Talk of gender equality in horror fiction publishing, especially when conducted online, is too often reactionary rather than productive, anecdotal, and prone to inspire disgusting behavior. One author, male, whose work I thrice rejected from New Genre, threatened to expose me as a sexist editor in an email he sent me. Obviously unfamiliar with my editorial work as a whole, he said that if he pointed out to his online community how few women I publish, “I guarantee you there'd be an online reaction.” He then added, “Doesn't feel good to be accused of sexism, does it?”
What didn’t feel good was his use of a discussion about gender equality, intended to improve circumstances for women, as a weapon. I have no idea if he did or didn’t attempt to blacklist me, but I did confront him about his email in person at a convention, and he simply withered. All the vitriolic rhetoric gone once face-to-face. He’s not looked me in the eye since.
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Nikki Kiriki Hoffman’s “A Touch of the Old Lilith” is the second excellent Hoffman story to appear in the fourth Year’s Best—more on the story itself in a moment. Ellen Datlow selected it from Women of Darkness II, an anthology of new horror stories by women. Datlow wrote in her survey of horror fiction published in 1990 that Women of Darkness II is a “Pretty undistinguished reprise of #1….”
Of the first Women of Darkness, Datlow wrote,
The idea of an all-women horror anthology developed from the (correct) perception that the horror field in general and anthologies in particular were dominated by male writers. Kathryn Ptacek’s Women of Darkness (1988) was conceived to remedy this. Its publication in itself brought needed attention to the perceived “problem” [to be clear, the quotes are Datlow’s], and in that, the book was successful.
Datlow then wrote more generally about anthologizing women horror writers:
I object to the single-gender anthology as a remedy. If more women edit horror anthologies, more women might be included. Of course, quality should always come first. I personally prefer to blur lines of gender and genre rather than bringing more attention to them and labeling them. There is an excellent essay by Jeanette M. Hopper in The Blood Review on women writing about stereotypically women’s subjects. The argument, with which I agree, is that if women want to be read by the other half of the population, they need to write male characters who aren’t stereotypical and two-dimensional, and they need to appeal to concerns of both men and women. These same truths hold for men and women; I’m dead sick of stories about battered women and children, just as I’m sick of stories by men that brutalize women for the eroticism of it.
A single-gender (or single-race, or single-sexual orientation, etc.) anthology isn’t only an argument; it is that, but it’s also an artistic opportunity, like any themed anthology, be it erotic horror, or Poe-inspired stories, or mummy stories, etc. The theme sets limits. Those limits exclude some authors and call to others.
Ideally, the authors invited to contribute to an all-women authored anthology would consider what it means that they are the theme, and work from there, rather than work from the premise that “woman” or “women’s subjects “ is somehow the theme.
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“A Touch of the Old Lilith” falls soundly into the category of stories high-school Adam did not appreciate. That the antagonist is the polite young male photographer who has taken a fancy to Clea, and not Clea herself, or any of the Meander women whose fingers are snake-like, and whose boyfriends and husbands frequently end up dead under mysterious circumstances, was lost on me. The monsters in Clea’s life are men who carelessly or deliberately remake women to suit their desires. Toward the end of the story, Clea very nearly understands this:
I felt a flick of anger, like a little bruise inside. Did he think because he liked the way I looked that he had created me?
Hadn’t he? Didn’t we choose this steel gray coat—“the color of your eyes”—together? Hadn’t he bought me this green velvet dress at a second-hand shop, and didn’t I drag these tights out of an old suitcase because he asked me to?
Too late for Clea—she loses herself. (Though, thanks to the efforts of her grandmother—the only honest woman in her life—there is hope she is not totally lost.)
That the monster—Jeffry is his name—is a photographer, suggests Hoffman is writing about the male gaze. How the male gaze deforms women. Hoffman’s tale is so subtle, it’s easy to miss that horror. Or perhaps I’m so inured to what makes Jeffry a monster it’s easy for me to miss. After all, how easy is it for the monster to recognize himself as such?