WiHM 2023: Women Writers Shaping the Future of Horror
Women Writers Shaping the Future of Horror
By: Cecilia Kennedy
Place a knife, a fairytale—or cursed object—in the hands of the following writers, and they’ll deliver terrifically twisted page-turners to last this entire Women in Horror Month—and then some. The six authors here each contain a unique vision that pushes the genre in exciting and powerful new directions, and this list is not, by any means, exhaustive. The authors listed here just happened to be a part of my own reading list over the past year, and I’ve found their work inspiring.
So, as the spring wind and rain beat down through intermittent clouds and sun, embrace the chill with haunting stories by the following authors, listed in alphabetical order by last name below.
Oyinkan Braithwaite: My Sister, the Serial Killer (Anchor Books, 2017). A spot-on thriller, My Sister, the Serial Killer never misses, in terms of pacing and humor, but more than anything else, it examines the complex relationships among family members. The fierce, complicated bond that ties Korede (a nurse) and her sister, Ayoola (a murderer), drives the action.
Braithwaite, a creative writing and law graduate of Kingston University in London, lives in Lagos, Nigeria. She’s a freelance writer and editor who was a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. My Sister, the Serial Killer is her first novel-length work, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. (https://oyinkanbraithwaite.com/)
The first chapter, titled “Bleach,” sets up the pace, perspective, and theme. Korede knows how to scrub a crime scene and protect her sister: “The hardest part was getting to the blood that had seeped in between the shower and the caulking. It’s an easy part to forget.” Never forgetting is key. For Korede, meticulously keeping track of details, in a place where the police in this story are corrupt, and women can be harmed at every turn, allows her to use information in ways that throw the authorities off. After all, Ayoola has murdered her third boyfriend, and Korede has a lot to cover up. Following the twists and turns of the story is just as enjoyable as the sharp wit. And beneath all the cover ups, just as pervasive as the smell of bleach, are the pointed observations of power relationships, social class, and the role that physical beauty plays in society.
Suzanne Craig-Whytock: At the End of It All: Stories from the Shadows (Potter’s Grove Press, 2023). Sometimes, vibrant landscapes make for the darkest settings of all, and Suzanne Craig-Whytock is a brilliant author with a wicked sense of humor, who can bring light out of the darkness and vice versa. So, it’s no surprise to find a gem like “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in her latest short story collection. The whole collection is fabulous, but this story is my favorite. Rather than starting with the foreground in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous painting—where the ploughman, rather than Icarus’ eventful fall, takes center stage—the author begins with the body, flailing in the shallow water. Then, she uses the rest of the story to try to understand why the people passing by might notice something off or strange—but never stop to do anything about it. They each have their own tragic story or struggles—including a truck driver, a woman in a sports car, a young couple in an SUV, and a highway patrol officer. As the story lengthens, details are added about the body in the water, which no longer flails, but grows paler. A sense of place and inner struggle connect as the narrator reflects on the absurd scene, which is also beautifully tragic—and quite horrific. No one has thought to slow down or help. They’re too anxious to get to the next place, but pressing forward is its own tragedy that ultimately leads to isolation.
Suzanne Craig-Whytock has several books and short story collections out, as well as stories that have appeared in various publications, including Anti-Heroin Chic, Slippage Lit, and The Ekphrastic Review. (https://www.amazon.com/stores/author/B0878YYN7V/about) She’s also the editor-in-chief of DarkWinter Literary Magazine. Her blog, mydangblog: Come for the laughs, stay for the lunacy, is such a treat to read as well. (https://educationalmentorship.com/) In general, her stories are meticulously and insightfully structured, with memorable characters and witty dialogue. She finds a sense of adventure in absurdity, with dark edges, keen observations, and a sharp wit.
