Shelley’s Daughters


Published: October 24, 2008

When the strange, arresting, thoroughly frightening novel called “Frankenstein” was published in London on New Year’s Day, 1818, there was no author named on the title page, and readers and reviewers, almost to a person, assumed the book had been written by a man. They were mistaken. The creator of “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” was Mary Shelley, who was the daughter of the radical political thinker William Godwin (to whom it was dedicated) and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley — and who, when she finished the novel, a few months shy of her 20th birthday, became the mother of horror. Skip to next paragraph

In that capacity she has had many more sons than daughters. Or so it seems, at least, for in the nearly two centuries that have passed since this teenage English girl delivered herself of the first great modern horror novel, men — as is their wont — have coolly taken possession of the genre, as if by natural right, some immutable literary principle of primogeniture. Until fairly recently, just about all the big names in horror, the writers whose stories dominate the anthologies and whose novels stay in print forever, have been of the masculine persuasion: Poe, Le Fanu, Stoker, Lovecraft, M. R. James, King, Straub. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s remarkable 1892 tale of madness, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” manages to creep into the odd collection, as does Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” which is so disturbing that it induced a significant number of New Yorker readers to cancel their subscriptions when it appeared in the magazine’s pages in 1948. But for the most part, a woman’s place in horror has been pretty well defined: she’s the victim, seen occasionally and heard only when she screams.

It’s probably unwise to speculate on the deep reasons for this, to assert, say, that men have some greater temperamental affinity for the hideous doings horror thrives on, or that women are more likely to shrink from the contemplation of pure, rampaging evil. (It may be the case that men have historically been afflicted with a rather more urgent need to test themselves against such dangers, but let’s leave all that to the gender-studies departments, shall we?) What can be said with certainty, though, is that women writers, even the best of them, have rarely made a career of horror, as the male luminaries of the genre mostly have. Gilman, for example, occupied herself primarily with nonfiction on feminist issues, and Jackson, aside from “The Lottery” and her superb 1959 novel, “The Haunting of Hill House,” in fact wrote very little that fits comfortably into the genre: no vampires, no werewolves, no zombies, just a lot of people whose lives feel to them inexplicably threatened and unstable. (Her 1954 novel, “The Bird’s Nest,” about a young woman with multiple personalities, is a prime example of the sort of real-world unease her eerily detached prose tends to generate; it has, come to think of it, quite a bit in common with the mundane domestic horror of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”)

Even Mary Shelley, after her initial triumph, merely dabbled in the unspeakable for the rest of her writing life. The second half of her too-little-known 1826 novel, “The Last Man,” imagines the end, by plague, of humankind, but is, despite its dire subject, less horrific than elegiac — it’s a book about the death of Romanticism. Three of Shelley’s shorter forays into the fantastic were collected in 2004 in a slim volume called TRANSFORMATION (Hesperus, paper, $13.95) and demonstrate conclusively that horror as such didn’t interest her profoundly: for her, fiction was more about ideas than sensations. In recent years, though, women — perhaps emboldened by the success of the florid vampire novels written by the pre-Jesus Anne Rice — have been claiming a much larger share of their genre birthright, even devoting themselves, in many cases, exclusively to horror. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say they’re writing fiction that uses the traditional materials of horror for other purposes, because novels like those of the wildly popular Laurell K. Hamilton or the Y.A. phenomenon Stephenie Meyer don’t appear to be concerned, as true horror should be, with actually frightening the reader. (Rice wasn’t, either.) The publishing industry has even cooked up a new name to brand this sort of horroroid fiction, in which vampires and other untoward creatures so vividly express their natural and unnatural desires: it’s called “paranormal romance.”

Unreadable as most of this stuff is (at least for us males), there’s a certain logic to this turn of pop-cultural events, in that we the reading public no longer share a clear consensus on what constitutes abnormal, or indeed scary, behavior. In the unlamented prefeminist world, women were themselves so routinely marginalized as “different” or “other” that perhaps it’s not such a stretch for them to identify, as many now seem to, with entities once considered monstrous, utterly beyond the pale. And, further, quite a few of these monsters, notably the vampires, are beautiful, worldly and unstoppably strong — which makes them useful vehicles for empowerment fantasies.

A measure of doubt, or at least ambivalence, about what should terrify us isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a writer. Times change, as do the shapes of our fears: it’s probably just as well not to be too sure where the real threats to our bodies and souls are coming from. Women horror writers, who seem less certain these days than men, have been doing some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre. In 2003, Sara Gran published a terrific short novel called COME CLOSER (Berkley, paper, $6.99), in which a happily married young urban professional finds herself suddenly and incomprehensibly attracted to violence, obscenity, promiscuity, all the nasty sensations her orderly and apparently satisfying life has always excluded. This overpowering walk-on-the-wild-side impulse leads to some extremely unpleasant behavior. The novel is either a demonic-possession story or, like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a tale of a woman’s every­day madness, and Gran blurs the line suggestively. Is it scarier if the demon is external and real, or internal — self-generated and imagined? In “Come Closer,” the distinction feels purely academic.

Gran is, in the tradition of women writing horror, only a sporadic contributor to the genre. The sole book she’s come out with in the past five years is a noirish crime novel called “Dope.” But “Come Closer” remains one of the signal works of contemporary female horror because Gran manages to locate in her heroine’s anguished sexuality a kind of terror that the paranormal romancers routinely (and lucratively) deny, the uneasy sense that the forces unleashed inside her might be uncontrollable — rampant, voracious, indifferent to natural limits and not unambiguously benign.

Sex has always, of course, been the dirty little secret of horror’s appeal, because what terrifies us is also, often, what attracts us. Where sex is concerned, the distinction between freedom and helplessness — being, as a Romantic writer might say, in the thrall of one’s passions — can be a very, very fine one. And the feeling of helplessness is at the heart of horror. Even when sex isn’t the subject, the good female writers in the genre seem more intimate with that feeling than their male counterparts. Although the protagonist of Alexandra Sokoloff’s recent novel THE PRICE (St. Martin’s, $23.95) is a man, it’s difficult to imagine a male horror writer putting a member of his own sex through what Sokoloff’s Will Sullivan endures: the advanced cancer of his young daughter, the loss of his wife’s love and trust, the long hours spent roaming hopelessly through the corridors of a hospital, a setting in which even the strongest of us can, as the endless days of chronic illness grind past, start to feel defeated, impotent. When the only way out of the impasse comes in the form of a smooth-talking man offering deals fishier than even 21st-century Wall Street would countenance, the hero’s no-exit despair appears fully justified, and irreversible. Sokoloff has the integrity to leave this dire situation essentially unresolved, the glib devil unvanquished, evil still at large in the hospital and in the world.


Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


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               Academic year 2008/2009
© a.r.e.a./Dr.Vicente Forés López
© Lorena Levy Ballester