Tanith Lee: Why Was One of Horror’s Best Female Writers Blacklisted? A Women In Horror Month Tribute (Part 1)


This is what I remember about reading Tanith Lee:

Dark, haunting prose that made me feel like I was reading it with the lights out; potent and pregnant narrative that was so Gothic and eerie that I thought of Poe; characters that to this day remain vibrant in my head…

I remember devouring paperbacks written by Lee – full of envy of her mastery and use of language, somehow more accessible and less lofty than that of writers like Anne Rice, but the kind of prose that lingers long after it is read. And I remember being stupid enough to give those books away. It was a product of the times, that way of thinking – trusting that decades could scroll by and one would always be able to find another paperback copy somewhere. I was wrong.

Years later, when I wanted to re-read and compare her vampire trilogy The Blood Opera Sequence to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, I went looking to repurchase those books. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I could not find them. I could not find anything by Tanith Lee anywhere. I looked in vain for decades…She was neither in used bookstores, new book bookstores, nor Amazon at the time.

It struck me as odd: Lee was a Horror standard for a while, part of that now extinct Horror Section. In fact, that was how I found her. And while I don’t remember any reason ever being given as to why she seemed to have simply evaporated, her books missing from bookstores, what I found out much later surprised – and disappointed – me. It caused me to look with wrinkled brow at our Establishment – the same way it did when we “mysteriously” lost Clive Barker.

Because now she HAS died; we quietly lost Tanith Lee with little more than a peep from the Horror genre. Only the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres claimed her body of work:

“’Lee died peacefully in her sleep May 24, 2015 after a long illness,’ according to Locus Magazine…More details have not emerged; in 2010, Lee revealed she had been treated for breast cancer on at least two occasions.” https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/05/26/409726390/prolific-fantasy-and-science-fiction-writer-tanith-lee-has-died

What happened to Tanith Lee?

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Something Rotten: When the Establishment Goes Too Far

It appears to be about sex. And that is weird, because isn’t all Horror in some way about sex?

This time however, it was even about the Literary stuff: about the underpinnings of feminism and gender issues – about gender identity and sexual orientation. Tanith Lee, you see, never shied away from LGBT characters, storylines, or situations. What exactly was it about Tanith Lee or her writing that “someone” saw to it she was blacklisted? And worse, that she was never even told WHY she was being blackballed? Was she Anne Rice before Anne Rice was cool? Was she ahead of her time – at least for the Horror Establishment?

No, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you have never heard of Tanith Lee. Even those of us who loved her work have consistently found it hard to find her work – especially in the United States, and especially after the Technology Extermination Plan of all things print. We have as a genre, in fact, lost a lot of accessibility to older titles because of Technology…Lee included.

But Tanith Lee was also increasingly hard to find because of what appears to be nothing less than bullying – the professional kind, by the very people who should be immune from nasty, personally motivated censorship – all because of her alleged queer writing as it was claimed she claimed in later work was channeled through a dead gay man. Indeed, there are such quotes, but they are (in her defense) not waved about in crazy fashion, but delivered with the matter-of-face sincerity of personal belief.

Yes, okay. I get it. Most folks are just not into the whole New Agey spirit channeling thing left over from the 1970’s. But let’s be honest: true or not, believed or not, the woman wrote awesome fiction – relevant fiction; and everyone has their right to their own beliefs. With some of the first featured gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual characters in Horror and thereby “popular mainstream” fiction, what Lee did was make an important contribution to contemporary fiction – including our genre.

While some may argue (as though to distance themselves from an awkward author scenario or politically delicate LGBT fictional subjects) that if this was part of the emergence and journey of Queer fiction (and thereby more “Other” than Horror), doesn’t that make it all the more important to the Horror genre?

Sure, it becomes yet another subgenre. But isn’t it also an important one? Doesn’t it Literarily speak to our times? Doesn’t it educate its readers?

Why, really, was Tanith Lee ostracized? This, after having written almost 300 short stories and over 90 novels… and in multiple genres including Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Poetry, and Mysteries, often credited with breaking the glass ceiling in genre, and being the first female writer to win the British Fantasy Award.

Why, indeed? Does Horror have some sudden, new and exclusive sacred criteria? Are some subjects, some human conditions suddenly taboo?

