Monday, 13 February 2017

The Women In Horror Mixtape

Last year, I published two blog posts - The Brit Horror Mixtape and The American Horror Mixtape - which went down very well indeed and, judging by some of the emails I received, led readers to discovering new writers and stories.

With that in mind, to coincide with the 8th annual Women In Horror month we're once again harking back to the 80s glory days of the homemade mixtape (that wonderful teenage rite-of-passage) for a compilation of short horror stories by women.  Some of them you might have heard of, some might be new to you, but they're all well worth a read.  I hope you find a new favourite - story or writer - on the list.
Where possible, the title/author link will take you to Amazon where the story is available as an ebook (usually as part of a collection) - why not load up your Kindle for your summer reading?  
The 'chosen by' link will take you to that writers website.

The Blue Lenses, by Daphne du Maurier
My mum introduced me to Daphne du Maurier.  Her novel Rebecca has never lost its appeal for me - I think it’s a great story of a power struggle between two women, one of them dead, not just for Maxim or Mandalay but also for our nameless protagonist’s very self.
   After I read Rebecca I discovered du Maurier’s wonderful short stories and could have picked any one of them for this mixtape. They’re darker and dirtier than her novels. She peels back the surface of the world to reveal the ugliness and desolation beneath. There are no happy endings. As a teenager I was particularly struck by The Blue Lenses, in which a woman wakes up from an eye operation with a very different view of the world; she can see the true nature of a person as they all have animal heads that reflect their real selves.  It’s both fantastic in the literary sense and utterly despairing of human beings.
chosen by Priya Sharma

The Quiet Coach, by Alison Littlewood
This was my first introduction to the work of Alison Littlewood, a reading relationship (and friendship) that I’m pleased to say is ongoing, though she’s better known for her novels these days.
   The Quiet Coach begins with Kev, a maladjusted young man who just wants to cause trouble to provoke a reaction, almost as if he needs to wind people up in order for them to acknowledge his existence.  Boarding a train, he finds there’s only one other passenger in the carriage, a pale and drawn woman who is never named.  His attempts to annoy her fall flat and then she starts to talk, telling him the tragic tale of her young daughter who succumbed to cancer, drawing out of him memories and thoughts he doesn’t want to deal with.
   With some beautiful writing - the woman rides the trains to try and escape her past, though the fog (to which she ascribes unusual properties) always seems to follow her - and a real sense of rawness, this ambiguous tale lingers with the reader for a long time, becoming ever bleaker as it does so.  Smartly written, well characterised and with pain-filled dialogue, this is an excellent exercise in dread that I’d urge you to seek out.

Cabin 33, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
It started with a vampire. As a pre-Twilight impressionable teenage girl, who just happened to like blood and gore, I was a big fan of The Lost Boys, which first got me into vampire books. If you are a long term book fiend, particularly based in the UK, you may remember going to Andromeda Book Shop just to browse, buy, or attend a signing with Terry Pratchett or Clive Barker.
   Imagine, if you will, a rebellious, short-haired teen, on the cusp of womanhood, wandering into this Aladdin's cave of books and going up to the rather grouchy, but lovable Rog Peyton (yeah, he's still grouchy) and mumbling "Martin told me I could get books here."
   And Rog replying, "What do you like?" whilst deep inside thinking 'Oh dear, a teenager, Christ, that'll be Christopher Pike or romance then.'
   So the conversation continued in that vein, pun intended, and Rog introduced me to my first anthology reading experience; The Penguin Book of Vampires (1989) which had just come out.  I read them all, devoured them really, but one story stood out above the rest.
   Cabin 33 by Chelsea Quin Yarbro. Her voice spoke to me.
   Weaving between historical periods, the enigmatic vampire Comte de Saint Germain, is intelligent, heroic, honourable and well, kind of sexy. I absolutely loved what Yarbro did with the vampire and then sought out Hotel Transylvania, the first novel in the series. And I've collected the work of Yarbro ever since.
  So, as I left that bookshop, to return every Saturday and weeknight too, with my part time earnings clasped in scrawny fingers (I was skinny then kids) I discovered a whole new world.
chosen by Theresa Derwin

