Tomorrow marks the arrival of both Halloween and Samhain, two similar but disparate festivals which celebrate the dark, the supernatural, the thinning of the veil between our world and the next. The perfect time of year, then, to settle down with a suitably spooky read. Whether it’s a crisp, cold day, a grey, rainy afternoon or a cold, dark night, the threshold between October and November is ideally suited to horror fiction in all its many guises. With this in mind, I’ll be recommending some of my favourite stories by some of the genre’s finest women and nonbinary writers*, spanning the full gamut of the horror affect, from eerie to uncanny, from weird to downright terrifying.
(As a note: as indebted as I am to the luminaries of women in horror, I will consciously be stepping away from recommending Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, Anne Rice and other highly noted writers of the genre. This is not because I am scornful of their contributions, nor because I do not believe they are worth reading; quite the contrary, their work has paved the way for an entire generation of women and nonbinary horror writers. Without them, we would not have the flourishing genre scene we have today. But I would like to focus this time – with respect and appreciation for those who came before – on where the scene is heading, rather than where the scene has been; on the present and the future rather than the past.)
Skyshine (or Death by Scotland) by Carole Johnstone (Black Static #60)
A remarkable novella which has unfairly been overlooked, in my opinion. Skyshine is a deeply insightful and introspective piece of fiction centring around Roshni, a woman living long-term in a psychiatric hospital. When Roshni is given a new medication, ‘skyshine’, she is discharged from care and has to adjust to the world outside the hospital. But skyshine is not what it seems to be, and Roshni’s struggle to adjust escalates in a way you will almost certainly not expect. Johnstone is a very talented writer, and this is my favourite of her stories thus far.
Cat World by Georgina Bruce (in This House of Wounds, published by Undertow)
The true power of horror fiction is that it comes in a great many forms, in a multitude of guises. Cat World is cloaked in the garb of speculative fiction, and indeed SF and horror have historically sat comfortably side by side, complementing one another in a way few other genres are able to. The eponymous Cat World is a fantastical place which young protagonist Little One is able to access via a substance called ‘Travel Gum’. Little One and her sister are street orphans eking out a living in a world which feels distinctly post-apocalyptic; Bruce sketches her universes in watercolours, bright and vivid but cleverly blurred at the edges, devoid of definitives, and this is a strength, because it allows the reader to piece together the clues and fill in the blanks. So when Bruce does deal in definites, the effect is that much more powerful. Cat World is a story about human trafficking, about the sexual violence we visit upon young girls and upon women, and about the power structures which mire vulnerable people in unending and inescapable poverty. It’s also a story about magic, and about escape. It will break your heart. It broke mine.
Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong (at Nightmare Magazine)
I love new takes on well-worn subjects. Vampirism appears in so many forms across cultures and mythologies, from the ubiquitous European bloodsuckers to the Chinese Jiangshi, which feeds on its victim’s life essence (qì); from the mosquito-like Adze of the Ewe in Togo and Ghana to the Romani Mullo, tethered to those who keep hold of the possessions of the dead. Wong’s vampire-like beings feed off negative emotions, storing the essences of those they prey upon in jars to as to revisit the euphoria. Familial legacies, the keeping of difficult secrets and the interplay between predator and prey form the backbone of this wonderfully queer story, which revels in its darkness even as it hurtles towards a heartrending conclusion. A well-paced and intelligent story with brilliantly crafted characters.
The Cold Death of Papa November by Sunny Moraine (in Singing With All My Skin and Bone, published by Undertow)
Sunny Moraine’s prose sings. Their entire collection is like beautiful music – sometimes abstract, sometimes clear-eyed, but always incisive and insightful, a commentary on a world you may recognise albeit seen through smoked glass. The Cold Death of Papa November deals with one of my very favourite subjects: number stations. Set in a Cold War-scented Eastern Europe, the protagonist attempts to come to terms with his wife’s death from cancer whilst clinging stubbornly and obsessively to strange, obscure broadcasts from a short-wave radio she had clung to in life. The number stations form a staticky, hissing backdrop to this melancholy journey as the protagonist travels through Hungary and on to Russia, cities as frost-rimed and chilly as the prose, which sings like glimmering ice. A stunning treatise on grief and on letting go, which ends in as breathless and as desolate a manner as befitting the subject matter. And yet, the sun still rises.
