Shelley’s Daughters by Terrence Rafferty

In time for Halloween, I suppose, the New York Times Book Review section published a horror roundup focusing on women writers ( I applaud the effort, but feel like the critic Terrence Rafferty trivializes women who “dabble” in the horror genre. Take this backhanded compliment, for instance: “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.”

Because women were cloistered for so long, I think that accounts for Rafferty’s opinion that “women are more likely to shrink from the contemplation of pure, rampaging evil.” There was no shrinking; women found the evil much closer at home–in their houses, in their neighbors, or possibly even in their beds.

I don’t agree with Rafferty’s assertion that Shirley Jackson wrote very little horror. I find a healthy streak of horror in most things she’s written, but it is far subtler than a werewolf or zombie. Jackson’s writing falls more toward psychological horror, as in her masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle, where the sister characters are hemmed in by both men and their kitchen. (Horror that Jackson herself experienced in her lifetime.)

I do agree with Rafferty about the new sub-horror genre: paranormal romance. I can’t abide the stuff either, and when Anne Rice started down this path with her witch series many years ago, I had to leave her behind. To me that isn’t horror, it’s erotica. I am happy to have a list of these new female writers but bridle at phrases in Rafferty’s piece–such as when he calls Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” a mundane domestic horror. I find that short story every bit as scary as Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Stephen King’s vampires. Just because the horror takes place inside doesn’t make it any less.

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