Thursday, April 13, 2017

Women of Darkness, edited by Kathryn Ptacek (1988): Fear of a Female Planet

Featuring the usual distinctive orange typeface against a black background, Tor's Women of Darkness (October 1989) showed a refreshing self-awareness about the genre's tendency to overlook female writers when compiling horror anthologies. In her quiet and unobtrusive introduction, author and editor Kathryn Ptacek notes that she realized women were not being included in large or notable numbers in horror anthologies, for whatever reason, and decided to amend this. Odd that this was long an oversight, considering the genre was in large part begun by women—Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe—and continued through the century with Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. Of course Anne Rice and V.C. Andrews were two of the most recognizable names on the horror shelves of the decade. Women of Darkness is a corrective which (I think, I hope) was and should still be embraced. While not every story could be to my taste, almost every one is very, very good, and deserves (re)reading.

Kathryn Ptacek w her husband Charles L. Grant
c. late '70s

To be honest, I remember little of reading Women of Darkness back then, which is a shame because a handful I would have loved. I bought it because I'd heard of two stories it contained that were splatterpunky efforts well worth a horror fan's time. These were Elizabeth's Massie's "Hooked on Buzzer" and Nancy Holder's "Cannibal Cats Come Out Tonight." Both are solidly of their time: the former features a young woman who'd been abused by a fundamentalist cult; the latter presents a young man abused by his father who befriends a rebel dude and together they meet a crazy-hot rocker chick. Massie's story seems inspired by Roberta Lannes's notorious "Goodbye, Dark Love" from Cutting Edge (1986), while Holder's resembles a little the edgy outsider world that Poppy Z. Brite would become praised for. This is not to say the two tales are lacking; I quite liked both, real exemplars of short '80s horror. Happily both women continue as successful writers today.

The late British fantasist Tanith Lee (pictured) is the most well-known author included; she provides one of her impeccably mannered historical tales, "The Devil's Rose," a darkly sensual (it is Lee, of course) work of a woman "obsessed by dark fancies, bad things. Unrequited love had sent her to perdition." Yes thank you. You all know how much I love Lisa Tuttle's short horror fiction, and "The Spirit Cabinet" is no exception. No time wasted in setup, first sentence: Frank and Katy Matson had no sooner moved to London than they found a haunted house. Katy begins seeing a seance from the dim past, but she finds the ghost charming, not frightening. She realizes she's the ghost, a future ghost for the 19th century seances she glimpses. As Tuttle often does, this clever, light-hearted setup is just a distraction from the horror to come. Wonderful, wonderful horror!

Many writers included are utterly unknown to me, but for the most part they contributed respectable stories. Nancy Varian Berberick's (pictured above) "Ransom Cowl Walks the Road" is a sort of horror-cozy about a serial killer in a small Jersey town. A little gruesome and little creepy, however I felt the first-person narration didn't quite work with the twist ending. Still, not bad. "True Love," by Patricia Russo, with its utter cliche of a title, is the kind of thing I'd have passed up back in the day; it's a short historical tale of a stranger stopping by a country inn, tales told by a fire, a feisty old lady as bartender, and a nasty finale straight out of EC Comics. Kinda cool still. I loved "In the Shadow of My Fear," Joan Vander Putten's effective poetic-noir that mixes murder and spooky oceanic imagery with a real bite of a climax. My Felicia floats, slave to the whim of the tides, ever straining at her anchor.

A handful of stories venture far from familiar shores. Her first published story, "The Baku" from Lucy Taylor (above) benefits from its exotic locale and mythology. In a tiny cold seaside Japanese farm community, living with her husband who's working in Tokyo, Sarah drinks and frets over losing him. Noting her distress, a local gives her a "baku," a tiny ivory figurine that "eats bad dreams" when you place it beneath your pillow at night. Man I loved this little shocker. In Karen Haber's "Samba Sentado" a humiliated wife flees to Rio after her husband takes up with another woman. She is haunted by him: Over the next three days, I learned to stay calm, not to betray my horror and disbelief each time Jim's body washed up in the surf. The title means "Dance of the Initiates," the narrator visits a medium, a ritual voodoo dance and trance is involved, and a new power embraced, with chilling implication. Well done. "When Thunder Walks" by Conda V. Douglas has its white protagonist meet a fate reserved for those who use Navajo culture for their own monetary gain. These cultures depicted felt lived and authentic; Ptacek's mini-bios of each writer reveal this to be the case.

