This weekend we’re celebrating mothers, and boy do they deserve to be celebrated. I know when we think of mothers, it’s often as a punchline: unfashionable, nagging, annoying. Always cleaning, always fretting. Any attempts to remove ourselves from this characterization earns us the label Cool Mom, which is even more cringey than mom jeans (which we’re not allowed to wear anymore since they came into style.)
But here’s the actual truth about being a mother: mothers know more about horror than anyone else. It’s true. A lot of people laugh when I tell them I write horror. You’re like a stay-at-home mom! What are you doing writing horror?
But while I’ve always enjoyed a good horror read, I never truly understood fear before I became a mother.
Mothers know horror.
Body invasion? Try being pregnant, and suffering as your body is taken over by another entity, all of your resources going to feed them. Body horror? Try giving birth. There is nothing more painful, more visceral, more torturous, as your body is literally ripped open to bring life into the world. Loss of identity? Motherhood has got you covered.
With that in mind, it makes sense that horror writing is bursting at the seams with talented women. You might not think that horror and feminism go together, but the genre is in fact rich with feminism. Once you get over the stereotypical helpless girly girl, torture porn and idiot blondes (thankfully mainly written by men), you’re left with books that are full of complicated women that understand suffering and fear. I’m convinced our proximity to life and death that comes with having children is a solid reason for this.
Because here is the truest thing about being a mother nobody ever talks about: since bringing my children into this world, I have never lived a single moment without fear. I can barely go an hour without picturing the hideous ways they can be taken from me, their bodies shattered or spirits broken. My brain pieces together the most intricate, gruesome ways they might die. Daily. Hourly. I worry for them at all times, like a low-level hum, always at the back of my head where deepest fear resides. I know I will never truly know peace for the rest of my life, not while they exist outside my body.
That is the source and inspiration for all of my dark and twisty horror. It lies deep in the love and loss that comes from creating something as big as the universe.
What are you scared of, Mommy? my eldest often asks me.
Pull up a seat, my son, I want to say. Because this will take awhile.
The truth is, I am afraid of everything.
But I tell him: Spiders.
Because we take all that fear into ourselves, hoping somehow, impossibly, to avoid the inevitable and leave them untouched. So if you’re looking for a reason to hug your mom this weekend, this is it: your mother has taken on a world of horror for you.
In honour of Mother’s Day this year, I’d like to celebrate some excellent women in horror.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Let’s go back to the very beginning … well to 1818, at the very least. When the first horror novel was penned, on the banks of Lake Geneva, by a woman.
There are arguments for and against whether Mary Shelley’s classic monster novel was, in fact, the first horror ever written, but there can be no argument that what she created more than 200 years ago was monumental, with profound lasting impact deep in our collective psyche. The creation of man … by man, instead of God. We could also speak of how the creation happened without a mother, and the symbol of motherhood as that of nurturing and the ability to love. And see where that got everyone.
The fact that Mary Shelley wrote this novel at the age of 18, in a time when women were given little to no intellectual credence, is something incredible. At that time, Mary Shelley had already given birth twice, and had lost one of her babies after 11 days. It’s possible the grief and trauma she felt at waking up to find her baby dead influenced her dark and twisted tale of the creation of monsters.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca is a seminal gothic novel, a tale of one man’s dead wife and how her ever-present ghost haunts their entire household. Despite the narrator of the tale being the new wife, she is never given a name, but is a nameless entity recounting her time trying to wedge her way into her husband’s life. It is the presence of Rebecca, dead but still more alive than the narrator herself, that overwhelms everything else.
Rebecca is about jealousy and murder, but also marriage and identity. Rebecca is a powerful feminist character, because she refuses to give up who she is for her husband and settle into married life. She refuses to be “Mrs. de Winter,” the only name given to our narrator now.
The pervasive dread that permeates the pages tips this novel into the realm of horror. And it is perhaps seen by the audience of the times, in the 1930s, that Rebecca’s refusal to become a mother leads her to her untimely fate.
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
I’m not convinced there is another horror writer out there with the same profound impact as Shirley Jackson. All of her stories terrify because they inhabit the mind. They follow you, popping up at inopportune moments, because not only do they grip our deepest fears, but often have no resolution.
The Haunting of Hill House creates its own darkness. While reading this book, I expected doors to slam behind me and disembodied whispers to follow me. Words are powerful, and if you believe that, then you can believe that books can cause madness. Jackson’s books always toe that line, where not just the narrator but the reader herself questions her sanity.
The theme of a place that causes madness is a common trope in horror, but rarely as well done as this. The house is a living, breathing character. The madness scares us because it happens gradually, insidiously, in a way that we believe it could happen to us too. We attach to Eleanor as the narrative voice, and are chilled when the house gloms on to her as its next victim. Poor little Eleanor, never loved, never loved, she is vulnerable and becomes prey.
I spent most of this book silently yelling: Get out now! Although the house didn’t actually harm anyone physically, it attacked the mind until everyone questioned their sanity. This trope frightens the crap out of me because it seems more present, more real, then say, zombies. We fear losing our minds or our control over our thoughts more than anything, because that could actually happen.
The Witching Hour, by Anne Rice
Anne Rice is a horror master, as seen by the enduring popularity of her vampire novels. But of course, she does equally well with witches. The Witching Hour is the first of her Witches of Mayfair series, a volume of her characteristic atmosphere-laden novels.
For those who love novels full of voluptuous descriptions and epic generational conflict, Anne Rice is the writer for you. While a lot of this type of writing has gone out of style, taken over by shorter novels that take us straight to the point, there is an argument to be made for taking your time. Immerse yourself in a book that will take you away to another age … one full of magic.
White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi is a newer voice in modern horror, although with the amount of modern classics under her belt, it’s hard to really see her as a newcomer anymore. Her third novel, White is for Witching, is razor sharp and is also set in a gloomy manor in England. The gothic roots run deep in this tale of witchery and fear. There is something about the gothic manor that continuously draws our collective eye, the one on the lookout for terrifying things, and White is for Witching proves to be no different. It is the generations of mothers and grandmothers, this collective motherhood, that can prove to be as damaging as it is nurturing.
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Morena-Garcia
Another deeply Gothic novel about a house? I suspect the ties that women have with homes, households and the foundations of households themselves are the reason behind their use in women’s horror novels. And Mexican Gothic is no different.
I’ll admit I’m just looking for another reason to post about this gorgeous book. I’ll never get over this cover.
Beyond that, Morena-Garcia’s creepy tale is both weird and wonderful, with a shot of magical horror. Noemí, is a complicated character who grows from socialite to rescuer, goes deep into the countryside to find her cousin, who had sent out a bizarre plea for help. There, at her cousin’s new husband’s manor, she finds a deeply creepy family where something is very very wrong, although she couldn’t say for sure what.
The dread builds with precision and mastery, until you absolutely must know what is lurking behind the walls of the haunted house, although you are sure you don’t want to know. An excellent, if disturbing, read. For all the horror fans.
Then She Said Hush, by Cordelia Kelly
I couldn’t help myself. Why not check out this collection of short stories by this author right here? For a limited time, you can get a copy of the ebook free.
Mood reader? I’ve got all kinds of moods. Check out some of my other book lists:
Books I Still Think About Years Later