Finding Women in Horror and Weird Fiction

Lately I’ve seen lots of “there are no women in horror”/”why are there no women in horror?”/”go read women in horror” around social media, and I thought that I would engage in serious mansplaining offer some tips on finding historical and current horror/weird fiction by female authors. Helping people find information is the sort of thing I do all day long, specifically helping people conduct research in the humanities, so hopefully this will be helpful to someone out there. I’ve divided it up into “Basic” and “Advanced” sections, to help people who are new to researching authors and to help people who are somewhat experienced in researching authors.

Basic

Women are often absent from “best of” lists in horror fiction, or only present in small numbers. I am writing this post with you in mind, to help you locate more female authors & their works. Most any book listed below you can find at your library, on Amazon, or via used book dealers/sites like Abebooks. Please note that, over the years, many kinds of language have been used to describe this literature: Gothic, horror, weird, supernatural, etc.

the weird by the vandermeersRead anthologies. Anthologies are collections of stories by multiple authors, although some lists and stores will actually class single-author short story collections as “anthologies.” Some large anthologies, like Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, contain a wide range of authors from a broad span of time, giving you a taste of authors you might not otherwise have read, like Margaret Irwin, Leonora Carrington, or Jamaica Kincaid. Anthology editors assemble their books carefully, and if they found an author worth reprinting, it’s usually worth your time to find other stories by the same author. Sometimes an author writes only one or two horror stories, but usually… where there’s one, there’s more.

cover of aickman's heirsRead themed anthologies. Some anthologies are made up of stories on a theme, like cats or tarot cards or a beloved author (“tribute anthologies”). A few recent examples of these are Aickman’s Heirs, Shadows over Main Street, or Tales of Jack the Ripper, all of which contain stories by female authors.

cover queering stoker's draculaOther themed anthologies are arranged according to the writers included: race, sexuality, or some other aspect of identity as the unifying factor. Recent examples include Dreams from the Witch House, Night Shadows: Queer Horror, or Suffered from the Night: Queering Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bonus: be on the lookout for special issues of short fiction magazines that focus on female authors.

year's best weird fiction 2Read best-of anthologies. Some anthologies are made up of selections from a given year’s stories, published in magazines or single-author collections. Some series only last a few years, others go on for decades. The Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror are some of the most well-known, but there are many out there.

Look at lists available online. There are often lists available on sites like Wikipedia that will be of some help, though they can be very long, and they are usually put together as labors of love. Because this topic (“women in horror”) is one that is important to many people, many articles have been written on the subject in recent years (like “Top 25 Women Horror Writers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of (But Should Know)“) . You can also find a lot of information about many authors at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB).

Women in Horror Month. Women in Horror Month is February. It’s designed to celebrate women involved with the field of horror, and I urge you to go read all about it.

Ask an expert. Your local public librarian or bookseller has more advice for you! If you walk in the door and say you want to read “horror by women authors,” or something like that, they will happily help you find new things to read. These people are paid to help you find things to read, so don’t be shy.

Advanced

This section is aimed at readers who already do all of the above. When you want more information and know the field, sometimes you can get help by asking around on social media or in conversation for ideas, but this has some challenges.

We’re social animals, and we tend to recommend based on personal biases and preferences. Writers, publishers, editors, etc. want to make money, and they have to get the word out about their stuff, so there’s a lot of actual signal out there before you even hit noise. People also tend to recommend books they’ve read recently and/or that jump to mind. That tends to mean the stuff that’s available, and the market inevitably pushes older books out of sight, so finding any of the thousands of horror novels or stories written more than a decade or so ago takes effort.

gina wisker horror fictionRead surveys and studies of the field. Think you know horror? Maybe you do, but the odds are pretty good if you’re reading this that you don’t have a Ph.D. focusing on horror literature, or have otherwise acquired systematic knowledge of horror literature. Try a book like Gina Wisker’s Horror Fiction: An Introduction to get a look at the breadth of the field. Have you read Vernon Lee (AKA Violet Paget)? May Sinclair? Fay Weldon? If not, check it out and see what else you’re missing, or books like Danse Macabre, etc.

cover of encyclopedia of fantasy and horrorUse encyclopedias and other reference books. Once upon a time, libraries almost always had robust reference sections, with many specialized works that helped locate, describe, define, and index information. A lot of those are gone now, replaced by the internet and Google, but some are still in libraries’ reference sections, or are still published and you can check them out. Representative titles include Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: an Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares, St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, or the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Horror Fiction.

spratford book coverUse tools that librarians use. On the one hand, there are books specifically designed to get librarians some familiarity with a field, reader’s advisory guides like The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror. Such books are one of the many tools librarians use to become familiar with fields they may not themselves read in for their own pleasure.