Don't Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier
I first read Don't Look Now some time around 1970. I remember enjoying it, then forgetting it, mostly, until five years later I saw the movie, reread the story, and discovered the depths in it as a seventeen year old I hadn't spotted in it five years earlier.
It's a masterful feat of storytelling, building from an almost comical, married Brits abroad start to quickly pile on subtle, then not so subtle hints that things are not all that they seem. Our protagonist's journey from concerned husband and his pent up grief at the loss of a child builds into something dark and strange, as if the foreign city itself is conspiring against him.
The final scene, where he faces his grief, and finds the truth, is as shocking in print as it is in film, and that's a testament to the descriptive and narrative powers of De Maurier. It's one of my favorite things, both in print and in film, and I wish I could see, and read, both for the first time all over again.
chosen by William Meikle

Mr Wrong, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Many years ago as a kid of fifteen, I read a story called Mr Wrong by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I had heard of the author, my mum had a row of books by her on the shelf, therefore I decided she had to be boring. But I was wrong. As we sat in class on that warm summer's afternoon I was transported into the life of a lonely young woman trying to find her independence, and sense of self, instead finding fear, torment, death...and worse.
   In the very many intervening years since I read it, only once, Mr Wrong stayed with me, coming back every few years to remind me of the intense sense of discomfort and yes, horror I felt when it was finished. Decades passed, I forgot what it was called and who it was by, but I never forgot the story. And then when I was asked to contribute to this collection, that story came back to me at once, and out of the blue the title and author. I settled down to reread as soon as I could lay my hands on a copy. I was nervous, because too often things I've remembered from my past as things of wonder, turned out to be disappointing. Not in the case of Mr Wrong, it's a perfectly executed precision example of building a sense of foreboding and terror in amongst the most ordinary of worlds and words. Every choice our heroine makes stretches the reader's nerves one more excruciating millimetre, on a perfectly paced rack until right at very last they are shredded and severed.
Both supernatural and brutally real, Mr Wrong is more than just a scary story, it's an enduring one.
chosen by Rowan Coleman

Jasmine and Garlic, by Monica O'Rourke
When Mark invited me to submit a review for this mixtape, I jumped at the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Jasmine & Garlic.  As a man, I cannot fully appreciate the horror of this obstetric nightmare, but if my points of reference are somewhat removed, O’Rourke does her damnedest to bridge that gap. The mother-to-be invokes abject pity, the psychotic doctor demands utter loathing, and tight, suffocating prose creates a palpable atmosphere of dread.  It is a visceral tale, in the literal sense of the word, one that made me cringe, even on repeated readings.
   A Hell of an achievement.
chosen by Kevin Bufton

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman
This is one of my all-time favourite stories and I first read it in high school, where it made a lasting impression. Written in 19th century America as a protest against the treatment of women by the medical community, Gilman was inspired by a doctor who had nearly driven her insane with his “rest cure”, which forbade her from writing and only allowed her very limited mental stimulation. She chose to fictionalise her experience and The Yellow Wallpaper is a kind of worst case version of what she endured. The heroine of the story isn’t as fortunate as Gilman, however, and her descent into madness is utterly chilling. The awful situation has been inflicted on her by her well-meaning but ultimately ignorant “betters” and we imagine that they will never realise or acknowledge their responsibility for her fate. The final line haunts me to this day.
chosen by Thana Niveau

