Look at any “best of” list of horror authors, and you’ll find them dominated by, if not entirely composed of, men. You might think this is because mostly men write and read horror. And if we limit the definition of “horror,” you may be right. Often women horror authors are kept out of the genre discussion because of misleading labels (i.e. by calling their work paranormal romance, gothic, etc.). So, I’d like to posit something different: the best horror authors, male or female, are Fem.
Good horror is inherently Fem.
Fem is not a sex, it is not even a gender, it’s a term that culturally implies traits often associated with women. Fem is short for feminine, a word that holds almost archetypal meanings that people unconsciously understand, no matter what gender or sex they are.
To form a strict gender dichotomy is, of course, ridiculous. We are all masculine, we are all feminine. But, in my opinion, what makes Fem writing Fem is that it explodes characteristics considered traditionally feminine to its advantage. If Male or Masculine or even Butch is associated with rationality, science, and power, Fem and femininity is the home of its opposites.
Fem holds sway over the irrational, the emotional, the realm of the uncanny—traits not always acceptable in mainstream, realistic fiction, but traits comfortably used to label and mislabel women.
In earlier times, women were even sent to madhouses for “hysteria,” which came about from dabbling around too long in the world of “exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement.” Read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” for a chilling example of this.
Fem does not fit our notion of mainstream culture or realistic fiction. But it is perfectly at home in horror. And women authors were some of the first and best to write it.
As scholar Rosemary Jackson says in her introduction to Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s incredible edited anthology of supernatural fiction What Did Miss Darrington See, “it is hardly surprising, then, that women, in their protest against a social system that has defined reality and, particularly, women’s reality and identity in such restrictive ways, should have been strongly drawn towards non-realistic narrative.”
Women, especially the women authors of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century about whom Jackson writes (and who, she contends, made up the lion’s share of literary magazine contributors), were the disempowered Other, stuck into madhouses or pathologized for their “hysteria.” They used their writing to both express this position and to protest it.
Which, and here I pause to clear my throat, is TRUE OF ALL GREAT HORROR WRITERS. Horror inhabits the space of the reviled, the disempowered, the silenced. Horror gives the Other, the monster, the unseemly, a voice—even if, or maybe especially if, that voice is not rational. Horror is Fem.
As Jackson says, “women writers of the supernatural have overturned many…assumptions and definitions—not, as with some of their male counter-parts, to investigate “horror” for its own sake, but in order to extend our sense of the human, the real, beyond the blinkered limits of male science, language, and rationalism.”
And again, I would argue, again, ALL GOOD HORROR DOES THIS. A list of my favorite horror authors who write Fem includes Stephen King, Peter Straub, Joe Hill, Sarah Langan, and Kelly Link. Regardless of their sex, whatever their gender, the most successful horror writing embraces the Fem. It seeks to explore traits not associated with the patriarchal (read: not male but, perhaps, masculine) status quo. And I think strong male authors will readily admit this, readily embrace their otherness. I must also be clear in saying that not all female authors’ writing is Fem. Nor is Fem necessarily the only kind of good writing. But to write good horror, you must tread in its world.
I am not trying to stick a new label on a corpse. I am asking you, just for a second, to consider a new worldview, to have the courage to peek through a lens that, perhaps, you have already unknowingly embraced. By trying on some new language and using it to reframe the way we think and talk about horror writing, maybe we can all discover a few new bones under this tired old skin.
Let’s all say it together and see what happens: Good horror has been and always will be be Fem.