And is there a reason Lee and all of her work seems banished from Horror (at least while she was alive and it mattered, ye Best Of people…) whereas openly gay Clive Barker is welcomed back whenever we can get him? Why is Lee treated differently? Hasn’t she paid her dues? Earned her laurels? Does she go too far because her characters are clearly wrestling with gender issues and identity? Or because she claims she sees dead people…and takes notes?

Says Lee of her exile in an interview five years before her death: “Recently, alas, with today’s climate, I have apparently been outlawed by those large “major” companies through whom, for over thirty years, I’ve previously had quantities of work. I don’t entirely understand that, either. But naturally I hope that things will improve, and that all the very good young and new writers I have glimpsed around me will prosper, female and male together. (Gidney)

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Photo by Beth Gwinn https://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

 

Women in Horror: On Living Down to Stereotypes

Yet again a female writer has drawn the ire and fire of influential powers and publishing houses… all because someone in power saw the need to exact punishment for freedom of artistic thought and speech.

In fact in the 1990’s, Lee so struggled to find publication and her readers toiled to find her works in kind, that many of her fans often wrote to enquire if she had died. Between the damage that Technology had imposed upon the Publishing industry and some self-righteous censorship, we almost lost her works entirely.

Why is this? Could it be that because her work was so sexually infused that “someone” decided she needed to be reined in lest she burst the sexual bubble so many of us have been forced and coerced into living in?

Is Horror so the personal property of a certain type of white male writer that only certain types of infractions are to be tolerated – the ones that titillate the ruling class? Not the ones the rest of us struggle with, or struggle to understand?

Already we see a trend toward censorship within the genre – the long list of plot themes or damaged characters we are told “not to bother” to write. We are told stories about surviving sexual assault or child abuse are not welcome – at least if they are “troubling” tales instead of Harry Potter-magic-overcomes-all types of tales. For some reason, all of a sudden it is not a preferred thing for Horror to represent the honest truth – something that should have many a late nineteenth century female Gothic writer spinning in her grave.

Is this part of something bigger? Is this about uneven censorship against rebellious – dangerous – women? Women who confront and sometimes live in politically precarious waters? Is that why we insist on clarifying that Lee is “normal”… feeding readers details that explain that she is “married and heterosexual” ? (https://www.advocate.com/obituaries/2015/05/26/remembering-tanith-lee-celebrated-author-queer-science-fiction

 

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On the contrary, describing human monsters and exquisite details of sexual violence on women as part of a plotline is somehow ok. A woman’s death and dismemberment the Establishment will allow, but harping on the PTSD that comes from survival is just too much of a downer. Boring. Unworthy. And God forbid if we tackle gender identity along with it.

What the hell kind of message is that? And should we be surprised then that we have that same heavy hand of censorship plucking works out of our canon that contain certain unsavory details we don’t want to “have to explain” to our youth?

I don’t want to have to explain The Holocaust, either. But some things are righteously necessary.

How is it that the one single largest social challenge of the day – that of gender identity and sexual orientation is so freaking scary that we cannot abide its literature?

And are we really so shallow as to feign that fear and abhorrence forced us to draw insinuation that channeling a dead guy for a novel is just frankly too “crazy” a notion, and gender-muddy characters too horrifying to keep publishing Lee?

What was so scary? That the dead guy was dead, or that he was a gay dead guy? Anybody got an attic?

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Lee’s worthy Vampire Trilogy…

At what point do we grow up and start acting like reasonable adults so all of us and our children can simply breathe? At what point do we stop running ahead of the coach in an attempt to prevent an imagined accident?

I most certainly “get” it…I repeat, I grew up in the sixties and seventies. And no one wants life to be complicated for our youth, and our brains are all weary thinking about this stuff. But it is we who are complicating it. What was it my generation harped on so long and so loud? Live and let live?

And what about that whole Literary argument? The Big Goal of Horror? Tanith Lee was always there, right in the mix of all things Feminist Theory:

‘I was very interested by the eastern idea of death as a woman, which I used in the ‘Flat Earth’ books. In the type of eastern literature where death was personified as a woman; women were considered dangerous and untamed and pariah material, and that was why death was in female form. Conversely, in the western literature where I came across death personified as a male, it was because men were seen as powerful, and death was seen as powerful, so he had to be male. So it’s two ways of looking at death, as well as two ways of looking at gender.” http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

Since when is a competent writer’s taking on a contemporary and contentious subject like feminist or LGBT issues by writing believable characters seated in that controversy NOT ok? NOT Literary?

