…some female horror writers from around the world whose work is worth searching out.
(The following are excerpts from my Horror Needs No Passport, a guide to international horror fiction from the 20th century).
Jorge Luis Borges was the head of an influential circle of writers in Buenos Aires. His best friend was Adolfo Bioy Casares, who like Borges became internationally known for his fantastika. Much less known internationally, although she always had a high reputation in Argentina, was Bioy Casares’ wife Silvina Ocampo, who was acclaimed for both her poetry and short stories, although only the latter has seen widespread publication outside of Latin America. Ocampo began writing in 1937 and continued almost to her death in 1993. Her two collections in 1959 and 1961 made her reputation, with collections in 1987 and 1988 broadening her fame. She began by telling relatively conventional stories, with the more uniquely Ocampo-esque stories appearing later, but even in her early work the distinctive Ocampo strangeness is present. Initially her work is influenced by nineteenth century horror; later she goes through a period of formal inventiveness; and during her mature period she perfects the type of story she made uniquely her own: disturbing, fantastical, where everyone’s motives are obscured, where mundane suburban reality is overwhelmed by the intrusion of inexplicable and disturbing events, and where the final lesson for the living is that life is cruel. Ocampo’s stories are stylized, very imaginative, cryptic, and extremely cruel, though in an innocent and oblique fashion. Her earlier work is full of malicious violence, while her later work is more subdued in its use of violence.
The distorted, estranged world to which she gives life is dominated by an interest in magical transformations; doubles or other shattered personalities; play with time and space; dreams or nightmares; mad or obsessed characters; the mixture of plant, animal, and human elements; the mixture of animate and inanimate qualities as in machines and automatons, puppets, dolls, and masks; and also what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the lower bodily processes of eating, defecation, and sexual life.
A technique for which she became known was the lack of closure in her stories, something which undercut readers’ expectations and added to the disquiet and even horror felt by her readers. Her narrative tone is reminiscent of fairy tales in their calm narration of the most gory horrors, and the occasional moment of humor casts the horrors into relief.
In Cuba, the relative scarcity of novels of the first three decades of the twentieth century gave way to a slowly increasing number, and then a boom in the 1940s and 1950s, when social realism combined with magic realism. This culminated in the great year of 1966, when a number of classics of Cuban literature were published. Esther Díaz Llanillo’s El Castigo (The penalty) is not counted among them. However, El Castigo was the first book of Díaz Llanillo’s long and distinguished career as a writer, librarian, and essayist. The stories in El Castigo are typical of Díaz Llanillo’s later work. She writes about God, the relationship between God and humanity, justice, aloneness, and death, in fantasies and stories about protagonists with psychological problems. A general template of Díaz Llanillo’s work is a protagonist in a mundane setting, such as a home, a kitchen, or conference room, being exposed to the intrusion of the unexpected and the threatening. The atmosphere of many of these stories is anguish-filled and desperate, much like the haunted, hallucinatory, and menacing atmosphere in Kafka’s work (one of Díaz Llanillo’s primary influences). The plots are influenced by Poe, and possessed of plot twist and a marked black humor. The major influence on Díaz Llanillo, however, was Borges. In her own words, Díaz Llanillo was influenced by Borges’ “style, his predilection for nuanced adjectives, in his contradictory lists, in his search for perfection, and in the intellectualism that I have imbued in some of my short stories.” The horror in Díaz Llanillo’s work comes not from supernatural elements but from dismaying occurrences happening to the protagonist which usually disrupt their daily routine, and from the dark edge of magic realism, in which reality gives way to the dangerous surreal and irreal.
An unjustly forgotten Mexican horror writer is Guadalupe Dueñas, who in her time was a well-respected and widely enjoyed novelist, short story writer, and essayist. The current state of neglect for Dueñas is curious—sexism may be at the root of it, although other women horror writers, like Amparo Dávila, are still remembered and read. Perhaps it is as simple as the relative infrequency of her stories; although she had collections published in 1954, 1976, and 1991, she did not write the dozens of horror stories that other Mexican horror writers did. Whatever the cause, Dueñas is, again, unjustly forgotten, for her stories are on par with any of the other writers’ in this chapter. Her career would not have been possible without Juan José Arreola and Juan Rulfo publishing their horror stories, but when her first collection was published it was clear she was staking out new territory and calling it her own—something her later collections would affirm. Her stories are marked by strong characterization, love of detail, and general originality. Dueñas’ stories usually begin with portrayals of everyday life, and then through the use of time and perceptual distortions creates an atmosphere of subjectivity, estrangement, dread, and nightmarish horror. Dueñas’ stories are death-obsessed, but not without a comic/humorous side, and the macabre is less emphasized (unusually for Mexican horror literature) than psychological acuity and visceral terror. Dueñas was influenced by Poe and especially by Horacio Quiroga, and like them shows an affection for the physical and mental tormenting of her characters. Her stories tend to be concise, evocative, unconventional in her use of the causes of her protagonists’ terror, and bizarre and enigmatic, verging on the sublime.
Amparo Dávila has the fame that Guadalupe Dueñas does not. In Dávila’s favor is her increased output—story collections in 1959, 1964, and 1977—and a greater overall readability. However, that readability is a trap, for Dávila conceals her horror in gaps that the unwary fall into. Dueñas’ horrors were physical and visceral; Dávila’s are ambiguous, living in-between words rather than in them. As Alberto Chimal writes, “her texts…tend to treat what is not seen and what is not said, the imprecise–and unsettling–which is just beyond language and experience.” The terror of these things is what drives Dávila’s stories, more than the immediate cause of unease or fear. One can almost say that Dávila is resistant, that she deploys her text to distract and hinder the reader.