Behind the Yellow Door, by Flavia Richardson
Christine Campbell-Thomson was (along with Charles Birkin) one of the two most important horror anthologists of her age, editing the famous Not at Night series during the 1920s and 1930s. Under her pseudonym of Flavia Richardson she also wrote a number of stories in the Birkin / Maurice Level tradition and Behind the Yellow Door is one of the best. Pretty young Marcia Miles is employed by the Pete Walker-like Mrs Merrill as a secretary. The older woman has a daughter, Olivette, who is beautiful ‘from the waist up’ but has ‘no semblance of beauty below’. In one of those curious malformations beloved of the pulps, Olivette’s legs are pretty much nothing to speak of (literally). Mrs Merrill has been practicing amateur surgery, and the dialogue to go with it. “Think what a fortunate woman you are to be part of such an amazing experiment!” With only Dorcas the maid to hold Marcia down, it can only get even more horrible, but Thomson / Richardson proves herself to be a true Mistress of the conte cruele by giving the reader a damned good kick when they’re already down with the final couple of lines. With no male characters at all this is a true ‘Women In Horror’ story in all respects. You can find it in the First Pan Book of Horror Stories and I advise you to seek out that ending for yourself.
chosen by John Llewellyn Probert

Rusties, by Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu
That's two female writers for the price of one. Eight-foot tall robots guide the traffic in Africa and have done so for about thirty years. Now rusted and sometimes distrusted, pirates dismantle them for parts. This is a story (published in Clarkesworld's October 2016 issue) of how humans come to distrust technology, how we disappoint said technology, and of how a girl turns on a friend because he is different. Despite a dark and heart-breaking ending, there is humour here, and what I took to be a dark science-fiction tale may not be science fiction at all. Apparently, Nigeria does have traffic robots almost like those in the story. I discovered this story at a low and lonely point over the New Year and it drew me out of my darkness while its characters fell into theirs. I highly recommend it.
chosen by Cate Gardner

The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson
There is a quiet brutality to this short story that resonates far beyond its seemingly contemporary setting. It is perhaps for this reason that I find it so terrifying. The pace, like the setting, is sedate - almost pedestrian - and Jackson uses this seemingly innocuous, innocent refrain to lull the reader until she gradually ramps up the sense of foreboding that culminates in an act of shocking barbarity.
The tale is deftly told, by someone who is a master of the craft; evidenced by the quiet questioning of blind tradition and the dangers of mob mentality.
   Those who have enjoyed stories such as Children of the Corn and The Purge will certainly see the influences.  Written in 1948, The Lottery is easily superior to its modern contemporaries.
chosen by Dave Jeffery

The Apple Tree, by Daphne Du Maurier
I first read The Apple Tree, circa 1967 on a wet dinner hour in the school library. I had picked up the ‘The Birds and Other Stories’ (1952) collection, purely because I had seen Hitchcock’s The Birds (illegally – originally X-rated) but it was The Apple Tree that stayed with me. At face value it is a ghost tale, similar to M R James’s Ash Tree, but the horror of The Apple Tree comes not from a violent end but the far more insidious murder of a woman’s spirit. A widower believes that the spirit of his dismal wife, Midge, resides in an apple tree. He had loved his wife, or so he claims, but my empathy quickly shifted from this man reveling in the freedom his widower-hood brings him to the poor departed Midge.  As his guilt grows he attempts to remove the tree one cold, snowy, night and in one final act of defiance Midge serves her ultimate revenge.
chosen by Jan Edwards

The Grey Men, by Laura Mauro
I spent a lot of time mulling over who I should choose for this, should I go a distinguished author from my youth or even an author that might not necessarily be classed as horror?  In the end, I decided the only course of action is to talk about an author whose story I still think about on a regular basis two years after it was published and a story that will probably always be stuck in my head. First published in 2015 in Black Static Magazine this is the story that will go down in history as ground zero for when this author's career gets the well-deserved explosion
   The Grey Men by Laura Mauro is one of those quiet horror stories, where nothing overtly terrifying happens, yet still has the power to genuinely upset a reader.  A wonderfully multilayered story, filled with a deep-rooted sense of melancholic metaphor about the disenfranchisement of the human condition from the modern world and poetic imagery, The Grey Men is a compelling story that has the ability to move even the most cold-hearted of readers.
chosen by Jim Mcleod