Tracy Cross: “The Kinda True Story of Bloody Mary,” in Don’t Break the Oath: Women of Horror Anthology Volume 4 (Kandisha Press, 2021). Mirrors reflect power structures, with deadly consequences in this incredibly chilling story by Tracy Cross. Taneisha, who has to babysit on Halloween night, instead of finally going to the drive-in with “the hottest jock in town,” tells a haunting Bloody Mary story to the children she’s watching. In classic babysitter-horror-movie style, the Jiffy Pop cooks over the flame of the stove, but the perspective shifts. Cultural references in this babysitter horror story are from Taneisha’s perspective, who pushes her “Black Power pick deeper into her fro” and carries on lively banter with eight-year-old Derek, who is unabashedly smitten with the 70s actor and singer, Pam Grier. As the children gather for a story that, according to Taneisha, “mostly girls tell each other because the patriarchy…men,” she lights candles and sets the stage for a story within a story, where fear, power, and mirrors connect. Within the story, a rich white woman—a countess—seeks virginal sacrifices to maintain her youth and beauty. Male guards, out of fear, obey her orders. Silence pervades. Other girls, who are enslaved, with their tongues cut out and their lips sewn shut, also obey out of fear. But then, there is Mary. When she is sacrificed, she gets the last word—as a curse. The countess will have to take Mary’s name—and everyone will have to say it to make her appear. When Taneisha ends the story, the suspense crystalizes, as the children she babysits take turns daring each other to say Mary’s name in the mirror three times. Emmy, one of the children in their company, pushes herself to say the name three times, while looking “into the mirror at herself—blonde, big blue eyes, and two ponytails held by red ribbons.” She’s forced to see herself, her own fear, her curiosity. By the end of the story, Taneisha is in disbelief because, as she tells the children, she made this tale up, but the fictional edges, which mirror real power structures in society, create narratives that reflect the truth.
Tracy Cross has published several short stories, and she has a new book out as well: Rootwork. She’s the recipient of scholarships and grants from the Horror Writer’s Association and the Ladies of Horror Fiction association. Her strong women characters are seen and heard—and, according to her bio online, she writes “exciting stories with breadcrumbs.” (https://tracycrossonline.com/) “The Kinda True Story of Bloody Mary” definitely reflects this technique. It’s a superbly executed story, with plenty of breadcrumbs that lead to unexpected places and revelations.
Serena Jayne: Necessary Evils (Unnerving Press, 2022). Creeps might grow on the vine, but it’s the women protagonists who flourish in this short-story collection. Each story here has a distinct voice and perspective, which makes the narratives so deliciously fun to read. The eighteen stories in this set are filled with characters who, according to the collection’s synopsis, are “willing to get their hands bloody and strike deadly deals to achieve their darkest desires. Some evils, while nasty, are nothing short of necessary.”
Serena Jayne not only writes dark stories of fiction but also crime-fiction, romance, science fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She’s been published in anthologies and literary magazines online and in print, including Shotgun Honey and Yellow Mama. She’s also a prolific reviewer of other authors’ works. ( http://serenajayne.com/) For her dark stories, a strong perspective takes focus through the thoughts and observations of characters with a clear, distinct voice that speaks from the page. Chilling twists and turns await, with satisfying endings.
“Garden-Variety Creeper,” is one of my favorite stories from Necessary Evils, and that element of desperation, on the part of the protagonist (Jane) becomes distinctly clear in the ways that men have invaded her space. When Harry, an unassuming married man from a past place of employment shows up on Jane’s doorstep, she doesn’t feel fear, at first, until he steps inside and begins to close in on her territory, breathing down her neck, accidentally touching her arm when she hands him a glass of water. Then, he mentions the reason for his visit: the fact that his Christmas card came back “return to sender.” (How dare she?) The doubt sets in: friends had told her she was making a big deal about the unwanted cards, though she knew that Harry wasn’t sending out cards with his phone number in them to other people in the office. We also find out that she has switched jobs because of an incident with a contract worker at her former place of employment. And when she reported it, nothing happened. She’s forced to leave, to find other places to work—other places to live. And now, in her own home, with Harry in it, the space in which Jane moves narrows, and the doubt grows as she relives the thoughts that plague her in her head. No matter where she goes—whether it’s the gym or work—she has to hide or keep moving because the creeps keep creeping. In a shift moment, as Harry takes over her bedroom, threatens her, and will not leave, she finds her voice and reclaims her space—beating back the thickets of doubt that are just as pervasive as the creeps.
