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Women In Horror Month 2024 : An Introduction by Kathryn Ptacek




The Journey is Never Done. Kind of Like Housework.

Kathryn Ptacek

We’ve come a long way, baby. Well, if you were alive many decades ago, you’d recognize that as the advertising jingle—somewhat altered—by a tobacco company for a cigarette that it geared toward women. That was back in the late ’60s and early ’70s when everything was bright and fresh and we could do anything. Except apply for credit cards and buy our own cars. But I digress.

Yes, we—that is, women horror writers—have come a long way, but there’s no reason to sit back on our celebratory laurels now and be perfectly satisfied with what has been accomplished in the past few decades.

Back in the dim prehistoric times when I started to write and sell stories and novels, there were very few women horror writers “on the books,” so to speak. Sure, there were a few old-time ones: Mary Shelley (our beloved mother!), Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Shirley Jackson come to mind. Of course, much later, there was Anne Rice, who sprung to popularity with her historical vampire novels.

I’m not even sure when I started publishing that horror, as a genre, existed … Horror was sort of the step-sister of fantasy and science fiction and was often included in collections of those tales. But, let’s face it, it always got the side eye from most people. “Horror? Oh, yeah … that …”

In the beginning, I never thought of myself as a horror writer, but when I look back at old stuff, I see a lot of darkness creeping in (I wrote a piece for a radio station’s short-story contest back in the ’70s. The theme was “Christmas Spirit.” In my version, the spirit huddled on a roof, lurking in the darkness, ready to clamber down the chimney to surprise/terrorize the family in the house. Ho, ho, ho. Not. Surprisingly, I did not win the contest with that dark gem!). I started my publishing career with historical romances, and, even those, for all the history and romance (“More romance!” my editors begged), had some darkness in them. And then I wrote a horror novel and another one and another one, and I sold those and sold short stories … and the rest is history. Kind of.

Somewhere along the way when I was first publishing, I started reading all the horror anthologies that I could put my claws on. And I had many in my own collection, thanks to the many books gathered by my late husband, Charles Grant. It was a time when publishers sent books left and right to writers for review or just because so you could amass a good-sized collection easily. Plus, neither one of us ever met a bookstore where we couldn’t find a book or two or three to bring home.

So I hungrily read dozens and dozens of anthologies–both British and American–and, because I’m one of those odd people who count things, I started to realize something. I went back and opened the books to the table of contents page and counted. Nearly all the anthologies had no women writers, or at best, perhaps one or two (in the more recently published tomes of that time). A handful had at least three women contributors, while one series, Shadows, had nearly half of its contents written by women contributors—at least in some volumes.

And yet I knew the women writers were out there … so why weren’t they in some of these anthologies? At cons and such, I heard some editors say they didn’t like “women’s writing.” I am not even sure they gave most of those stories a chance, but who knows? Did they think that women only wrote about the horrors of housework and childcare? Maybe so. It was also a sad observance of mine that when women writers attended cons, they did so by themselves; their husbands did not attend. Yet, when male writers were at the cons, so were their wives. Sorry, if that’s upsetting, but that’s how it was. I am happy to know that those days are gone. I was also at a con where the organizer said to me when a bunch of us were standing around waiting to head somewhere, “Oh, you will be going with the other wives to go shopping, right?” I smiled nicely and replied, “No, I will be going with the other writers.” He was taken aback. I just kept smiling. At another conference, I was the only published woman writer; and there was one woman artist; and one woman editor from the horror field. Really. Horror was about to burst forth for women then. Meanwhile, back at the anthologies … in the midst of all this reading, I decided what I needed to do was edit a collection of stories written by women.

So I did. Tor Books purchased Women of Darkness, and it came out in hardcover and paperback, women writers wrote to me, very happy to see the book and asking when the next volume would be open. Some of the reviews were not so great … oh, that’s “women writing” and such. And then there were the people who claimed that the book discriminated against male writers; never mind, that they didn’t say the same thing about the all-male anthologies discriminating against women writers. Still … I met many great writers through Women of Darkness, some friends to this day, and I was highly encouraged so I edited a second volume of Women of Darkness. I also edited a volume called Women of the West, published by Doubleday, and I had a lot of fun with that, especially since I hailed from the West and had always had a love of the Western genre. A number of horror writers also contributed to that volume.

Years passed, and I saw the names of women writers cropping up in magazines, on the bookshelves, and eventually online. And that’s a very good thing. Now, I believe that it would be hard for many writers to think there was a time when women authors were discouraged from publishing.

I hope those days are long past. Women writers have found their voices, and they aren’t going to keep quiet. Which is very, very good.

I hope, too, that anthologies continue to encourage new writers to participate. That’s one of the things I loved best about editing my two horror anthologies … I was able to find new (to me) writers and buy their stores. For some, I know it was their very first professional sale, and that thrilled me, perhaps even more than it thrilled them! Well, perhaps not. But I was happy to help them step into the pro publishing world. I wish that all anthologies—including the ones put out by the HWA—would focus more on that. Yes, it’s nice to see the old familiar names and all, but it’s even better to find new names. Let’s encourage these new voices; let’s get these writers out there in front of a horror-hungry audience. A good place to check for upcoming women writers is in the “Recently Born of Horrific Minds” column in the monthly HWA Newsletter. Lydia Peever does a fine job of corraling these books.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go. I hope you will check out the new voices. They need to be heard.

Kathryn Ptacek loves Gila monsters and teapots, but only collects the latter.  She is also the editor of the monthly HWA Newsletter and is the recipient of the HWA’s Mentor of the Year award, as well as the Richard Laymon Presidential Award and the Silver Hammer Service Award. Her horror novels include In Silence SealedShadoweyes, and Kachina. She lives in northwest NJ in an old Queen Anne Victorian house haunted by her late husband and filled with spiders, cats, books, and teapots.

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