Shelley’s Daughters

Shelley’s Daughters

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.

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.

Sarah Langan, who made a striking debut a couple of years ago in “The Keeper,” isn’t one for tidy resolutions either. Her most recent book, THE MISSING (Harper/HarperCollins, paper, $6.99), continues the grim story of social entropy begun in her first, the collective madness of the dying Maine mill town in “The Keeper” having migrated to a more upscale community and now taken the form of a virus that creates “a hostile, schizophrenic state within its hosts.” This is the diagnosis of a local psychiatrist named Fenstad Wintrob — a name that looks as if it has to be an anagram of something, though I’ve been unable to work it out. (A bit of bonus futility in a book that already has plenty.) But the shrink, like everyone else in town, is power­less to resist the disease or to stop its inexorable spread, and the novel becomes, like Mary Shelley’s “Last Man,” a mournful end-of-the-world narrative, a vision of a society perishing from within, exhausted by its own excesses — although the excesses in this case aren’t those of idealism, as they were in Shelley’s time. And in Langan’s book (which won, and deserved, the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for the best novel of 2007), the last man standing is a woman.

There’s an end-of-the-world feel, too, in Elizabeth Hand’s startling, unclassifiable GENERATION LOSS (Small Beer, $24), which was recently honored with the first Shirley Jackson Award for what the award’s Web site calls “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror and the dark fantastic.” (Sarah Langan was one of the judges.) Amorphous as this definition may sound, it suits the kind of unsettling stories Hand likes to tell, not only in this novel but also in her melancholy 2006 collection SAFFRON AND BRIMSTONE (M Press, paper, $14.95) and her latest book, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN: Pandora’s Bride (Dark Horse, paper, $6.99). “Generation Loss” also takes place in Maine, not in a town but on a bleak island populated mostly by a handful of aging counter­culture types hanging on, in the starkest isolation, to the remnants of their old ideals: all are sad, some are crazy, and one may be a serial killer. The narrator is a seriously damaged woman named Cass Neary, once a famous photographer of New York’s punk scene and now drifting through life in a bitter, narcotic haze, unable to find an appropriate vehicle for her great artistic passion, which is death. (The work that made her fleeting reputation was a volume called “Dead Girls.”) To her, the harsh, unforgiving landscape of that Maine coastal island feels like home.

There’s nothing supernatural in “Generation Loss,” but it’s full of mysteries — all originating in its characters’ troubled psyches — and full of terrors that can’t be explained. Like the heroine of Hand’s brilliant horror story “Cleopatra Brimstone,” Cass Neary has been the victim of a rape, and like the title humanoid of “Pandora’s Bride,” she is stubbornly and defiantly independent. Hand’s bride announces at the very outset of her peculiar memoir: “In fact I was to be no male’s bride: from the moment I knew fire and was thus born, my goal has always been to steal fire, and power, for myself. I am no man’s creature and no man’s possession.” This writer’s Promethean project, her fire-stealing strategy, has always been, as Cass Neary’s is and Mary Shelley’s was, art itself — the act of creation and all its frightful ambiguities. Near the end of “Generation Loss,” Cass comments on another artist’s work: “It was a horrifying world, but it was a real one. How many of us can say we’ve made a new world out of the things that terrify and move us?” At least a few of the women writing horror today can say just that. And there’s no way to mistake the new worlds they’re making for the work of men.

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”…

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