WomenInHorrorHeartLucy A. Snyder on Horror

Q: Tell us about your first experiences with the horror genre.

Gary A. Braunbeck was my main introduction to the horror genre. Before I met Gary 16 years ago, I had graduated from the Clarion workshop, and consequently I was mostly oriented toward science fiction and fantasy. I had been reading and enjoying horror fiction before that, but most of it had been marketed as gothic literature or dark fantasy or something other than out-and-out horror. For instance, there’s a lot of dark, disturbing stuff in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but reading it in college I never thought “Hey, this is horror.” And more to the point, I’d been writing horror, but I saw myself as writing fantasy and SF.

Again, my genre disconnect was largely due to marketing. I was a teenager in the 80s during the horror boom, and all I saw were the gory, garish covers publishers put on horror novels. I found those really off-putting. Not because it seemed like “male” fiction — I’d been reading lots of hard SF and spy thrillers, which back then was definitely seen as guy stuff. It was because I associated horror with ignorance, superstition, and sub-par writing. The blood and evil clowns and keytar-brandishing skeletons struck me as incredibly stupid-looking, and I assumed that the contents of said books would surely be just as dumb as their covers. Likewise, I’d seen a few slasher movies and thought, “Wow, that was not for me” afterward, so that also discouraged me from trying books that were overtly marketed as horror. While I blissfully missed out on a lot of crap, I also missed out on excellent novels by writers such as JN Williamson.

Author photo by Michelle PendergrassMy experiences as a webzine editor didn’t improve my opinion of horror much. Most of the really badly-written, poorly-plotted submissions I got were about psycho killers etc. Sure, I got bad SF submissions, too, but they were forgettably bad. As an editor you will never forget your first batch of necrophiliac poetry, no matter how hard you try.

Conversely, the dark fiction I received that was good always seemed like it was something else: fantasy, usually, or SF. If a story has a lot going on — and good stories always do — chances are the eye of the beholder will manage to see it in light of their favorite genre.

Anyhow, enter Gary A. Braunbeck, my own personal horror ninja. Early on he gave me a copy of his collection Things Left Behind, and it blew me away. It was emotional, and beautifully-written, and most of all, it was smart.

And then Gary said, “My horror collection — let me show you it!” And so over the years he’s shown me the good stuff I’d missed the first time around because it had been marketed the same as the stupid bad stuff.

Q: Can you, as a woman, write horror that would entice more women to read it?

I feel like rephrasing this question: “Can you, as a human being, write horror that would entice more human beings to read it?”

Women aren’t some monolithic group whom I could attract to my prose if, say, I’d only add a reference to Tampax on page 54 and use the words “flowers”, “baking” and “chocolate” more often, you know?

Some women read lots of horror fiction. Some women read horror novels but not horror stories. Some women read bloody true crime nonfiction but don’t like fiction. Some women watch horror movies and The Walking Dead but hate reading. And some avoid anything labeled “horror” but enjoy a good ghost story now and then.

WBooks-softapocalypsesomen’s reading tastes vary widely … just like the tastes of any other consumers of entertainment media who don’t identify themselves as women.

That said, I could probably get more readers of all gender identities if I focused on writing novels instead of short stories and poetry, but I rather enjoy writing short work, so there we are.

Q: Is the horror community of horror writers supportive of female horror writers, or is it still a boys’ club?

While horror is more diverse than it used to be, it’s still predominantly male (and white). But I also see a lot of male horror writers (like Gary Braunbeck) who think it’s really important to support female writers. So why aren’t women doing better in horror?

Setting aside a few gross subgenres in horror that are outright misogynistic and glorify the rape and torture of women, I think that the core of the problem isn’t with horror per se; larger cultural forces are at work. What happens is that people who think of themselves as having fairly progressive notions are still carrying around unexamined gender stereotypes and are buying into double-standards.

Our society has certainly come a long way from the bad old days when the only professions open to women were teaching or nursing, and if you got pregnant you lost your job.

But we still have one huge double standard gumming up the works, namely the one that says that a woman must first and foremost be decorative. Men are mocked if they’re seen as insufficiently powerful; women are mocked if they’re seen as insufficiently pretty.

