I can’t let February pass without acknowledging that it is, for many, the time to celebrate Women in Horror month. It is a time to lift up the voices and celebrate the profiles of the many women who dedicate their creative outpouring – whatever the medium may be – to this genre.
As a female editor, it is my mission to promote and elevate the many talented women writing in this genre. But this job is not easy and on several occasions I have had to extend the deadline due to a lack of submissions from women. I have reached out to the writing community and organisations such as Mslexia – whose very existence is to create a space for women writers. They wrote in a recent (and pretty grim) article ‘Return of the Housewife’ (featured in issue no.88) where they had undertaken a survey on the impact of the pandemic on women, citing 35% were writing more, 59% were writing far less and 10% nothing at all due to caring roles, childcare, domestic duties and lack of space. I know this is not every woman’s story, nor am I discounting the burdens placed on men, but it resonated with me as I too found myself struggling under the sheer weight of everything that I had to achieve in a day with a toddler at home (and a reason why this article has appeared at the end of February, rather than the beginning). Each lockdown I work sporadically during nap times and in the evenings to do the essential things, but my writing has dropped off the list as a ‘non-urgent’ task. Being able to find time to write is a luxury not many of us can afford. So when we do eventually have something to send out, it’s a huge achievement.
Something else troubles me too: I receive submissions from time to time from women who tell me they are writing under a male pseudonym because ‘male authorship’ brings them more success when placing their work. This worries me and surely perpetuates an attitude that should be left far in the past. From my perspective I would say, submit as the person you most want to identify as – whatever that gender is – so that an editor worth their salt can create a healthy balance and a shared inclusive space. I find doing a bit of research on the publisher before submission can help determine where their interests and concerns lie.
Going through past issues of The Ghastling, I wanted to pick out some of my favourite stories written by women and share my thoughts on them here. As often happens, a theme has occurred: Motherhood, mothering and mothers. Perhaps because this is what I am and what I do more than anything else these days and is something I am drawn to right now. So often in literature women are portrayed as mad, beautiful objects of desire so it’s nice to see that women are rejecting that trope and framing their own narratives; telling a different kind of story – turning domestic spaces inside out and, in my opinion, horror is a brilliant genre for exploring this.
Annie Greene’s story ‘Monster in a Box’ is probably one of my favourite stories published in The Ghastling so far. It is so brilliantly weird, unusual and very, very disturbing. A woman buys a monster in a box: ‘Each one entirely unique and entirely yours. Fully matures in 7 to 10 days. With proper care. Some instructions provided.’ What is most disturbing about this is it’s an entirely malleable unformed thing and yet, it is so normal. The monster could be a pet – or baby. It can look like anything. It is customised to the desired shape of its new owner. Greene deftly explores the maternal emotion this ‘monster’ brings to her protagonist: ‘That soft, solid weight raised emotions in me I had been unprepared to face.’ She likens the early days of the monster’s development to a birth and the subtle horror of her raising this monster to be, look, eat entirely to her requirements is masterful. The beauty of this story is that much of the creep lies in what is implied; what sits in the peripheries.
Carly Holmes’ folk horror ‘Heartwood’ is a story on female selfhood and identity. This is a truly inventive story, pushing the limits of imagination told from the perspective of a blind girl whose mother battles every night to prevent herself from becoming a tree. A tree is a such a powerful metaphor for strength, but her strength is also her weakness, she is organic and vulnerable and a part of her may even wish to become the tree, if she could. ‘In her dreams she sawed through her own roots and hacked and hacked until the sap ran red and bone and muscle rose up, limbs pressing through the kindling of her other incarnation.’ This struggle feels so recognisable: the pain of body-image, self-harm and the need to maintain the ‘self’ within and without. The responsibility of motherhood is addressed: ‘She’d check the mug and kiss my forehead, tell me to be good and quiet, not to cause any fuss or bother. Then she’d retire to her side of the pulled curtain and begin her battle to retain her human form’. I see my motherhood as a second self. I am me and I am mother. Sometimes all at the same time; sometimes mother first, self second. And sometimes my self is swallowed entirely. It is a constant pull and tug to retain a form of me. But in this story, the battle is taken out of her hands by her son, who takes it upon himself to know ‘what is best’ for the family in a brutal act of cruelty. But mother and daughter do not see this as ‘best’ and daughter reflects: ‘I miss the days she used to be more than she is now.’ This is so poignant. Her singular identity – her human body – is ultimately unremarkable. Her hindrance was also a power, a power that can no longer be obtained. This is a horror story of old, harking back to the bloody nastiness of old folklore and fairy tales – before Disney sugared them up.
Catrin Kean’s ghost story ‘Blue’, always stands out to me for its depiction of the ‘baby blues’ beginning: ‘Sometimes it just takes one thing to tip you off the edge of the world’. A single mother, despairing, lonely, is offered a fresh start in a house by the sea but is troubled when a visitor, another woman, unexpectedly turns up seeking shelter. This story exposes the intricacy of the tethers that pull us from this way to that. The lives we think we should have and the life that we actually have. Kean vividly portrays the emotional turmoil which seeps into everything. It is as though the weather, the landscape and the house are all emotional entities so completely in sync with the central character. This, for me, is how true ghost stories are made.
Hailey Piper’s story ‘What the Girls Are Doing’ is a tale of sisterhood and their mother’s lingering and vengeful spirit. In what is beautifully described as a ‘sisterly hive’ a dark plan is hatched and they are forced to hold a séance. The plan, not wanting their mother to know everything, has backfired and it seems that now their mother can see far more in death than she did in life. The things she ‘held her tongue’ on – such as the protagonist’s lesbian relationship, for example. She instead makes her disapproval very clear in death. The closeness of women and female intuition is central to this ghost story.
Carrie Hardman’s tale ‘Changed’ is a terribly tragic and dark folk horror centred around a recently widowed new mother. She becomes convinced her baby is a changeling, the cure for which is to drown it in order for her true baby to return – expelled of the curse. Folklore has given her a means to cure what ails her baby, but as is plainly obvious, it is not the fairies that have taken over the child but a woman overwhelmed with grief who is also suffering the horror of postnatal depression.
Lucie McKnight Hardy’s ‘The Pickling Jar’ is a darkly comic story about an odd village custom, passed between women who pickle the flesh of their dearly departed to be served up at the funeral party on blinis or baguettes. To make matters more absurd, there is a tasting competition and the quality of the pickles are assessed. This is the kind of thing that would happen if Hannibal Lecter’s wife ran a league of the Women’s Institute: ‘Dead Husbands: selecting the most succulent cuts. Tip: timing is everything’.
Of course, we have published many more stories by women and will continue to do so – these are just a tiny selection from our archive. My hope for the future is to see an increase in submissions by women for The Ghastling and a more concerted effort by other editors of horror books and anthologies to create a balance in gender representation.
Where to find the stories and authors featured in The Ghastling:
Carrie Hardman: ‘Changed’ Book 11 & ‘The Missing List’ Book 10
Annie Greene: ‘Water Damage’ Book 9 & ‘Monster in a Box’ Book 10
Catrin Kean: ‘Fog time’ Book 8, ‘Sirens’ Book 10 & ‘Blue’ Book 5
Lucie Mcknight Hardy: ‘The Pickling Jar’ Book 9
Hailie Piper: ‘What the Girls are Doing’ Book 11
Carly Holmes: ‘The Glamour’ Book 1 & ‘Heartwood’ Book 6
You can purchase copies at theghastling.com
Source material: Mslexia, issue no 88, Dec/Jan/feb 2020/21, p. 9
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