Stone Animals, by Kelly Link
About ten years ago, I decided to write a story called Magic for Beginners. I didn't know what kind of a story it would be, or how I'd write it, but I had that great title. When I found out that Kelly Link had already written a whole collection with that great title, I thought it was a weird enough coincidence that I needed to buy the book right away. And in that book I found Stone Animals. It's the story of a family who move upstate into a haunted house. So far, so much suburban psychological realism, but Link's evocation of character is so masterful, her eye for detail so eccentric, she transforms and transcends every trope of the genre. The family seem to be fairly functional, but both husband and wife are fundamentally dishonest and afraid, and as the haunting progresses, it begins to expose the psychological distance between them. Meanwhile, the children are drawn into the haunting in their own childlike ways. Gradually, the reality is leached out of everything, leaving the characters dislocated, dissociated, and dreaming. This story taught me to discard what I had thought of as 'the rules' of writing, especially the conventions of genre. Kelly Link is an extraordinary writer and Stone Animals proves she can do absolutely anything.
chosen by Georgina Bruce

The Scent of Elder Flowers, by Pauline E. Dungate 
Picking a favourite short story is hard work for my swiss cheese memory - this was published in Narrow Houses paperback edition in 1993 and is a stand out one for many reasons. The premise of it centres on the old wives’ country tales of not bringing hawthorns and elder flowers inside the house, because you let in evil with you. This simple idea, mixed with a young girl whose mother remarries and has another child - and the jealousy and deaths that follow - brings about the slow destruction of the new family.
chosen by Peter Mark May

The Tooth Collector, by Lindsey Goddard
I was first introduced to Lindsey Beth Goddard’s work through a novel I was given to review for Horror Novel Reviews. I was quite taken by her voice, decided to seek out more of her work and found some really good ones included in several anthologies. My favorite, though is The Tooth Collector which is also the title of her own collection of short stories.
   I like her ability to take something as simple as a childhood fantasy figure and come up with a macabre little tale that puts a new twist on the tooth fairy. What starts off with a little girl losing a tooth turns nightmarish rather quickly. Oh, what a mother wouldn’t do to have her child back!
chosen by Paula Limbaugh

Objects In Dreams May Be Closer Than They Appear, by Lisa Tuttle
The most dull, obvious way to define a haunted house would be to say it’s one that contains a ghost. But that’s boringly literal; haunted house stories are scary because they show us that our homes, the place where we should feel at our safest, might turn out to be some kind of trap.
   Lisa Tuttle’s brilliant, chilling story Objects in Dreams May be Closer Than They Appear takes this idea one step further: maybe even our desire for a home is dangerous. People talk about finding their ‘dream house’, and the one in Tuttle’s story might be just that. At the start of the story the house is barely seen - a young couple house-hunting glimpse it like a mirage on the horizon. But they can’t find the road that leads to it.
   They don't find a route to that house - to their dream, if you like. The bulk of the story is set years later, after the breakup of their relationship in the thoroughly normal, non-dreamlike house that they did end up living in. But one day the couple reunite and finally find a way to the house that they saw. And of course, they go inside…
   The trap springs shut, and it’s an utterly compelling and unnerving one which I won't spoil here. But it is note-perfect, Tuttle managing to make it both incredibly disturbing and a perfect demonstration of how old dreams can curdle and warp.
chosen by James Everington

Angels’ Moon, by Kathe Koja
Hunting for a read, I snatched The Ultimate Werewolf off a bargain shelf and read Angels’ Moon, where Kathe Koja tells the story of Ethan, a poet/homeless guy/sometimes psych patient who might be a werewolf.  Or an angel.  He’s still working it out.
   Ethan hunts for words he once had when he was a poet.  He reduces a therapist who hunts him to layers of images and associations because of the loss of words and as Ethan loses himself in confusion, the language of the story unravels, leaving the reader caught in the spaces between.
chosen by Kim Talbot Hoelzli 

