For many people – writers and readers alike – Horror is a predominantly “male” genre. We imagine that the stories are specifically created to titillate the egos of teenage boys, and to shock or startle their naïve teenage girlfriends. In fairness, sometimes that is exactly the case – intentionally or not; Hollywood certainly doesn’t mind exploiting that angle. But Horror did not start that way, and it is exhibiting small signs of abandoning that narrow audience definition and returning its attentions to real adult interests… It has been happening in spurts since the 1800’s.
Not Just A Boy’s Club
The reason is very probably rooted in the continued historic contribution of women to the genre… and to writing in general. Operating in the white space of history, women writers have been busy writing the kinds of fiction most critics had little consideration for, but which could provide a good paycheck. This kind of mass-production in writing did for fiction what the movie mills of the 1930’s and 1940’s did for Hollywood film classics: it freed women to think about their audiences, to relate to their audiences, and to write for their audiences.
The truth comes as a shock to many: most of us picture our Victorian sisters deep in the art of conversation, huddled about like well-dressed birds in little insignificant groups, or belligerently parading about arguing for prohibition and the right to vote. We were never really taught about the ones who labored away writing romances and thrillers for the new-born magazine and news industries, about those concerned about the plights of animals, children, and the mentally ill or abused women, slaves and former slaves, immigrants, and minorities. Beyond passing mention, we never really learned about the ones who worked from within a strict set of rules to change society and its fruits for the better. We tend to forget that women have always worked.
With the almost singular exception of Mary Shelley, when we look at the “greats” of Horror, the list of names that comes to mind tends to be male. But what you may not know is that women have been highly instrumental in the developmental history of Horror – and not because our gender looks better in a flimsy nightgown and can scream loud enough to stampede shellfish. Women, it turns out, have been writing Horror stories for a long time – shaping the genre periodically throughout its amazing timeline. Horror, it seems, is a useful genre for revealing the nastier, unseemly sides of life right along with the fears we all share of rapid technological change, ever-more-global wars, disastrous plagues, and our own insignificance. Says one authority about the changing times which accompanied the advent of the Industrial Revolution: “All that people knew was that a gulf was opening up with the past…and for a progressive age…the idea of a vindictive past held an especial potential for terror” (Cox & Gilbert ix).
Women know all about the forces of transition… Perhaps that is the secret ingredient in their drive into the arts…
Most notably since the late 1800’s, women have been a force in publishing, editing, and marketing as well as the progenitors of genre styles. It is because something important was spawned by the time known as the Industrial Revolution.
This is where Horror grew legs…Nice, shapely legs…
Real changes were happening for all genres of writing at what is commonly referred to as “The Turn of the Century” – when the 1800’s became the 1900’s:
· There were major technological developments to spur publishing and production;
· The repeal of the newspaper tax of 1855;
· The first signs of a rising middle class with “disposable income” and actual “leisure time” appeared internationally;
· New modes of transportation and communication (including radio and telephone and electricity) became available and which opened the doors even wider by providing new marketing opportunities and delivery channels (Gilbert & Cox xi)
Suddenly there was a boom in publishing because there was a new need for entertainment and information developing right alongside new ways of delivering the same (Wynne 1). This was the era in which magazines were born and newspapers flourished. Everything needed content – publications needed writers and a variety of writing to appeal to the first conceptualization of audiences. These are the times in which writing and advertising helped each other; when the reading public shaped what was available for purchase, and being a writer held real opportunities. Unfortunately, those same times influenced who should do the writing and how. But where content was concerned, the audience ruled.
Who were these audiences? Women. Families. The wealthy young heir or heiress and the self-made entrepreneur. Publications competed for the attention of these targeted groups (Wynne 1). And in the rush to find content, publishers found that women were not only the ones doing a lot of the reading, they were also the ones doing a lot of the writing.
Belles and Beaux, a Home Weekly, Jan 31 – April 25, 1874
Women in Early Pulp Fiction: a History Lesson
One should keep in mind that women historically have been a marginalized group. Women were expected to keep to certain roles and behaviors that would not embarrass themselves or their families. Writing was just such a dicey affair. It was believed that women shouldn’t write because women shouldn’t think – it was considered unhealthy and contrary to a woman’s “hysterically-inclined” nature; a woman’s function was to be a good wife, having and rearing children and focusing on the lighter, one-dimensional side of life. Writing competed with the needs of husband and family, inviting the lady of the house to participate in unhealthy and even selfish flights of fancy that might encourage her to question the status quo; this could be good for no one. Therefore women were expected to keep their place, perceived to be frivolous and shallow.
