The new James Herbert Award for horror writing – which aims to celebrate the boldest and most exciting talent in the field - will be welcomed universally by aficionados of the genre; however, I suspect that most of those aficionados will be men. Traditionally, horror - with its emphasis on blood and guts – has always been considered a predominantly male enterprise with respect to both its production and consumption. But to what extent is this received wisdom true?
If horror is read by more men than women, my guess is that this has nothing to do with either the subject matter or real gender preferences, but rather, social factors and the way horror has been marketed by both the publishing and the film industry. Remember the post-Nick Hornby phenomenon of lad lit? At the heart of every lad lit novel was a Mills and Boon love story. Lad lit demonstrated that men were perfectly capable of enjoying a good romance providing you ditched the pink cover. Even if it were true that women were put off by violence (which I don’t believe, after all, women are avid readers of crime) there is much more to horror than spilled innards. Indeed, in addition to physical horror there has always been psychological horror - a specialism that women writers have excelled at throughout the twentieth century.
It is generally recognised that the first truly psychological ghost story was the TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James. It merits a Freudian interpretation because we are urged by the author to question whether the ghosts are real, or simply hallucinations experienced by a sexually frustrated governess.
Although the psychological ghost story is a male creation, it has been largely developed by women. Virginia Woolf, who was a great fan of ghost stories and wrote a ghost story of her own, suggested that the success of the psychological ghost story hinges on revealing human beings as strangers not only to each other, but also to themselves. Here, she neatly captures what women writers have been particularly good at; namely, subverting the genre and using it to explore relationships and identities in crisis.
In the late 19th century, many intelligent but disempowered women developed hysteria. This ‘historical’ illness can be viewed as a kind of protest or escape. In the same way, intelligent but disempowered female writers escaped into the world of supernatural stories which they then used to voice protests that we would now recognise as having a distinctly ‘feminist’ flavour. Although Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (published in 1892) is not a ghost story per se, it has uncanny elements which are employed to make broader points about gender inequality. It is a truly remarkable piece of writing - as insightful as it is haunting.
The unhappily married Edith Wharton was also adept at imbuing her stories with potent subtext. In THE LADY'S MAID'S BELL a faithful dead servant attempts to protect her mistress from a brutish, drunken, tyrannical husband. And in BEWITCHED, we find a ghost story that hints at darker, real-life horrors, such as the sexual abuse of women by their fathers. Wharton’s male contemporaries just wouldn’t have thought of using a ghost story to explore such issues.
Probably the most important 20th century ghost story is THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson. Again, it is profoundly psychological. We are unsure whether the protagonist Eleanor is being haunted – or whether she is haunting the house. The book is as much about identity as it is about ghosts. It resonates with the common complaint of post-war American housewives: ‘I feel as though I’ve lost myself.’
Even when women writers take on a blood thirsty monster like the vampire, they give the subject a far more emotionally literate treatment than men. Countless books were written about vampires by men – from Polidori to Stoker and beyond - but it wasn’t until Anne Rice came along that we encountered a vampire with an internal psychology in INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.
Do women write better ghost stories than men? The answer to that question is probably down to personal preference; however, if we modify the question by introducing an additional word and ask: Do women write better psychological ghost stories than men? I would suggest that the answer must be a resounding affirmative.
I very much hope that the James Herbert award for horror writing will be receiving a large number of submissions from women writers for two reasons. Firstly, because I don’t think that any genre is gender specific – even blood and guts horror; and secondly, because I have always found psychological horror written by women writers particularly rich and rewarding. All new literary awards are exciting and good cause for celebration. But an award that might discover the next Shirley Jackson is very exciting indeed.
THE VOICES by F.R.Tallis is published on 8th May 2014.
Read more about the James Herbert Award here