Her stories have a dark and gloomy atmosphere and blend reality and the imaginary to the point of, and often verging into, psychological horror. She claimed Kafka and D.H. Lawrence as her main influences rather than Poe or Borges. Never one to overtly refer to Mexican politics or Mexico itself, or to draw on Latin American authors for inspiration, she avoids magic realism entirely: “The stories of Dávila pass from the criticism of the provincial estanco to the fantastic rupture without stopping in the elaboration of the marvelous real.” Stylistically, an apt comparison is to Shirley Jackson, although on a technical level Jackson is Dávila’s superior. But both deal with mundane existences whose facades of normality are suddenly shattered by the intrusion of something horrible. Both writers portray female characters, violence, madness, and death. Dávila’s common themes are entrapment and escape, isolation, immobility and insanity. Narratively, her stories are precisely, finely told, often with a sharp twist at their end.
Despite the existence and work of Horacio Quiroga and Felisberto Hernandez, the nineteenth century tradition of descriptive realism and linear narration continued to be the dominant mode of Uruguayan narrative in the mid-century decades of the twentieth century. One writer who challenged this mode and helped pave the way for more writers of experimental fiction and fantastika was Armonía Somers, who wrote into the mid-1990s but the majority of whose work was published from 1950-1969. Chronologically Somers is a member of the “Generación del 45,” the group of influential Uruguayan writers whose careers began between 1945 and 1950, but Somers’ concerns and approaches to her fiction place her more firmly in the successive “Generación del Crisis.” A feminist novelist and short story writer, Somers wrote deeply transgressive work which discomforts and unnerves the writer through its postmodernist elements, its male-female role reversals, its obsession with death and sexual violence, and its transformation of the every day into the alien and the uncanny. “What sets Armonía Somers apart is that she combines the charm of the fantastic mode with a more brutal (and implicitly more critical) focus on the cruel–sexual violation, the indifference of god, the visceral reality of human experience. She effects this combination in unapologetically direct language within dense narrative structures.” Somers’ protagonists are often marginalized or maladjusted individuals trying to make their way through a hostile and uncaring universe; “these characters, both human and animal, provide a sordid, nightmarish view of the world.” Her themes of desire escape, rebelliousness, transgression and freedom from the world-system of oppressive norms are deployed in stories thick with macabre atmosphere, violence, and eroticism. In her stories “everything is uncanny, alien, disconcerting, repulsive and yet incredibly fascinating.”
The first great horror writer of Japan’s post-Occupation era was Fumiko Enchi, generally regarded by critics as one of Japan’s most important women writers. She became famous for her novels and short stories, almost all of which explored sexuality and female psychology and the conflicts between the old ways and new in post-war, post-Occupation Japan, usually to subversive effect. She used subtle symbolism and a precise use of language along with a thorough knowledge of classical Japanese literature to create allegorical and feminist works which conflated reality and fantasy to varying effects, from comforting to unnerving. Fumiko was primarily concerned with women and focused on them, their psychology, and their concerns in her works, and so horror was not the primum mobile of her work. But the effects of horror, the arousal of dread and fright through her stories and novels, were important to the stories she wanted to tell, and in several works she uses the supernatural, specifically spirit possession and posthumous vengeance, to scare the reader. She wrote in a sensual style that some critics described as “Gothic;” she found this style useful in creating the otherworldly atmosphere of her stories. A recurring plot in Fumiko’s novels and short stories is of an older woman who seeks vengeance for the wasted lifetime and unfulfilled sexuality that her husband (and conservative, repressive Japanese society more generally) inflicted on her. The older woman, either personally or, more often, with the help of a shamaness, summons up a spirit to help her complete her vengeance.
Enchi takes the image of the shamaness (miko), and appropriates it for the purpose of critique by forging an unconventional link between the shamaness and the traditional image of the woman possessed by vindictiveness and jealousy. By bringing to consciousness the link between spirit possession and possession by powerful emotions, showing how the latter are inscribed in women’s bodies as cultural codes, Enchi harnesses hidden energies and affirms the continuity of women’s history.
The effect of the presence of the shamaness and the possession by spirits, combined with Fumiko’s prose style, is to insert the frightening supernatural into a well-portrayed everyday and mundane scene. For Japanese readers especially, the scenes in which the older women, who should (according to traditional Japanese mores) be submissive and loving to their husbands, instead take chilling revenge on them, would be both frightening and transgressive.
The foremost woman writer of l’ecole belge de l’etrange is Anne Richter, whose debut story collection, written when she was only fifteen, appeared in 1954. She went on to become a prominent Belgian author, editor, and critic and scholar of fantastika, publishing both short story collections and important critical anthologies and histories. Her style (predictably) changed as she grew older; her younger work has a more assured, even precocious narrative voice, while her older work “is far more hesitant, the structures and conclusions more conventional. If middle age visits upon us all a dark wood, then these stories are written from the gloom.” But throughout all the stories the traits of Richter persist: the swift and smooth entry into the supernatural, the sensitive observation, the perceptive characterization, the discomfiting intelligence, and the portrayal of the world as callous and full of sudden misfortune and death.
