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Women in Horror Month 2024: An Interview with L.S. Johnson

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What inspired you to start writing?

I started reading at a very early age, and like many other writers, I was voracious. I was also a very introverted and anxious only child. Thus my earliest writing projects were fanfiction: taking scenes from my favorite books and rewriting them to include one of my characters as part of the group, as the love interest, as the hero. Of course, this was all before the internet, so it was a solitary exercise, just me and my notebooks, or just writing in my head at night. After a while, it became one of the ways I could get myself to sleep: imagining the words of a particularly immersive scene.

Going from the privacy of my mind to putting those words out in the world, however, was a much more fraught journey, tangled with working-class expectations, a poorly-timed MFA program, and years working in book production. It was only when I finally crashed from the stress of my publishing job that I started writing again, and all the years of reading and thinking about words (and missing those childhood stories) finally coalesced into a voice.

What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?

I’ve always had a dark imagination: my father, who is a fine artist, drew and painted very gothic scenes, skeletons, demons, and the like, and took me to see movies like Star Wars and Fantasia when I was very small; in junior high, my mother and I jointly discovered Stephen King and devoured his books together. 

However, looking back I think there might have been one seed that really took root, more so than anything else. My father had a subscription to Omni magazine, and often left the issues lying around the house. When I was twelve, there was a big anniversary issue, and I remember flipping through it until I came to Clive Barker’s “The Book of Blood.” That story was unlike anything I had read before; it stayed in my head for a long, long time, and I still remember that weird mix of pleasure and unease and revulsion I felt reading it. 

But I never thought of myself as writing horror, not even after I finally began getting published. It wasn’t until I had self-published my first collection, that a bookstore had asked to take some copies on consignment. I went there, excited to see my book on a bookstore shelf for the very first time! And searched and searched. Not in fantasy, not in short stories, where was it? And then I turned around and there it was in horror. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment.

Do you make a conscious effort to include female characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?

With regard to characters, it’s not a conscious effort. It’s writing what I know and what interests me. A lot of male protagonists are just, well, boring to me, as are the arcs their writers create for them. 

As for themes. I don’t know that I think much about “female themes” when I’m writing, but having turned 50 last year I am very conscious of how much of my youth is now history. I’ve also got a long enough view that I feel I can see more clearly the history of feminism in this country, both where it’s succeeded and where it’s failed. So I write a lot about my past, and the past that was told to me by my mother and grandmother, to remind us of what has changed and what, unfortunately, has stayed terribly the same.

What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?

It may sound strange to some, but writing horror has taught me that I have a greater capacity for emotions than I realized especially compassion. When I’m writing, I access feelings and ideas that I’m not sure I would reach otherwise; I find myself feeling more, empathizing more, raging more.

As for what it’s taught me about the world: the more I write, the more I feel the limits of language for expressing human experience. Language can say so much, but it can also make the world narrow, slice it up into binaries and categories, and so on. When I’m writing, I often come up against events or feelings that are seemingly inexpressible with the toolkit I have, and I have to really wrestle with the words to try and convey what I’m envisioning. This never happens when I’m writing essays, or “literary” fiction. It’s only in the wilds of horror that I can see how easily language becomes a cage.

How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?

Oh, this is a hard one to think about. Genres are such fuzzy categories to me. I remember a time when the horror section of the bookstore was basically Barker / King / Koontz, with a little VC Andrews and some “classic” gothic. Nowadays I do a lot of handselling, and when I talk to readers about what they think horror is, or any genre for that matter, no two readers will give me the same definition. So perhaps it’s that the soft edges of all these categories are finally being acknowledged and explored. Which makes marketing harder, to be sure; but I think overall it makes the, how should I say, the ecosystem of fiction healthier. There’s more room for different voices, for what would have previously been dismissed as “too niche,” and that’s always a good thing.

How do you feel women have been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?

I don’t feel like I’ve read enough, or watched enough for that matter, to speak to the overall representation of women. I will say that what I want to see is just a greater range of female-identifying characters. We can be the level-headed, strong, intelligent final girl, and we can be the screaming, scared witless cheerleader, and we can be a thousand other things around these archetypes. We can be passive and still be heroes; we can be active and fail spectacularly. In short, we can simply be human, and there are readers for all our stories.

What are some women who write horror you recommend our audience check out?

Ugh, there are so many. Agustina Bazterrica, Angela Carter, Tananarive Due, Elana Gomel, Kij Johnson, Alma Katsu, Gwendolyn Kiste, Francesca Maria, E.M. Markoff, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Toni Morrison, Christi Nogle, Helen Oyeyemi, Loren Rhoads, Mary Rickert, Catherine Schaff-Stump, Angela Slatter, Tamika Thompson, Sarah Waters … I know I’m forgetting so many more. So much good fiction out there! Our cups runneth over.

What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?

What I suggest to all writers of genre fiction: read outside your genre. I’ve met a fair number of authors who make it a point of pride to only read horror or science fiction, or what have you. But that’s another act of narrowing, and I think all writers should strive to be as open as possible—to stories, to life. Experience other tales. Add to your craft toolkit. You’ll be a better writer for it.

And to the women who write horror out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?

Don’t be afraid to go deep into your own experience. Don’t feel you have to soften the edges or make it more “accessible.” Write your truth. There’s an audience for it, I promise you, and we need your stories.


L.S. Johnson writes about the past to better understand the present, and about monsters to better understand ourselves. She is the author of the Chase and Daniels quartet of queer gothic novellas and over 40 short stories. Her first collection, Vacui Magia, won the North Street Book Prize and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her second collection, Rare Birds, was an IPPY medalist and longlisted for the Stoker Award. Her Enlightenment-era series, Prima Materia, about vampires and alchemists and a returning serpent god, is happening now. Find her online at traversingz.com.

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