WiHM 2023: Why Not Female Horror Authors?
Why Not Female Horror Authors?
by: L. Marie Wood
Horror fiction… authors in the genre have never been taken seriously… not in the mainstream and not with any real longevity. Over the centuries, only a few horror authors stand out in memory. These authors – Poe, King, Lovecraft – brought fresh ideas to the table; they made people look at horror in a new light. Stephen King, above all, brought commercial validity to a genre that had previously been regarded as pulp, influencing writers in other genres to incorporate the supernatural in their prose and have no qualms about saying so… ok, less qualms. As such, Stephen King is synonymous with horror and is, more often than not, the only contemporary horror author that mainstream readers can name. Largely, other authors in the horror genre go unread by the mainstream community, if they are recognized at all. Female horror authors suffer a worse fate. They remain unknown, in large part, to mainstream readership as well to the indie horror community. While a small few break out, many produce work known only to niche markets.
Interesting, when you consider the origins of the genre itself.
In the early 1800s, a new style of fiction aptly termed gothic horror due, in part, to the dark settings used in its prose, was written by women for women, unseating the ‘woman as victim’ trope. Crafty escapes from diabolical antagonists were offered to those who craved an exciting read. While a woman is not credited as the original practitioner of gothic horror – that award goes to Horace Walpole and his 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto – Ann Radcliffe’s works, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and A Sicilian Romance laid the foundation for what we know today. And then came Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking, genre-bending novel, Frankenstein in 1818, a gothic horror text that that is also considered the first science fiction novel – pick a side and state it loudly in a room full of speculative fiction authors… chaos will ensue to this day. To be clear, a woman wrote the first novel to be deemed science fiction, kicking off a brand-new genre in the 1800s… How, then, did the shift from women as literary powerhouses to women as under-represented authors occur?
Many trace the lack of female authors represented in the horror genre to a catchall sub-genre called paranormal romance. Paranormal romance is unique within, and some would say adjacent to, the horror genre in that its purpose is not, “…to evoke terror, but to present an impossibly romantic alternative to reality,” as illustrated by Kelleher in her article about women in horror for Jezebel (2008). As such, this sub-genre straddles the line, belonging to both horror and romance, producing an unlikely tug of war. Others cite the practice of not claiming horror as a reason for there being fewer female written contributions to the horror literary canon, pointing to the many novels that were, indeed, horror but labelled magical realism or dark fantasy instead – novels like Toni Morrison’s Beloved comes to mind. Some novels downplayed the element that made it horror all together. Why? That answer is unknowable, but the popularity of the genre – or lack thereof – doesn’t always make it an easy sell. There was a time when a woman who claimed to be writing horror was assumed to be writing paranormal romance, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Female horror authors are alive and well, writing in all sub-genres, from quiet to visceral… and they’re here to stay.
But will their work be discovered, accessible… read?
While women are viewed differently in this century than in times past, gender still plays a part in how their literary work is accepted. This is shown in published statistics and industry surveys. Women continue to write and produce material, however their work is not reviewed as often as males – The Guardian said as much back in 2011, but these statistics can be found widely. Female authors make less than male authors in the same genres. Indeed, The Guardian reported that books penned by female authors cost less than men in 2018.
These are facts. There are other statements floating around about female and male authors that are not backed up by stats, some of which are dubious, but these are not those.
Is there a double standard? Can men and women of equal talent and similar style write about the same subject matter and be reviewed and, subsequently, received differently? The propensity for women to assume male pen names when they write in so-called stronger categories/genres (READ Horror and Sci-fi) begs the question.
Are female horror authors marginalized because they just can’t hack it? Does society think that males inherently write horror fiction better than women? Do they believe that women are too fragile to imagine unsettling horrors? If dark thoughts lurk in a woman’s mind, is it somehow improper (unladylike?) for them to be entertained and transposed onto a page for all to read? Is this mindset a socialized gender bias?
Perhaps there is some merit to the latter.
Miller stated that, “Conventional wisdom among professionals in the children’s book business is that while girls will read books about either boys or girls, boys only want to read about boys,” (2011). Children often take on the characteristics of their parents and respond to what they see. While there is a place for inherent proclivity, much of early learning is parroting. If parents are buying books that are considered gender appropriate (based on societal rules for gender behavior), children will gravitate to them naturally when they begin to make their own selections. As children age, their interests may change, but the notions of gender norms have solidified. Hence the interminable cycle.
As horror fiction struggles to gain it’s footing amid closing brick and mortar bookstores, collapsed categories at the few big box stores that still stand, and the veritable sea that is online shopping, discover new female horror writers. Seek them out. Pick up tomes from women across the globe. They’re writing horror and they’re doing it from every corner of the world.
While we watch the changing of an era, as bookstores close their doors in favor of online storefronts, one can’t help but wonder about the future of the horror genre and, by extension, the fate of the female horror author. Online presence provides for a wider audience with cheap prices and instant gratification in the form of a download, so perhaps, as demographic marketing of horror advances, more people will be willing to try horror written by women. The Internet may prove to be the venue where the playing field is leveled and gender is no longer a factor. Don’t know where to start?
- Sumiko Saulson maintains a list of Black Women in Horror (https://sumikosaulson.com/black-women-in-horror/)
- Penguin has a nice starter list: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/the-read-down/best-horror-novels-women/
- Looks for indie female horror authors online.
Kelleher, K. (27 October 2008). The horror, the horror: Women writers provide empowering portraits. Jezebel. http://jezebel.com/5069127/the-horror-the-horror-women-writers-provide-empowering-portraits
Research shows that male writers still dominate books world. (4 February 2011). The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/04/research-male-writers-dominate-books-world
Books by women priced 45% lower, study finds (1 May 2018). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/01/books-by-women-priced-45-lower-study-finds
Miller, L. (9 February 2011). Literature’s gender gap. Salon. http://www.salon.com/2011/02/09/women_literary_publishing/singleton/
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L. Marie Wood is an award-winning dark fiction author, screenwriter, and poet with novels in the psychological horror, mystery, and dark romance genres. She won the Golden Stake Award for her novel The Promise Keeper. She is a recipient of the MICO Award and has won Best Horror, Best Action, Best Afrofuturism/Horror/Sci-Fi, and Best Short Screenplay awards in both national and international film festivals. She is also part of the 2022 Bookfest Book Award winning poetry anthology, Under Her Skin. Wood, a Brand New Weird nominated author, has penned short fiction that has been published in groundbreaking works, including the Bram Stoker Award Finalist anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire. Her academic writing has been published by Nightmare Magazine and the cross-curricular text, Conjuring Worlds: An Afrofuturist Textbook. She is the founder of the Speculative Fiction Academy, an English and Creative Writing professor, a horror scholar, and a frequent speaker in the genre convention space. Learn more about L. Marie Wood at www.lmariewood.com.