Jehanne Jean-Charles began publishing horror stories in the late 1950s, but it was her two story collections in 1962 and 1964 which brought her fame; although she continued writing into the 1980s, her early 1960s stories were the stories most often read and remembered. A gleefully malicious writer of barbed and twisted short stories, Jean-Charles’ narratives depict a universe in which bad things happen to good people, often inexplicably but always stylishly told:
if influence or affinity her style betrays, it’s with the silken menace of Saki, though readers have claimed for her kinship with Matheson, Bradbury, and Dahl…though her sense of mischief approaches John Collier’s, her prose isn’t quite as fancy. The forthrightness of Jehanne’s style and her choice of theme owe much more to Anglophone traditions of the fantastic than to the Surrealism that tainted many of her French contemporaries, although in sensibility she descends from the conte cruel, in which conventional morality is subverted and puffery punished.
Carmen Laforet was an important Spanish author. Best known for her first novel, Nada (1945), Laforet wrote a number of other novels which were, for the time period and culture, relatively open about feminism and the mystical variety of Catholicism while also expressing the author’s existentialism. Nada was a critical sensation when it first appeared and has since become a part of the Spanish canon, being called Spain’s answer to Catcher in the Rye. Nada is also a kind of Spanish Gothic, emphasizing a grim atmosphere in a sprawling house. The house has gloomy halls and rooms which go beyond gloom into insanity and perhaps the supernatural:
It looked like a witch house, that bathroom. The soiled walls retained the imprint of hooked hands, of cries of despair. Everywhere, chipped open, their toothless mouths, moisture oozing. On the mirror, because it could not fit anywhere else, they had placed a macabre still life of pale breams and onions on a black background. The madness smiled in the twisted taps.
Additionally, the house is said to have “devilish” furniture and to whisper and grunt to itself, and those who live in it seem ghostly and half-real. Nada also has a Gothic cathedral, an infernal-seeming Chinatown, a street foul with rotten odors, a young, pure and innocent woman as protagonist, a tyrant (unusually, a woman), night journeys, and a general element of fear.
Mercè Rodoreda is the very definition of a canonical author in Spain. Her novel La plaça del diamant (1962) is generally acknowledged to be the most critically acclaimed novel in Catalan of all time, and Rodoreda is seen as the most important Catalan novelist of the postwar years. A skilled writer of enchanting prose who combined a keen observational eye with humor and emotion, Rodoreda was seen as important enough in her lifetime to have a literary prize named after her. Less noticed than her novels are her short stories, which were gathered together in four collections. Two of them, in 1967 and 1979, contain substantial horror work. The horror is not limited to her short stories, of course; her La mort I la primavera (Death and spring, 1986) presents a town with weird and sinister customs, and her Del que hom no pot fugir (What One Cannot Flee, 1934) portrays the female protagonist’s descent into madness in ways similar to Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” But it is in Rodoreda’s short stories that she most makes use of horror. Drawing inspiration from writers such as Poe and Lovecraft as well as Borges and Cortázar, Rodoreda used horror both to terrorize the reader and to allegorically refer to the horrors of how men treat women and the horrors of war, especially the horrors suffered by civilians during the Spanish Civil War. Rodoreda sometimes told magic realist horror stories, sometimes more traditional horror stories about spookily possessed animals, sometimes Gothics, and sometimes psychological horror. In all her stories she uses her knack for observation to create realistic emotions, character psychologies, and believable settings before introducing the horror elements.
Luisa Valenzuela was a journalist, short story writer, and novelist best known for her experimental style and the feminist themes in her work. Another recurring theme in her work is fear, specifically the “subtle transition from individual fear (forged from archetypal childhood fears, vacillating, ambiguously, between fear and cowardice) to collective terror, lived out like a nightmare.” This transition, which is always expressed in disquieting and unsettling terms, is a leitmotif throughout much of Valenzuela’s work. El gato eficaz (The effective cat, 1972), in which the female narrator, Pandora-like, allows all the evils of the world, in the form of “black cats of death,” to escape from confinement, while she expresses a strong protest against the waste and corruption of the male-center world. In narratives like “Aqui pasan cosas raras” (“Weird things happen here,” 1975) and Realidad nacional desde la cama (National reality from the bed, 1990) fear, and the “dark forces of violence,” are constant companions to the narrators in Buenos Aires and New York City. In Cola de lagartija (The lizard’s tail, 1983), “a kind of double allegory on the obsessive, egocentric empire of Jose López Rega, the influential welfare minister of Isabel Peron’s government,” the protagonist Sorcerer becomes psychopathic in the wielding of his power, just like López Rega did, with the resulting devastation of the people, expressed in surrealistic terms.
Lya Luft is a writer, translator, and academic, and from the 1980s forward was seen by critics as one of Brazil’s most important contemporary writers. Most of her work is in the Gothic vein—her narratives often have an “atmosphere of sexual fear and uncertainty surrounding her protagonists, whose dramas unfold in the claustrophobic space of the patriarchal home.” Her narratives have restrictive spaces and time frames, and her protagonists are usually haunted by an “other” presence, whether a ghost, a grandmother in the attic, or a dwarf gnome. Luft’s narratives have multiple levels of reality, open-ending and ambiguous or circular endings which lack resolution and do not answer the questions the story prompts from the readers. As Giovanni Pontiero, translator of Luft’s The Red House, puts it, in a statement that applies to most of Luft’s work, “Morbid realities and humiliating discoveries are expressed with disarming honesty and vigor. Lya Luft’s perceptions about existence and its traumas are articulated with chilling frankness.” When the supernatural arises in her novels, it is dealt with in a casual and offhand way, allowing Luft to foreground her female protagonists’ struggle for self-definition.
A writer who was often compared with Luft was Lygia Fagundes Telles, a novelist and short story writer who began publishing in the 1950s but reached her maturity as a writer in the 1970s.
