Sumiko: One of the great things about participating in the Wicked Women Writers contest (hosted by HorrorAddicts.net) is being surrounded by other women writers in the genre. This year, there are thirteen women involved in the contest. Thirteen is a number that is strongly associated with horror due to the superstitious belief that it is an unlucky number. That belief was so strong at one time that some buildings older skipped the thirteenth floor (in fact simply calling it the fourteenth floor). Some people fear the number thirteenth, a condition called triskaidekaphobia. For a horror contest, however, it is very simpatico that there should be thirteen contestants in the year 2013.
This bit about genre placement is interesting. The Gothic era of writing is widely considered to be the beginning of modern horror fiction, as epitomized by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe. However, many female horror writers from the 1800s who were long considered horror writers have been erased from that history in popular (if not academic) culture by simply assigning them to a different genre.
The literary tendency to categorize women writers in any genre but horror is perhaps most conspicuous in the case of Mary Shelley, who was not only one of the most influential women in the history of horror writing, but is considered by many to be the author of the first novel in the modern genre science-fiction with her “Frankenstein,” published in 1818. Jane C. Loudon, author of “The Mummy,” published in 1827, was also later assigned to the science-fiction genre. Mary Shelley’s 1826 work “The Last Man” is also considered science fiction, and apocalyptic fiction.
In fact, these women are considered pioneers of the genre, having written in it before such a genre existed under that name. However, something interesting happened to them that did not happen to male horror writers whose works could also be considered part of another genre: in an act of revisionist history, they were gradually removed from the horror genre.
This seems particularly bizarre when watching horror films: if cinematic interpretations of “The Mummy” and “Frankenstein” are almost universally considered horror, then why wouldn’t the sci-fi classics remain in the horror wheelhouse in literature? If Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and Stephen King’s “The Stand” are both able to occupy a spot in the horror genre while also standing in their primary (and obvious) genre slot as apocalyptic fiction, who can’t Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” perform the same trick?
A lot of this has to do with the sometimes random or unclear nature of genre labeling, and the often political nature of genre label selection. Once a horror label has become attached to a writer (like Stephen King) then his writings, even if they are another genre (like apocalyptic fiction) take on the horror label associated with their author. The same is true in reverse: if an author is known as a science fiction writer, like Octavia Butler, if she writes a work such as “Fledgling” which could also be considered as a work in the gothic horror or gothic romance tradition, it will still be most likely shelved under the science-fiction genre associated with its author. There are plenty of talented female horror writers, but they are often found under different genre label identities within the speculative fiction wheelhouse of science-fiction, horror, and fantasy.
Sumiko Saulson’s blog “Things That Go Bump In My Head” (www.SumikoSaulson.com) focuses on horror fiction writing and features author interviews, writing advice, short stories and editorial pieces. She is the author of three novels in the science fiction, horror and dark fantasy genres, “Solitude,” “Warmth”, and “The Moon Cried Blood”. She is also the author of a short story anthology by the same name as her blog. A published poet and writer of short stories and editorials, she was once profiled in a San Francisco Chronicle article about up-and-coming poets in the beatnik tradition. The child of African American and Russian-Jewish American parents, she is a native Californian, and was born and spent her early childhood in Los Angeles, moving to Hawaii, where she spent her teen years, at the age of 12. She has spent most of her adult life living in the San Francisco Bay Area.