We need more female horror writers. I’d even settle for male horror writers who publish under female pseudonyms. I realized this after reading “Certain Dark Things.”
First, it’s a wonderful collection of short-stories, many of which are written from the first-person perspective of a female protagonist. Taking that book aside, how many horror stories can you think of that are written in the first-person male perspective? I don’t know about you, but I run out of fingers and toes halfway through works of Stephen King.
That is not to say that all male authors cannot write in the female first-person. Stephen King does it very well. But who else? OK. You pulled out one or two names. Fine. How many horror stories are written from the first-person male perspective? In a word, most.
M.J. Pack’s recent anthology of short horror fiction shows just how big that gap really is. Not so much in number of male/female first-person protagonists, but in where a woman can go with horror stories that a man cannot.
There are numerous stories in “Certain Dark Things” where women are treated really badly. And that is OK grounds for a male writer, although some stories might be pushing the edge of “misogyny.” But many of these stories go further, where the female protagonist accepts (or god forbid) actually desires the brutality of men. And much of the male-on-female brutality is horrible in the truest sense of horror story: a horror story is supposed to contain something horrific (a bachelor is an unmarried man.)
Coming from a female author, I’m sure critics attribute this to M.J. Pack’s willingness to explore her vulnerability as a female author. But I say, “Fuck that!” Horrible things happened to the women in these stories because these stories were about horrible things happening to women. M.J. Pack probably didn’t sit down and say, “How can I depict female degradation today.” She probably just sat down and wrote, and that’s what came out.
Writing them in the first person is brilliant, because as an avid horror reader, I know that we all have those dark, secret places within us. As a group, I think horror readers are just more aware of it. And it has to be the case that women would have dark, secret places that most men never see, let alone experience in a story.
M.J. Pack’s horror stories written in the female-first person gives the reader a glimpse into those dark, secret places that are unique to women. Regardless of what critics may say about the style, there is a visceral truth to these characters that few writers seldom achieve.
This idea really hit home when I sat with bated breath waiting for the female protagonists to win. When they didn’t, I realized just how ingrained it is within the horror fiction audience to assume that women should not get hurt, raped, tortured, or killed in horror stories. Sure, all that can happen in horror stories, but it’s always in the background.
I’m not advocating for snuff stories of female abuse. But I would like the community of horror writers to start pushing the literary comfort zone about what can happen to “sacred cow” characters. When I sat down to “Certain Dark Things,” I wasn’t looking for a story about a pre-teen girl getting raped by her stepfather. But if that’s part of the story, and she’s the main character, the author has a duty to communicate how that character experiences being raped. That she recalls the wallpaper in the bathroom during the assaults makes that character real. So many stories would simply gloss over that with vague references to a resented step-father and the loss of innocence.
The unspoken prohibition against depicting women who suffer and die is made even more obvious by the choice of narrator for the audiobook. It’s read by a man, even though this man is often reading in the first-person voice of a woman. It’s an auditory sleight of hand. It’s easy to forget that these terrible things are happening to a woman when a man is speaking in her voice. I would imagine at the pre-production level, a female narrator was discussed, and someone said that it would just be too gruesome for the target audience.
Here’s the rub. That’s probably true. If there is a zone of comfort around modern horror writing, a female narrator for “Certain Dark Things” would have pushed it too far. I say this not as a sociological observer, but as a horror fiction reader. A female narrator would have taken the book from good horror to something grotesque in its honesty.
We need more female horror writers. It’s the only way modern horror literature will ever show a mainstream audience how women actually experience that which is truly horrible.