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Nightmare Magazine, October 2014 (Women Destroy Horror! special issue) Paperback – September 29, 2014
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The guest fiction editor of this issue is Ellen Datlow, who is the foremost horror editor working today, of any gender. She picked a lot of great stories for this special issue. Her editorial reminds us that women not only once dominated horror, but actually invented it. Ghost stories and gothic tales were written by women for decades before Stephen King’s work gave rise to the horror boom of the 1980s. Her discussion of influential women in the field is a good reminder of where we came from, and gives us hope for where we’re headed.
The guest nonfiction editor is Lisa Morton, who got some choice interviews, as you’ll see further down. Her explanation in her editorial of why she didn’t want to publish any sort of list or overview of women working in the genre makes good sense to me.
There are five original stories and three reprints in this special issue. The first original story is “This Is Not For You” by Gemma Files, a tale of women performing an ancient form of sacrifice in the present day. Their grand evening out starts to the detriment of three young men who think they’re going to get lucky. They get lucky, all right, but their luck is desperately bad. The women portray themselves as members of a very old religion, though for many of them that is nothing more than a cynical explanation for their desire to kill men. Certainly that’s what it is for Gorgo, a literature teacher at a small private school; she’s a serial killer, not a co-religionist of the other women, and they and she all know it. But the ancient goddess has a surprise in store for her, and then another. This horror rips deep. Files never disappoints, but this time she has written a story that feels distressingly true even as the reader’s stomach turns — not at bloody violence, but at the perversion of what we think of as a womanly heart. This story will stay with you long after you have read it.
“Sideshow” by Catherine MacLeod is another story that I haven’t been able to forget since I first read it. It too updates ancient mythology for a modern audience. What if there really were a minotaur waiting at the center of a maze? And what if he were more lonely than hungry? What would that mean for a woman who stumbled into the maze? That woman, who narrates her story, makes my heart hurt in so many ways I can’t count them. As fantastical as this story is, though, it is the actions of humans that are the true horror.
Pat Cadigan is at her (considerable) humorous best in “Unfair Exchange,” which takes the form of a letter written by a woman to her future self. A necklace given to the narrator by her grandmother performs its magic when she rushes in to help a neighbor fight off housebreakers, and she suddenly finds herself in the wrong body. You’ll chuckle all the way through the story until the mule kick of the ending.
“The Inside and the Outside” by Katherine Crighton tells the story of girls on a camping trip in the woods, across the lake from a bear. The girl who is narrating the tale is clearly different — something about her teeth, her breath, but all we really know is that “Real danger comes from the inside.” It’s an odd story that doesn’t tell a complete tale, but leaves some things to our imaginations, just like the best campfire tales always do.
Livia Llewellyn is a rising star in horror; in fact, some would say she’s well-established in the firmament already. “It Feels Better Biting Down” is a fine story to follow Crighton’s, as it also deals with adolescent girls and, oddly enough, teeth. The narrator is one of a pair of strange twins — not strange just because they have an extra finger on each hand, but because they interact with one another peculiarly, which seems to be related to their twinness. But as odd as the twins are, they are nothing as compared to the new neighbor, who makes the twins even odder. Llewellyn writes horror in the Weird tradition, making this story terrifying in how completely outside of reality it is.
As good as the original fiction is, Datlow really shows her chops with her choices of reprint fiction. The first reprinted tale is “Martyrdom” by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates writes horror that feels somehow all the more horrific because of her more mainstream fiction; one somehow doesn’t expect this imagery, these events, to emerge from the same pen. This is an ugly tale about a beautiful woman in a world that isn’t all that different from ours, sold to a husband who tires of her much too quickly. He comes up with other uses for her when he is done with her as a wife, and we read on with growing fear for this stupid but pitiable woman. The parallel story of the life of a rat almost seems normal in comparison, until the two stories collide. The story is almost unbearable.
Tanith Lee is one of my favorite writers. Her “Black and White Sky” is an imaginative story about a world in which magpies fly up, straight up, and stay up, one every 37 seconds for days on end. Where have they all come from? And where are they all going? It’s happening all over Great Britain, and no one knows why. Before long there are too many magpies in the sky for any of the modern world to continue to function; satellite signals are blocked, planes can’t fly, the sky is completely overcast with flying birds. It’s impossible for there to be that many magpies, and yet there they are, rising to the heavens nearly twice a minute and never coming down. What does this do to people? Is it the end of the world? It’s a more quiet horror than is contained in many of the stories in this issue, but no less bone-chilling for that.
The narrator of A.R. Morlan’s “. . . Warmer” is a woman who lingers at the edges of show business, longing to be an actress but stuck in roles that play only on her lush body, roles that slide along the edge of pornography. Now, though, a famous producer, a man who heads up his own record company called Genius Productions Ltd., wants to see her. He hasn’t told her agent why, but one doesn’t ignore a summons from this man. Edan Westmisley has something odd in mind for the narrator, though he won’t tell her straight out, making her play an odd child’s game to find him: “You’re getting warmer,” he tells her, when she gets closer to locating his office inside the building that houses his company. He introduces her to some artifacts he picked up on his travels, hideous dolls called Kakodiamones, ancient Greek for “evil spirits.” And he plays a recording for her that is almost literally mesmerizing, and asks her to lip sync it — and ultimately, as much by indirection as by explication, he explains to her exactly why the singer herself cannot appear in public to do the singing. It’s a studiedly ugly story, with an impact that comes as much from Westmisley’s willingness to use ruthlessly whatever female comes into his view as from the more supernatural horror he unleashes on the world.