In both Telles’s and Luft’s fiction the reader often finds a gap between the expected, common logic and the characters’ actual lives, and feels, along with the characters, the ambiguity caused by the merging of two worlds–‘that of the real and that of the fantastic’ (Todorov 26) Their novelistic works are characterized by a probing into the lives of middle-class women, constituting a study of the female subject in her relations with the Other within the context of Brazilian society–a society that continues to be inherently patriarchal, in spite of some relative freedoms that women from the upper classes have achieved…a recurrent theme in Telles’s and in Luft’s novels is precisely the decadence of the bourgeois order and, within it, the decadence of the family institutions. It is the conflict between the characters’ desires and aspirations, on one hand, and the demands and obstacles still imposed by the social order, on the other hand, that originates the ambiguity and absurdity highlighted by the use of the fantastic and the gothic, or metaphorized through the use of the grotesque. The fantastic, the gothic and the grotesque constitute thus strategies of estrangement which will lead to the revelation, in the lives of these otherwise ordinary women, the ruling of a different logic, or the lack of any logic altogether. In this respect, their novels can be seen as Kafkaesque narratives, in that the everyday, ordinary middle-class lives of the protagonists are revealed to obey an absurd order.
Telles is primarily a writer of psychological stories, emphasizing the personalities of her female protagonists and their relationships with their families. Her characters are usually alone, and experience misunderstanding, conflict, disillusionment, deceit, fear, death, and fantasy, with conflicts not being happily resolved and the narrative tension not being relieved. It is in her short stories that she most makes use of the supernatural and the surreal, with shifting realities being a norm. Occasionally she uses surreal elements as an allegory against the oppressive Brazilian government. Often the atmosphere of her short stories is dreamlike, nightmarish, or hallucinatory.
Daina Chaviano is a writer of both fantastika and mainstream literature. Before 1991, the great majority of her work was science fiction and fantasy. As a science fiction writer she established herself as one of the three most important female science fiction writers in all of the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas. However, after 1991, when she emigrated to the United States, she began writing mainstream literature. In 1998 and 1999, though, she wrote a tetralogy, La Habana oculta (The occult side of Havana), in which Havana serves as the point of departure for trips into other dimensions. The second novel in the series, Casa de Juegos (House of Games, 1998), is about a young woman, Gaia, who is led by a mysterious woman into a mansion where everything, matter and energy, is in a state of constant movement and change.
Feeling that she must embrace this frightening environment as a path to self-knowledge, she returns again and again to this world of bewildering rituals where gods appear in human form and humans assume temporarily the guise of deities. The fantastic, supernatural element in this book is provided by the orishas, the spirits of the Afro-Cuban practice of Santería. With its underlying foundation of fantasy and imagery drawn from virtual reality scenarios, the House of Games functions as a post-modernist version of the archetypal narrative of the search for the self.
In the description of the house the influence of Poe and Lovecraft—two of Chaviano’s favorite authors—can be seen.
Esther Díaz Llanillo was a writer, essayist, and librarian, most of whose work deals with the fantastic in one form or another. Her Cuentos antes y después del sueño (Tales before and after sleep, 1999) was a collection of short stories which, in the style of M.R. James, creates normal environments and routines for the stories’ protagonists, only to have the uncanny and sinister intrude on those environments and routines, changing them utterly. Her stories can be Kafkaesque or contes cruel, and often emphasize environment over plot, but they are psychologically acute, filled with gallows humor and cruelty and strong symbolism.
Although born in England, artist and novelist Leonora Carrington spent most of her adult life in Mexico, a country she loved, and is generally considered as a Mexican creator. Best known for her Surrealist art and sculpture, Carrington also wrote a number of novels and short story collections. Although she began writing in the late 1930s, it is in her mature work in the 1970s and 1980s that her substantial talent as a writer is best displayed. Always a writer of fierce intelligence and a vivid imagination, Carrington’s best novels, Le Cornet acoustique (The hearing trumpet, 1974) and La Porte de pierre (The stone door, 1976), bring together the alienated sensibility and fabulous monsters of her early stories and novels and add to them black humor, romantic fantasy, surreal worlds, and a potent combination of terror and wonder. Le Cornet acoustique, set in a sinister nursing home, has occult secrets, mythical identities, a feminist uprising, poisonings, and a quest for the Holy Grail, all in a text filled with (but not over-filled with) meaningful symbols. La Porte de pierre, generally seen by critics as not quite reaching the heights of Le Cornet acoustique, is a blackly humorous fantasy romance involving the zodiac, Qabalah, Transylvania, and the Stone Door of Kecske. In both novels, Carrington grounds the frightening and the marvelous in a dry and witty style, and smoothly portrays the triumph of the feminine principle over the male principle.
Inés Arredondo was a writer, critic, and academic who is best known for her short stories. She published three collections: La señal (The signal, 1965), Río subterráneo (The underground river, 1979), and Los Espejos (The mirrors, 1988). In them she tells stories of the female spirit and female fears, addressing subjects that the male-dominated world Mexican literature hadn’t taken on before, subjects like women’s lust, rape, and the death of babies. Arredondo’s approach to doing so was to focus on the subjectivity of women and other marginalized characters, including adolescents and gay men, and to place her protagonists in strange and often grotesque families in her native Sinaloa, thus creating the “Sinaloa Gothic.” (Arredondo was among the first Mexican women of her era to write Gothic stories; previously the Mexican Gothic had been the province of men). Critics have compared Arredondo’s work to that of Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor; like theirs, Arredondo’s stories are dark and disturbing, full of sexual and moral predators and victimized innocents. She makes skillful use of Gothic elements—the confinement of women, wicked clergy, symbolic incest, abhuman monsters, monstrous father figures, transgressive relationships, violent and grotesque sexuality, castle-like mansions, and so on—to create a modern version of the traditional Gothic, one which utilizes the Gothic aesthetic and creates a Gothic atmosphere while still emphasizing modern psychology. “In Arredondo’s writings, horror is not of supernatural but of (all too) human origin, and it is narrated in a prose where the exquisite and the uncanny meet in shuddering complicity.”