The Sunflower Seed Man by Priya Sharma (in All the Fabulous Beasts, published by Undertow)
Grief is fertile ground as far as horror fiction is concerned. Horror, in my view, operates best when it is engaged in empathy; it also operates best when there is a void, an emptiness, or a liminal space to be filled. Sometimes, this is the aftermath of violence or trauma, a literal separation from the world and its attendant comforts. Priya Sharma does this remarkably well – see Fabulous Beasts and The Absent Shade, also in this collection, for examples of how masterfully these emotional and sensory voids can be dealt with. The Sunflower Seed Man is a slightly different beast, even as it deals with the same kind of emotional void. The emptiness here is a lost connection: mother and father and daughter, the father erased; his death exposes the frayed thread between mother and daughter, an imperfect connection which mother Pip struggles to strengthen. In her darkest hour, the mother wishes that she might exchange her daughter for the life of her lost husband, a wish which manifests in the form of the monstrous (and genuinely frightening) Sunflower Seed Man. This is a latter-day fairytale, couched in the kinds of uncomfortable secrets and reproachments we hide away from the world. Pip is deeply imperfect, but Sharma stops shy of punishing her; rather, her redemption is earned in a way which honours Pip’s authentically difficult emotions.
Joss Papers for Porcelain Ghosts by Eliza Chan (in Pareidolia, published by Black Shuck Books)
This wonderful and gently uplifting ghost story is the highlight of a strong anthology. A tale of dislocation and half-belonging, protagonist Harriet is caught between worlds; half-Hong Kong Chinese, half-British, the tug of war between her mother’s culture and her upbringing in Britain is a taut wire of tension running throughout the story. Harriet’s struggle to adjust as she returns to her recently-passed grandmother’s small apartment in Hong Kong is well sketched, a complex backdrop to a narrative so effective in its simplicity. A beautiful ghost story, beautifully told.
The Cipher by Kathe Koja
Koja’s 1991 debut novel remains, to my mind, one of the best pieces of horrific fiction ever written. Nicholas and Nakota and the ironically named Funhole, which might be a rift in space-time, or might be some kind of floor-dwelling mutant with a gaping mouth, or might be neither of those things but which becomes central to the obsessive, deeply dysfunctional relationship between these two characters and those in their orbit. I mentioned previously that horror’s obsession with voids and empty spaces is a strength, and The Cipher is a highly literal – and highly successful – take on the liminal space. Things emerge from the Funhole fundamentally altered; mice, insects, and eventually Nicholas’s hand, at which point the novel swings sharply towards a queasy, lurching body horror which comes to characterise its latter half. The Cipher is so good at what it does precisely because there is no reprieve from the strangeness; it layers weird upon weird, so even at its base level – the relationship between Nakota and Nicholas – the sheer dysfunctionality requires that the reader question everything that takes place. Is Nakota as terrible as Nicholas seems to think she is? Is Nicholas telling the truth about anything at all? As Nicholas descends – literally and figuratively – down the Funhole, the world around him warps and shifts, and the narrative responds in kind. A bizarre and brilliant piece of weird and terrifying fiction.
The Guinea Pig Girl by Thana Niveau (in Octoberland, published by PS Publishing)
It’s often posited that women ‘don’t do’ extreme horror; that they shy away from the truly dark, the disturbing, the gruesome. Thana Niveau’s unflinching autopsy of erotic horror proves this thesis false. Not only that, but it illuminates something else: that when women do venture into the abyss, there is a tendency to explore it not with the cold, detached gaze we tend to associate with extreme horror, but with an innate intimacy bordering on empathy. Women understand perhaps better than anyone else what it means to be vulnerable. The Guinea Pig Girl is brutal in its depiction of sexual violence, but not gratuitous; there is a point to the things it depicts, and there are consequences. This is an important distinction for me in a world which tends to throw rape and sexual abuse around as a plot point, or as lazy shorthand. This story seems highly aware of that fact; it does not preach, but it does examine the cold hard truth at the centre of horror’s obsession with sex, and the way we passively consume things without stopping to consider the human cost. For all its brutality, the ultimate horror lies in the truths this story tells.
Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan
I read Silk for the first time in my thirties, and realised belatedly that it was the book my 16 year old goth self had been crying out for. It is flawed, in the way that first novels tend to be flawed; Kiernan’s prose becomes leaner in her later books, her narratives more clearly defined. And yet Silk is the one I always return to, because it feels real, and true; encompassing the experiences, the disappointments and dysfunction of being young, of being queer, of being engulfed in a subculture which is sometimes suffocating, and sometimes damaging in its unconscious sharing of ingrained trauma. The supernatural element is fascinating inasmuch as it’s never certain (at least until the sequel) whether the strange happenings and terrifying events are products of drug-fuelled fantasy, Spyder’s own mental illness, the lingering threads of childhood abuse, or whether all of it – strangeness, drugs, illness and abuse – are borne of something much bigger than any of the many scattered characters drawn in by Spyder’s strange gravity. A fierce debut which sets the stage for Kiernan’s growth as a writer, and her masterful handle on the unapologetically weird.
Human Acts by Han Kang
Perhaps not horror in the strictest sense, but avowedly horrific; a deep and unflinching meditation on the 1980 Gwangju uprising in South Korea. A range of perspectives explore the very real horror of conflict, torture and death, from the lost ghost boy of the prologue to the young factory worker whose life has become a semicoherent patchwork of lingering trauma. Kang’s dreamlike prose and dizzying narrative shifts may not work for every reader, but they compound the sense of dislocation left behind in the wake of the massacre; the survivors are cut adrift, lonely in their shame and soaked in survivor’s guilt. An intensely powerful book, and not one to be taken lightly.
Penance by Kanae Minato
A ten year old girl is abducted and murdered from a school closed for the holidays. Her four friends, who witnessed her disappearing with the man who would go on to kill her, cannot remember his face; in their terrible guilt they have blocked him from their minds, and so he goes uncaught and unpunished. The girl’s mother curses these four children: either they must catch the killer, or they must perform an act of penance. This story of a long-held grudge traces the transition of the surviving girls into tumultuous adulthoods: one marries a seemingly perfect man only to discover his disturbing fetish, while another finds herself at the centre of controversy after protecting her students from a potential massacre. The horror of Penance is in the inability of the four girls to reconcile with what happened to their friend, and their sense of responsibility for what happened. The event reverberates like an aftershock well into their adult lives, colouring their perceptions of what is normal. The mystery of who killed the girl is something of an afterthought, but it’s not really the point of the story; the death itself is the point, and everything that comes afterwards.
Four Abstracts by Nina Allan (in New Fears, published by Titan Books)
Nina Allan is, to my mind, one of the very best British writers in any genre. Four Abstracts is a love story, but it’s also a horror story. It is situated at the intersection of mythology and reality; Beck, who may or may not be mentally ill, believes that she has inherited a familial curse; she is part-spider, as her mother was before her. Beck watches her mother waste away, lives through her eventual suicide; upon autopsy, it is revealed that her mother’s womb was full of silk-like growths. Narrator Ros recounts her tempestuous friendship with Beck, a talented artist who nonetheless proceeds through life veiled in intense paranoia. When Beck begins to go off the rails, Ros is powerless to stop her. Four Abstracts recounts the horror of watching a loved one fall apart, and the crushing power of delusions. It’s stunningly written and deeply touching, imaginative and original. It is the perfect introduction to the considerable power of Nina Allan as a writer.
This list is not exhaustive; I could go on for days. The Blue Room by VH Leslie, When The Moon Man Knocks by Cate Gardner, The Crow War by Tracy Fahey, Different Angels by Lynda Rucker, Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects by Helen Marshall, White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, Waxing by Penny Jones…and on, and on.
*My intention is not to conflate women and nonbinary people as an individual category, which they are not – simply ensuring that NB people are represented in this list.