Thursday, October 4, 2012

Writing Horror While Female

This is a Guest Post submitted to Fangs for the Fantasy

I'd like to thank Fangs for the Fantasy for having us.

Despite such lights as Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Tanith Lee and Suzy Mackee Charnas, and editors like Ellen Datlow, horror is perceived as a male field. There's even a Women in Horror month, February. But it's still generally accepted that women aren't as scary as the men.

I asked the founding members of the Literary Underworld, ( ) an independent author consortium, to talk about their experiences writing horror while female.

The three of us, Sara Harvey, Elizabeth Donald and myself, Angelia Sparrow, all write dark fantasy or horror. Yet, all three of us are consistently relegated to romance panels at conventions. Sara and I usually get the steampunk ones, but I'm always on the 11 PM sex panel, because I write erotic horror.  Elizabeth may have a zombie or vampire panel and Sara probably has a costuming one, but we almost always get at least one romance panel.

I write mostly GLBT, heavy on the paranormal and erotic horror. My gay Christmas werewolves may be peaceable pups, just wanting to be left alone and enjoy their short story series, but my post-millennialist vampires in Power in the Blood aren't averse to forcible conversions to bring about the Second Coming and their antagonists aren't shy about filling a megachurch knee-deep in blood to make sure it doesn't happen.

My first experience with the general attitude that men write horror, women write sexy vampires came at Hypericon. I stopped Brian Keene and Bryan Smith, two writers I read, who were working for a press I was researching to ask some questions. I said I had written a horror novel, with about as much sex as Smith usually had, and was interested in knowing some basic stuff about the publisher. The first words out of Keene's mouth (Smith's very quiet) were Are you sure it doesn't need to go to the romance imprint? I looked at them and said Let me give you two words: buzzsaw penis. The main character's reverse Prince Albert piercing turns into a buzzsaw threaded on a spindle of flesh. They both flinched, nodded and said, Yeah, horror.

In that instant, I felt proud of myself for making men who give me nightmares flinch, but I also felt deeply annoyed by having to prove myself and give away the biggest, baddest scene in order to do so.

But my single experience is nothing compared to what my friends have gone through in a systemic way.

Sara Harvey:

I dont necessarily consider myself a horror writer, per se.  I do like a bit of the creepy stuff and in my Blood of Angels series from Apex Publications, I definitely took things to dark places.

Two things came out of this particular experience for me.

The first was that The Convent of the Pure was reviewed by Publishers Weekly this is a really awesome step for a small-press like Apex and a relatively new author like me. I was completely thrilled to be noticed by such a prestigious reviewer.

The review was overall positive. Although I wasnt sure of the reviewer had actually read the book, all the way through, all 36,000 words of it. See, its a very dark fantasy that some might categorize as horror. There is a romantic relationship between the lead characters but sex never happens on the page, or anywhere in the book as one of the main characters is a ghost that haunts the other. I reiterate that NO SEX EVER HAPPENS IN THIS BOOK. It isnt even the least bit sensual, flirtatious, or smutty.

The two protagonists are both women.

This led the Publishers Weekly reviewer to declare my book fluffy lesbian erotica right after calling it gothic Steampunk.

Did I mention at no time is there sex in this book? For crying out loud, there isnt even KISSING. But it has lesbians and was written by a woman and therefore must be erotica, right?

Said review also felt the need to mention that Readers who aren't put off by the cheesecake cover illustration of buff, busty Portia will appreciate the mix of heat, horror and humor. So we had some fun with the cover, spoofing Penguin classics and pulp. Personally, I like it. It shows two strong women who happen to also be attractive and it illustrates a scene that happens in the book. AND no ones ass or boobs are hanging out and no one has a tramp stamp.

For whatever reason, the other two books in the trilogy did not make it to the notice of Publishers Weekly so well never know what they thought of those two, also very lacking in the sex department.
The joy of being recognized by Publishers Weekly was totally killed by my book being so idiotically dismissed as fluffy miscategorized as erotica. Someone really needs to read more smut, if they thought I was writing erotica here!

The second happened a few months later at a panel talking about writing horror. This relatively well-known horror author (he was no one I had ever heard of, but that doesnt mean a whole lot since I dont read widely in the genre) said that women were not as effective at writing horror as were men.
 Mainly, in his opinion, because we womenfolk get too bogged down in emotions and details.

