February is Women in Horror Month.
It’s a celebration of women working within a genre and an opportunity to support each other. The start of my journey as a writer of horror began here – in horror.
Fear attracted me.
It began with a Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. The scene where she melts into the floor gave me nightmares as a child. It was gloriously frightening. Then, a friend, when we were both about four years old, she picked up a large, wriggling earth worm. I screamed. She then dropped it in the front pocket of my pinafore dress. That creature – I can still feel the slimy texture and frantic twisting – paralyzed me. I was helpless, unbelieving and terrified. There was no point running – this thing was invading my pocket and me. It stained my soul with horror. I can still feel that total panic. Later, I discovered the Hammer Horror films, now gloriously vintage, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battling good versus evil and the nature of tales of horror – that distancing but total immersion in your suspension of belief only the masters of horror can create. Stephen King then took me by the hand and I simultaneously discovered the great gothic novels of supernatural literature.
I was home.
Journalistically, I have been fascinated by what people believe and why. I have interviewed many who claim to have seen inexplicable events. Whilst fascinated by their stories, I have also been interested in WHY they believe. I have an open mind – but no direct experience of the paranormal. I had been on a journey of listening and observing. Then, I had an idea for a novel which used that perspective and I knew would make a great story. So I wrote it. Now, I am filtering that attraction to fear through the creative process. I like dark places. I created the darkest place in our contemporary world, using the media as a backdrop, so we can all explore that fear.
Having a ‘Women in Horror Month’ means great deal. Women have always been successful writers of horror. The days when a woman had to publish in the guise of a man to even get her work taken seriously are over. Wuthering Heights was Emily Bronte’s only novel. She was published as Ellis Bell in 1847. Even JK Rowling chose a masculinised version of her name to chime with JRR Tolkien. Interestingly, she also writes as Robert Galbraith. This isn’t a criticism – but it is an interesting observation.
Now, in writing, more and more women are free to explore horror. This is not about feminising the genre or allowing female stereotypes to push the narrative along. Our perspective is as rigorous and frightening as established male writers. We need more room, more promotion and we need to support each other. I wish gender was not still an issue. We do not write in in a room scented with lavender, writing with a feathered quill on soft parchment while feeling somehow apologetic for daring to create stories. We stand as equals.
When it comes to role models in Horror, there are many. Mary Shelley, who was unconventional, created The Modern Prometheus – Frankenstein after a massive thunderstorm and a bad dream.She wrote “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves". Amen sister, especially as that was back in the 19th Century
Daphne Du Maurier should be mentioned for her ability to take the horror genre into a place where great stories and fear combine. No sugar for her. In Rebecca, she created the original first wife from hell in the form of the first Mrs De Winter – physically dead but very much in control. Du Maurier didn’t even give wife number two a name. And the short story Don’t Look Now – the source for the 1973 film of the same title - was an exploration of the horror of loss, set in the winter walkways of a sinister Venice with sludge coloured canals, the red hooded horror and that atmosphere of déjà vu.
Susan Hill, CBE – for her Woman in Black – for her award winning ability to build a story wrapped in history, atmosphere and understated horror. She once told me one of her own favourite novels was The Man in the Picture, about an oil painting of masked revellers in Venice and the power it held to entrap and destroy those who were drawn to it. She said it drew her in, even though she was the story’s creator. I have never forgotten that.
The role of women in the horror genre is changing but women in the modern horror film genre are still often seen as the victims. There are scream queens like Jamie Lee Curtis, the deranged; Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Nicole Kidman in The Others. The downright vindictive; Carrie White played by Sissy Spacek –and let’s not even start on her mother, brilliantly played by Piper Laurie. Sadly, I think that element of stereotyping in horror still runs through Hollywood and TV.
Anne Rice created modern horror that was attractive, gothic and had us hankering after vampires. They were humanised and suffering in their immortality – perhaps making us yearn for the chance, for the bite, for the coffin to sleep in at night whilst the rest of the world grew old. Her female perspective led to horror which represented the alienated amongst us.
The fictional horror genre was changed by Stephanie Meyer with the Twilight series. That has launched YA horror and paranormal romance. I love walking into a major bookstore and seeing the success of female writers with their best sellers, lurid covers of vampires and humans, spectral romance, thrills and spills in the Twilight Zone. I think these authors – Nora Roberts, Cassandra Clare, Kierston White – have been inspirational for storytellers and supply a demand from mainly female readers and show commercial success can be achieved by women.
Scully did a lot in The X Files to show a modern woman, with brains, debunking the stereotype. More please. Besides, I loved her suits.
When it comes to the future of women in horror, I hope we can be recognised across the genre. Women are writing, producing, editing, starring in and directing horror.
Some of the best literary agents worldwide are women. Many who specialise in the horror genre are men.
My own publisher, Darren E Laws at Caffeine Nights – they specialise in Horror and Crime – handles some of the big names in Horror Fiction, such as Shaun Hutson whose latest novel is Chase. Darren wanted a woman to write paranormal and horror. I am glad we found each other.
Our gender does not mean we cannot explore horror in all elements. To end this a return to, and a quote from Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned, the Vampire Chronicles:
‘I don’t know whether I’m the hero or the victim of this tale. But either way, shouldn’t I dominate it? I’m the one really telling it, after all.’
This blog first appeared in the form of an interview with the website Promote Horror. Please visit and support their aims in promoting the genre.