Women of the Weird

Some of you may be familiar with my Women to Read: Where to Start series over at SF Signal. Basically, I point out women whose work you should be reading, and recommend a starting place for their work. I was delighted when Weird Fiction Review invited me to contribute a special edition of my column to their site, focusing on women writing Weird fiction. I’ve covered work by many of these women before, but here I’m focusing particularly on their Weird works, hopefully with minimal overlap.

The Yellow WallpaperCharlotte Perkins Gilman isn’t typically included on lists of Weird writers, but hers was one of the first names that occurred to me when I was asked to write this column. Perhaps it’s a bit of a cheat, because despite my disclaimer above, I’ve written about “The Yellow Wallpaper” before, but here I’d like to make the argument for it as a supremely Weird work. “The Yellow Wallpaper” can be seen as a precursor to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” one of the most often cited works of the Weird cannon. Like “The Willows,” “The Yellow Wallpaper” revolves around the idea of an uncanny malevolence and the idea of being watched. The patterns of the wallpaper in Gilman’s story are echoed in Blackwoods’ thrashing willows, untamed nature with just a hint of decay. The primary difference is setting. Blackwood offers up a desolate wilderness, while Gilman’s tale is domestic in nature, which makes it all the more terrifying. With its themes of gaslighting and the restricted roles of women, harsh reality and the supernatural collide in “The Yellow Wallpaper” into one seamlessly horrifying story, making it the perfect place to start your reading of Gilman’s work, and the work of Weird women in general.

Skipping ahead to the present day, Silvia Moreno-Garcia is my go-to person for Weird writing, both as an author and an editor. In both capacities, she’s picked up and subverted H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy. Lovecraft is synonymous with Weird fiction, but his work is problematic, laced with racism and misogyny. But that doesn’t mean his themes of cosmic horror aren’t worth revisiting, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia has consistently done a fantastic job with Lovecraftian works. When it comes to her Weird writing, my recommended starting point is Flash Frame, a story that plays with the Carcossa mythology originated by Ambrose Bierce, expanded by Robert Chambers and others, and frequently linked to Lovecraftian mythos. The King in Yellow is a personal favorite of mine within the world of Weird fiction, and Moreno-Garcia blends it in “Flash Frame” with some of my other favorite fictional tropes, cult films and stories told between the lines, where the horror is implied rather than bloodily spilled across the page.

Fungi_coverCarrying on in the same vein, you’d do well to check out any of the anthologies put out by Moreno-Garcia’s company Innsmouth Free Press, including Fungi, Historical Lovecraft, Future Lovecraft, Sword and Mythos, and her forthcoming anthology She Walks in Shadow, featuring exclusively female authors tackling the female characters from Lovecraft’s stories. All these anthologies contain wonderful works by women writing the Weird, but I’ll give you a small sample of personal favorites to get you started: “His Sweet Truffle of a Girl” by Camille Alexa in Fungi; “Harmony Amid the Stars” by Ada Hoffmann in Future Lovecraft; and “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins” by Molly Tanzer in Historical Lovecraft. Although it isn’t specifically a Weird anthology, I’d also highly recommend Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s anthology Dead North, an anthology of Canadian Zombie fiction edited for Exile. What could be Weirder than the dead coming back to life in the Great White North?

Kelly Link is another go-to author for work occupies that odd and indefinable space straddled by the Weird. “The Specialist’s Hat” is included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s definitive anthology The Weird, which makes it a good recommended starting place. It also happens to be a personal favorite of mine. The “Specialist’s Hat” is a story told largely between the lines and beneath the surface. However, it is also a story that is fully satisfying as written on the page – a gothic setting, the general aura of unseen threat, and pervasive air of the odd. The story itself is a shifty thing, the kind of story that will read differently each time you encounter it depending on your mood. It’s a ghost story, or is it? It’s a story about magic. Maybe. “The Specialist’s Hat” is uneasy, refusing to be pinned down, and the whole thing is soaked in an atmosphere of threat, reminding the reader – as the best Weird pieces do – that nothing is safe.

Caitlin Kiernan is another modern master of the Weird. There were several pieces I was tempted to recommend as a starting point, but I kept coming back to her novel The Red Tree. It’s another of those pieces that refuses a single category. Beyond that, the story itself rests uncomfortably on the reader’s mind. The narrator is unreliable. Time is tricky, the past bleeding into the present like a haunting. Truth is a liquid thing, and at the edges of everything there are shadows glimpsed from the corner of the eye. Again, the idea of nature as a quiet malevolence is presented in the tree of the title, but it’s more than that. The house the main character, Sarah, shares with her maybe-lover, Constance, is full of threat. Beneath the skin of the tale lurks the ghost of Sarah’s last lover, Amanda, who committed suicide. She isn’t a physical presence in the book and yet she weights everything, leaving the impression of herself like a footprint in dust. The Red Tree is one of those novels that lingered with me for days after reading it. I felt haunted, uneasy. I didn’t want to be alone in the dark.

Like Caitlin Kiernan, Livia Llewellyn is another writer whose body of work is permeated with the Weird. There are several of her stories I could recommend as a starting point, but I’ll go with “Furnace,” included in The Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 1, edited by Laird Barron. “Furnace” is highly atmospheric, and that atmosphere is largely one of decay. At the same time, paradoxically, it takes place in a town seemingly preserved in time, where death endlessly occurs to a young girl, on the same stretch of road each time. Here, instead of an unreliable narrator, we have the possibility of an unreliable author. Is Llewellyn telling the truth about the girl? What about her family? Are they a figment of her imagination, or vice versa? Is anything in the town real? And what about the seemingly unmoored incident of children disappearing or devoured as they play on a department store carousel? Nothing in the story can be trusted, which is as it should be. At its core, Weird fiction should shake the reader from their comfort zone, toss them into strange lands where the rules don’t apply and the ground under their feet might throw them off into space at any moment.

Finally, to wrap up this post, I’ll recommend another piece from The Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 1, Karin Tidbeck’s “Moonstruck.” Like many of the other authors mentioned here, much of Tidbeck’s work falls into the category of Weird and any one would be a good starting point. What I found particularly fascinating about “Moonstruck” however, was its inversion of fairy tale themes – particularly the relationships between mothers and daughters, where the mother must slay/consume her daughter lest she be cast aside as old, useless, and dried up. In “Moonstruck,” the day a young girl gets her first period, the moon begins to descend, drawing closer and closer to earth. At the same time, her mother, an astronomer, begins to change, the terrain of the moon manifesting itself on her skin. There are undercurrents of fertility and barrenness in the transformations taking place for both women. But in the end, the trope is turned on its head. The daughter tries to sacrifice herself for her mother’s sake, giving herself to the moon, and her mother violently casts her aside, claiming the moon for herself, and with it, her implied death.

Obviously, this is just a small sampling of fabulous works of Weird fiction being written by women. For more, again, take a look at the anthologies edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, or some of the un-themed original anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, such as Fearful Symmetries, and check out Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird. Hopefully these recommendations give you a starting point to jump into the world of Weird fiction and discover your own favorite authors.

4 replies to “Women of the Weird

  1. I’d like to add Joyce Carol Oates, Anna Kavan, Gemma Files, Molly Tanzer and Kristine Ong Muslim to this list of very strange ladies.