Don’t Work Too Hard, You’ll Scare Yourself!
By Sparrow Black
Growing up in my household in the 80s and early 90s was a great experience for a bookworm. No matter where we moved to or what house we lived in there was always this wall of books that my parents collected. Within the shelves on that wall were westerns, fantasy novels, romance novels, cookbooks, how to books, magazines, and my favorite reading material of all, the horror novels my mom consumed.
Names such as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Saul stared back at me from their enticing dust jackets, usually in bright bloody red letters or cold, deathly blue font that would make my eyes go wide with wonder. What was inside those books, what horrors awaited? I had to know and usually spent a day doing the same thing my mother did, consuming the words in the pages as greedily as I now consume chocolate cake and coffee. Those words were just as necessary as food, sometimes, cleaning my brain’s palette of romance or fantasy books. I needed a good old-fashioned scare to get back to reality.
When I started writing I gravitated towards romance, books about alpha males with cheeky grins and heroines that had a brain, because I can’t stand brainless heroines. I wrote romance, and still do, because they are fun stories, stories that come easily to me because I spent entire summers going through my aunt’s collection because it was all I had to read. I couldn’t write about the kind of women in those stories though, they were too weak, too dependent on someone else, a man, and I know women can get things done, with or without a man. I needed to write about a woman with some sense about her, that won’t eat up a man’s sugary words just because he’s so gorgeous her knees wobble or he’s got a huge…bank account. I tried my hand at horror but thought, no, even within the female horror genre women only write horrors that end in romance. I didn’t want to write romance at that point, I wanted to write horror, the stuff that makes your skin crawl as you try to sleep with a light on.
I limited myself though, without even realizing it, because of my own preconceived notions. To me, the bottom line was that women wrote romance. Even in zombie books, the heroine finds time to shave her legs and get down to business with some badass hero that shows her how to handle a weapon, in more ways than one, or totally protects her while she quivers in a closet until all the bad stuff goes away. Stab me in the heart, please!
Some of my favorite female authors in the zombie genre are truly amazing writers but romance is the staple, the binder of the book. I believe that is the reason women catch so much flack about writing in the horror genre. Our books are so often filled with romance in the most unlikely situations. Romance is great, it gives us hope in the darkest of times, but men tend to sneer at romances and conclude that women simply can’t write horror.
Yes, I’m generalizing, but from what I’ve heard, men tend to think women simply can’t write horror, we’re too soft, incapable of the thoughts that create a truly horrifying story. We simply can’t frighten because we are simple. This is the part where men seem to get mixed up, and excuse me while I spend a moment being rather tongue in cheek, because women are complicated but simple creatures. We can’t write horror, it’s just not possible.
Only men can create the kind of gore necessary to be horrifying, message boards tell us. Only men can write a sentence that leaves you cold and checking under your bed for a clown bent on sadistic murder. Only men can write an entire novel of the apocalypse that makes you long for the days of your childhood when your mommy could make the monsters go away with a drink of water and get rid of gore splashed walls with a nightlight.
But, is gore really frightening? I don’t think so. To me, blood soaked walls are just gross. To my poor little female brain I just see something that needs cleaning up and I’m not going to be the one to do it. I see something that will spread more disease, that will breed bacteria that can really make you sick. Perhaps even cause an epidemic. To me, that is scarier than seeing body fluids sprayed in buckets. An uncontrollable, unstoppable epidemic that can take out mankind is far more frightening than splashes of nasty old gross blood. Puke-inducing does not equate to being frightening.
The killer is scary, in this instance, but not the results of the killing. Maybe there is a difference then, between what men and women find frightening. Is that because men would have to first admit to being frightened, something western society says they aren’t allowed to do? Men aren’t supposed to show fear, they’re supposed to stand up to it. Women are supposed to huddle and not face it.
But, we do face fears, fears for our children, for our own safety, and for our families and friends. That could be the true answer as to why men think women can’t write fiction. What we see as frightening may not even register on a man’s radar. A killer is obvious, a ghost or a monster is scary because it could mean a painful death, but the truly frightening things, the things that keep women awake at night, are not monsters, not fictional ones.
