Women in Horror Month Part Two.
Here we are once again on this, our second day of WiHM!
Today I’m proud to present the lovely Lisa Morton, a name we all know & love. We share similar thoughts on the subject of female characters within horror fictions novels & tales, as well as the opinion that women should be more forward in their writing. Meanwhile here she is on the subject of the Female Protagonist…
FEMALE PROTAGONISTS IN HORROR
A Blog Essay by Lisa Morton
<Crickets chirp. Distant freeway noises> Finally one hand goes up: “Misery!”
“Um, actually the antagonist is female, but the protagonist is male.”
Another hand shoots into the air: “Dolores Claiborne!”
“Okay, valid…and written twenty years ago. Now, how about one not by Stephen King?”
<Sound of grass growing>
In the middle of all the discussions of women in horror, as we all scramble (repeatedly) to name female genre authors we like and denounce the actions of sexist editors (yes, admittedly, that seems to be more of a problem in other genres), one thing we often forget is how often horror novels (don’t) place women at the forefront. Female characters in horror are usually wives, girlfriends, daughters, or friends; in cinema, they’re the victims whose high heels will cause them to trip over the nearest convenient tree limb. At worst, horror literature presents them as the objects of rape and mutilation.
Even women authors will often rely more on male characters, for whatever reason. I’m thinking, for example, of Anne Rice and the Vampire Chronicles, which focus largely on male characters (and yes, I know The Witching Hour delivered solid female leads).
The related categories of urban fantasy and paranormal romance almost all feature female leads; in fact, it’s practically a requirement. Young adult also tends to aim at the girls – witness The Hunger Games and Twilight. But strong women protagonists in more traditional horror remain frustratingly rare.
Because we citizens of the 21st century seem to love lists, I’m going to offer one here highlighting ten of my favorite novels that feature women front and center. This list is completely idiosyncratic; it represents only novels that I read that particularly moved or impressed me somehow in regards to the use of female leads.
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1872) – I read Carmilla while still a teen; I’d already read (and loved) Dracula, and sought out other classic vampire literature. I remember digging this right off the bat because the narrator (the story is written in first person) is a nineteen-year-old woman. In case any of you out there don’t know: The plot, very simply, is a young woman living in an isolated castle with her father who falls under the sway of a charismatic female vampire. Of course it’s famous now for the lesbian aspect of the story, and I truthfully don’t remember if my younger self even picked up on that…but I loved everything else about this, and it was truly mind-blowing to find a horror story written in first person from a feminine point of view.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959) – Although this classic follows a group of paranormal investigators researching the terrifying haunted mansion of the title, it’s really the story of the lonely Eleanor. As with Carmilla, there’s a lesbian subtext (it’s implied that one of the other investigators, the wonderfully flamboyant Theodora, may be a lesbian), but Eleanor is older and a more tragic character.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962) – This was Jackson’s last published novel, but I think I read it before Hill House, when I bought it at a book fair in junior high (those book fairs rocked back then!). I’m not sure I quite understood this strange, very eerie story of two sisters living in an isolated castle with their uncle surrounded by magic and murder, but I remember being disturbed by identifying with certain aspects of the eighteen-year-old narrator.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967) – Here’s a deceptively simple story that is almost all contained just in the title – Rosemary is pregnant with her first child – but that simplicity doesn’t keep it from expertly preying on the fears that accompany pregnancy. What if something’s wrong with the baby? Is my husband okay with having a child? The novel’s success probably also owes something to being an exploration of the urban life style of the 1960s, since it presented a hip, very contemporary young wife that was far removed from the horror heroines of the past.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971) – Now take the pregnancy fears of Rosemary’s Baby and turn them on a pre-adolescent child. When I first read The Exorcist, I was a kid in junior high living with a single mom (who was obviously hip enough to let fifteen-year-old me read The Exorcist!), and so the aspect of the book about a single mom and a young daughter hit close to home for me. Really, had anyone done such an intense mother-daughter horror story before?
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988) – Aside from the knife-edge suspense and sick mind-game horror of this classic, I fell in love with Clarice Starling because of her professionalism. It might sound strange to men, but damn it – women in fiction are seldom driven by dedication to their job, especially a job in a traditionally masculine profession like FBI agent. Finding done this well back in 1988 was just magical.
Gerald’s Game by Stephen King (1992) – I know this is a relatively lesser novel by King, and believe me, no one was left more perplexed and irate at the ending than I was…but I really loved the first two-thirds of this one, as middle-aged Jessie Burlingame examines the choices that have led her to be chained to a bed by her newly-deceased husband in an isolated cabin. The story is simple, but the psychological portrait of Jessie is not.
Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan (2009) – Near the beginning of this haunted house/twisted architecture neo-classic, we’re told that the protagonist is someone who crosses her arms to keep people at a distance, and then a few pages later a doorman winks at her when he realizes she’s not wearing a wedding ring. Right off the bat, Audrey’s Door has set up a character most of us belonging to the female gender can relate to, and the (not-so-subtle) sexism many of us deal with on a daily basis.
The Castle of Los Angeles by Lisa Morton (2010) – Yeah, I know how it looks, putting my own book on here…but you have to admit that it’s gonna be the one I’m most qualified to discuss. The Castle of Los Angeles sprang out of my affection for traditional Gothic novels – especially those by Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho being my personal favorite) – and I wanted to see if it was possible to place all of the tropes of the Gothic novel in a contemporary setting. In most of the Gothics, the protagonist was an impoverished young woman who was orphaned; by the novel’s end, she’d be revealed to be a member of the aristocracy. I used the orphan background for my lead Beth Ortiz, but took away the naiveté of the nineteenth-century heroine and made Beth as modern as possible – she drinks, curses, has sex, and takes her career very seriously. If you haven’t read Castle yet, I don’t want to reveal Beth’s birthright secret here; suffice to say that it ties directly into the ghosts haunting the Castle, a building in downtown L.A. housing artists’ lofts.
A Matrix of Angels by Christopher Conlon (2011) – A lot of horror novels feature the middle-aged man whose life was scarred by an early encounter with evil, but we seldom see it done with a woman…and almost never as well as it’s done in A Matrix of Angels. This story of a middle-aged children’s book writer returning to the small coastal California town where she and her best friend once faced a serial killer is just as terrifying as Silence of the Lambs while also giving a particular female spin to the study of how external and internal forces can combine to destroy us.
One last thing I’d like to note: Six of my ten books are by male authors, so obviously writers of either sex can create compelling female leads that do more than cower or succumb to killers. All it takes is imagination, talent, and a little understanding.
Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, Bram Stoker Award-winning prose writer, and Halloween expert whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening.” Her most recent books are the novels Malediction (Evil Jester Press) and Netherworld (JournalStone), and forthcoming is Zombie Apocalypse: Washington Deceased (Constable & Robinson). She lives in North Hollywood, California, and online at www.lisamorton.com.
Tomorrow we’re joined by JG Faherty… see you same time, same place!