On the other hand, when you’re using library catalogs, look at the catalog record for the novels, anthologies, and short story collections you are reading. They often will have descriptors, tags, or subject headings to find related works, if the library uses such tools to collocate fiction. Not bulletproof, because many libraries don’t really do this for fiction, but it’s worth checking. Sometimes you’ll a helpful Library of Congress heading, such as “Ghost stories.”

kelly linkRead what your heroes have read or are reading. Not everyone leaves behind a treatise like “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to articulate what they’ve read and/or consider important for the field, but authors and editors regularly give interviews or lectures, or are profiled. They will often list or discuss what they’re reading, and women generally talk more often in equal or greater numbers about female authors than men do. Currently I’m reading short stories by Joan Aiken, based on the recommendation of Kelly Link in a talk I saw her give earlier this year. I probably would not have sought out Joan Aiken without Kelly Link’s advice to do so. I’m grateful for it.

Speaking of Gratitude, Part One: I appreciate your reading this far. If you find this post useful, please consider reposting, RTing, or sharing it.

Speaking of Gratitude, Part Two: If you feel more materially grateful, as in “wow, this was really useful, and I’d like to do something to show my support,” please purchase one or more books by or featuring a living female author of horror or weird fiction. And if you like it? Tell someone about it.

Cheers.

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The Sample Copies of Yesteryear

sample copies

Let me tell you of the days of print magazines!

For those of you who don’t publish or aspire to publish your writing, part of the process often involves familiarizing yourself with magazines. Back in the print-only days, that meant ordering sample copies from a publisher, or subscribing, or (increasingly rarely as newsstands waned) going somewhere to purchase a copy in person. These days even print-only magazines often have samples of their fiction online, partly to lure would-be readers, partly to give writers an idea of what (not) to submit. This summer I was doing some cleaning and was reminded that over the years, I’ve amassed a small horde of sample copies. What you see here is a tiny fraction of it, as I have piles elsewhere of magazines I subscribed to or bought an issue or two of, including Cemetery Dance, F&SF, Grue, Deathrealm, Weird Tales, etc..

A pleasant surprise was seeing names that are familiar to me today from tables of contents, social media, conventions, and other parts of the publishing world: Allen, Cisco, Kilpatrick, Pugmire, Schwader, Schweitzer, Thomas, and many more. Some of those authors are still publishing in magazines, big and small. Some write full time, some part time. Some have had a lasting impact on readers and writers who came after them and, in some cases, followed their models.

tales of lovecraftian horror toc

A squamous menagerie…

I’d like to think the continued presence of these authors in the field says something about continuity, and about what makes a writer a writer (writing, yes, but publication, too). Once upon a time I bought into the idea of a standard template for authors’ literary lives, and up until a few years ago I was still thinking in those terms. The disruptions caused by publisher consolidation, e-books, etc., has changed that for me, but also taking a long, hard look at the market, and realizing that the Big 5 currently have only a sliver of a sliver of a niche for dark fiction, and it’s parceled out across the bookstores. (I’m skipping over YA and graphic novels, which are different kettles of fish, and neither of which I really write.) Instead, there are—as there were hundreds of years ago—various means for making your work public. The familiar names that I see belong to people who learned that lesson and published consistently wherever there was room, or who found a way to make room for themselves.

Less happily, the names I didn’t recognize in these magazines are as disproportionately female as those I do recognize are male. What happened to them? Hard to say, given how many writers publish a story or two and then vanish, and I don’t know every corner of the field, but many of the TOCs I saw do clearly uphold the idea of horror as a boys’ club (awareness of which has led to various attempts at correction), and there is a host of reasons why women historically have published less often than men. Personally I love the broadening of the field in recent years. Long ago I was reading Brite, Jackson, Rice, etc., and in the last decade authors like Carter, Kiernan, Link, Llewellyn, etc. The writer just starting out today who looks back in twenty years will have a new group of authors  to consider foundational, and I think it probably goes without saying, but that group will look different in more ways than one.