Arguably foremost among the Puerto Rican women writers of the 1970s and 1980s was Rosario Ferré, whose first book, in 1976, is seen by critics as beginning the feminist movement in Puerto Rico. Ferré became one of the most important feminist writers in Spanish America over the next twenty-four years, influencing and inspiring many Puerto Rican women to become authors and to write their own realities. Ferré is the leader among what critics call the “magic feminists.” “By combining classical mythology with indigenous folktales that usurp the traditional actions of female characters, Ferré has interpreted, translated, and rewritten a more active and satisfying myth of Puerto Rican women.” One of Ferré’s chosen genres in which to write is horror, although Ferré’s horror is almost always feminist and/or full of political allegories. Ferré’s horror fiction, much of which is in the myth or fairy tale genres, makes use of hyperbole, subjective viewpoints, and fantastic, grotesque, and allegorical elements to violate traditional norms of realism. What takes their place is a tense, phantasmagoric, and often nightmarish atmosphere in which time is dislocated and disjoined, personalities become multiplied and schizophrenic, and points of view shift without warning. Occasionally Ferré’s work is more folkloric than fabular; in these stories Gothic atmospheres and elements become pronounced, and the narratives’ climaxes become inevitable rather than predictable. Ferré is an intelligent and thoughtful writer who deploys horror tropes and motifs and plot twists in a skilled manner, simultaneously evoking fear in her readers as well as an understanding of the oppression of women and the poor delivered through Ferré’s allegories. Even in her most horrific of stories there are still moments of lyricism to be found, and a strong poetic strain is evident in most of her writing.
Mayra Montero is arguably the most innovative of the Puerto Rican writers who came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s. Montero ranges widely in her stories and novels, bringing in elements of Caribbean folklore, such as Afro-Caribbean cults and zombies, as well as Gothic conventions, in stories that work both as horror and as allegories about the nature of romance and marriage, Caribbean history, feminism, imperialism/colonialism, and contemporary politics. “Montero is, of all contemporary Caribbean writers, the most indebted to the Euro-American Gothic tradition, which she has made her own, transforming the familiar conventions through her deep knowledge of Caribbean magico-religious traditions and her concerns for social justice.” In one novel Montero applies the Gothic genre to the Duvalier regime of Haiti, portraying Vodou priests as heroes in the armed struggle against agents and militia of the Duvaliers. In another novel the Gothic features as a backdrop to the struggle between the leaders of two rival Vodou societies; allegorically the novel depicts the vicious and corrupt politics of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In a third novel an American herpetologist in search of a nearly-extinct frog ventures into a supernatural “heart of darkness” on a vast mountain in Haiti. Montero writes in a beautifully poetic style, which renders the violence, terror, and shocking events of her narratives all the more jarring to the reader.
One of the High Art Horror writers of the 1970s was Kanai Mieko, a prize-winning poet, postmodern fiction author, and eminent critic. Kanai’s horror narratives have been compared by critics to the work of Borges (one of her admitted influences) and Kafka; she writes complex, experimental novels and short stories which confound and sometimes shock readers. Her strength is her poetic orientation; her short stories are lyrical but at the same time dreamlike and often nightmarish, with bizarre occurrences and an often deadpan delivery. These contribute to a disquieting and eerie atmosphere where the characters discover that little is as it seems. Her early work was quick, intense, and “full of scenes of blood, cannibalism, dismemberment, incest,” while her longer later work, focusing on the metafictional theme of writing, did away with the graphic violence of her earlier stories in favor of the transgression of narrative, plot, and readerly comfort. “We find boxed structures made up of internal and external narratives, and stories whose metafictional qualities are heightened by nameless, allegorical characters and settings, by wordplay, and by rich allusions to fables and children’s stories,” but the cumulative effect on the reader is not respect for the skill Kanai displayed in crafting the story, but rather a deep unease as mundane logic and the safety of realism are entirely done away with.
A High Art Horror author of the 1971-2000 time period—although she began writing in the 1960s—was Kurahashi Yumiko. Kurahashi is best known for her sexually transgressive fiction, which uses themes like incest, sex with aliens and robots, wife- and husband-swapping, and sexually active homicidal women to challenge Japanese ideas about women, sexuality, and moral and social norms. But Kurahashi also wrote a substantial amount of supernatural fiction. These stories were erotic, as is much of Kurahashi’s work, but also emphasized the grotesque and were cruel and violent. Too, Kurahashi’s use of irruptive evil and monsters violated reader expectations of her fantasies being playful and benign. Much of her supernatural fiction is a revisionist reworking of traditional Japanese fairy tales and folk tales. “Kurahashi’s fairy tales are…based on reason rather than emotion; they are cruel, she wrote, because they are governed by standards of retributive justice and didactic morals; and for adults because their erotic nature might be considered too poisonous for children.”