Now, I dont know about you, but as a human being, I like to read books that are FILLED with emotions and details. Because otherwise I might as well read the dictionary or the phone book. Because thats what books are for! I said to him, But if there is no emotional impact, then why are we scared?

Because really, if you have a bunch of characters that no one cares about, what does it matter if they are eaten, tortured, turning into zombies, or coated with buttercream and set upon by bees? The emotional investment in a story is what sells the story, otherwise, were back to the phone book.

I was really aggravated that this guy seemed to think that emotional content in a story was A) something only women did and B) something to be avoided in horror. I really thought we were past that.

But what do I know? Im just a woman who writes fluffy lesbian erotica with too many emotional details.

Sara M. Harvey is a costume designer, and an author of fiction and nonfiction, most notably having written multiple articles for the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History. She is a regular speaker on the subjects of costume design at science-fiction conventions, and has won awards for her plus-sized creations.  Her website is

Elizabeth Donald:

Trapped in a Pink Ghetto

 I was digital before digital was cool. I was also a Mac person in the 1990s, when you got beaten up on playgrounds for having one of those boring beige boxes. But that stigma was nothing compared to writing ¡K wait for it ¡K ebooks.

Worse, I wrote romance. I was young, I needed the money. But since I was born with a love of things that go chomp in the night, my romance novel was an erotic thriller about a vicious serial killer that was released as an ebook more than a year before it was combined with its sequel for a paperback.
It was a tough sell; while romance readers welcomed the paranormal and futuristic in their formulas, the horror and science fiction readers were not nearly so welcoming. One gentleman read my cover card and commented to my face, The only difference between this stuff and Penthouse Forum are the words, I never thought this would happen to me.’”

And yet he lives.

By the third book, Id brought the vampires out of romance entirely and into horror. Thats where I wanted to be all the time. But the stigmas followed me. The horror fans didnt take me seriously because they thought I was a romance author; other readers ¨C and often people higher up in the industry ¨C didnt take me seriously because I had started in ebooks.

At one convention appearance, my biography was actually rewritten to call me an aspiring author. This was more than two years after the first book was released, and by then it had actually appeared in print and was in every Borders in America.

The funny thing was, the romance fans kept reading me. My reviews continued to be strong; for the third book, many of them said, No, its not romance anymore¡K but I still like it.

And then I wrote zombies.

My first zombie book was greeted with skepticism by anyone who didnt read it. I was begging conventions to put me on zombie panels, and organizers were shocked when I told them I had a zombie novel coming out. I was trapped in a pink ghetto.

Once when I asked to be put on a zombie panel with Bryan Smith and Jonathan Maberry, the organizer told me, I dunno, its kind of a guy thing.

Yes, he was just yanking my chain. And his wife threatened to glue his head to the table. He didnt know he was repeating the attitudes I was getting throughout the field: this is the man side of horror. Women write about brooding vampires and tormented werewolves as romantic heroes. Leave the entrails to the men.

The funny thing was, my zombie book sold out its first printing in 48 hours. Its now a trilogy, with the third book coming out next year. The reviews were great¡K except for a few people who didnt like the swearing. I figured a former Marine leading a group of paramilitary zombie hunters probably doesnt say oh fooey, but then again, she was a female former Marine. Did that have anything to do with it?

Id like to think not. I really do.

Once my grandmother sighed at my latest story of violence and blood, and asked, Dont you ever want to write anything real? By that, I assume she meant mainstream fiction. To me, what I write is real. Horrors happen every day; theyre in the newspaper stories I write daily. Being a woman may inform what I write in a different way, but it does not change its horrific nature ¨C even when the characters occasionally knock boots.

And things are better now. The Kindle and iPad changed the way we view ebooks ¨C theyre real books now! (They always were.) I dont have to beg for the zombie panels anymore, and while they still introduce me as the woman who writes vampire romance ¨C forever! ¨C they no longer call me an aspiring author and nobody compares my work to Penthouse Forum.

I call that progress.

Elizabeth Donald is a journalist and author, best known for the award winning Nocturnal Urges vampire trilogy. Her website is

The best way, in my opinion, to remedy the problem is to buy books by female authors, creating a demand and more visibility. Fran Friel, a several time Stoker award winner, Catherynne Valente, Cherie Priest and others are out there, as well as those of us in the smaller presses.

As a thank you to the readers, we are offering a coupon worth 15% off your purchase at the Literary Underworld. Simply type in LUBLOGTOUR at checkout.