Terry Brooks & the Lighter Side

Typically I write about horror, weird fiction, etc. Not today. Currently I’m excited by the upcoming series The Shannara Chronicles. Have you seen the trailer? No? Then check it out:

I will watch and likely enjoy the heck out of some portion of this series. I’m just not as invested in it as I am in certain other Notoriously Mangled Fantastic Intellectual Properties, and this trailer looks pretty. Once upon a time I read and enjoyed the heck out of Terry Brooks‘ fiction, although I stopped at a certain point, so all of this science-fantasy-Space-Needle-in-Shannara business is new to me, but whatever. I like science fantasy, the post-apocalypse, etc., so it’s off to the races.

Terry Book comes in for an awful lot of criticism in certain F/SF circles; if you have no idea what I’m talking about, take a look at a recent MetaFilter discussion for a summary, including links to and snippets of both vitriol and paeans. For my part, I’ll share these three things that mean I’ll be watching the series.

Shannara art from the brothers hildebrandt

Shannara, as envisioned by the Brothers Hildebrandt

Thing the first. The currently predominant flavor in fantasy fiction—not talking Vampires in the Lemon Grove or “The Library of Babel,” but the stuff you find in the F/SF section in the bookstore—is dark. “Grimdark” in particular, a reaction against the pleasant, if occasionally somewhat vague, unrealities that sprang up in the wake of Tolkien. I’ve read plenty of the dark stuff, because I enjoy it and the psychological realism that often comes with it, but it has its own problems.

As one writer friend said during the latest Game of Thrones debacle, maybe—just maybe—if you regularly consume stories rich with graphic violence and brutality, you shouldn’t complain so much when graphically violent and brutal things happen. Like rape. And, lo, there were hordes of people that week on the internet running around hollering about how you don’t have to have rape in your fantasy universe if you don’t want to and isn’t George R. R. Martin horrible because his work is just chock full of rape and misogyny and how dare HBO let Sansa be raped in the show… and at a certain point I had to laugh. Not because the genuine upset people felt was funny, not because the situation in the story is funny, but because my friend was right. There are other things out there to read, watch, listen to, etc., that aren’t about horrible things like rape, torture, genocide, and hatred. And, hey, when something horrible shows up in the thing you like? You have the power to ignore the thing or stop giving your time to the work.

We are at a cultural moment where the status (legal and otherwise) of women is waxing and waning in all sorts of ways, some of which many people did not really expect, and so we look for opportunities to talk about it, because it should be talked about. Likewise questions of race and ethnicity, which I am very glad are part of the ongoing conversation about what F/SF should be. We don’t live in a vacuum, and neither do our stories, but damn, people—if you don’t want to be brutalized while trying to enjoy escapism, maybe avoid the Fantasy Novels Featuring Guaranteed Minimum Quantities of Maiming, Murder, Rape, Abuse, Torture, Nihilism, Genocide, Colonialism, and Shit That’s Guaranteed to Brutalize You. As Terry Books said in an interview:

“Don’t mention Game of Thrones to me. We were saying, “We don’t want to go that route.” That’s not what the Shannara books are. They’re a family-oriented fantasy and always have been.”

I don’t consider what I write to be family-oriented, nor do I explicitly go in search of that most of the time, but sometimes I want pleasurable, relaxing fantasy.

Thing the second. The Shannara books are often held up as examples of whatever the given critic is looking to criticize, whether it’s Extruded Fantasy Product, Tolkien clones, bad writing, whatever. Note, however, that there are writers who see merit in Brooks’ work. (Aside: if you haven’t read Brooks’ memoir Sometimes the Magic Works, and if you care in the slightest about the formation of the F/SF market as it exists today, you should.)

Everyone always has a reason to hate X book or Y kind of writing, but I recently picked up and thumbed through the little horde of F/SF I’ve amassed over approximately a quarter-century reading it, and I was pleased by the quality of Brooks’ prose. Especially in comparison to the rest of the field of books read by F/SF readers. There are so many, many clunkers in the field of movie tie-in books, licensed IP books, and original F/SF novels, some of them written by authors you love or have loved, and certainly much of the sea of unedited self-published fiction that floats around the internet is worse by far.

Am I going to go out and read up on the Shannara I missed? Probably not. I’m reading Giallo Fantastique, Aickman’s Heirs, Frank O’Hara poems, and a bunch of non-fiction and stuff for research right now. If I read any straight-up F/SF this summer, it’s likely to be some of the Joe Abercrombie I haven’t read, or perhaps Malazan, which is now complete and which I’ve been meaning to read for years. But would I read more by Brooks? Sure. I enjoyed Shannara and the Landover books back in the day, and he is a competent, large-hearted writer who deserves respect. He didn’t have an MFA when he started writing, nor was there a plethora of contemporary models to choose from when he was writing. He wrote a story he loved, as well as he possibly could, and I’m grateful for it.