I’ve said before in these columns that I do not care for excerpts from longer works; I find them frustrating teases. The novella excerpt in this issue is no exception. Catherine Cavendish’s “Linden Manor,” which appear in full in a gothic horror anthology entitled What Waits in the Shadows, released last month by Samhain Publishing, is about the titular manor house. The narrator, Lesley Carpenter, visits the manor and its owner, Isobel Warrender, seeking information about a nursery rhyme called “The Scottish Bride.” Warrender seems to be happy to discuss the rhyme, but she is less forthcoming about odd things that happen to Carpenter in the house: a violent chill as she approaches a portrait, a violent shock as she touches a wooden stair railing. The excerpt reminds me of the dozens of gothic romances I devoured as a teenager, and I suspect that the entire novella would be a joy to read.
The nonfiction in this issue is outstanding. The first piece is an interview of a number of women artists who, the title of the piece cheekily asserts, are “destroying horror art.” The piece seems to compile a number of email interviews that posed the same questions to all of the artists, rather than an actual discussion among them, as there is no interaction between them. The gallery of art is fairly extensive and best viewed on a large screen.
Lisa Morton’s interview of Joyce Carol Oates is fascinating. I was particularly taken with Oates’s answer to a question about how conscious of genre she is as she writes: “Sometimes to tell a realistic story, you must choose a non-realistic form to emphasize a point — this is the power of genre,” she says. For the most part, Oates was not an easy interview subject; many of her answers are terse. But when Mason manages to hone in on a point that particularly interests Oates, the result is remarkable.
Morton also interview Jessica Sharzer, one of the writers on the television series American Horror Story. Reading the interview made me all the more determined to watch what sounds like a remarkable series.
“An Historical Overview of Classic Horror Novels” by Lucy A. Snyder discusses the influence of women horror writers like Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. This piece moved me to finally get myself a copy of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which I’m really looking forward to reading. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for a few classics of the genre yourself after reading this piece. In fact, Snyder urges her readers to not just read those classics, but to shout about them to the hills:
"If you find a book that you think is stellar, don’t sadly watch it fade into obscurity. Or, worse, selfishly keep it to yourself like a literary Gollum hoarding a golden ring. Share the book with your friends. Share it with strangers on the train. Blog about it. Review it. Get the word out. Show the world the gorgeous dark prose and delightfully terrifying tales you have discovered, and the world will thank you for it."
“Baby Got Backbone: What Makes Strong Women Kick in Horror Films and TV Shows” by Maria Alexander explores the modern trend toward strong women as characters in horror, a trend away from the traditional one of women are “monster bait in need of rescue.” Alexander chooses a good selection of work to prove her point. This piece seems like the embryo of a scholarly book that I’d love to read.
The real highlight of the nonfiction is a roundtable interview with Linda Addison, Kate Jonez, Helen Marshall and Rena Mason. I was not familiar with the work of all of these women, and found my list of books to read growing the more I read. Their insights into their own work, and how being female has impacted that work, make for good reading.
“The H Word: The H is for Harassment (a/k/a Horror’s Misogyny Problem)” by Chesya Burke, goes into further detail on a theme that pervades the various interviews: why does horror rely so heavily on extreme rape as a plot device? Burke takes the position that lazy writers use this device; the women are not treated “as functioning, autonomous human beings, but mere placeholders for males who must swoop in to not actually protect them . . . but to allow them to take their rightful places as heroes.” It is not so much an angry piece; Burke seems to write more in sorrow that in anger. But it’s a powerful argument nonetheless, and I’m unlikely to read a rape scene in a horror novel quite the same way again.
Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “Women’s Short Horror Fiction: An Historical Overview” starts with the period of the 1830s through the 1920s, when women were dominant in British and American magazines as poets, essayists, fiction writers, and often as editors, thus dominating the fashions in literature. It’s an excellent discussion of a history of which I knew nothing, especially when you compare it to the common perception today that women don’t write horror.
The issue closes with the usual author spotlights, short interviews with the fiction writers featured in the magazine discussing their stories. Several of these spotlights are meatier than the normal short pieces; Gemma Files, for instance, goes into considerable detail about her inspiration for her story, both artistically and politically. Katherine Crighton, Livia Llewellyn and A.R. Morlan are similarly candid about the complicated reasons they write what they write.
It’s a shame that we are still living in a time when a special issue of a magazine devoted to women is necessary to highlight that, in fact, women are writing a particular brand of genre fiction, and writing it very well, too. But if such things are necessary, at least they can be done exceedingly well; and this issue of Nightmare Magazine does that.
Originally published at Fantasy Literature website.