The Dark Feminine and Allyship of Male Gatekeepers
I’ve been writing speculative fiction all my life. In the decade and a half that I’ve gotten pieces accepted for publication, I’ve worked primarily in four genres: science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, and horror. The last may be surprising for folks who primarily know my full-length novels—The Curiosity Killers (2016, Dog Star Books), a steampunk/time travel/science fiction adventure tale; and The Red Eye (2014, Alliteration Ink), an urban fantasy comedic mystery. But my first short story sale was actually horror, and it provides some of the roots of the macabre that later show up in The Curiosity Killers. “Regression,” originally published in a 2010 issue of the now-defunct Golden Visions Magazine, was a flash piece wherein a teenage girl learns via a carnival psychic that she might be the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper. I later turned theories about the identity of the Victorian serial killer into one of the major plotlines of The Curiosity Killers. My latest two short stories, “The Yellow Door” (appearing in the anthology A Terrible Thing from 555/Carrion) and “The Ghost Runner,” (in the anthology Ink Stains 3 from Dark Alley) are also horror, both dealing with vengeful spirits, and both pieces are far darker and more violent than my longer work. I grew up reading the likes of Stephen King, Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, Peter Straub, as well as classics from Poe and Lovecraft. My horror affinity is largely confined to literature, but I do enjoy a few well-crafted scary movies, too.
I’m not the only female author with a taste for gruesome, chilling stories, and February serves as a celebration of these scary ladies. But this subject is not just about making listicles about your favorite women who write horror, and for literature teachers, it’s not just about shoehorning Shirley Jackson into your lesson plans. Women writing horror is also a powerful statement about a lot of things—powerlessness, rage, body horror, autonomy, and violence. Horror as a genre (along with most types of speculative fiction) can be used effectively as an allegory for political strife. Unlike more cerebral science fiction, horror can get into a situation and make the stakes higher; lives are truly at risk in horror, and even the protagonist may not get out alive. And unlike fantasy, whose worlds can sometimes feel too remote, magical, or unrelatable to our own, horror almost always takes place in the here and now (or some twisted version of it), grounding our fear in things we thought we understood until, suddenly, we don’t.
When I began submitting horror short stories to publishers in the early 2000s, many of my pieces were rejected without much feedback about why. On a whim, I changed my byline to initials, which I still use for my creative writing to this day, and “Regression” was snatched up by the next market to which I sent it. Logically, I knew that any publisher who didn’t want to take a piece just because a woman wrote it was being old-fashioned in all the worst ways. But given how many acceptance letters I’ve gotten addressed to “Mr. Taylor,” I can’t help but wonder why assumptions about art and gender continue to be made. While I don’t make my identity as a woman any sort of secret, using my byline more out of continuity for my catalogue than because I feel it’s required to get my foot in the door, I do have to wonder if it had something to do with the particular genre in which I was submitting.
Here’s where allyship comes in.
If you’re in a position to act as a gatekeeper to female writers in horror—as an editor, a publisher, or even just a fan—ask yourself if you’re holding onto any unconscious bias about gender in the genre. Do you read female horror authors as frequently? Does your magazine tend to publish more male writers? How do you treat female horror fans at conventions?
I direct the above questions to those who identify as male, primarily, although women can be guilty of unconscious, internalized sexism, too. There is a broad cultural assumption that “gritty” work, work replete with violence or that which is designed to shock is not something women are drawn to creating. I would counter that with the fact that women are faced with violence in their real lives on a daily basis—either the reality of it or the threat of it. I would counter that with the fact that pregnancy and childbirth are inherently violent, even if the end result is largely positive. I would counter that with the sole Academy Award winning female director, Kathryn Bigelow, earning accolades for helming some of the most violent, upsetting war films ever made.
Women understand violence. We understand pain, bigotry, marginalization, and dismissal. For some women, life itself resembles a horror story. And so for us to spin yarns full of blood and gore and pain and loss and fighting to survive should be no surprise.
For men who love horror, read between the lines when you pore over the work of female authors. Know that for many such creators, that work might be far more personal and fraught with a kind of darkness that is uniquely feminine.
About the Author
K.W. Taylor is the author of the urban fantasy Sam Brody series, about a dragonslaying disc jockey (The Red Eye and The House on Concordia Drive, both 2014 from Alliteration Ink). She has an MFA from Seton Hill University. Taylor lives in a restored Victorian home in Ohio with her tech writer husband and—unlike every other novelist in the world—an insanely photogenic kitten. She teaches college English and Women’s Studies and blogs at kwtaylorwriter.com. The Curiosity Killers is her first science fiction novel.