Thing the third. A long time ago, Terry Brooks was the first author I ever met. I was a shy and lonely kid, like so many others, but surprisingly I wasn’t tongue-tied in the moment. I remember that he was sitting by himself at a table in a Waldenbooks. He was a successful author at that point, but he was just sitting there, reading, with most people just walking past.

It was a cramped location, and his table was… small, but he wasn’t complaining, nor did he appear discommoded. He smiled, thanked me for reading, asked me who else I liked to read, did I like to write, and all of those sorts of things. I didn’t have money to buy anything new from him at the time, but I did have a small stack of his paperbacks. He signed each one, legibly, and I have them to this day. In an age where many authors (and readers, unfortunately) default to snarky, dismissive, attention-seeking, or simply asinine behavior online and in person, Terry Brooks stands clear in my memory for his graciousness. I think the world would be a better place if more people had the wherewithal to behave in such a fashion.

And all of those are some of the reasons why, thirty years after reading The Sword of Shannara, probably twenty-five years after last reading anything Shannara, I’m looking forward to The Shannara Chronicles.

Happy weekend, be good to each other, and be magic.

signature on title page of book

Treasure.

Kazuo Ishiguro Eats Live Babies, Twirls Moustache

boxers in ringI will never forget when I first learned about hostility between public and academic librarians: the first week or so of library school, when a number of public-librarians-to-be complained loud and long about how horrible and snobby academic librarians were. I was then (and remain now) appalled by it. I grew up loving libraries of all kinds, and having respect for all of them. Library school didn’t change that, but it did teach me some some sad lessons about myopia and prejudice.

The genre-v.-literary debate is fraught in different ways, but fundamentally I see little difference between it and the situation I describe above. The war has been fought for so long that its origins are forgotten, or at least meaningless. There point of the war is the war. It will only end if we stop looking for insult, stop counting our scars, stop picking scabs.

A Golem and a Jinni Walk into the Singleton Center…

cover of golem and jinni

The Golem and the Jinni

Last night Helene Wecker spoke in Richmond, talking about the success and route to publication of her first novel, The Golem and the Jinni (Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads). Her book has spent time in the awards ring already, and she was in town because it was this year’s winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. After reading she shared the stage for a Q&A with her agent, Sam Stoloff, moderated by VCU creative writing MFA alumna Shannon O’Neill. The reading was good, the discussion was lively, and the line for the signing afterward was off the chain.

I attended in part because I was volunteering, given the nature of my work at the library, but I was also attending out of my own interest. I read The Golem and the Jinni late last year when I was temporarily laid up with a bad back, and the book was very much part of the medicine that made me well. It’s the kind of book that could sweep you away by virtue of its lyrical prose alone, even if the story weren’t excellent. Both are excellent, in fact, and I encourage you to give the book a try if you like folklore, things mythopoeic, or the turn of the last century.

It should go without saying, but this book is one of that new breed of novels that straddles with remarkable comfort the old divide between genre and literary. The conceit of the book arose, as she said on stage, from her years of reading in genre and thinking about its tropes. The prose benefits from years of revision and what she learned in getting her MFA. I had the pleasure of speaking briefly with Helene at the end of the signing, and what she had to say was of a piece with what you can find on her site and what she said on stage: she genuinely loves and is knowledgeable on a range of fiction.

Helene Wecker on Stage

Helene Wecker on Stage

Tomorrow I’m headed off to the World Fantasy Convention, where The Golem and the Jinni is up for the Novel award. She faces some serious competition, but whatever the outcome of that may be, I think the book will have legs. It’s a cliche to say that genre’s strength is story, and literary fiction’s is style, but I think this is one case where the author has welded together the best of both worlds. I usually sketch speakers in one medium or another at readings or events, and last night I was powerfully struck by Helen’s words about her process (and I hope, should she read this, that she’ll forgive my artistic license). The publishing treadmill rarely seems to allow for books that percolate for so many years. Hers is, of course, an object lesson in why more should.

Throwback Thursday, You Say?

In the mood for some Throwback Thursday action? Below are links to the top five posts I’ve written here…

On the Existence of the Female Tentacle” — 312 views — All about women who write Lovecraftian fiction.

Release the Leeches!” — 175 views — Release day and my writeup, lo those several months ago, for The Children of Old Leech.