Kenzie Jennings: Red Station (Death’s Head Press, LLC, 2020). Pack a red dress and your sharpest accessories to survive a harrowing stay at the home station. Clyde Northway is an unforgettable character in her red dress that doubles as a weapon of armor. Jennings’ novella-length “splatter-Western” is drenched in fast-paced action, wit, and grit. The protagonist is well-read, clever, and persistent—she upends the expectations of women of the society at the time. The convention of the damsel-in-distress-in-a-dress is slashed and turned on its heels in a stark prairie landscape, slowly splattered in blood.
Clyde Northway is one of a number of stagecoach passengers forced to take refuge in a station house, only to realize that something terrible is happening there. Depravity and a lust for blood prevail. Social interactions are tactical games; strategy is key. And Clyde Northway can wear whatever the heck she wants as she fights and claws her way to survival and then some. It’s a wild, wild West of a ride—but without the typical Western cliches because Clyde Northway carves out new territory.
The Reception is another work of Jennings’ that I read a few years back, and I found it equally as enjoyable. It’s an absolute blood bath, and I mean that in the best way ever. Wedding disasters are legendary, but when Ansley Boone agrees to be a bridesmaid at her little sister’s ceremony, and the groom’s family turns out to be cannibals, well, you can just imagine the reception. And I find it particularly satisfying that the protagonist (Ansley Boone), who experiences mental health issues and withdrawal symptoms from addiction, is the hero, rather than the monster.
I’ve just ordered her latest publication, Always Listen to Her Hurt, which is a collection of short stories—and I just know I won’t be disappointed. (https://www.amazon.com/stores/author/B07P686CGD/about) Her characterizations are razor sharp reflections of the places and interactions in which protagonists find themselves, and they always triumph as a cut above.
Cynthia Pelayo: Into the Forest and All the Way Through (Burial Day Books, 2020—Nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards.) As thick as the forest, are the stories of women who have gone missing. Cynthia Pelayo’s collection of true-crime poems takes readers on a journey through the forest, through hauntingly beautiful poems that raise awareness of the cases of over one hundred women who have been murdered or lost, especially the cases of Women of Color. The author gleaned the content for the poems from missing persons’ posters and websites of family members and friends who hope to keep their memory alive. At the heart of this collection is also advocacy. Beneath each poem, Pelayo has included basic information regarding each case and an investigating agency’s phone number. Readers are encouraged to contact that number if they know anything about the case.
The poems themselves are concise, filled with carefully chosen images that resonate. They are like breadcrumbs left on the trail of a forested path, where objects like a ball of twine, a green coat, an empty car, birthday sprinkles, a purse—lead to more heart-wrenching questions than answers. Some of the perspectives of these poems reflect those of the yearning of family members who hold onto last memories and hope. They reveal underlying tensions of final moments, possible reasons for disappearance, ties to abusive relationships, and, in some cases, witness accounts that don’t quite pan out. The forest here, leads through all fifty states, and each snapshot or catalogued entry of a poem is difficult to read. Though the collection as a whole would seem like it could be read in a sitting, reviewers often report that they can only emotionally handle one, or just a few, at a time.
Cynthia Pelayo is an award-winning, prolific writer, who is constantly creating fresh, new, and impactful work. ( http://www.cinapelayo.com/) I also just had a chance to read Children of Chicago, which re-shapes the Pied Piper fairytale story in a modern way, and it’s brilliant. Lauren Medina, a Chicago detective, investigates the murders of teenagers who died in a similar manner that her sister did years ago. The forest from the true-crime poems of Pelayo’s earlier work makes a reappearance in a sense, as the dark trail that Medina follows twists and turns in unexpected ways, connecting memory, fragments of paper, missing pages, and accountability.
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Cecilia Kennedy (she/her) is a writer who taught English and Spanish in Ohio for 20 years before moving to Washington state with her family. Since 2017, she has published stories in international literary magazines and anthologies. Her work has appeared in Hearth & Coffin Literary Magazine, Maudlin House, Tiny Molecules, Rejection Letters, Meadowlark Review, Vast Chasm Literary Magazine, Coffin Bell, Kandisha Press, Ghost Orchid Press, and others. She currently works full time as a copywriter and does freelance work as a proofreader for Flash Fiction Magazine and as a concept editor for Running Wild Press, LLC. You can follow her on Twitter (@ckennedyhola). Author Website: https://ckennedyhola.wixsite.com/ckennedyportfolio