DarkEcho Horror Stealing Sacred Fire by Rick Berry
Women of Darkness...III?
by Paula Guran

A version of this article appear in DarkEcho 09.04.97

A little over a decade ago Kathryn Ptacek -- a writer (and editor) of horror, dark fantasy, and a number of other things -- noticed women writers were noticeably absent from horror anthologies. She knew there were plenty of women writing dark fiction and knew those women submitted stories to (mostly male at the time) editors. She didn't know why there seemed to be such a discrepancy, but she decided to do something about it. The result, in 1988, was WOMEN OF DARKNESS, an anthology of horror by contemporary women writers. Although there had been all-female anthologies before, they were mostly stocked with stories from 19th century writers. WOMEN OF DARKNESS showcased living, breathing women who wrote vitally alive horror.

Lisa Tuttle, Elizabeth Massie, Lucy Taylor, and Wendy Webb were among the "new" writers in the volume. Tanith Lee was perhaps the best known name. Melanie Tem had been published in small press, and professionally in collaboration with her spouse, Steve Rasnic Tem. Nancy Holder, although an established romance writer, was just beginning to break into horror. At that point she'd sold one short story to Charles Grant for his anthology series, SHADOWS. Grant was married to Kathy Ptacek.

In 1988, according to Holder, Ptacek's mild remarks in her introduction to WOD (nothing more than that she thought women were being overlooked in the anthology markets) set off vitriolic attacks from some male editors in response. "I wonder if they doth protested too much," notes Holder today, "because I did notice an increase in the number of women's names in anthology tables of content after WOD came out."

Holder's story for WOD, "Cannibal Cats Come Out Tonight," was a deliberate attempt to show that "women could splat." The splatterpunk movement was gaining popularity at about the same time as WOD and there was much discussion that slammed splat and extolled "quiet" horror and vice versa. Holder noticed that those considered to be in the Splat Pack were all male, so she decided to try to crash the party by writing "Cannibal Cats Come Out Tonight." "From that story grew my continuing interest in my two cannibal rock stars, Dwight and Angelo," says Holder, "I've sold about five or six stories about them. Along the way, one reviewer said of me that I might be the first splatterpunk to 'chew with her mouth closed'."

WOMEN OF DARKNESS was followed in 1990 by WOMEN OF DARKNESS II. Tanith Lee and Melanie Tem returned. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro was the author with the highest profile in the second WOD class, although Lisa W. Cantrell was fairly well established. Nina Kiriki Hoffman and Lois Tilton were gaining "names" in short fiction, but neither had published a novel. Yvonne Navarro's first professional sale was to WOD2. Another young writer, Poppy Z. Brite -- whose first short stories had been published by the magazine, "The Horror Show," and who had had completed her first yet-to-be-published novel -- was in WOD2 as well.

From Women of Darkness I A retrospective glance at the packaging of both volumes says something (I'm not sure what) about the era. The first offers a "flaming silhouette" of what appears to be a dancing nude woman; the second doubles the image to two women. Maybe it gives a different meaning to "redefining terror from a woman's point of view" -- a phrase from WODII's flap copy. Maybe not.


Here was the "new generation" of women in horror. What was it like then as a female breaking in? Is it different now?

"I don't remember a time when I wasn't seeing horror stories and novels by women writers, though they have certainly boomed in the 90s," says Brite today. "I started selling stories at age 18, so my age was more commented upon than my gender. I turned 30 this year, and as [my friend and fellow author] Caitlin [Kiernan] puts it, people can't complain about me being too young to deserve success anymore, because now I'm OLD!"

Navarro, too, has never felt discriminated against as a writer, "...although I've gotten plenty of it in the office workplace. One thing that hasn't changed, though, is that people still believe that some kind of discrimination against women exists in the writing arena. I have never seen any."

Navarro's never seen it, but Holder has: "I have had male editors say to my face, 'Well, readers don't like to read female horror authors,' but I've never repeated that in public because I didn't want to create my own personal self-fulfilling prophesy. I don't think it's true, anyway. People certainly read Anne Rice. There's a long list of women who are popular today."

