Scratching & More Scratching

What’s new, pussycat? A couple of largely news-free writing months for me. As I expected a while back, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple months raising my voice, doing my best to help hold power accountable, etc., etc. No glory in it, but when your elected representatives don’t just disagree with you or ignore you, but actually lie to the media regularly about your existence… you have to speak up.

scratchAlas for missing AWP, given it was just a couple hours away, but I have other things on the go, and hours and dollars are finite. This year I plan to attend ICFA and NecronomiCon, both with my scholarly hat on (though I’m participating in a group reading at ICFA, and TBD about NecronomiCon). If things go as planned, I’ll also be participating in some group readings around Richmond this year. Details forthcoming.

Are you a writer? Do you aspire to make any money from your writing, but aren’t quite there yet? Read Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin. It’s new out this year, and it’s got some really good stuff in it about aspects of the writing life that often go publicly unaddressed, and about which many people are not well informed. All sorts of good essays and interviews in it, and worth its weight in gold for the blend of windows it offers into the life of the “full time writer.” In some regards it’s of a piece with Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better, which I’ve previously mentioned, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife.

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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.

Grotesquely, Capriciously Depraved

matthew bartlett's gateways to abominationMatthew Bartlett has gotten heavy praise from many corners of the horror and weird fiction worlds. This is primarily associated with Gateways to Abomination, his self-published 2014 short fiction collection [Amazon|Goodreads], which I just finished reading the other day. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a nice guy (via social media at least; perhaps a strangler in person, though I hear good things), easy to get along with, and thinks interesting thoughts. One instinctively wants him to do well, being the nice fellow that he is, and so I decided to give his book a shot. As I read, my eyebrows rose, with shock and admiration.

Reader, Gateways to Abomination is a strange book. It’s not Strange, or Weird, though it may partake in dashes of various aesthetics, nor is it Decadent or Grand Guignol. Even calling it “truly fucked up” doesn’t quite get it. “Singularly odd” isn’t far off the mark.

Horror is an expansive genre, and I can see this book fitting on a horror bookshelf well enough, but honestly? Not many people write this kind of stuff. Really. It’s like Sprenger and Kramer went over to the Devil and were reborn for the sole purpose of creating a concept album out of Les Fleurs du mal, inexplicably setting it in Massachusetts. The subtitle, “Collected Short Fiction,” is not technically inaccurate, but it’s also… different than most other collections. The book is thematically unified, with various recurring motifs, characters, etc., and I think it’s a real rarity: a book that, with time and luck, could become a cult classic. People throw that term around way too often, but I could see it working here.

Why do I add my voice to the many praising this book? For the simple reason that it’s something that I would like more people to have a chance to enjoy. If you read a lot of horror, you’ve probably heard of this book (I suspect). If you don’t, you might like it if you enjoy William S. Burroughs; grotesque things; David Lynch; visceral footage; Joris-Karl Huysmans. This is a book worth your time if any of that resonates with your literary or artistic sensibilities, and he has other work out there as well, including a 2016 collection entitled Creeping Waves.

A Pagan Suckled in a Creed Outworn

flowers in landscapeFor the last couple months I’ve been on social media very little. This was on account of sundry deadlines, projects, and all the other reasons people typically get offline. I’ve been happier and measurably healthier since then, albeit missing the connection. The horrors of this past week have spurred me to political participation, but not to dwell constantly on injustice, and I’m so glad not to be as much in places where the parade of atrocities never ends. I still hew to Wordsworth’s famous formulation, and I’m endeavoring to live for the things I care about most.

cover of forthcoming Valancourt anthologyAt times when the world does press in, I think it’s important to remember the things that don’t. This week I was talking with James Jenkins of Valancourt Books about the merits of reading classic (or simply older) fiction, and I don’t think it can be overstated. One of the best things I’ve done for myself as a reader or writer in the last year was read all of M.R. James‘ tales, of which I’d previously read some, but not all. No one asked me to do so; as a rule, dead authors are not particularly demanding. Still, the desire was there in me, and it led in a roundabout way to my writing “En Plein Air,” a short story that will appear this October in volume two of Nightscript, and which I think is one of the most effective things I’ve written to date.

Last week I placed an order for a small pile of books, using some of the earnings from my Richmond Young Writers gig, recent things that I’ve read from the library or about which I’ve heard really excellent advance praise. What I also look forward to reading are the things that nobody is urging me to read. Part of that involves plumbing bibliographies and reference books, part of it involves finding reprints, and part of it involves hewing to the titular requirement of this post.

Egyptian_-_Gnostic_Gem_with_Scarab_-_Walters_42872_-_ReverseThe survival of work from the past can be a chancy thing, and what is saved is not necessarily good, and what is lost is sometimes better forgotten. The finding of it, however, is part of a quiet and almost Gnostic kind of quest that demands nothing. It is the sort of thing that many authors have engaged in over the years, and which cannot—perhaps should not—always be repackaged for the demands of social media. Some quests are public, some private, but either way, I think that we forget our quests at the peril of our lives, to say nothing of our art.

Strange Love

Presumably most true Aickman-o-philes have seen this documentary already, but if you are one of his readers who have not, then enjoy.