But those who really know women also know the impracticality of such an orchestrated expectation – because the reality of daily life has its own program and consequences.
Many women were the only line of defense standing between themselves and certain poverty. Just as it is today, not every husband was granted success in livelihoods, not every man cared. There were plenty of examples of women who were the money-makers, and one way to make money was to write… “author-ship was often the only means some middle-class women had to meet their financial needs” (Cox & Gilbert xiv).
In her 1887 Christmas night diary entry from Stories of the Seen and Unseen author Margaret Oliphant, a then-popular writer reveals an exhausted bit of candor we all can relate to: “All the things I seem to want are material things. I want money. I want work, work that will pay, enough to keep this house going which there is no one to provide for but me…” (xiv)
Unfortunately, just as the market is today, most writing that provided “steady” opportunity for publication was not of the “literary” type, but of the mainstream popular kind…pulp fiction, called Sensation fiction at the time. It was the publication of serialized novels and short stories which provided a “prime reason for the popularity of these magazines” (Cox & Gilber xii) and a great many of those who provided such fare were women – “both as writers and editors of magazines” (xiv).
Undeniably, in the telling of domestic tales – thrillers, romances, suspense, mystery, ghost stories – women excelled; they were on the front lines. Women saw and frequently experienced the treachery and inequities, the tragedies and injustices. In fact, “the majority of stories were written in direct response to popular taste” (Cox * Gilbert xix), so it was natural to weave stories from the harsher, less-discussed sides of reality. But there were serious risks; in those days one did not fall afoul of public opinion without severe, life-altering consequences. Precautions had to be taken. Some hid their identities behind married names, such as “Mrs. Henry Wood” or male pseudonyms. Others boldly used their own names. Stories ran the risk of over-achieving their Sensational formats and frequently were publicly castigated by editors and critics – walking a thin line between truth and what was considered “decency.”Indeed, there was a powerful genie in the bottle…and in the early part of the twentieth century she kicked the stopper out with her daintily laced shoes.
REFERENCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY :
American Women’s Dime Novel Project, http://chnm.gmu.edu/ dimenovels/
Barnard, A.M. [Louisa May Alcott]. “The Abbot’s Ghost or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation: a Christmas Story.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1867. Project Gutenberg EBooks. Retrieved on 11/1/2012 from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8694/pg8694.html
Cox, Michael and R.A. Gilbert. Introduction. Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology. Eds. Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, c1991. Print.
Day of the Woman: a Blog for the Feminine Side of Fear, http://dayofwoman.blogspot.com/2013/02/why-women-in-horror-month.html
Lundie, Catherine A. Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872-1926. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Print.
Pykett, Lyn. The Improper Feminine: The Woman’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing. New York: Routledge, c1992. Print.
Reisen, Harriet. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. New York, Picador, c2009. Print.
Smith, Andrew and Diana Wallace. “The Female Gothic: Then and Now.” University of Glamorgan. 2004. PDF. Retrieved 10/25/2012 from http://ww4.ncsu.edu/--leila/documents/ThefemalGothic-ThenNow.pdf
Stephens, Ann S. Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. Beadle and Adams Dime Novel Digitalization Project. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Libraries, February 4, 2000. As originally published in: Beadle's Dime Novels, no. 1 (June 9, 1860) Published: New York : Beadle & Co., June 9, 1860.
University of New England. “Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens Collection, 1835-1892.” Maine Women Writers Collection. Portland, ME: University of New England. Web. Retrieved 11/20/2012 from http://www.une.edu/mwwc/research/featuredwriters/stephensa.cfm
Wharton, Edith. “Kerfol.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c 1916. Project Gutenberg EBooks.Web. Retrieved on 11/1/2012 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24350/24350-h/24350-h.htm
---. “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” The Descent of Man and Other Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1914. Project Gutenberg EBooks. Web. Retrieved on 11/1/2012 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4519/4519-h/4519-h.htm#bell
Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women. New York: Fordham University Press, c2008
Wynne, Deborah. The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine. New York: St. Martin’s Press LLC, c2001. Print