Although ?ba Minako was best known for as a mainstream writer, in which guise she was one of the most well-known women writers of the 1971-2000 time period, in the 1970s and 1980s she wrote a number of stories inspired by traditional Japanese folklore and legends. These stories, which usually have female protagonists and contain feminist themes, are disquieting more conceptually than narratively. In “Yamanba no bisho” (“Yamanba’s popularity,” 1976) a stereotypical housewife, self-sacrificing and meek, is revealed to have an interior life akin to the titular, terrifying mountain witch (a character type who often appears in ?ba’s work). In Urashimaso (1977), a novel similar to the Japanese folktale about Urashima Tar?, who visits the undersea palace of the Dragon King and on returning home finds that three hundred years have passed, the protagonist discovers that her ten years in America have wrought radical changes on both her family and Japanese society. “Awakening to the realities of her native country, Yukie is forced to confront a troubling mix of horror, memory, and family trauma resulting both from the war and from the binding of women to an uncompromising patriarchal system.” While ?ba’s female characters are usually sympathetic figures of resistance to Japanese patriarchy—even ?ba’s mountain witch and demon women characters—their resistance can become a vengeance terrifying in its excessiveness.
Takahashi Takako was known for her novels, which were primarily psychological in focus, and for her short fantasies, many of which had substantial erotic content in them. A number of these stories, however, were horror or horror-adjacent. Like a number of other women authors of the 1970s and 1980s, Takahashi used Gothic motifs and conventions, surrealist techniques, and dark themes to challenge Japanese social ideals of motherhood, femininity, and women’s writing. A recurring dynamic in her stories is the female protagonist preoccupied with delusions and personal fantasies of sado-masochism, murder of husbands and children, and dismemberment. The frightening aspect of her stories comes not so much from the Gothic or surrealist elements as the continuing revelation that women’s interior lives are so full of subversive, violent, and terrifying qualities. As well, she “makes effective use of both fantasy and the fantastic to unsettle distinctions maintained by ordinary modes of cognition and standards of behavior. Her fiction deploys boundary transgression on thematic and textual levels as a trope for social defiance and personal transformation.”
Mariko Koike’s career as a novelist of mystery/horror stories was short, less than a decade, beginning in 1985 and ending in the mid-1990s, after which she transitioned to writing romances in the style of Yukio Mishima. But during those years she produced a series of very popular horror narratives, both at novel-length and in shorter work. In Koike’s stories there are psychological as well as supernatural causes for terror, even in works that are ostensibly romantic or poignant. Haunted apartments and vengeful ghosts, told in Koike’s engaging and suspenseful style, chill even when the latter are welcome by the living and the former is inhabited by unlikable protagonists.
A common mode of Malaysian horror in the 1971-2000 time period was the Gothic:
Fantasy and the supernatural are everyday expressions of the imaginative experiences of Malaysian and Singaporean women writers who use the Gothic to explore and expose the contradictions within their societies, constraints upon people’s lives, and most specifically, women’s roles…through the gaps and fissures of colonial homes and those of grand Chinese or Malay families leak tales of repression and silencing legitimated by cultural, economic and gendered differences. The repressed return, as they do in all good Gothic tales, to bring cultural and personal discrepancies to the notice of the living.
One such female writer is Shirley Lim, who though an expatriate in America for forty years was still considered by critics to be a Malaysian writer. Lim was better known for her scholarly work, but she wrote a number of short stories that fit more or less neatly into the category of the postcolonial Gothic. Of the two types of Gothic, “male” and “female”—male Gothics having a male protagonist and being about a quest to regain patriarchy, and female Gothics having a female protagonist and being about a challenge to patriarchy and its cultural assumptions—Lim’s work falls into the female Gothic category. Of one of Lim’s stories, “Haunting,” Andrew Hock-Soon Ng writes that
despite foregrounding domestic issues and centering on a female protagonist, [it] cannot be comfortably read as a female Gothic plot. Instead, the story works on a powerful level of irony which invites contrasting interpretations. Rehearsing certain patriarchal assumptions about the family and femininity, “Haunting” seems to reinforce them by demonstrating women’s collusion with them. In the story, a woman is haunted not by some revenant but by the house itself. This suggests a metonymical implication of the domestic ideology that entraps, in the form of housing, the female victim. Yet, it is not clear if the story, in the vein of the male Gothic plot, is implying women’s acceptance of their fate, or if it is a female Gothic story that reveals the terrible interpellative power of patriarchy in entrapping women without their being aware.
“Haunting” in particular is comparable to Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in its treatment of the way that the haunted woman eventually embraces her hauntedness:
Like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Lim’s story palpably suggests that the domestic ideology haunts women with the shadow self of patriarchal femininity. Women who are interpellated by such an ideology cannot consider a differentiated vantage point because they are thoroughly immersed in their construction. Any inclination for escape is quickly arrested, leaving the woman with merely a vestige of the subject that she can possibly become, but will never attain. That the narrative ends with such a “comforting” scene only belies its deeply menacing ideology. Not only has the house successfully domesticated another potentially dissenting woman, it has even appointed her as the next guardian of patriarchal tradition, thus disguising her entrapment as privilege.
If not as outright terrifying as “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “Haunting,” and other Gothic stories by Lim, remain menacing and frightening for the way in which the female protagonists are eventually broken by the spirits that haunt them.