Mary Chiaramonte / Land of Strangers / Eric Schindler Gallery” — 134 views — Review of Mary Chiaramonte’s 2012 show.

All the Colors of the Night” — 134 views — Review of Thomas Van Auken’s 2012 show at Eric Schindler Gallery.

Writing Year 2013: Statistics, Lies, Stagnation, and the Human Heart” — 115 views — An analysis with charts and statistics of my writing activities over a seven-year period.

On The Existence of the Female Tentacle

“Is appreciation of Lovecraft and the Mythos a Guy Thing, like the Three Stooges?” That was the beginning, a couple days back, of a lengthy conversation in a Lovecraftian group on Facebook. As far as I can tell, the editor who asked the question wasn’t setting out to irritate, enrage, depress, or offend a large number of dedicated aficionados of the Old Gent, but it happened nonetheless.  As the shitstorm he inadvertently brewed up has waned, I’m still quietly boggling.

One can understand, studying tables of contents and looking back on the long run of Lovecraftian, Mythos, and generally cosmic horror, how one might come to ask if it’s just a “Guy thing.” There are, for instance, a grand total of three female Cthulhu Mythos writers listed on Wikipedia. Most of the Old Guard are or were men, and Lovecraftian fiction hasn’t historically been a place to go looking for strong women.

The problem is that this conversation happens constantly in publishing, genre and otherwise. Someone looks around and asks, in apparently willful ignorance of past discussions and the thousands and thousands of women who read and write every stripe of fiction, “what about those women?” Asking this is itself a kind of erasure: it’s staring obliviously into the face of those women and asking if they exist. Lovecraft is no longer a cult author, and readers of things Lovecraftian are no longer a coterie: from Hellboy to Hello Cthulhu to a geek President of the United States who undoubtedly knows his Cthulhu from his Yog-Sothoth, the tentacles have crept into everything.

There were a number of articulate responses in the discussion on Facebook, some polite and some caustic, but for my money, this comment by Molly Tanzer was the best:

As a new thread gets going in this community asking the tough questions like “What are women writers? Are they like… regular writers? I mean, they’re women, right? So, like, what do they write about? What’s their stuff like?”, I just don’t know what else to say. Especially as the first comment is basically “I can only think of three lady Lovecraftian horror writers!” So, awesome. Anyways, I am happy to say that I have felt welcomed and valued by the editors I’ve worked with within the Lovecraftian horror community, very much including Mike [Davis, editor of Lovecraft eZine, who did not initiate the discussion]. But this whole conversation is starting to wear me out. Apparently in 2014 women writers must still do double-duty–by which I mean, it’s not enough (for some) for us to just, like, write and publish quality Lovecraftian horror. We must do that, while enduring comments about how women don’t mythos because baby-makin’ hormones, while also taking our time to alert people to the fact we exist, AND remembering do so very, very politely so as not to offend the sensitive souls of editors who apparently don’t like to be reminded that part of their job isn’t just publishing their friends, but paying attention–actively reading what is being published by strangers and newcomers alike–trying new things and new people and new voices. Oh, and doing all that while also somehow preserving our sense of humor about life and publishing while being talked down to about how historically “masculine” means this-or-that, or Lovecraft such-and-such. Jesus. I mean, I have a degree in Gender Studies, and a Master’s in humanities that focused on history. And I write in this community. So… yeah.


Here are links if you want to do some reading. No consistency to these, really, just grabbed a bunch. I wasn’t able to find explicitly Lovecraftian/Cthulhuvian free online fiction for all of the authors listed, or wasn’t sure which to pick, and so left things as I did, which looks a little odd on the authors list. If you have suggested links about women who write Lovecraftian fiction, feel free to drop them in the comments.

Commentary

Women Who Write Lovecraft

Women at the Lovecraft Film Festival

Favorite Women in Horror

All-Female Authors Issue of Lovecraft eZine

Lovecraftian Archetypes: the eternal feminine

Joanna Russ and Lovecraftian/Mythos fiction

Authors

Caitlín R. KiernanWikipedia. Amazon.

Ann K. SchwaderInterview. Story.

Elizabeth BearInterview. Essay. Story.

Molly TanzerInterview. Story.

Silvia Moreno-GarciaInterview.

Gemma FilesProfile.

Lois GreshCollection. Interview.

Amanda DownumInterview.

Livia LlewellynInterview.

Anthologies

Lovecraft Unbound

Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath

The Book of Cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu II

New Cthulhu: the Recent Weird

Cthulhu Unbound, Vol. 2