Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Women in Horror; my Top 10

February is Women in Horror Month. (OK, I admit I didn't realise this until I read James Everington's excellent blog and decided to purloin the idea from him.) So, before it's too late, I thought I would re-read some of my favourite short stories by women; although I must say I've never really made any distinction between male or female writers. So I had to check my facts.
I have listed 10 of them, and added a few brief reviews.

I had no problem deciding my number one, as it's also one of my all-time favourite stories; Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Moving up to number two is Don't Get Lost by Tanith Lee.

Straight in at three is a story I have only recently discovered, Dual Control by Elizabeth Walter.

Number four is A Curious Experience by Nora Lofts.

Number five is Charley by A.L. Barker.

Number six is The Token by May Sinclair.

Number seven is a bit controversial ... Never Talk To Strangers by Alex White.

At eight is a modern choice, The Rain by Rosalie Parker.

Nine is Roaring Tower by Stella Gibbons.

Last but not least is a bit of fun; The Quest for Blank Claveringi by Patricia Highsmith is number 10.

(Apart from number one, there's no rhyme nor reason for the order, I must admit.)

So to some reviews.

Don't Get Lost by Tanith Lee
I have always felt the title of a story is so important. It's a bit like the research done into Formula One racing cars: if it doesn't look good, it won't be competitive, despite the technology beneath its skin. If the title ain't right, it won't work! (Although there could be another blog post there, great stories with duff titles ... if there are any!) I digress. Don't Get Lost is a great title, and says it all about the story.
Sally is being taken home after a night out by her unsavoury boyfriend, who rather unfortunately suggests they take a short cut through a housing estate. Having missed the last bus, and despite her misgivings, she acquiesces ("all the girls were jealous. She had to be careful.") They soon become hopelessly lost, the estate consisting of identical houses. The reader is swept along on their emotional journey, from being merely annoyed that all the streets look the same, and that they seem to be going round in circles, to the realisation that there are no street signs and no people or cars; and that something is seriously wrong. "Something else though ... he hadn't wanted to think of it, perhaps. Those vans. All the same. And no cars. No, he was sure. No cars at all. But the vans had come in to deliver something, and then, what? Forgotten how to leave?"
The urban landscape is sharp as a splinter, a growing sense of dread making it a compelling read. Once the protagonists notice the similarities in their situation to that of flies trapped in a spider's web, the reader senses it may be all downhill from there. The final sentence more than justifies this, providing a shocking climax!
This is one of those tales that I have read repeatedly. It is perfectly formed. Not a word is wasted, no item of punctuation is out of place. It would be in my top ten short stories by anyone.

Dual Control by Elizabeth Walter

As I mentioned above, this is a recent discovery of mine, and has made me think about the structure of my writing. It consists only of dialogue, the events opening up to the reader through the interaction between an unhappily married couple.  
Freda and Eric are on their way to the Brady's place for a dinner party. As they drive along an isolated road, there is an incident. Eric would seem to have knocked over a woman trying to thumb a lift, her car having broken down. At first the reader is led to believe it was just a glancing blow. Eric refuses to stop, and as they argue over who was at fault, it selfishly occurs to them how awkward it would be if the woman was on her way to their party; and, sure enough, she is there, albeit somewhat dishevelled. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the incident had been more serious than they had admitted to themselves. "You may not be drunk but anyone would think you are, the way you're driving. No wonder you hit that girl. And it wasn't just a shove. I think you've killed her."
The plot itself could be called predictable, but the way it is written is the great attraction for me. Freda and Eric have a precarious relationship, and the interest lies as much in their interaction, and of how this incident both pushes them apart and draws them together simultaneously. The ending is thoroughly satisfying in more than one way.
(Another great title, don't you think!)

The Rain, by Rosalie Parker
This is a fairly conventional affair, but it's a favourite of mine because of how beautifully written and evocative it is. This is another story I have gone back to and re-read a number of times.
Geraldine is having a break from "November-grey London, to cast off the routine of work." She has rented a cottage in a picturesque Yorkshire village. She is alone because her married boyfriend is unable to join her; and she is about to find out both that there really is a north-south divide, and that the weather is often worse in the north. Indeed, the constant rain reminds me of the church bells ringing relentlessly in Aickman's Ringing the Changes.
The Rain is a kind of a morality tale, highlighting the prejudice that still exists between country and city life. Geraldine is uneasy, feeling she is being judged by the villagers, particularly Mrs Williams, the "woman who cleaned the cottage." As she lets slip details about her less than blameless private life, it becomes clear that her behaviour may very well be unremarkable in the big smoke, but in such a small and remote village everything is scrutinised. A visit to the local pub is the turning point of the story, where she drinks too much and "engages in some rather outrageous flirting." Unable to recall exactly what she had revealed, her perception of the village changes, and it is only a matter of time before she gets her comeuppance. But is it deserved?
The Rain is an atmospheric, well-paced tale which is an ideal opener for The Old Knowledge,
Parker's collection of short stories.


  1. How wonderful that there is a women in horror month! These stories sound interesting, a lot of them seem to be short stories, do you know where they might be available to read online or do they come in story collections?

  2. Yes, it's great. They are all short stories, that's my area of interest. I don't think any of these can be read online, I have them in anthologies, apart from Rosalie Parker's collection The Old Knowledge, available from Tartarus Press here: http://tartaruspress.com/tartarusebooks.htm It's well worth getting. Try to get hold of the anthology Dark Fantasies edited by Chris Morgan, and also there is an anthology called The Virago Book of Ghost Stories by Richard Dalby ... they are all female writers.

  3. Well, I've read a grand total of zero of those. Must look a few up; the Tanith Lee one in particular sounds right up my street.

    I hope you're theory about titles *isn't* right, because I hate a lot of mine. (Particularly "A Writer's Words" -ughh. But as it's published I'm stuck with it now.) I often get to the end of a story & think 'now what do I call the damn thing?'

  4. James, you would love Don't Get Lost ... and Dual Control I'm sure. The title thing is strange; I can't even begin to write without a title I'm happy with (although it may change a few times). But I wouldn't worry, because your stories are more than capable of transcending their title!

    1. Titles are a pain, I usually give mine working titles which roughly describe the story so I can find them again. I often change titles and character's names afterwards.

    2. Yes, the names of characters are so important as well. I often change them afterwards too.

  5. When I'm rich & famous (cough) maybe I'll just start calling 'em 'Weird Creepy Tale #1', 'Weird Creepy Tale #2' etc...

  6. I haven't read much horror beyond the Victorians - and not one title on this list. You've awakened my interest, particularly with Tanith Lee.

    1. There are some really original takes on the short story theme on the list. Three Miles Up is a wonderful tale by a great writer (have you read Elizabeth Jane Howard's first novel The Beautiful Visit?) All these stories are worth reading beyond them being called "horror".

  7. Hi MRC, have you read any of Celia Fremlin's wonderful 'domestic' supernatural tales? Of this genre, her most anthologised tale is 'Don't tell Cissie' (a marvellously wry take on the genre) but she is equally powerful in her other stories, especially those in the volume 'Go To Sleep In The Dark' which I can thoroughly recommend.

    Regards, Paul (Freaky Folk Tales)

  8. Hi Paul, no I must say I haven't read any of Celia Fremlin's work, although I've heard of 'Don't Tell Cissie'. It sounds like I'll have to check it out though! Thanks a lot for that. Martin.