One of the most widely read Singaporean authors of the time was Catherine Lim, who gained renown as the author of social realist short stories in the 1970s and feminist novels in the 1980s. But Lim also wrote horror, beginning with her 1980 short story collection Or Else the Lightning God and Other Stories. Although later horror writers do not cite Lim as an influence, she prepared the way for them, and is critically considered to be the mother of Singaporean horror. Lim’s horror is primarily about the influence of the Chinese spiritual and supernatural world on the psyches of modern Singaporeans; in her work, creatures and evil magic from Chinese folklore and myth irrupt into the world of modern Singapore. “This helped to lay the groundwork for the rebirth of our horror culture, and its transformation from a specifically Malay milieu to a multiethnic one.” Lim’s horror novels, written in the 1980s and 1990s, shift to the Gothic mode, focusing on the physical changes in Singapore that eradicate evidence of the past. “Singaporean Gothic tropes…reflect local preoccupations with development-projects, with submerged or newly conceptualised heritage, and most pointedly, with suppressed aspects of turbulent histories, both on a national and an individual level,” and Lim makes full use of these tropes, including the ghosts of Singaporeans killed by the Japanese during World War Two.
One of the most skilled German practitioners of horror in the mid- and late-1990s was Monika “Eddie” Angerhuber, who took her male nickname from Edgar Allan Poe, who Angerhuber is a fan of. Little-known in Germany, and that only as a translator and proponent of the work of Thomas Ligotti, Angerhuber is a writer of sophisticated horror stories, subtly-told and narratively rich. “Never condescending to cheap formulaic writing, most of her stories are experiments in language, style and mood derived from a highly developed aestheticism that nevertheless does not neglect questions of character and plot.” Her stories tend toward darkness and sadness, leaving the reader by turns horrified and melancholy, emotions aided by her writing style, which can be either oneiric or nightmarish depending on her purposes in a story. Prominent themes in her work are loneliness, death, decay, and the dehumanization of humanity because of increased industrialization and mechanization of society.
Another skilled German female horror writer who debuted 1996 was Christiane Neudecker. Better known as a director of performing arts, Neudecker’s short stories range from the weird dark to the overtly horrific. Neudecker is equally skilled at portraying psychological disturbances, delusions, and mind-born fears, and at telling stories in which original plots, tropes, motifs, and creatures (haunted pianos, living shadows, a demonic boxer, a game of chess with the dead) are deployed. Neudecker, whose influences include E.T.A. Hoffmann and Daphne Du Maurier, is strong at evoking an ominous atmosphere and mounting tension, at linguistic innovation, and at frightening readers conceptually and viscerally.
Anna Maria Ortese was an Italian author of novels, stories, poetry, and travel narratives. Although she is best-known for her “Romantic fable” L’Iguana (1965) and her realistic depictions of Naples, in her stories and novels of the 1980s and 1990s she struck distinctly horrific tones. In those stories Ortese’s usual well-honed poetic style is put to use in describing a sort of psychopathological dark magic realism, hallucinatory and featuring altered states of mind or psychologically disturbed protagonists.
Her entire oeuvre, indeed, can be considered one extended variation on the theme of the uncanny, the “strange” lying as it does at the center of her world vision in its most diverse forms: dreams and visions…along with angels, linnets, sprites, and spirits, imaginary fathers, sons, and lovers, lost brothers and other “memories of the unreal life,” beasts, monsters, and all manner of strange creatures.
Cristina Fernández Cubas was a lawyer and journalist, but her first love was fiction. She began publishing her short stories–her primary mode of fiction–in 1980, and from the beginning she updated the Gothic tradition, and in large part was responsible for introducing the native Gothic to the modern Spanish audience. Her stories focused on unreliable narrators whose psychologies were often disturbed or warped in stories which were either traditional ghostly or haunted house narratives or deconstructive metafiction. Fernández Cubas’ work continued to reinvent the Gothic through the end of the century and beyond. Her work
abounds in ambiguity, abnormal and alcoholic characters, mirror symbols and incomprehensible passages (others must be read through a mirror). Time…is fluid, unreal, and many perceptions seem inside out or backwards. The title tale creates unresolvable doubt as to the main characters’ sanity, and many others raise similar questions….oneiric atmosphere, the interweaving of marvelous and fantastic elements with the normal or realistic, and the problems of communication and perception.
Pilar Pedraza, a writer and academic, began publishing novels and short story collections in 1984 and quickly become “la dama del gotico español,” the best-known female writer of the contemporary Spanish Gothic. Pedraza’s fiction displays a thorough familiarity with the American and European Gothic traditions, and falls into the “female Gothic” category, “not because Pedraza is a woman…but because her fiction shows a thorough engagement with the position of women in society and their desires, either rewriting Gothic myths or developing a modern Spanish version of them.” Her work is a veritable catalogue of Gothic devices: among the other Gothic tropes and motifs and creatures appearing in her work are Frankenstein’s monster, vampires, the undead, werewolves, ruins and cemeteries, haunted houses, sanctuaries and places of religious adoration, Hell in various iterations, evil women (especially witches), animal hybrids, and mad scientists. Too, Pedraza, like Angela Carter, “championed erotic-sadistic models of femininity that…often challenge tradition and patriarchy.”
Adelaida García Morales was a Spanish writer who achieved fame in 1985 with the publication of her novel El sur seguido de Bene (The south followed by Bene). El sur, like her succeeding novels, was a Gothic, the mode in which García Morales was most comfortable with. As with the traditional Gothic, the past returns to haunt the present in García Morales’ work. In fact, García Morales’ narratives are a catalogue of Gothic devices: ghosts, physical and moral decay, the sublime, vampires, ghosts, haunted buildings, fear of the Other in the person of women, and guilty secrets hidden, sought-for, and discovered. The supernatural intrudes upon the present in her stories, and the lines and limits between reality and fantasy blur.
Patricia Nisbet Klingenberg, Fantasies of the Feminine: The Short Stories of Silvina Ocampo (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1999), 40.