Coincidentally, just as she was asked about all this, Nancy Holder had been trying to secure a computer game tie-in novel for a French game company. The editor loved her stuff and all they needed was approval from France. After a lengthy wait, they were turned down because (and I quote), "She's not a man."

The editor asked if they'd read her work that he'd sent them. Yes. Was it dark enough? Edgy enough? Yes, but they just didn't think she would be able to do the game because of her gender.

Holder, an award-winning writer, has done game fiction before. Her husband, with whom she has worked closely, is one of the founding fathers of real-time, role-playing computer games with games in the Halls of Fame of several magazines.

Fresh from the French game company experience, Holder now wonders if she's been naive in assuming gender bias is a thing of the past. But she also thinks "women authors need to assert themselves; I catch myself being the polite, nice one requesting something while a male author in the same situation (on a panel, at a messed-up book signing, while pitching ideas) DEMANDS what he wants. Editors kvetch about their difficult male authors, but turn right around and give them what they want. I'm no longer sure the same thing happens to 'difficult' female authors."


 Women of Darkness I Perception and attitude surely have more to do with writing than gender does according to Navarro. "I remember being on a panel at a con that had to do with women in horror and having another panelist say that basically to write good horror she had to 'write like a man,'" she says. "I thought my head was going to explode and I nearly yanked the microphone from the hand of another woman who was sitting next to me. I think my teeth were actually grinding when I told the audience that to write good horror I didn't '...write like a man OR like a woman -- I wrote like a writer.'" The audience gave a hearty round of applause.

There are gender differences in what people chose to read, and that is an influence on who writes it. "According to Navarro, "Men are not numerous in the romance genre because they seldom read it, and thus don't write it." But the distinctions are blurring, "I see plenty of women in the fantasy and science fiction genres. In modern times, women have expanded their social roles and education and are now reading in all areas. I don't believe women write any differently than a man unless they want to; we have plenty of realistic brutality in our work, as well as action, technical details, etc. If anything, in many areas we offer improvements in the sense that we can often -- but not always-- be more sensitive emotionally."


I wondered, though, if being a woman writer these days might actually be advantageous. After all, Tananarive Due is the first to admit that being black is NOW an advantage in getting published, but that "...this is a big change from the way things were in publishing just a short time ago, before writers like Terry McMillan demonstrated that there is a large audience for commercial black fiction that is not Alice Walker or Richard Wright. First Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler and now Steven Barnes...faced a publishing world that could accept them as science fiction writers before it could accept them as black science fiction writers." Maybe being female is now actually beneficial to being published?

Brite isn't sure whether being female has helped or hindered, "Even people who like my work seem to take pleasure in pointing out the attention my work has gotten because I am a "young, attractive female" (their words, paraphrased). People who don't like my work often opine that that's the only reason I've gotten so much attention. I don't mind getting attention for this reason, obviously, or I wouldn't do things like pose [nude] for RAGE -- but once the attention is gotten, I hope my work speaks for itself."


Historically, women shaped supernatural fiction, particularly the ghost story, much the same way they shaped the related genre of crime fiction. Gothic fiction was written largely for a female audience by female writers. Women writers of ghost stories certainly shaped a century's worth of hauntings. Mary Shelley, of course, is the mother of both SF and horror. In this century Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates have been strong influences in literary horror. But has horror been changed in the last ten years because of a more pronounced presence of women in the field? According to editor Ellen Datlow, "Some women writers have been carving a niche for themselves in "erotic horror"-- Kilpatrick, Taylor, Lannes -- and I'm not sure it's a good thing --for anyone -- male or female -- to be typecast. I'd rather see these writers stretching themselves and doing stories totally contrary to expectation. (and I think they do, at times.) I don't see this as a necessarily female trend, I suspect it's an anomaly that will fade as soon as the writers lose interest in the subject and go on to other themes/topics."

Brite also points out, "If women didn't invent sexual horror, they have certainly reinvented it. (I prefer "sexual horror" to "erotic horror" because much of the work, while sexual in nature, is not intended to arouse.) Writers like Kathe Koja, Elizabeth Massie, Roberta Lannes, Christa Faust, and many, many others have totally wiped out that mall-punk badboy macho horror thing that was so big in the 80s."