Fabulous Beasts, by Priya Sharma
Priya Sharma is a writer everyone should be reading having appeared in a number of ‘Best of’ anthologies. I was fortunate to be one of the judges for the BFS short story category in 2016 where Fabulous Beasts was a very worthy winner of the award against some stiff competition. The story is a horror novelette about a strange woman living in luxury with her lover, but irrevocably tied to her childhood of deprivation and dark secrets in northwest England. The woman recalls the unravelling of the family upon her uncle’s release from prison. This story really drew me in from the start and unfolds into a dark, disturbed tale which makes the extraordinary seem natural. Be warned it does deal with some difficult topics.
chosen by Phil Sloman

The Clinic, by Alex White
I was eight years old when I first read this story, it was 2am and I was huddled on the cold landing floor reading it by the bathroom light, because it was the only place that my parents couldn’t see me. As a child I was allowed to read anything I wanted (except for my parent’s Pan Books of Horror), and when my aunty found out I was reading them anyway, she passed on these words of wisdom, “At least don’t read those horrible stories by Alex White. They give me nightmares”.
   The story in itself is quite simply a rewriting of the Cinderella story, but is far darker and gory than either the Perrault or Grimm tales (and they are scary enough). It also has the most disturbing and distressing last lines of any horror story I have ever read, and yes the story did give me nightmares.
chosen by Penny Jones

Near Zennor, by Elizabeth Hand
At one point in Elizabeth Hand’s Near Zennor, Jeffrey, a man mourning his wife of almost thirty years, who he’s recently lost to a brain aneurysm, pores over an Ordnance Survey map of an isolated stretch of the Cornish coastline, seeking a fogou. To Jeffrey the map appears to be covered with a ‘seemingly random network of lines,’ ‘like crazing on a piece of old pottery.’ The host of the bed and breakfast Jeffrey is staying at explains that the tracings are field systems, stone walls, and helps Jeffrey pinpoint the ancient structure. But later, out in the terrain, amid bogs and bramble, trying to keep the map from being torn from his hands by gusts of wind, he struggles to find any ‘affinity between the fields around him and the crazed pattern on the page.’ So he gives up, puts the map back into his pocket, and trudges on, trusting to instinct.
  Jeffrey does in the end stumble upon the fogou and finds the things that await him within, but his difficulties reading the ordnance survey encapsulate in miniature how this intricately constructed, powerfully eerie tale works: the events of its plot seem from time to time to coalesce into something that has shape, that makes sense, but when you scrutinise that shape, the plot reverts to mere crazed patterns on the page. It’s an incredible feat that Elizabeth Hand pulls off, and Near Zennor is a potent story; it evokes disorientation and dread, and is an affecting and harrowing meditation on grief, loss, and the inexplicable. It lodges itself in the brain and is impossible to dig out.
chosen by Timothy Jarvis

The Cat Jumps, by Elizabeth Bowen
Harold and Jocelyn Wright are a perfectly modern couple. Their minds are bright and well-lit places, devoid of shadows or any vestiges of the supernatural. But when they move into Rose Hill, site of the infamous Bentley murder, their ordered existence begins to dissipate. Their houseguest Muriel tells an unwilling Jocelyn the terrible narrative of the protracted murder and dismemberment of her predecessor by her husband’s namesake, Harold Bentley. The story is all the more effective for the way that Muriel tells it; a simple description tempered with significant, horrid pauses:
   ‘Then she saw the…the state of the hall. He went upstairs after Mrs. Bentley saying “Lucinda!” He looked in room after room, whistling; then he said “Here we are”, and shut a door after him.
The maid fainted. When she came to it was still going on upstairs…Harold Bentley had locked all the garden doors; there were locks even on the French windows. The maid couldn’t get out. Everything she touched was…sticky.’
   But just as Jocelyn experiences true fear triggered by the awful history of the house, Harold feels the boundaries of self dissolve; his very identity falters and becomes uncertain…
   I won’t spoil the story by dissecting it completely. Let’s just say that by the end of the story the Wrights have experienced true terror in its primal state. And their antiseptic, rational world may never (one suspects) be the same.
   The Cat Jumps accomplishes the strange feat of mixing social satire with genuine terror.  It has the caustic quality of Saki, but the vertiginous, nightmarish feel of Shirley Jackson.  I read it first in the otherwise sober The Penguin Book of Irish Short Stories aged twelve or so, and it disturbed my sleep. Year later, it’s still queerly effective. Try it.
chosen by Tracy Fahey