Oddly enough, considering the point of this article, I have to go to Stephen King to highlight what I want to say next. My mother thought Stephen King was terrifying because he wrote about children. Children who were killers, children with special powers, children that were in danger. That frightened her, gave her nightmares. She read about vampires and werewolves but they didn’t give her the nightmares Stephen King’s children gave her.
I thought Stephen King was frightening because he wrote of things that could be possible, of things that meant death wasn’t the end, but only the beginning of the true horror. Death, then, is not the horrible part to me. The possibility of eternity spent in fear, pain, and terror is horrible. The possibility that zombies will rule forever, that we will always have to run, without a moment’s peace, is scary. A moment of gore-filled death that ends the horror does not frighten me.
Well, it does, death is scary stuff after all, but if I’m reading fiction the death isn’t frightening, it’s the possibility that the death does not equal the end that is the most frightening. I believe many women think the same way and that is why we can be great horror writers, even with the romance. I would even go so far as to say that the inclusion of a romance within a horror story makes it more frightening because that romance is endangered by the horror, that moment of pleasure can make us weaker, more vulnerable. On top of that, the end of the romance with death or the long stretch of eternity makes the horror even more palpable, more frightening.
I did not intend to defend romance writing, or tear it down, but I did want to show that women are completely capable of writing horror, no matter what devices they use to carry their story. To me, a moment where you are totally incapable of defending yourself, of not even being able to stay quiet, is far more frightening when there are zombies around. How the woman goes about defending herself in this situation is far more interesting than a hero with a gun and makes that tale even better.
In the end, I know women are capable and flourish in the horror genre. We approach it differently, perhaps, we write it differently, and we use it differently, but we know what frightens us, what will frighten other women. Sometimes we even know what will frighten men. That’s what truly matters, when the story is done and the book is put away, did the reader enjoy the tale we told them? Gender does not define that; our brains do that.
Finally, I did not write this article to highlight a list of women I consider to be great horror writers, I haven’t even listed one in this article, in fact. There are countless articles that show just how many women horror writers there are, and have been, in the world. My point was to show you what I think horror is and why women are just as capable of writing it as men are. My point was to show you that there are countless definitions of what is horrifying and that limiting yourself to one might mean you miss something truly spectacular. It was to show you that when you are reading a story, you learn the lessons the writer wants you to know but you also put your own thoughts and feelings into that story. Because, what truly matters is how you react to the story, and it doesn’t matter if it is a man or a woman that wrote the story, what matters is how the words made you feel and react. That’s why I write horror, that’s why I love horror, because it takes you from a world that frightens you and shows you that you can overcome it. Well, in most cases, sometimes there is simply no escape, at all.
A little girl from the Appalachian Mountains in the United States had dreams. After spending her early adult years making an attempt to live the “normal” life a young Sparrow took flight to see what the world had to offer. There’s quite a bit and in between traveling the world on a shoestring budget she writes. She has one constant traveling companion, the very best companion, but others do occasionally come along for the ride. Continuing her travels, getting to know the world she lives in, and writing continue to fill her days with joy and wonder.
I’m hoping to bring a little something different to the world of the zombie apocalypse, other than the generic military dude goes all hyper-soldier and saves the day by killing thousands of zombies at one time. I love all things zombie, after a brush with a certain George Romero movie absolutely terrified me as a small girl, and love to explore what the world has to offer me. I’ve always been more curious about people’s response to the end of the world, how they reacted to the loss of technology, how they coped with a world turned upside down, more than I have the blood and gore of killing zombies. Would women really be dense enough to walk around in a tank top and short shorts when going out into a world where one bite means you die? These were the thoughts that drove me to start writing and to develop a story that’s far different from the usual man=superhero zombie fare.
After years spent writing academic papers to earn a BA in History and an MA in Public Administration, I embarked on freelance writing. I now try to eek out time to, also, write for myself. The offerings you find here are the products of those efforts and Seizures is my particular favorite. It’s unique, different, and not your usual take on the zombie genre.