Editors can influence a field perhaps more profoundly than writers. With the current dearth of small press offerings, it's had to judge what editorially impact anyone has these days, although Ann Kennedy of "Silver Web"; Lisa Jean Bothell now of the anthology STIGMATA; Honna Swenson, co-editor of "Talebones," and Peggy Nadramia of "Grue" are active. No "professional" magazines that I can think of currently have female editors, although "Dead of Night" (no longer being published) and "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" (now edited by Gordon van Gelder) were edited by women within recent memory. If anthology editors can be said to have any market value, two editors whose names would be considered marketable are females Ellen Datlow and Poppy Z. Brite.

Datlow doesn't feel her "career has been influenced one way or another by me being female. In the eighteen years or so that I've been involved in editing sf/fantasy and horror more women writers have certainly come into the field(s) and in sf they have been getting more attention than ever before. I don't perceive that women writing horror have a harder time than men, but I haven't spoken to my authors about it. I've never received any flack about being a (female) editor of horror." And she never buys a story based on the gender of the author.

Brite's LOVE IN VEIN 1 and 2 are split pretty evenly between male and female contributors, but Brite "asked writers whose work I liked, without regard to the gender issue." LIV2 would have had even more female authors if Harper hadn't cut four stories for objectionable content as one of the censored stories was by a woman. "Also," adds Brite, "if I'd known I was going to have room, I would have bought an excellent story Yvonne Navarro sent me at the last minute."

 Women of Darkness II The influence of women as mass publishing editors is hard to gauge. Certainly Jeanne Cavelos was a decided influence at Dell when she edited the "Cutting Edge" line. Ginjer Buchanan, senior editor with the Berkley Publishing Group, buys primarily sf/f but is noted for sneaking in horror when she can. Melissa Ann Singer and Natalia Aponte buy horror for Tor. But editors -- male or female -- seem to have less impact on what is now published than marketing departments. Women are influential in alternate press (which publishes some dark fiction) these days with the lesbian-oriented Cleis Press and Cecilia Tan of Circlet Press.


And what does Kathryn Ptacek think about the difference a decade makes? "When I started out in the field there were few women horror writers...maybe a handful, if that. There are any number of them now...they may not always call themselves horror writers, but they are, despite doing many other things as well. Still, there are more women doing short stories than novels, and that will continue. There are far more men writing horror novels, and I think that's not going to change any time soon.

"As to the advantage or disadvantage of being a woman writer -- I think that women (and men) can write anything. I've known men to write historical romance -- Charles Grant did, for example, and did quite well. (No one for the longest time knew he was Felicia Andrews. There were women who write in what was traditionally held to be "male" fields: westerns, intrigue, etc. Of course, some writers can't write those sort of things, and that's fine. The problem is not whether women can write these things, but rather what the perception women writers is. (See Nancy Holder for details on that)"

"Women horror writers are still around ... too bad the genre isn't.

"Horror is in a slump...It might come back, but it won't be in the same way--not with the explosion of books we saw in the 80s and early 90s...I don't think horror will disappear; I just think it might not be called that as such. But it'll always be there ... think for how many centuries we've had tales of the supernatural. Horror is ingrained within us."

Horror is hard for anyone to break into these days, male or female. The field is so small and horror is spread around under so many labels, that it's hard to mark anyone as "influencing" its perhaps non-existent direction. The broadest perspective to keep in mind as far as women in horror may be that Mary Shelley was horror's mother, it was nurtured by the lady Gothics, matured with Shirley Jackson, was fed by Anne Rice, and, in the last ten years or so, women like Nancy Holder and Poppy Z. Brite have given it some wicked cannibals...among other things. Like Nancy Collins' fictional Sonya Blue -- we've become both the monster and the monster slayers. Just TRY to take our silver switchblades away.

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Many of the books mentioned on this site are available through By using the link to the right to search for and order books (or anything else) you are benefiting this site. Thank you.
In Association with

[main] [about] [features] [reviews] [interviews] [link] [search]
Copyright © 1998-2002 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.