Senbazuru, by V H Leslie
Senbazuru, a relatively short piece about the wife of a British diplomat in the pre-bomb city of Nagasaki, is the perfect introduction to the work of V H Leslie. Showcasing her strong research, which never feels over-indulgent whilst at the same time appearing comprehensive, there is just enough to place the story within its historical setting. The story also displays Leslie’s ability to balance the weird with the everyday so that the reader’s ability to engage with the story is never compromised. The ambiguity of the protagonist’s situation further unsettles the reader, ultimately providing a story you will want to re-read to fully appreciate the writer’s skill.  More of her engrossing short fiction can be found in the collection Skein and Bone from Undertow Publications and for fans of longer fiction the short novel Bodies of Water is available from Salt Publishing.
chosen by Ross Warren

The Company Of Wolves, by Angela Carter
'...but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat.'
In my last year of secondary school, my English teacher - noting my love for Stephen King and other macabre works of literature - recommended I read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. At that time I fancied myself as something of a rebel and completely disregarded her advice, which meant that I discovered Angela Carter for the first time at university. As soon as I put down The Bloody Chamber I realised just how badly I'd missed out in not having read her work earlier.
   The Company of Wolves - a riff on the Little Red Riding Hood story - is one of my favourite stories in the collection. Like my other favourite, The Tiger's Bride, it involves the subversion of a particularly insidious fairytale trope: the chaste, virginal girl who falls victim to a beast. It's a powerful message to encounter as a teenage girl; the protagonist's total control over her own sexuality is what saves her from the wolf. Fairytales condition us to fear the beast, the forceful dominance of his masculine sexuality; they teach us that to remain pure and chaste is the ideal, but in her protagonist's shameless assertion of her own desire Carter turns this completely on its head. Despite the inherited 'wisdom' of the townsfolk she decides instead to trust the wolf, to indulge her own desire, and it is this which not only saves her life, but humbles the beast.

The Terrapin, by Patricia Highsmith
Graham Greene described Patricia Highsmith as “the poet of apprehension” and The Terrapin (originally published in 1963 and included in her debut collection Eleven) is an absolute masterpiece of apprehension.
   Victor, a 10 year old boy, lives with his divorced mother in a New York apartment. When she brings home a live turtle he is delighted because he believes she has brought him a pet; however his mother has ideas of a more culinary nature. Once he realises what her intentions are, Victor exacts an extreme form of revenge.
   Highsmith had a particularly difficult relationship with her own mother, which lends The Terrapin even more emotional weight than the prose suggests. Whilst the ending is shocking, it’s the build-up that carries an almost overwhelming sense of foreboding and suspense. Highsmith was brilliant at creating realistically cruel characters, and here we get an example of her short story craft at its finest.
chosen by Stephen Bacon

Patient Zero, by Tananarive Due
I’ve always been a big fan of apocalypse stories – and while the disasters themselves can be interesting, it’s how people survive and where they go in the aftermath that I’ve always found most fascinating.
   Patient Zero, which I first encountered in Lightspeed magazine way back in 2010 and recently rediscovered in Due’s (highly recommended) collection Ghost Summer: Stories, is a heartbreaking tale of the young survivor of a mysterious new virus.  There is a growing sense of quiet dread that permeates the story as, one by one, the adults disappear from the boy’s world, and he doesn’t fully understand the possible ramifications of the failing facility he is trapped in.  The reader, however, can imagine a great many threats beyond the initial virus, but even so, there remains a bittersweet hope at the end that keeps you considering what might happen next.
chosen by Jenny Barber

