On Friday night, February 12, I Zoomed with Carina Bissett, Christa Carmen, Sara Tantlinger, Jessica Guess, Zoje Stage, and Gwendolyn Kiste to discuss many aspects of being a female horror writer and our experiences with and hopes for the genre. I’ve never done anything like this and was as nervous as could be, especially when I saw the number of attendees ticking up on the monitor. Gulp. But it ended up being an awesome time.
Gwendolyn gave us the questions ahead of time and I spent most of the past week preparing my answers. If you missed the panel, I figured I’d write my responses up here and add in some things I either forgot to include or wish I’d thought of at the time (ha). Feel free to mentally sprinkle “Um,” “Y’know,” and *nervous giggles* throughout my text.
When did you start writing horror?
As a teenager. Early exposure to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Dracula, and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” got my mind on a macabre track. “The Lottery” and “The Cask of Amontillado” in particular absolutely blew my mind; the shockingly brutal endings to both stories made me aware for the first time of the power of this genre.
Some writing teachers and professors attempted to steer me away from horror, telling me I should only focus on writing “serious” fiction. (Yes, they’d teach Edgar Allen Poe in their classes while telling me horror wasn’t serious fiction. Go figure that one out; I sure can’t.) In the 2000s, I returned to writing horror and have never looked back.
Do you feel the female perspective on horror is different than the male perspective?
Definitely. As a woman, I’ve been taught from a very early age that I have to be careful almost all the time. Don’t walk alone. Don’t talk to that man. Don’t answer the door if you’re alone. Don’t get in a car with a strange man. Don’t take a drink someone else hands you. Don’t wear that. There’s already a lot of threat and terror in the world for a woman even before you start adding supernatural entities to the mix.
Something else I wanted to say but didn’t because I was afraid I was talking too long: I live in a world where if someone does assault me, I’m liable to be barraged by questions: Well, why were you drunk? Why were you wearing that? Why didn’t you say anything before? Was it really that bad? Surely it was probably your fault in the end, yes? And that’s assuming that I’m actually believed about the bad thing. That’s a perspective that shows up in a lot of the short fiction I write: Women see a terrible thing happening and simply aren’t believed or taken seriously until it’s too late. It’s a horror unto itself.
Name one or two current/living female horror authors you’d recommend to others, and why you think their work is important.
I felt cheesy naming an author who’s pretty well-known and who is going to be speaking during Part 2 of this panel, but Alma Katsu came to mind when I saw the question. She’s a wonderful prose stylist and I love the way she works real-life horrors like the Donner Party and the sinking of the Britannic into supernatural horror stories.
Who are some female characters who have inspired you?
I said Carrie White, the title character of Stephen King’s first novel. For various reasons, I strongly empathize with the young woman who’s beaten down and brutalized by just about everyone until she gets her revenge in a most spectacular and horrifying fashion. I’ve seen that theme show up in a good bit of my short fiction.
Because Gwendolyn specified horror characters, I didn’t mention the other female character who’s inspired me since childhood: Harriet the Spy. She’s snarky, she wants to be a writer, and she carries notebooks everywhere to write down her observations. And maybe she’s not a horror character, but that scene in the book where her friends find her notebook and read all the nasty things she’s been writing about them is scary as hell to me, even now.
Has more diversity brought any new tropes or new storytelling devices to the horror genre?
It’s not that I’ve seen new tropes or devices as much as that I’ve noticed familiar stories being told in new ways or with far more diverse casts. I just finished A Certain Hunger by Chelsea Summers, all about an attractive, very sensual middle-aged woman who’s a gourmet chef, a journalist, and a cannibalistic serial killer who kills her lovers and eats parts of their bodies; she’s basically what would happen if Patrick Bateman and Hannibal Lecter had a daughter. The book is told from her perspective, and it’s the first time I’ve read a novel with the woman in that role. Generally, women in stories like this are either the victims or the cops who have to stop the terrible things the male killers are doing.
And while I’ve read a lot of Lovecraftian horror and a lot of gothic novels, Mexican Gothic marks the first time I’ve seen a Mexican woman as the main character in such a story.
I’ve also seen an uptick in novels with witches as sympathetic protagonists rather than the villains.
What change have you seen since you have been a woman in horror?
There has been an absolute explosion of small presses, meaning that horror writers have many more opportunities to get published now than they would have had even in the early 2000s. Seriously, I can’t get over how much the Internet, Amazon, and eBooks have rewritten the publishing landscape.
What do you hope to see for the horror genre in the coming years?
First off, I’d love to see it become considered more marketable again. As much as I love small presses and think most of the truly interesting horror I read these days comes from small publishers, I would really like to see horror regain its footing at bigger, more commercial publishing houses. It depresses me when I’m submitting a query somewhere and the agent or publisher doesn’t even have horror listed in their submission dropdown even though they’ve said they take horror.
I’d also like to see more books featuring middle-aged female protagonists. I sometimes feel like we’re the Invisible Women in a lot of stories and novels I read. Even I tend to center my work around younger protagonists. (Given how much people liked this answer in particular, I think I need to start being the change I want to see here.)
I had a fine time and really enjoyed what my fellow panelists had to say. Again, I’m really grateful to Gwendolyn and the HWA for inviting me and making me feel like what I have to say matters even though I’m a debut novelist. You can catch a video replay of the panel here.