Once you get past high school, though, the standards for male power are pretty diverse; Stephen Hawking can’t bench-press anything, but he’s hailed for his mind and scientific accomplishments. Meanwhile, The Australian negged famed neuroscientist-turned-author Colleen McCullough as “Plain of feature, and certainly overweight” in her recent obituary.

The amount of publicity and marketing a publisher puts into a book can make a huge difference to a new writer’s career. When’s the last time you saw a publishing house send a physically unattractive female writer on a national book tour?

How you look has no bearing on the quality of your writing or the entertainment value of your stories. Your author photo should not matter — and yet, it does.

Most girls are still being pressured to think of their appearance first and skills/talents second or sometimes not at all. They are taught to back off, wait their turn, be careful, be nice … whereas boys are told to get out there, take chances, fight and be independent. Girls are raised to be cheerleaders for the males in their lives; boys are raised to expect that encouragement, but not necessarily to offer much in return other than buying dinner on dates.

When I was starting out as a writer, supportive boyfriends were few and far between. One boyfriend read one of my stories and asked me “Why can’t you write anything nice?” Another, who had literary ambitions of his own, looked disdainfully at a contributor’s copy of a magazine that had come in the mail and sniffed, “Well, I could do that, too, if I wanted to be in some silly scifi magazine!”

Getting published and building a career as a fiction writer is a hard slog whether you’re male or female. But I think women who start out writing overt horror often get steered away from it by friends, family, English department professors, etc. who expect them to write something “nicer”, something that will go in a journal with irises on the cover rather than in a pulpy magazine emblazoned with a bloody skull.

Or they find a general lack of support for their writing efforts — for instance, they start having children and it’s just expected that as mothers they shoulder most of the child-raising duties — and they quit trying to get published altogether.

So, I think most of the negative sexism is frontloaded as social pressures undermining female writers’ confidence and will to succeed before they’ve gotten good enough to consistently produce publishable work. I don’t think there’s a great deal of overt sexism in the genre, although the fact that most horror anthologies have overwhelmingly male contributors still makes me wonder if stories with “female” themes are unconsciously (and unfairly) deemed boring by horror editors.

But the pressure to be “nice” still affects working female writers. On one author’s list I subscribe to, a woman novelist reported that her literary agent discouraged her from having a blog on the grounds that “it’s too easy to piss people off”. I wonder if her agent would give the same advice to a male client. Regardless, many female authors follow that same advice and avoid talking about politics etc. in blogs so as to not unduly ruffle feathers. Contrast this with authors such as Nick Mamatas who often seem to thrive on online controversy.

Once again, a double-standard: male writers who make bold, opinionated, snarky declarations are entertaining their readership, but if women do it, whoa, they’re risking losing their readership.

Q: Are you tired of being treated as an expert on all women because you have two X chromosomes?

I’m a little uncomfortable with it; I surely can’t speak with authority about the lives of most women simply because I haven’t lived any life but my own. I’m odd in a lot of ways, and so I can’t make too many assumptions about the universality of my experiences. But because I don’t fit in, I’ve spent a lot of time watching how other people fit in (or try to and fail) and a lot of their efforts have to do with conforming to gender expectations.

The result of that is I don’t mind talking about sexism, so I don’t feel unduly put-upon. I guess if every interviewer asked about it, it might get old, but since feminism and humanism are still dirty words in a lot of places the question doesn’t get asked so much except when Women in Horror Month rolls around.

I’m still forming my own ideas about what sexism is and isn’t and how it affects men and women both. And I think it’s an important dialog to have.

If you’re a person who absolutely subscribes to the notion that boys and girls are wired differently, if you believe that boys are “naturally” better at things like math, then you also have to believe that girls are “naturally” better at writing, because that’s what the test results say.

And then if you open your anthologies and see that 75%-90% of the contributors are male, you’ve got to realize that there’s a disconnect somewhere: raw talent isn’t translating into writing careers, and at the very least that’s a sign of wasted human potential.

Read more interviews in our Women in Horror Q&A series.