightly and precisely, evoking growing foreboding…aggregating a sense of dread and awe” (xii)) – and those adjectives are especially evident in the descriptions used to define cosmic horrors and human failures. So while I empathize with Joshi on this point, I do not agree with him. I do agree with Joshi, however, that the intrusion of “world view” in Weird fiction is of Literary blood, and is an important point in establishing the criteria that would define Weird fiction as a genre/subgenre.

For Literary Critics, this relevance to bigger things – to the real issues that shape and affect humanity – is what defines Literature. And as such, it is the bread crumb trail that helps identify when something in genre writing is bigger than genre. It is most certainly there in the Weird. But is Literature always the biological parent? Or might the parent be a gangly, disproportioned and lovingly awkward mutt?

With so much confusion and overlap of genre and subgenre, the muddle of terms, Joshi admits with considerable exasperation: “I do not know what one is to do about this whole issue.” However just because a matter is entangled by centuries of amateur theories does not mean it should not be UN-entangled….clarified….and committed to. And Joshi himself cannot seem to let it go, because the question and argument of which came first haunts all of his work on Criticism in our genre.

So while I do not agree that “Horror” being an emotion disqualifies it from being a genre name, I do agree with Mr. Joshi that study and discussion of this messy subject is necessary to sort it all out. And I agree that if Literary Critics can do so with legitimate theoretical reasons for creating a better terminology for the genre, then it should be done. We may all have our preferences, but the truth of the matter is that until we settle on terms and definitions, we cannot present arguments or press works through Critical Theories.

And Critical Theory is how we get canon.

Deciding what we call ourselves may seem a moot point, but for Critics, the name of the structural tree from which we hang our Literature does matter. And it should matter to us as writers, so we can be certain we are delivering the goods to our readers, and making conscious choices about the quality and creative direction of our fiction.

Like the new Literary Critic, we need to revisit the discussion that was in play during the time of Lovecraft… Because if we are to argue the Literary merits of the genre, we have to start thinking more like the Literary Critic and that means we must be looking at what we write and where it falls on the scale of genre definitions. And that means we must not be adverse to the reordering of terms and conventions.

It’s time to go there… and due to the length of the discussion, we will in the succeeding post.



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

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York, Hippocampus Press, c2012.

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, c1990.

Mieville, China. “Introduction.” At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. New York: the Modern Library, c2005.

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

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: he Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, eds. The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, c2011.