Women are most likely to bear the emotional (and physical) burdens of family life; Women of Darkness proves this in both text and subtext. The antho begins with "Baby" by long-time speculative fiction author Kit Reed, you can guess the scenario: a woman is reluctant to visit her sister and her newborn, babies were revolting; love must make mothers blind. Elva is the modern woman in the city, glamorous, "a collector of men." But when sister Rilla promises to introduce Elva to eligible bachelors if she visits, Elva cannot resist. What she finds and learns in that home has her rethinking everything. Good stuff, generic end but hey when it works it works.

"Aspen Graffiti" is Melanie Tem's sensitive story of a marriage crumbling, a husband leaving a family and its effect on the couple's sons. Filled with tiny details that ring true (an argument in the K-mart shoe department), it's a sad, quiet, melancholy bit of domestic horror, which Tem has done so well so many times. A mother's boyfriend visits the ultimate violation on her daughters in "Sister," from someone named Wennicke Eide Cox. What could have been distasteful and unseemly is here delicate and sympathetic, yet with a grotesque climax that speaks of horror's everlasting torment.

You can just tell by its title that "Nobody Lives There Now. Nothing Happens," is going to be "literary," can't you? Creative writing professor Carol Orlock's (above) story was Bram Stoker-nominated for best short fiction in 1988; it lost to "Night They Missed the Horror Show." No matter; its intelligence and attention to the life of a neighborhood are reminiscent of Jackson, its spooky, matter-of-fact cadence recalls Anne Rivers Siddons, its mood of domestic mystery perhaps vis-à-vis Alice Hoffman. No one ever sees the Marquettes, who move into a monstrous Victorian home tinged by Gothic tragedy, but everyone wonders about them, especially the children that venture to their front door on Halloween. Orlock avoids generic convention but the story lingers still: The house still stands. It is empty now, but I remember the afternoon the Marquettes arrived. I remember it as more remarkable than it probably was.

"Slide Number Seven" by Sharon Epperson (pictured) invokes modern (or then-modern) fears of intimate disease, a very common theme in horror in those days. One need not use vampires to literalize the metaphor either, and Epperson's somewhat oblique telling gets right under your skin, natch, trapped in dirty, sweating, traitorous flesh. And a horror anthology by and about women could not be complete without a tale of twin sisters and the man who unwisely comes between them. This is Melissa Mia Hall's "The Unloved," and its final screech to a halt is a powerhouse.

Ptacek really did the genre a terrific service with Women of Darkness. What the anthology lacks is refreshing: there's no smart-aleck tone, no blas√© attitude, no dick-swinging, no sniggering moments of sexualized violence, no one-upmanship. Nor is there much, if any, literary pretension; the styles on display are ones which evince maturity, not just in prose but in life: understanding—from experience—disappointment and heartbreak, longing, desperation, betrayal, unconscious notions of vengeance, not just the traumatic acrobatics of horror-loving, ham-fisted goons trying to replicate the latest slasher movie. You can feel these women's lives, the emotions are real, and the supernatural horrors that spring from them insidious and subtle. The stories are also utterly human. There is much to be feared from these women's darknesses, but also much to be learned.

2 comments:

Todd said...

Was going to read this one for weekly review, having recently unboxed it from long storage...might just delay that for a while now...sadly, that's the late Melissa Hall and Melanie Tem, as well, at least...

Unknown said...

IIRC, Women of Horror had at least one and maybe two follow up books. Looks like I have some re reading to do.