Posts Tagged ‘Mary SanGiovanni’

Note: The following material ran in a recent issue of the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers quarterly newsletter, which I edit. Here’s the first part of the piece, along with my original introduction. I’ll be running contributions from the other writers who participated in the days ahead.

Several things inspired me to put this project together. But mainly, it’s because I still frequently encounter the tiresome “nerdy boys club” stereotype regarding speculative fiction writers and readers. The widespread perception that our branch of literature is the domain of emotionally and socially stunted man-children who don’t want icky girls in their club unless they happen to be wearing skimpy cosplay outfits at conventions.
I think it’s important that we speculative fiction writers do everything in our power to help dispel that stereotype, and make it clear that women are a major, vital and respected part of our community. So I reached out to a number of prominent woman science fiction, fantasy and horror authors and editors, and invited them to share their perspectives.
Tom Joyce


SangiovanniMary SanGiovanni is the author of 10 horror and thriller books, one of which was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, as well as numerous short stories. She has a Masters degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, Pittsburgh and teaches English classes at her local college. She is currently a member of The Authors Guild, The International Thriller Writers, and Penn Writers.

I think writers of my generation are in a unique position to have been able to observe first-hand how the industry has changed regarding the prominence of women in the horror field. In movies, we have seen women go from shrieking, fleeing victims to capable and quick-thinking heroines on screen; we have seen more women writing, directing, producing, and filming quality horror. We have seen a broader range of topics explored in horror, taking into account the psychology of fear from both male and female perspectives. And of course, in publishing, there are increasing numbers of women writers offering lasting and canonic works to the body of classic horror literature. These women, in the tradition of great horror writers before them, are stretching and breaking boundaries in the exploration of fear; they are finding new and terrifying ways to look at the world around them. Further, they are writing their work in their own way, not necessarily prone to be imitative of the historically male-dominated approach to horror. I believe it’s an over-simplification to state that works are intrinsically written in a masculine or feminine point of view; I think so much more goes into the crafting of a finely textured, deeply layered story than just a psychology or perspective based on sex or gender. However, I’d venture to say that women and men are often raised to fear different things, and further, to react and respond differently to those fears. This creates a variety of possible ways to present subject matter in a horror story that can be accessed by either men or women. The awareness of this, especially in modern horror fiction, has led to the creation of sophisticated works by both men and women which truly engage a wider audience. Horror is not about the mask that is worn, but the face beneath that mask; the root of fear an audience can understand and identify with is what drives a horror story, not the monster in which that fear is embodied, be it a boogeyman associated with the nightmares of man, or those of women. I believe that women have incorporated this notion into their work in order to overcome the stereotype that women’s horror is “soft” or “not scary.” Their work serves to prove that their own unique perspective of things can be absolutely scary, whether that is in spite of or because that perspective has been generated in a female mind.
My generation has largely been influenced by male horror writers (Stephen King, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Dean Koontz, etc.) because men dominated the field for decades. I think it’s gratifying to see many new women horror writers listing both men AND women as influences in their own writing. I think that is as validating as anything else, because we, as writers, start out as fans of the genre. We simply want to contribute to the body of literature that inspired and shaped so much of our thoughts and feelings. It’s a powerful thing to know that readers and fans of the genre are reading more widely, taking chances on what in the past would have been dismissed, perhaps, as “fluff,” and finding in women writers’ works some truly frightening and memorable stories. It solidifies the idea that women are, in fact, taking part in continuing the literary tradition that they have so very much enjoyed.
We’ve come a long way from naked nubiles being carried off by buff and scaly monsters or swarmed by lascivious cultists. These stories have their place in the history of horror, as do any stories that speak specifically to a kind of horrific event, but it’s nice to see a broadening of ideas that can be interpreted as “horror” in our field. There is no shortage of emotion or action, deviant or otherwise, for writers to delve into.
I think it’s important to note, when discussing the topic of women horror writers, that true equality comes when writers are judged based solely on the merit of their work — when the time comes that horror writers are not identified first by gender and then by genre, but simply as writers in their field. I think the horror genre benefits from a rich diversity of voices and perspectives, not a narrowing of them. And I am proud and pleased to see that this seems to be the direction in which the horror genre is heading.

For EmmyOne work that had a big influence on me as both a writer and a reader was Alan Moore’s run on D.C.’s “Swamp Thing” comic books, which I read when I was in college back in the ’80s. I was never a big comics fan. But I read them at a friend’s suggestion and was blown away.

In particular, I admired Moore’s approach to symbolism. The way he employed classic monsters to represent some larger point about society or the human condition.

He wasn’t the first to do that, of course. From their inception, monsters such as Dracula and Mr. Hyde personified malicious forces lurking just below the placid surface of Victorian society. You could argue that horror fiction — stretching back to ancient folklore and myth — has always served as a Rorschach blotch where a careful observer can pick out the anxieties of the individual or society that produced it.

What I liked was the fact that Moore was so obvious about the symbolism.

A couple of my English professors, the same blinkered souls who told me that comic books and speculative fiction are artistically worthless, insisted that obvious symbolism is a failing on the part of an author. Symbolism is supposed to be some elusive entity hiding among inert plots and passive characters, unknowable to the unwashed masses and detectable only to those who truly understand “great literature.”

Moore’s attitude? Fuck that. The zombies are the undying legacy of racism. The werewolves are simmering female rage in the face of institutionalized sexism. Boom.

I’m not talking about symbolism where the author bonks you over the head because he or she clearly feels you’d be too dumb to pick up on it otherwise. I’m talking about symbolism that’s out in the open because the writer sees no reason to hide it. There’s a narrative to tell. A point to make. Why not let the power of the story directly engage the reader, rather than play some coy game of hide-and-seek as to what it’s about?

I thought of that approach to symbolism when I read “For Emmy,” a novella by Mary SanGiovanni — another story that openly states its larger theme and proceeds to illustrate it in an indelible manner.

The theme, and I’m not really giving away any spoilers here since it crops up at the beginning, is despair in face of our inability to guarantee the safety of those we love. In this case, initially at least, the loved one is a missing little girl.

That’s an old theme, of course. From folklore dealing with fairie kidnappings all the way up through “The Exorcist” and beyond.

But what makes “For Emmy” distinctive is that it isn’t concerned as much with the initial terror of the disappearance so much as its aftermath. It’s more about the way that the corrosive residue of a tragedy can continue to eat away at those touched by it for years afterward. And it leads up to a conclusion that’s subtly rendered, but gut-wrenching in its impact.

I was impressed that SanGiovanni was able to convey this sense of lingering tragedy and long-term psychic damage in a mere 107 pages. She’s a propulsive, efficient storyteller with a good sense of the telling details that move a narrative along, but I wouldn’t describe “For Emmy” as a slam-bang read. Her technique is refined. Almost delicate. For all the horror in the story (and make no mistake, it is scary) the pervasive mood  is a kind of despairing melancholy. Which makes a quietly devastating final twist that much more affecting.

Ultimately, the book is about the extent to which the realization of our inability to protect loved ones can warp us. Not a reassuring message, to be sure. But then again, we don’t really read horror fiction to be reassured, do we?