It may not make us comfortable. But maybe we don’t deserve to be.

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Still Mistress of Her Domain

If I had to point to the one influential female writer of Horror in the 1980s other than Anne Rice, it would be Tanith Lee.

Renowned for her use of poetic prose and imagery, she is also known for writing the previously referred to other vampire series…The Blood Opera Sequence, a trilogy of books titled Dark Dance (1992), Personal Darkness (1993), and Darkness, I (1994) and a Horror standard, The Secret Books of Paradys, which included The Book of the Damned (1988),The Book of the Beast (1988),The Book of the Dead (1991), and The Book of the Mad (1993).

Let me say it again. Over 300 short stories and 90 novels. And awards…my God the awards:

Nebula Awards

  • 1975: The Birthgrave (nominated, best novel)
  • 1980: Red As Blood (nominated, best short story)

World Fantasy Awards[31]

  • 1979: Night’s Master (nominated, best novel)
  • 1983: “The Gorgon” (winner, best short story)
  • 1984: “Elle Est Trois, (La Mort)” (winner, best short story)
  • 1984: “Nunc Dimittis” (nominated, best novella)
  • 1984: Red As Blood, or, Tales From The Sisters Grimmer (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1985: Night Visions 1 (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1987: Dreams Of Dark And Light (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1988: Night’s Sorceries (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1999: “Scarlet And Gold” (nominated, best novella)
  • 2006: “Uous” (nominated, best novella)
  • 2013: Life Achievement Award[32]

World Horror Convention

  • 2009: Grand Master Award [33]

British Fantasy Awards

  • 1979: Quest For The White Witch (nominated, best novel)
  • 1980: Death’s Master (winner, best novel)[34]
  • 1980: “Red As Blood” (nominated, best short story)
  • 1981: Kill The Dead (nominated, best novel)
  • 1999: “Jedella Ghost” (nominated, best short story)
  • 2000: “Where Does The Town Go At Night?” (nominated, best short story)

Lambda Awards

  • 2010: Disturbed by Her Song (nominated, best LGBT speculative fiction)

 

She didn’t deserve to be sent into the darkness. And we, her fans, need to insure she is not kept imprisoned there.

Reports Laura Flood in an article on Lee, “Lee has written tons of books; these are some of her earliest, and rather hard to get hold of. It’s a shame, as are her comments to Locus that “if anyone ever wonders why there’s nothing coming from me, it’s not my fault. I’m doing the work. No, I haven’t deteriorated or gone insane. Suddenly, I just can’t get anything into print”. And on her own website she says:”As for new novels, earlier plans are becalmed. When I know I’ll let you know. Otherwise, no ‘large’ house at the moment has taken any interest in any of my work. Macmillan and Hodder both refused/dropped offered proposals. Tor passed on reprinting Red as Blood. Others I have approached don’t reply at all.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/27/fantasy-death-master-tanith-lee

On what planet is this ok? And how do we move forward respecting our own Establishment – editors, publishers, Critics all – if this type of blackballing is acceptable practice when a woman “gets out of line” in our genre? Or even the Clive Barkers among us?

Why hasn’t anyone in “authority” bothered to address this, and all of the mysterious exits of writers who clearly chose to “shake the dust from their feet” and give up on Horror?

”Suddenly, I just can’t get anything into print. And apparently I’m not alone in this. There are people of very high standing, authors who are having problems. So I have been told. In my own case, the more disturbing element is the editor-in-chief who said to me, ‘I think this book is terrific. It ought to be in print. I can’t publish it – I’ve been told I mustn’t.’ The indication is that I’m not writing what people want to read, but I never did.” http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

“TOLD I MUSTN’T”!?! By what Power? By which Horror God? I want names.

Because when a writer’s entire catalog is suppressed, when you cannot find her work and you don’t even know if she is alive because NO ONE is publishing her…How can anyone possibly say with truth that she is writing what people don’t want to read?

I wanted to read her. I wanted to repurchase books I stupidly got rid of in various moves. I wanted her back on my bookshelf because I am PROUD to have her there. And I wanted to read more of what she was writing – no matter in what genre, no matter with what kinds of characters… No matter if she thinks a dead gay guy is channeling it. But the caveat was and remains I cannot find her…

It took a while for me to find out why. And it has made me furious.