Esther Díaz Llanillo, “Interview with Esther Díaz Llanillo,” interview by Sara E. Cooper, Cubanabooks, April 2015, http://www.csuchico.edu/cubanabooks/authors/Interview_Diaz_Llanillo.shtml.
Alberto Chimal, “El huésped,” Las Historias, accessed June 19, 2018, http://www.lashistorias.com.mx/index.php/archivo/el-huesped/.
Christopher Domínguez Michael, “Amparo Dávila,” Diccionario crítico de la literatura mexicana (1955-2011) (Mexico City, Mexico: FCE – Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2012), 94.
Rebecca E. Biron, “Armonia Somers’ ‘El Despojo’: Masculine Subjectivity and Fantasies of Domination,” Latin American Literary Review 21, no. 42 (Jul-Dec 1993): 7.
Nora Erro-Orthmann, “Armonía Somers,” in Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Source Book, ed. Diane E. Marting (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990), 498.
Angel Rama, “La fascinación del horror. La insólita literatura de Somers,” Marcha 1188 (Dec. 27, 1963), 30.
Wayne Pounds, “Enchi Fumiko and the Hidden Energy of the Supernatural,” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 24, no. 2 (Nov. 1990): 167.
Edward Gauvin, “Two by Anne Richter,” Weird Fiction Review, last modified Sept. 3, 2012, http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/09/two-by-anne-richter/.
Edward Gauvin, “Jehanne Jean-Charles,” Weird Fiction Review, last modified Oct. 1, 2012, http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/10/jehanne-jean-charles/.
Carmen Laforet, Nada (Barcelona: Destino, 1995), 19.
Fernando Ainsa and Djelal Kadir, “Journey to Luisa Valenzuela’s Land of Fear,” World Literature Today, 69, no. 4 (Autumn, 1995): 683.
Ainsa and Kadir, “Journey to Luisa Valenzuela’s Land of Fear,” 686.
Darlene J. Sadlier, “Lya Luft,” in One Hundred Years After Tomorrow: Brazilian Women’s Fiction of the 20th Century, ed. Darlene J. Sadlier (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992), 215.
Giovanni Pontiero, “Translator’s Note,” in The Red House (Manchester, UK: Carcanet Publishing, 1994), iv.
Cristina Ferreira-Pinto, “The Fantastic, the Gothic, and the Grotesque in Contemporary Brazilian Women’s Novels,” Chasqui 25, no. 2 (1996): 72-73
Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, “Unchained Tales: Women Prose Writers from the Hispanic Caribbean in the 1990s,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 22, no. 4 (Oct. 2003): 449.
Aurora Piñeiro, “‘No vengas al país de los ríos’: la escritura de Inés Arredondo y la estética de la oscuridad,” Badebec 3, no. 6 (Mar. 2014): 254.
Carmen S. Rivera, “Rosario Ferré (28 July 1942-),” Modern Latin-American Fiction Writers: Second Series 145 (1994): 130-131.
Paravisini-Gebert, “Unchained Tales,” 459.
Sharalyn Orbaugh, “Arguing with the Real: Kanai Mieko,” in ?e and Beyond : Fiction in Contemporary Japan, eds. Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1999), 246.
Mary A. Knighton, “Kanai Mieko,” in The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asia Literature, ed. Joshua S. Mostow (New York: Columbia University, 2003), 243.
Marc Sebastian-Jones, “Kurahashi Yumiko (1935-2005),” in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, ed. Donald Haase (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008), 549.
Janice Brown, “?ba Minako,” in The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature, ed. Joshua Mostow (New York: Columbia University, 2003), 232.
Maryellen Toman Mori, “The Subversive Role of Fantasy in the Fiction of Takahashi Takako,” Journal of the Association of the Teachers of Japanese 28, no. 1 (Apr. 1994): 30.
Gina Wisker, “Showers of Stars: South East Asian Women’s Postcolonial Gothic,” Gothic Studies 5, no. 2 (Nov. 2003): 64.
Andrew Hock-Soon Ng, “Malaysian Gothic: the Motif of Haunting in K.S. Maniam’s ‘Haunting the Tiger’ and Shirley Lim’s ‘Haunting,’” Mosaic: A journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature, 39, no. 2 (June 2006): 76.
Hock-Soon Ng, “Malaysian Gothic,” 82.
Ng Yi-Sheng, “A History of Singapore Horror,” biblioasia, accessed June 19, 2018, http://www.nlb.gov.sg/biblioasia/2017/07/03/a-history-of-singapore-horror/#sthash.B2xEGBwO.Jv3oY9LT.dpbs.
Tamara S. Wagner, “Ghosts of a Demolished Cityscape: Gothic Experiments in Singaporean Fiction,” in Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock-Soon Ng (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), 47.
Marco Frenschkowski, “Angerhuber, Eddie,” in Supernatural Literature of the World, eds. S.T. Joshi and Stefan Dziemianowicz, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 34.
Monica Farnetti, “Anxiety-free: Rereadings of the Freudian ‘Uncanny,’” in The Italian Gothic and Fantastic: Encounters and Rewritings of Narrative Traditions, eds. Francesa Billiani and Gigliola Sulis (Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 2007), 47.
Janet Pérez, “Cristina Fernández Cubas,” in Dictionary of the Literature of the Iberian Peninsula, eds. Germán Bleiberg, Maureen Ihrie, and Janet Pérez (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993), 591.
Reyes, Spanish Gothic, 167.
Reyes, Spanish Gothic, 167.