I watched this tonight and enjoyed it, though I feel the film is probably most intelligible to those who are already deeply enough engaged with the dark and fantastic that Robert Aickman is not an unknown quantity. He is, in the U.S., at least, somewhere between an influential mid-century author of horror fiction and a cult author with a beyond-cult following. His work is refined and unusual, not well imitated, though some have walked in his footsteps. If you wind up in a conversation where people are talking about “strange stories,” Aickman is watching from a corner of the room.

Much about the documentary struck me, particularly the section discussing his personality: the “grit in the oyster” comment. So often excellent authors (or artists generally) are at heart awkward, rude, mean, or actually monsters. That tends to be less visible today, or perhaps such authors don’t have as easy a time of it, but it still astonishes me how much hue and cry a writer’s misstep engenders in “the writing community,” despite the vast, well-documented literature of creative people being sometimes outrageously disruptive and unpleasant. Aickman seems to have been on the benign end of that scale, but I don’t think he would fare well if he were around and trying to get started these days. His politics wouldn’t suit a lot of readers, and his manner suggests that he would be a disaster on, say, Facebook.

This film is a nice look at an author who lived in the days before Google, BookScan, the Wayback Machine, and constant surveillance and sousveillance. He was probably the happier for it, and perhaps a more interesting—and more enigmatic—figure than he would otherwise be today. Fortunately for his readers.

A Head Full of Ghosts in a Very Busy Room

Cover of Paul Tremblay's a head full of ghostsLast week I finished reading Paul Tremblay‘s A Head Full of Ghosts [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads]. Early praise for it was very good, and the reputation it has grown even in a year is suggestive of a book of quality. The subtlety of it can’t be emphasized enough, partly because the book grapples head-on with The Exorcist, reality TV culture, metafiction, and the epistolary tradition. It is, to put it mildly, an ambitious book, and all the more so because it’s not a doorstopper. I love a short novel, and this one is a well-made UFC fighter of a book, rangy and able to use a bunch of different strikes, chokes, locks, and kicks to do its thing.  And all the while that it is doing those things, it is building with repetition, diction, and well-chosen details a subtle atmosphere of dread that is still with me, even now.

As it also turns out, I’m very glad I waited to read it. The Venn diagram of horror, literary horror, weird fiction, dark fiction, and literary-fiction-that-is-dark is larger than ever these day. Once upon a time, there was only so much of it in any given year. In a thread over on a publisher’s Facebook page the other day, the roll call of what’s coming out this year—in short fiction collections alone—was formidable in length, something like 25 books. Add another 25 novels or standalone novellas, and it’s past the number of books I generally read in a year, and that’s before even getting to the recent surge in weird/literary chapbooks.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing a talk from Kelly Link at the University of Richmond, “A Vampire Is a Flexible Metaphor,” which covers some of the same territory as a 2013 interview with the author. Link is a living master of fantastic short fiction, so it was instructive to hear her talk at some length about the authors she has read and currently reads, and about the importance of returning to deep wells. To focus on fiction from 1960 or 1910 necessarily means that you won’t read all of the exciting books of 2016, but Link’s enduring passion for authors like Joan Aiken, Shirley Jackson, etc. is clear and instructive, even as she spoke lyrically about the strength of a number of authors writing today.

All of that to say, I think that A Head Full of Ghosts is a standout novel and worth reading. I felt something moving inside me as I turned the pages, perhaps the kind of unrest that will ultimately lead to deeper reflection, and that alone would make me want to tell other readers about it, even if it weren’t a pleasure to read. So, you know, go check out A Head Full of Ghosts, and see if you wind up with something unexpected taking hold of you as well.

 

Monster Appreciation 201

paintedmonstersThree years have passed between the publication of Orrin Grey‘s first story collection, Never Bet the Devil, and his latest, Painted Monsters, and I have to say this was one of my most anticipated reads of last year. In 2013 I called his first collection a Monsterghostoccultapalooza, and while that description could arguably also be applied to Painted Monsters, I think it’s perhaps more accurate to say that this book is a manual of monster appreciation.

This book is built around the monsters of film, from Caligari to kaiju. They are delivered in an Orrin-style bow, with a panoply of framing devices to enjoy while reading. That said, it strikes me as a pleasure for those who do or don’t go in for horror on film. I was mildly surprised to realize just how many of the stories here I’d read previously, and this was actually a happy surprise. I’m biased, but I do think Orrin’s work tends to stand out in anthologies where it appears, and I’m glad to have all these stories between two covers. It’s hard to pick out favorites in the bunch, as each is a delight, but for now I’d say my top three were the titular story, “Painted Monsters,” along with “Persistence of Vision” and “The Red Church.”

Do you like to read external-to-the-story matter? Orrin does a lovely job of this, writing stories about the stories that are themselves delightful, and I don’t want to spoil any of that for you, but I will say to read the general author’s note, and John Langan’s monsterful introduction. Orrin talks about the collection over at The Outer Dark, if you’re looking for more, and elsewhere. Word Horde did a nice job with this book, and I’m particularly delighted by Nick Gucker’s cover art, as it wonderfully evokes the tone of the collection, and it makes me smile every time I see it.

Painted Monsters is a dark love letter that should appeal to anyone with an interest in the creatures that have haunted our days and nights, our books and movies, games and televisions, for the last hundred years. Check it out. [Amazon|B&N|Publisher]