So You Think You Might be a Horror Writer
By Emma J. Gibbon
I came to realize fairly late that I was a horror writer, only in the last couple of years. I’ve been writing for *gasp* twenty years and been female a lot longer, so this is a new piece of my identity. That said, it seems like the signs were always there and I was the last to know. An actual conversation that happened with my husband:
Husband: I always thought of you as a horror writer.
Me: Why didn’t you tell me?
Husband: I thought you knew.
So in the spirit of helping others, I would like to share with you some of the clues I didn’t catch just in case you’re a horror writer too and didn’t realize yet.
1. When I was really little, my favorite fairytale was Bluebeard. Yeah, really. The one about the serial killer. I still have the illustrated Perrault’s fairy tales. One of the pictures features a bloodied axe and the corpses of his previous wives hung up on the wall. I was a weird kid.
Also, read “55 Miles to The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx. It’s in Close Range: Wyoming Stories. It’s so short, it’ll only take a minute. Stand in the library stacks and read it. You won’t regret it.
2. Another, fairy tale related: I could not understand FOR THE LIFE OF ME why Sleeping Beauty’s parents didn’t just invite Maleficent to the party. It was so rude and mean of them. I lay the blame for the whole fiasco at the king and queen’s feet. I once didn’t get invited to some girl’s party but turned up anyway. I suppose I thought it was a mistake. I couldn't fathom why anyone would do that on purpose. The child-me deep inside felt so vindicated when the movie with Angelina Jolie came out. Count me in for Team Maleficent.
3. You can add me to Team Medusa and Team Harpy too.
4. Also, while we’re on the subject can we just agree right now that the Wicked Queen is better looking than Snow White?
5. The first book I bought with my own money at the school Scholastic fair was an anthology of classic ghost stories. It had a picture of a creepy doll on the cover. I vaguely remember “The Signalman” being in there but my favorite in the collection was “Laura” by Saki. Laura was not technically a ghost but I loved her (read that too).
6. My brother and I watched a lot of movies we shouldn’t have. This was the 80s. Nightmare on Elm Street, The Evil Dead, the Romero movies (remember Bub? We loved Bub), Critters, Child’s Play, Fright Night, Re-Animator, Hellraiser, Nightbreed, The Howling, Children of the Corn and many, many more. Shout outs to my parents’ free-range style and our incredibly lax neighborhood video rental guys.
7. By the time I was 12/13, I was inhaling a lot of books that probably weren't age appropriate that I would pick up from yard sales: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Hitchcock’s collections, a lot of V.C. Andrews (called Virginia Andrews in Britain). I remember rereading Amy Girl by Bari Wood a lot (an awesome female horror writer!) but more than anything, Stephen King. I started with Salem’s Lot and then read everything I could get my hands on. The fact that I ended up living in Maine, in the next town over from where Stephen King grew up, near the railway line that inspired “The Body” is like some kind of creepy Castle Rock kismet.
8. I spent my teen years bearing more than a passing resemblance to Lydia Deetz of Beetlejuice fame.
9. My college dissertation discussed the representation of vampires in the movies from Nosferatu and Hammer’s Dracula (as a kid I begged my mother to let me stay up late to watch Hammer movies) to Interview with the Vampire (I had to eat humble pie with Rice, that bloody Cruise was actually great), Coppola’s Dracula (Gary Oldman! Winona Ryder! Sadie Frost! Keanu Reeves…) and From Dusk ‘til Dawn. All 30,000 words of it. In my defense, this was the era before sparkly vampires. Also around this time I read and reread the awesome Giant Book of Vampires edited by Stephen Jones continuously (you’d better believe I just found a used copy on Amazon and re-bought it!).
Is it really any wonder that when I finally put pen to paper myself, it was a little… dark.
So why write horror?
Because some of us really do see through a glass, darkly. We saw the Addams Family on TV and thought that’ll do for me. Because to see the light, you need the dark. Because night time is beautiful and so are black cats, bats and crows, deep dark woods and old buildings. Because life on earth can be horrific and fiction can be training and armor and a weapon you can wield. Because there are some who think that horror stories can’t be taken seriously, that they’re trashy and can’t be literature when they can be all these and more. So fuck you, you intellectually stunted snobs. I love trash and literature. Because there are some who think women can’t or shouldn’t write horror and I’ve never ever done as I am told. Because I listened to Where Did You Sleep Last Night? and The Killing Moon and the Jack White version of Love is Blindness and looked at Gregory Crewdson photos and thought I want to write stories like that. Because horror writers are surprisingly nice, kind people but they don’t want you to know. Because female horror writers build each other up instead of tearing each other down.
And in that spirit, here are some (but not all) of my favorite spooky women writers in no particular order:
Shirley Jackson: I finally read We’ve Always Lived in the Castle last year and I wish so hard that I had read it years ago so I could be rereading it over and over. Maybe I would have become me sooner for its influence. The New Yorker received more letters about “The Lottery” than any other story, such was the visceral (and mostly disapproving) reaction.
Mary Rickert: Whenever I sense one of “our tribe,” I want to press a copy of You Have Never Been Here into their hands and send them on their way. Her story “Everything Beautiful is Terrifying” in Shadows & Tall Trees 7 is a thing of creepy beauty that will convert you completely.
Caitlin Kiernan: The Drowning Girl is a masterpiece and Agents of Dreamland was so effective I could taste the dryness of the desert in my throat.
Daphne du Maurier: murderous birds, canal haunting dwarves, Cornish smugglers, and Rebecca...oh Rebecca and Manderley. Be still my beating heart!
Mary Shelley: Possibly the first female horror writer?
Angela Carter: A legend. “The Bloody Chamber” finally sees karma catch up to wicked old Bluebeard.
V.C. Andrews: Go back and reread My Sweet Audrina. Seriously. It might not be great literature but it is bonkers in the best way and creepy as fuck.
Sarah Monette: Somewhere Beneath Those Waves is my favorite short story collection.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the kickass anthologists Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran!
Finally, as my gift to you as a female horror writer and strange woman, is this podcast recommendation. It’s pretty great: storiesofstrangewomen.com.
Emma J. Gibbon is originally from Yorkshire in the U.K. and now lives in Topsham, Maine. She is a writer and librarian. Her work has appeared in Wicked Haunted, a New England Horror Writers anthology and is due to appear in The Muse & The Flame, an anthology of bizarre romance. She was also a runner-up for the 2017 Island Verse Poetry Prize. She lives with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra and M. Bison (also known as Grim).