So I’ve obviously been asking other people, but the thought of women writing horror begs the question…who are my influences? Those who know me know that I tend to pull out a list that leans towards the testosterone side, but that doesn’t mean that I’m without female influences. Some of the most shockingly awesome moments of my literary dark fiction life have come from women authors. I thought that today I’d recount some of those moments and see what comes up.
Anne Rice – Like so many others, I got into Anne Rice around the time that I really started to read more genre fiction in general. I remember especially getting into her titles in college, as a much needed break from the piles of textbooks that surrounded me. She was the first example of “modern” vampire fiction that I really read, and I have to admit I was pretty thunderstruck. She definitely has a way with descriptions, and I found myself empathizing for the vampires, but also disgusted and creeped out, as well. That scene in Interview With the Vampire with the prostitute being put alive into the coffin…that’s terrifying. The whole concept of Claudia…the fact that she’s part little girl, and part definitely not as she begins to age is really bold – that takes some major balls (so to speak) to write and write well. Even though I find some of her religious tangents repetitive and I found that her characters blended together a little for my tastes as the vampire chronicles went on, her work was an insanely good foundation for me. I felt like suddenly it was acceptable for me to be thinking of bolder plot points, deeper emotions, more structured plots. If anything, she really explores how wild the emotional landscape of her characters are. Plus, she’s so good about setting things in history and showing the clash of different eras against each other. There’s no doubt that what she does, she does very well. She has a way of making the seductive scary and the scary more deeply terrifying than we’d like to admit.
Nancy A. Collins – At some point while i was trying to write vampires (and really not sure what I was doing), I will admit that I was seeing how far things could be pushed. None of my writing from that point is around anymore, and it’s for the best. The ideas were good, but I really had no clue what I was doing. Still, a friend of mine thought that I reminded her of this author that I’d never heard of…and thus Nancy A. Collins was brought into my life and I was promptly enthralled, horrified, and a little disgusted. For those who aren’t familiar with the splatterpunk genre…it isn’t for the faint of heart. In a big way. The Sonja Blue series is insanely graphic, destructively dark, and some of the best urban fantasy vampire fiction I’ve ever read. The progression of Sonja from socialite to victim to vampire to slayer is badass with a great big knife. There is no doubt that she’s conflicted, but her conflict isn’t the stuff of angsty Twilight vampires…hers is more along the lines of a different personality called the Other trying to take her over. The main trilogy deals with her vengeance against her sire, and while I felt the third book fizzled a little, the concepts are mindblowingly awesome. This is the first series I read that had the concept of paranormal creatures masquerading as real-world people and only the chosen few catching on. It also was very good about Sonja trying to carve out some sort of a love life for herself (this usually involved the Other taking her over and tormenting these guys in hellacious ways), and coming to grips with the fact that she can never embrace her past again. It’s a very, very unique series that shows absolutely no fear, and it’s an inspiration that I’ve held dear for many years, even if it’s a little more graphic than my usual tastes. It did show me, though, that a chick can write hard and go for the jugular, and you can have conflicted female leads that are trying to sort their own personal problems out…but still kick major butt. She is always taking down bad guys who are going around killing to kill people, but there’s no doubt that she’s a girl. There’s no doubt she has her own version of being feminine. Sonja may leave some people cold, but she is a fabulous, fabulous character and I wish there was a good way to translate this series to screen. Be warned – this series isn’t for the faint of heart, and is MUCH different than Collins’ later YA series Vamps. Sonja Blue is a hardcore vampire with bloodthirsty habits and a painfully sordid past..and my god do I love Nancy A. Collins for writing her that way.
Shirley Jackson – It took me a while to realize that I’d read more Shirley Jackson than I’d thought. Remember the story that most of us read in school called The Lottery? Remember being marginally terrorized by the thought of what it would mean if you had to randomly sacrifice someone you knew for the good of the town? That would be the subtle genius of Shirley Jackson. Sure, she’s more subtle than the other two I’ve listed, but she’s no less gutsy. That story definitely does what it’s supposed to do. I really didn’t realize how amazing her writing is, though, until I randomly grabbed The Haunting of Hill House a few years ago. If all you’ve seen is the remake, then forget it. Just…just forget it. The original movie is much closer, but there’s really something about Jackson’s prose that is intoxicating and terrifying. Not only do you genuinely grow to feel for poor Eleanor’s situation, but her decidedly feminine quirks are used to make the reader feel decidedly unsettled and uncomfortable throughout the book. I never thought I’d be shuddering over the use of an art song (Oh Mistress Mine is quoted a lot in the book; coincidentally it’s one I performed a lot in vocal lessons, so this probably added to the creep out factor for me), but she definitely gives the lyrics a whole other meaning as the book goes on. The subtle use of sexual tension with Theo is also brilliant, and doesn’t require the in your face version that Catherine Zeta Jones brings to the remake. Eleanor is vulnerable, and not quite knowing where Theo stands works to up the stakes more in the scenes they’re stuck together in a room in the book. Plus, the hand-holding scene…this is truly one of the things that made me do a double take when reading, and I had to go back and see if I could find a way to explain it away as something other than supernatural. I still haven’t found a way to do that. Otherwise, the thread is tightened and tightened throughout the book, and you never really quite know if Eleanor is being tormented by the house, or if she’s so vulnerable and emotionally broken that she’s just plain bat crazy. I honestly didn’t see the ending coming, and it’s very hard to say what influenced her to do what she does. It’s a brilliant, brilliant tightrope act, and Jackson handles it perfectly. Reading her work definitely made me realize that you can use feminine attributes to build character and contribute to fear – it doesn’t mean the chick has to be a victim. It’s a different kind of scary, but oh, it works just fine.
Rachel Klein – A newer name, I still really like her style in The Moth Diaries, which is basically a modernization of Carmilla set in a girls’ boarding school in the sixties or so. She writes Gothic horror really well, and although the characters talk old for their ages, I buy it because of the world and time frame that’s set up. She’s very, very good at establishing the realism of the world…and then making you wonder what the hell is really going on when things start going wonky. Who’s the real vampire? Who’s sane and who’s not? Just why are people dying and whose fault is it? She’s insanely good at drawing you along, and providing plausible excuses for why what you just read may not have happened at face value. She’s also great with the metaphor – the lead character is just as vampiric as the girl she’s accusing of supernatural shenanigans, but in an emotional way. The prologue and epilogue are also really nice touches to ground things into the real world. Truly, she is a great writer and I want to read more from her.
There are many more where these came from, of course, but they’re some of my favorites. Each of these ladies do things a little differently, and each have shown me a different facet of horror and different ways to handle things. I’m so glad they exist and that I’ve had their books to read along the way. The fact that their titles are just plain there give me a lot of hope and encouragement to see what I can bring to the table.