Some things to note, in preface.
February has been named Women in Horror Recognition Month by Hannah Neurotica, editor of Ax Wound, the feminist horror zine. As part of the activities surrounding this, a program of short horror films by women directors will be screened at Athens Cine Saturday night, which I plan to attend if I can overcome my natural recluse tendencies.
Also in February, SFX Magazine produced a special horror issue. Among other features, they interviewed 34 screenwriters, directors, and novelists for a section entitled “Horror’s Hidden Treasures.” In a bit of unintentional irony, given the month in which the issue appeared, they, uh, forgot to ask any women.
Maura McHugh discusses the omission on her blog and publishes her email exchange with editor Ian Berriman. Mr. Berriman engages with her politely and explains some of the reasons for the omission. Women are certainly less represented in screenwriting and directing in general, and even less visible in the horror genre. Fair enough. It’s more difficult to justify the complete absence of women novelists. You wouldn’t need to look that far, given that writer Tanith Lee is the guest of honor at the World Horror Convention in Brighton, UK next month and that Sarah Langan is one of four nominees for this year’s Bram Stoker Award for best novel. Caitlín R. Kiernan is hardly an unknown, either and her The Red Tree, which came out last year, is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in years. Seriously, it has already ascended to Classic rank for me alongside such beloved favorites as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, and Fred Chappell’s Dagon.
I can sympathize with the editor’s frustration in feeling like he’s put a lot of work into this issue and now he’s being “dismissed” on the basis of this omission, although given earlier, recent Internet brouhahas over similar omissions, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t anticipate it. But that’s neither here nor there. I’m not crazy about the reactive nature of the Internet in responding to these sorts of things. Tempers flare and awful things are said that people would never say to one another’s faces. On balance, as my dad (who grew up in the mountains of North Georgia) used to say, “I’m agin’ it.”
What I want to talk about is this line from Ian Berriman’s response:
A female freelancer who specialises in horror journalism responded in similar terms: “It’s not your fault; you’re just reflecting the industry. There just aren’t that many female horror directors. There aren’t even that many female horror fans, come to that.“
Emphasis mine. That’s the comment that rankles. This is a persistent myth, and one I loathe. It’s simply not true.
There are lots and lots of women who do work in the horror genre in some capacity or another, and before we were creators, we were fans. We still are fans. And we still hear this kind of thing a lot, whether from people anxious to save us from our own collusion in a genre often seen as misogynistic to those fine specimens of manhood hailing from what I think of as the smelly boy’s locker room of horror who smugly declare that they “don’t read women writers” because “they just aren’t dark enough“! (For that notion, I prescribe a reading of Natsuo Kirino’s Out.) Then there are people who think women in horror means this new marketing category dubbed “paranormal romance” or “urban fantasy.” Or, god forbid, they think Twilight.
So, in response to this assertion, that there just aren’t that many women horror fans, what I really want to do is write about my own, earliest memories of falling in love with horror.
This is a conversation I’ve had with a couple of (as it happens) male horror fans in my life: this early, primal attraction to the imagery of horror. A memory of being very young, three or four or five, and being simultaneously drawn to and terrified by forbidden things glimpsed on book covers or television: monsters, haunted houses, blood and things that go bump in the night.
Later I remember picking up this Alfred Hitchcock anthology lying around the house.
It must have belonged to an older sibling or cousin. (Orphaned books had a way of wending their way to our house.) A.M. Burrage’s “The Waxwork,” a tale of an impoverished journalist who agrees to spend the night in a waxworks chamber of horrors, frightened me half to death, which didn’t stop me reading and rereading it.
But the most memorable scare of my young life came a little later than that, within the pages of the anthology up there at the top, Shudders. I remember where I bought it, back in the day when drugstores carried racks of books. I remember picking it up and reading this from the back: If this book feels cold when you first touch it, don’t be surprised. Inside is a bone-chilling collection of stories by nine masters of terror.
And I said to myself: It does feel cold! It does!
This book contained “The Waxwork” as well. Ah, if only that had been the only horror that awaited me within. No, there was much worse ahead, and two stories in particular which kept me awake for the entirety of the summer that I was eight years old.
First up: “The Monkey’s Paw.” W.W. Jacobs.
I’m sure this story seems positively tame to anyone over the age of ten or so encountering it today. Not so for my eight-year-old self then. One of my bedroom windows, as it happened, looked out directly over the steps leading up to our front porch. Do you know what that meant?
I spent an entire summer lying awake in horror, waiting for the sound of the dead son’s footsteps coming up those steps to knock on our front door.
Why on earth did I think the shambling remains of dead Herbert White would see fit to turn up at our front door in the middle of the night? It made no sense; terror never does. (It also made no sense to me that his parents were offered two hundred pounds in compensation; two hundreds pounds of what? I wondered, rereading that bit over and over in frustrated incomprehension, looking for clues that were not forthcoming.) So there I lay, night after night, listening for a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door.
Sometimes I thought I heard it. After all, it was described as scarcely audible. Was that it? Could that be it? Eventually, I’d pass out from sheer exhaustion and get some sleep.
If I managed to survive the shambling and knocking of Herbert White, there was something even worse to contend with. Frank Belknap’s Long “Second Night Out.”
I hesitate to ruin this story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but once again, I suspect the power it held over eight-year-old me will not be quite the same for anyone reading this. At any rate, it mattered no more to me that we were not on a ship than that Herbert White had no reason to visit me. The only thing worse than the undead Herbert White was Frank Belknap’s Long killer undead monkey monster. Don’t laugh. The story contains a number of gruesome, hysterical descriptions of this horror, culminating in this final dreadful (in my imagination) manifestation:
For a moment, a moment only, I stared at the dark and repugnant visage, with its stary, corpse-white eyes, viscid and malignant, its flat simian nose, hairy ears, and thick black tongue that seemed to leap up at me from out of the mouth. The face moved as I watched it, wriggled and squirmed revoltingly, while the head itself shifted its position, turning slightly to one side and revealing a profile even more bestial and gangrenous and unclean than the brunt of its countenance.
Every night, that summer of my eighth year, I lay awake in bed, trying not to look into the corners of the room, where, I was absolutely convinced this wrong, rotted monkey face would leer at me out of the dark. Meanwhile, Herbert White would be knocking away and the front door. And that would be all she wrote.
I’m amazed I survived to nine.
So why did I keep reading the stuff when it scared me so badly?
Well…it was awful, yeah, lying there sleepless, absolutely convinced I was going to die a horrible death, torn apart by the hands of a dead monkey.
But…it was also fun.
A few years later, Michael Myers* finally provided me with scares equivalent to the zombified Herbert White and the killer monkey–specifically, Michael Myers standing silent at the doorway wearing nothing but a bedsheet and, over it, the glasses of Lynda’s (P.J. Soles’s) dead boyfriend. Another season of sleepless nights followed. But that’s a topic for another post…
So, female and male fans alike: what are your earliest horror memories?
*Speaking of women screenwriters and horror, the late Debra Hill was the co-writer along with John Carpenter of the classic Halloween.