Monster, She Wrote by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson
Publisher: Quirk Books | Release Date: Sept. 17, 2019 | Pages: 352
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Almost immediately, I had to come to grips with what Monster, She Wrote is versus what I had hoped and wanted it to be. Without knowing much about the book beyond the awesome illustrated cover art and the premise as revealed in the title (The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction), I had expected a more thorough study exploring the various authors and a deep-dive into their eras, their work and legacies, and how they shaped an entire genre.
Instead, Monster, She Wrote is more of a reference guide to the hundreds of women authors working in the horror and speculative fiction genres. We’re introduced to these writers, given a very brief biographical sketch and an overview of their most relevant works, followed by a short reading list naming a singular must-read title from their bibliography, a second book to try, and some related works by other authors exploring similar themes and topics. Because of the large number of authors Kröger and Anderson are compiling here, each of the women featured here are only given a few pages worth of space to touch upon their biography, influences and interests, and their most relevant titles to the genre at hand (some of these women wrote romance, young girls fiction, and nonfiction titles, as well, which obviously fall outside of the scope of Kröger and Anderson ‘s examinations).
The book itself is arranged into eight parts, starting with The Founding Mothers and the modern horror genre’s roots in Gothic literature of the late 1700s — 1800s, sparked by Ann Radcliff, who helped popularize the genre. She and the writers that followed wrote in the Gothic style that had begun with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, claiming the genre for their own and making it a literary force to be reckoned with and one that explored their own gruesome nightmares. Without these women, Kröger and Anderson argue, we wouldn’t have films like Suspiria or the domestic horrors explored by Shirley Jackson. It was these women that made Gothic horror so popular that enabled and influenced enormous swathes of horror and spec fic authors to come, including Stephen King. From there, Kröger and Anderson move into the various subgenres that grew naturally from their Gothic origins, moving into stories dealing more directly with the supernatural, like ghosts and hauntings, and the occult as society, science, and philosophers of the late 19th Century began to explore the question of what happens after death, as well as attempted to scientifically explore psychic phenomena. Although male authors like Charles Dickens used ghosts in their fiction, it was, again, the women authors that really led the forefront and used their writings to explore societal and political issues of the time, cementing the horror genre into a form that would become more recognizable for 21st Century readers, paving the way for the paperback horrors of the 1980s from VC Andrews, Kathe Koja, Ruby Jean Jensen, and The New Goths, like Anne Rice and Susan Hill.
While I certainly appreciate Kröger and Anderson’s work here, and believe that it will help readers (myself included — and rest assured, I’ve made note of a number of titles mentioned throughout this book) discover a number of strong, and perhaps overlooked, voices in the genre, it was the prefaces that began each section that I found most interesting. When Monster, She Wrote dug into discussions of the Spiritualist movement and occult societies that help inspire the women writers of that era, I was supremely fascinated and wanted to know about that history and how those works fed off each other. I wanted a deeper exploration of how these women used their writings to further civil rights and support abolition movements. Although some readers decry politics in their fiction (primarily, I’ve come to note, politics they disagree with), the simple fact is that art and politics are inextricably intertwined and always have been and always will be. I would have loved to have read a deeper examination of this topic in regards to women in horror and how their (counter-culture) attitudes fueled the genre in its earliest stages. Monster, She Wrote gets close to these topics, but never steps into the muck to get its hands dirty. It’s not the central focus of this work at all, but it is at its most interesting during these instances and if Kröger and Anderson ever opt to take a deep dive into these issues I’ll be sure to read the hell out of it. That said, you can at least explore these topics and issues through the women and their stories that Kröger and Anderson have selected to highlight as most relevant. Also of interest, and again something I wish were explored more deeply and thoroughly, were the later discussions of the lost women writers of the pulp era, who influenced other creatives like HP Lovecraft and the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, and the paperback horror boom of the 80s, which saw many works disappear entirely following the horror market’s collapse as publishers went out of business and various titles went out of print.
Where Monster, She Wrote is most successful, though, is in showcasing the women of horror themselves, and in this regard it’s very much an indispensable reference guide. Every February, the horror genre celebrates Women In Horror Month, and readers devote the shortest month of the year to discovering strong new voices or overlooked classics. There’s more than enough horror stories by women to fill an entire calendar year and then some, and Monster, She Wrote is a solid starting point to discovering these authors and enriching your library with their voices. Beyond the central handful of figures that Kröger and Anderson have selected to best represent each era of horror fiction, you’ll find plenty of leads toward other women authors of the time, as well as more recent 21st Century examples that were inspired by those earlier writers and best recapture the spirit of those themes or genre hallmarks. Monster, She Wrote is also a handy book to have on hand just in case you run into some especially dimwitted man who foolishly thinks women don’t, can’t, or shouldn’t write horror, so you can throw the book at them or crack them over the head with it. Maybe you’ll luck out and knock some sense into them!