Welcome to Women in Horror month. As a woman in horror, I am excited to be able to participate in this Dead Head Reviews project highlighting us. But, I am not going to use this space to promote myself, rather I want to inform you of the onslaught of female horror writers who are lining up in the wings, right now, waiting to march on the genre and take it over.
How do I know? Well, that involves a little background about me and my work.
As the library world’s horror expert, I take my job of educating library workers about the genre very seriously* and review as many horror titles as I can for library journals. Now there are two things those of you who do not work in libraries need to know about why I do this. One, many libraries cannot order a book for their collections unless it has at least 1 reputable review. As the author of THE library textbook on Horror, anything I review fits this criteria, especially if it appears in a print journal used by librarians to add titles to their collections. Two, I have to make sure the titles I am reviewing are appropriate for the library market. Now that word “appropriate” has very little to do with the content, level of sex or violence [remember every library in America has multiple copies of books by E.L. James on their shelves]. By “appropriate,” I mean that it will appeal to library readers based on other books that have done well with this audience in the past AND that the books are well made. A book with errors, a bad cover [horror does very well on display and a good cover goes a long way toward attracting a checkout], and a binding that cannot stand up to multiple checkouts are not a good match for libraries.
Over the last ten years, I have gained the trust of library workers to suggest horror titles that are a good option for their general collections. To that end, I have also started the #HorrorForLibraries hashtag on Twitter. This allows me to suggest and support even more titles because I cannot possibly read them all.
Another service I provide to libraries as their Horror expert is as a trusted source on trends and up and coming voices of which they should be aware. And one of the biggest trends I have been noticing over the last two years is that women are dominating the genre when it comes to first novels. Every year I create a list of the best debut novels for libraries. I focus on reading first novels in order to identify up and coming voices. And I have an excellent track record, often publishing glowing reviews or features on books that go on to receive critical acclaim and prize nominations.
For example, last year, I was an early and loud champion of The Rust Maidens by Gwedolyn Kiste. I wrote a star review of the novel in Booklist Magazine [https://raforall.blogspot.com/2018/10/what-im-reading-rust-maidens.html], included it in a Library Journal Horror Debuts for Libraries column [https://raforallhorror.blogspot.com/2018/10/31-days-of-horror-day-2-my-annual.html], and added it to my 2018 list of my Top 10 favorite horror books of the year [https://raforallhorror.blogspot.com/2018/12/becky-favorite-horror-published-in-2018.html].
The book went on to win the This is Horror Award for “Best Novel” [not best first novel, best novel overall] and the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. I was so honored and proud to be the one to hand Kiste that statute on stage at StokerCon in Grand Rapids. What an amazing work of horror it is.
This is just but one example of a woman taking horror by storm and receiving near universal praise. But it is also not an isolated incident. Nor is it surprising.
Being a woman is terrifying on so many levels. We are physically weaker than men which makes being out alone at any time something that causes fear, even if it is an emotion that is in the background of our consciousness, I can assure you, it is always there in some form. Men hold power in our society just by being men, and we have to fight every day to be recognized on equal footing. Our bodies are socially acceptable fodder for comment by all comers. The list goes on and on. I could write an entire post about the horror implicit in residing in a female body, but that is not why I am here. [I also suggest you read The Power by Naomi Alderman for a better understanding of what I am writing about. My review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2268451631]
Women are primed to write horror because we face anxiety, dread, violence, and terror on a daily basis. And yet, we are still underrepresented in the genre, both as authors and readers. However, I don’t think we will be for long because a change is coming, and it is on the horizon, represented by an onslaught of women in our genre’s best new voices.
This year, as I surveyed the first novel landscape, even I was blown away by how female dominated it was. After constructing my list of 15 horror debuts I was publicly recommending for libraries, I noticed that 9 of them were by women. Here is the link to the full list [https://raforallhorror.blogspot.com/2019/10/31-days-of-horror-day-15-beckys-2019.html], but those nine specific novels, in alphabetical order by author [because I am first and foremost a librarian], with the addition of my “Three Words That Describe The Book,” something library workers rely on to help them booktalk titles they have not read themselves to potential readers, are as follows:
● Burton, Kira Jane. Hollow Kingdom [animal narration, fresh take on end of world trope, thought provoking]
● Collins, Sara. The Confessions of Frannie Langton [Gothic, first person narration, intense]
● Golding, Melanie. Little Darlings [menacing, parental driven horror, psychological]
● Lane, Michelle Renee. Invisible Chains [historical, fresh take on New Orleans horror tropes, emotionally visceral]
● Marshall, Helen. The Migration [cli-fi, unsettling but not without hope, lyrical]
● Moulton, Rachel Eve. Tinfoil Butterfly [disturbing, character centered, beautiful writing about evil/monsters]
● O’Cinneide, C.S. Petra’s Ghost [strong sense of place, haunting, compelling]
● Read, Sarah. The Bone Weaver’s Orchard [secrets, haunting, lyrical]
● Starling, Caitlin. Luminous Dead [off earth setting, claustrophobic, intense]
And, of these titles, I went so far as to include Tinfoil Butterfly by Moulton as one of the Best Horror Titles of 2019 to Library Journal’s over all Best Books coverage [https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=best-horror-2019-best-book].
The tide is clearly shifting. Moving away from a time where people assume women are too weak to write horror, moving further from a space where the gatekeepers– male and female–make it harder for women to be taken seriously, and heading toward an impending golden age for women in the genre. This essay doesn’t even take into account the growing number of women producing some of the best novellas and stories in the genre too. I chose to focus on novels because it is the format where libraries do most of their horror purchasing. But this narrow subset of horror publishing also speaks loudly. Women writing horror is no longer something to be shocked by, the best new voices come from a female perspective, they are setting the standard that all writers are going to have to follow. The women of horror are coming for you, and they won’t stop when the calendar flips over to March. You better be ready.
*As a whole, library workers are a bit afraid of horror. A 2014 survey done by Library Journal, NoveList, and RUSA illustrated just how much they feared it. Presentation about the survey and its results can be accessed here: https://www.ebscohost.com/novelist/news-article/webcast-appealing-to-genre-readers/all-news. Graphic is from slide 9 of 32.
Becky Spratford is a Readers’ Advisor in Illinois specializing in serving patrons ages 13 and up. She trains library staff all over the world on how to match books with readers through the local public library. She runs the critically acclaimed RA training blog RA for All and its evil twin RA for All: Horror. She is under contract to provide content for EBSCO’s NoveList database and writes reviews for Booklist and a horror review column for Library Journal. Becky is known for her work with horror readers as the author of The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror, Second Edition [ALA Editions, 2012] and is currently hard at work on the 3rd Edition. She is a proud member of the Horror Writers Association and currently serves as the Association’s Secretary and organizer of their annual Librarians’ Day. You can follow Becky on Twitter @RAforAll.