Says Storm Constantine in the introduction of a recently “republished” ebook edition of Dark Dance:

“…printed copies of the novels have been unavailable for many years. Immanion Press’s republication of this trilogy is part of our commitment to help keep Tanith Lee’s work available in book form – as we believe good books should be. Any reader who has not read Dark Dance before should leave this introduction – or review – until they have finished the book…” Storm Constantine, November 2017, Dark Dance (The Blood Opera Sequence Book 1) (Kindle Edition)by Tanith Lee, Storm Constantine.

Thank you, Immanion Press, for being the one light in the darkness – for seeing exactly what Tanith Lee’s fans have known for decades, and for giving her back to us.

Now it is time for the Horror Establishment to reclaim her, to demand she be included in the evaluation of foundational authors in the Horror canon elect. It is time for an apology if not an explanation of shortcomings and owning the misstep.

Tanith Lee deserves the recognition we so stupidly refused her in Life. What say you, Horror Establishment? Will you make this right?

So here it is: this is my attempt to poison the minds of the Tanith-deprived: READ TANITH LEE. Wherever and whenever you find her work. You will not be sorry. But you may need to weigh in, to make sure we keep bringing her name up to Literary Critics for our genre. For sure, she will be one of the most fascinating writers that you never heard of in Horror.

And as for our genre, for our Establishment, for those who sent a perfectly good Horror writer into the arms of another genre and backlist oblivion: congratulations. You proved Lee right… she most certainly was a dangerous woman…

And for a brief time, she was ours.

TL6

1947-2015

“To wake, and not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are – whether a thing with legs and arms, or a brain in the hull of a great fish – that is a strange awakening. But after awhile, uncurling in the darkness, I began to uncover myself, and I was a woman.”… (Tanith Lee), The Birthgrave

 

References

Constantine, Storm. Introduction. Dark Dance: Book One of the Blood Opera Sequence by Tanith Lee © 1992, 2nd edition 2017, eBook edition through KDP 2018 An Immanion Press Edition published through KDP, http://www.immanion–press.com

Ennis, Dawn. “ Remembering Tanith Lee, Celebrated Author of Queer Science Fiction.” Advocate,       May 26, 2015. Retrieved 1/30, 2019 from https://www.advocate.com/obituaries/2015/05/26/remembering-tanith-lee-celebrated-author-queer-science-fiction

Gidney, Craig. “Tanith Lee: Channeling Queer Authors.” LambdaLiterary, September 13, 2010 as retrieved 1/9/2019 from http://www.lambdaliterary.org/interviews/09/13/tanith-lee-queer-authors/

Flood, Allison.“World of fantasy: Death’s Master by Tanith Lee.” Alison Flood’s world of fantasy Books , Fri 27 Aug 2010 06.05 EDT, as retrieved 1/9/2019 fromhttps://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/27/fantasy-death-master-tanith-lee  

“Tanith Lee: Love & Death & Publishers” excerpted from Locus Magazine, April 1998), as retrieved //10/2019 from http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

 

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


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

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

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

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

Voice is about Knowledge, and Power, and Heart.

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

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

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

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

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

How do we process this?

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

How far back do we have to go to remember?

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

We listen.

We listen to the Voice.

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

Why is it so hard?

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

We. Were. Wrong.

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

A blessing. Proof of our rightness.

We are still blinded.

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t us. But it is.

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

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

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

No other minority is disallowed a voice at the table.

And then there is Brandy.

Power comes when it is called.

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

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

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

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

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

Her.

As a Mother.

As a Woman.

As a Voice.

Why is it so hard?

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

Why?

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

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

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

We cannot see you….

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

We cannot hear you….

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

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

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

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

The words Became… behold a Woman running with Wolves…

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

Yet.

Brandy shook the World.

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

According to Dr. Estes,

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

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Bone WomanWoman SisterhoodtmWild WomanSimply FeminineSacred FeminineDivine FeminineShaman ArtShaman WomanPuppet Lc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What comes next is fearsome.

Awesome.

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

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

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

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

You are a Bone Woman.

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

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

Brandy Maxie. Bone Woman, extraordinaire.

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


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

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

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

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

History and the Other Inconvenient Truths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because of its honesty, the work becomes elevated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mommy Dearest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are All Shirley Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because the truth will set you free.

 

 References

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Good for the Goose Fits Nicely in Tentacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raised By Women. With Tentacles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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