HerStory: What Do Women Think About When They Write Horror Fiction?

HerStory: What Do Women Think About When They Write Horror Fiction?

For women, routine low-grade terror is not caused by monsters but by intrusions into their everyday lives

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, December 28, 2023, 10:22 PM IST
article-image
Representative Image | Pixabay

Horror is not a genre usually associated with women — but one of the greatest spine-chilling classics, Frankenstein, was written by Mary Shelley. What do women think about when they write horror fiction? Joyce Carol Oates has put together a splendid collection titled A Darker Shade Of Noir: New Stories Of Body Horror By Women Writers. Within its pages are the redoubtable Margaret Atwood, Tananarive Due, Raven Leilani and, of course, Oates herself — enough temptation to pick up the slim volume, dedicated to “Harpies, Furies, Gorgons and Fates through the centuries who never had a chance to tell their tales”.

The horror stories that men write unleash monsters and witches, ghouls and serial killers, and plenty of bloodshed. Women have a lot to be afraid of, whether from stalkers, rapists or abusive partners, but it is men who have demonised women that do not conform to male ideas of femininity.

Oates writes in her terrific introduction, “Of all mythological figures of antiquity, none are more monstrous than harpies, furies, gorgons, Scylla and Charybdis, Lamia, Chimera, Sphinx — nightmare creatures representing, to the affronted male gaze, the perversion of ‘femininity’: the female who in her physical being repulses sexual desire, rather than arousing it; the female who has repudiated the traditional role of submission, subordination, maternal nurturing. Since these fantasy figures have been created by men, we can assume that the female monster is a crude projection of male fears; she is the embodiment of female power uncontrolled by the male, who has most perversely taken on some of the qualities of the male hero — physical prowess, bellicosity and cunning, an appetite for vengeance and cruelty. As in the most lurid fantasies of sadism and masochism, the female monster threatens castration and something more primeval: humiliation.”

The 15 women who have contributed to this remarkable anthology about body horror, that is a subgenre of the broader range of horror fiction, have not written the kind of stories that would cause nightmares — there are no vampires, very little gore — but would make women recognise their own experiences of fear. For women, routine low-grade terror is not caused by monsters but by intrusions into their everyday lives. There are fantasy stories too, but the tone is darkly humorous.

Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments are every woman's nightmare of enslavement and eradication of rights, has written a tragi-comic story titled Metempsychosis, or The Journey of the Soul, about a snail that finds its soul transferred to the body of a woman, a mid-level customer service representative in a bank, who has to deal with irate customers at work and a boyfriend at home who, under the guise of being caring, subtly dominates her. Atwood satirises the modern female existence, as voiced by a baffled snail who finds that being human is not in the least advantageous as compared to being a content, lettuce-eating snail.

Dancing by Tananarive Due is a bitter tale of a Monique, a 40-year-old Black woman who spent the better part of her youth caring for her grandmother, Nadine. When the old woman dies, Monique finds that she cannot stop dancing; her body moves of its own accord, till she drops from exhaustion. As a child, Nadine dreamt of becoming a ballet dancer, only to be told by the dance teacher, “No ballet company will take a Negro girl.” The best she can hope for is tap dancing at street corners, like the Black boys. After her death, Nadine’s thwarted ambition somehow finds expression in Monique, but for the devoted granddaughter, is it torture.

The Chair of Tranquility, by Oates herself, is about a woman who is swaddled and restrained to “cure” her of “hysteria”. In the nineteenth century, the term could include any female affliction and quack doctors forced a cruel regimen which was, she writes, “in effect, the enforced infantilisation of women who may have been in (healthy) revolt against the confinement of their roles in society; any variant from the norms of obedient daughter/wife/mother was considered an aberration, indeed ‘hysteria’, of which they had to be cured, no matter how extreme the price.”

In Lisa Tuttle’s satire on the macho gun culture of America, Concealed Carry, a British woman sent to Texas by her employers is shocked at how casually everybody in the place carries guns. Her discomfort around guns turns into a weird obsession that has unexpected consequences. There is, hidden in the story, a comment on the anti-abortion movement in the US, which leads to the absurd rule of not allowing pregnant women to fly lest they go to a state that allows termination.

In Breathing Exercise by Raven Leilani, a Black woman, who works in a strange field of art that shows audiences how much abuse a human body can withstand, finds her once successful career slowing down, just as an online stalker starts sending her threatening messages. Around this time, she finds she has trouble breathing, and tries everything from home cures to psychiatric help, to expensive tests she can barely afford, only to find nothing physically wrong with her lungs. “Because she was a woman,” writes Leilani, “she had been taught to distrust herself, and there was no certainty she held that had not been vetted for the cute indelible madness of female error. To be able to insist fervently that something was wrong meant that all alternatives had been thoroughly explored. It meant defying the more natural inclination to defer and allow herself to be seen as crazy, and so she needed to be right.” It’s a strong statement on behalf of women whose lives and their creativity are being stifled by the male order. In Malena by Joanna Margaret, another one about an artist, a young sculptor terrorised by the voice of her twin, who by a rare medical condition, fetus-in-fetu, was left unformed inside her body.

One story has a male protagonist: Gross Anatomy by Aimee LaBrie, in which Wally, a medical student, who would, in today’s terminology be described as incel (involuntary celibate), gets fixated on a female cadaver — a rare instance in which a man gets punished for his perversion. Unless, like in the story The Seventh Bride Or Female Curiosity by Elizabath Hand, an actress playing Bluebeard’s seventh bride — the earlier six having been murdered by fiction’s vilest serial killer — inadvertently gets rid of the sex pest actor who harassed the actresses working with him in the theatre. In Sydney by Sheila Kohler, a sinister version of Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece, Rebecca, a young bride to a much older man discovers his awful secret.

A Darker Shade of Noir is disturbing, but elegantly written and enjoyable. The stories acknowledge women's fears and encourage them to laugh them off. Horror stories written by men are often threatening towards women — Bram Stoker's Dracula, for instance, has generated a whole vampire industry. Women reading the stories in this book would feel empathy, maybe a tinge of discomfort, but not revulsion or dread.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.

RECENT STORIES

Why India Needs Multiple Leaders, Not ‘One Great Leader’

Why India Needs Multiple Leaders, Not ‘One Great Leader’

Who Are The People That Are Attracted To Public Office?

Who Are The People That Are Attracted To Public Office?

Editorial: Travails Of AAP - When Thieves Fight

Editorial: Travails Of AAP - When Thieves Fight

The Rhetoric Of Reaction: Moral Panics And The Anxieties Of Hindu Nationalism

The Rhetoric Of Reaction: Moral Panics And The Anxieties Of Hindu Nationalism

Editorial: Campaign Statement Flip-Flops – Only The PM Knows The Reason

Editorial: Campaign Statement Flip-Flops – Only The PM Knows The Reason