My love for horror began very early. I remember being in Kindergarten and sitting on the floor in a circle with my classmates. The teacher asked us to share with the class our favorite movie and there were rounds of various Disney offerings and children’s comedies, but when it came my turn to answer the question, my answer was The Lady in White.
We horror fans always have that moment when we realize that others see us as weirdos. That was my moment.
Horror movies were a huge part of my childhood and when I got old enough to read and appreciate the soul-soothing qualities of a good book, I found myself gravitating to horror books. I enjoyed the small selection of monster-themed books that my elementary school library offered, but I quickly outgrew them. That was when I started rooting through the massive piles of paperbacks stacked all over my grandma’s house. While searching, a book cover caught my eye. It looked like a VHS box cover with dark purple coloring and a large ghostly apparition glaring out over a spooky house. I had to have it. I read it at night in the small bedroom that I shared with my little brother, a small reading light that my grandma had given me clipped to the top of the book, giving off just enough light for me to read and not get in trouble for being up past my bedtime.
The book frightened me. I would be terrified of putting my feet out of my bed and onto the floor for fear of something, some black, slithering thing, reaching out and snatching me from the safety of my covers. I had nightmares about dark cellars and dolls with unnaturally soft bodies and wet eyes. And you know what? I loved it. I wanted more. That rush of fear experienced in the warm safety of my bed, the weight of empathy that I felt for the characters, it was all something that I found very much to my taste.
That book was The Haunting by Ruby Jean Jensen, and reading it was one of the most profound moments in my life as a horror creator. I would spend the next ten years of my life reading every horror book in the piles around my grandma’s cramped little house, buying ones from familiar, big named authors, and enjoying myself immensely. But you know, it was never the same. I went on to reread The Haunting several times. I still have that very copy, the cover is taped together, the pages are yellowing, and I signed my name to the inside when my grandma died and I realized how much that book meant to me.
I’ve since read many more of Ruby Jean’s books and I’ve yet to find a stinker. I’ve got a ways to go, she has thirty published titles to her name, two of which are written under gender-cloaking pseudonyms. But I think that I’ve read enough to get a good feel of why that first reading meant so much to me and why subsequent readings only cemented inside of me the love for Ruby Jean’s voice and direction of storytelling.
Wikipedia will tell you that, as an author, Ruby Jean dealt heavily in the “creepy children trope.” That’s not so. I concede that you will read quite a bit about children in a Ruby Jean Jensen book. The main characters are often children and the main victims are also often children. There are the odd creepy kids, but I’d say that Ruby Jean Jensen was a supernatural horror writer who danced with various classical themes made new in a modern world, and her tropes were numerous.
Ruby Jean Jensen wrote as a woman, relying on life experiences experienced as a woman, but she didn’t make it a point to deliver a women-only message. Not all of her main characters are female and she rarely, if ever, wrote with a political bent. And yet, if you’re paying attention, you can see the woman’s sensibility come through in her writing. Family, the traditional realm of women, is at the center of many of her works. Sometimes the family is whole and happy—picture perfect. Sometimes those families are broken and struggling to find their footing. But all the same, there’s always a heavy sense of domesticity and a smallness of life apparent in the writing, and when the supernatural comes slithering in to cause astoundingly brutal horrors, it’s all the more heart-rending. I frequently read feminist works, and while I don’t expect every female-identifying writer to fit into that box, I think that representation among creators is incredibly important. We need that variety of voices and life experiences so that our art can depict all of the people of the world. That’s why I think Ruby Jean was so important. She was one of sadly very few women writing horror in her day and even though she was careful to be accessible to all, her experience was obviously different from the men putting out paperbacks with her. Her voice and artistic choices, though entertaining and every bit as terrifying as her counterparts, were still very much informed by her gender. And to young impressionable me, that was monumentally important.
Authors have their own styles of setting up a tale and horror authors in particular have their own ways of laying out for you how things are about to go horribly wrong. Ruby Jean Jensen liked to lay it all out to the readers, if not in the very beginning, then early on. You know that the focal point of the terror is a cursed ring or an evil dead woman in a river sometimes before the full cast of characters is even introduced. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still mysterious elements to the story, details left to unfurl before a full understanding of the evil stalking through the pages can happen.
And I did a binge reading of some Ruby Jean Jensen books last year and, although I usually shy away from detailed and wordy reviews of books, I remember saying in one of the reviews that she was a master of the creeping dread. I can’t stress to you enough how impressive that is. Seeing that the books usually began with the introduction of the supernatural force, Ruby Jean was still able to instill a very strong sense of growing unease throughout her works. Her stories are no-nonsense with a refreshing shortage of superfluous detail that makes the movement of the story as smooth as the cheeks of the little blonde girl present in many of her tales. It makes for a creepier creeping, sending the dread right to the center of the reader. It makes for a fantastic reading experience.
A last bit about Ruby Jean is how I continue to be in awe and surprised at her brutality, especially towards children. This was not a writer who was splashing around in the gore of the victims of her books, laughing with glee and throwing a few warm, wet chunks at the reader. No, every death has a distinct weight to it and that she never shied away from killing children puts so much more substance to the works than their status as mere paperbacks might lead one to believe. The characters in her books were not macabre decoration in the horrific complex that she wove into her tales. They were people and to read their deaths is devastating. It takes a real talent to make entertainment out of agony.
We lost Ruby Jean Jensen in 2010, but her books are still out there. Those stories still exist and are part of an everlasting consciousness that we can tap into even though the author has since passed. Any Ruby Jean Jensen book comes with my recommendation, but The Haunting will always be special to me. It was the first book that made me think about the deeper repercussions of good storytelling and it remains, to this day, one of my biggest influences. I’m glad that I’m not alone in my devotion to Ruby Jean, that there are other fans out there recommending her works and I hope that maybe this article converts a few more of you. Grab a copy, love it tenderly, and acquaint yourself with my absolute favorite brutal mother.
Somer Canon is a minivan revving suburban mother who avoids her neighbors for fear of being found out as a weirdo. When she’s not peering out of her windows, she’s consuming books, movies, and video games that sate her need for blood, gore, and things that disturb her mother.
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