Guinea Pig Girl, by Thana Niveau
I discovered this in what is probably the best way to discover a story – word of mouth. I was already familiar with Niveau’s work, had the wonderful From Hell to Eternity (short-listed for a British Fantasy Award), but here was a story I hadn’t read. By all accounts, that needed to be fixed. Originally published in The Tenth Black Book of Horror, it also appeared in Best British Horror 2014.
   Alex is obsessed with Yuki, a J-Horror actress, and comes to find himself ‘haunted’ by her. The story offers comment on the genre and the roles played by gender, but it’s by no means a polemic. Yuki’s role is to suffer, and to entertain in her suffering, even arouse. Alex is certainly aroused but claims to feel ashamed. Claims, in fact, that it is Yuki’s fault for making him feel this way. He watches (and so do we) as she is repeatedly tortured, only for her to torture him in return….
   To say more is to spoil the story.
   Guinea Pig Girl is about exploitation, but isn’t exploitative. It’s about the pleasures of horror and all the complexity involved in its enjoyment. It’s about desire, and obsession, and possession (both in the supernatural sense and as object). And it’s a damned good story.
chosen by Ray Cluley

Wolf Alice, by Angela Carter
I think I must choose this, from her The Bloody Chamber collection, which I discovered when researching for my MA. I love it not because it’s the heart-warming story of a young woman helping a gruesome old man come back to life − that’s a fairy tale, you know that - but because it’s a story of self-discovery. Alice never returns to being “human” − she’s a lost child brought up by wolves and found “in the wolf’s den beside the bullet-riddled corpse of her foster mother, she was no more than a little brown scrap so snarled in her own brown hair they did not, at first, think she was a child but a cub” − but because she muddles her way through things that are foreign to her, finds her own path and obeys her instincts. There are all of Carter’s trademark bold and baroque descriptions, unapologetic and very female, but I think I love most the final paragraph for its sheer magic: “As she continued her ministrations, this glass, with infinite slowness, yielded to the reflexive strength of its own material construction. Little by little, there appeared within it, like the image on photographic paper that emerges, first, a formless web of tracery, the prey caught in its own fishing net, then in firmer yet still shadowed outline until at last as vivid as real life itself, as if brought into being by her soft, moist, gentle tongue, finally, the face of the Duke.
chosen by Angela Slatter

Skein And Bone, by V. H. Leslie
The title story of V.H. Leslie's collection Skein and Bone is a perfectly realized ghost story, the tale of two sisters travelling together in France with unspoken tensions bubbling beneath the surface of their already-cool relationship. They decide to get off the train to explore a small village and a chateau that they've read about in their guidebook, yet on arrival, both the chateau and the town itself appear to be deserted - at first. I love the setup and the slow, unsettling buildup of the story that makes its grisly payoff all the more shocking. It's work like this that has me convinced Leslie has the potential to be a major writer both in and out of the genre.
chosen by Lynda E. Rucker

When Charlie Sleeps, by Laura Mauro
The first time I read When Charlie Sleeps by Laura Mauro was akin to being struck by lightning. The story gripped me right from the get-go and its premise - a creature in a bath tub whose umbilical cord is at one with the plughole and it happens to control the City of London with its moods - is wholly original and left me shaking with excitement when I had finished it.
   This was the first time I had read anything by Laura, and I was more than happy when she accepted my offer of reprinting the tale in Best British Horror 2014. Laura has a brilliant voice, is a very powerful storyteller and I really hope one day that she can somehow evolve Charlie’s story into a novella or even novel – it could be one of the most unsettling novels you would ever read.
chosen by Johnny Mains

Tarot, by Nick Browne
This is about a tarot card reader who has an unusual encounter with a customer one hot, summer’s afternoon, which I stumbled across in an anthology called Ghosts Electric.  Although the story is only eight pages long, I felt like I was in the booth with them, listening in, an unseen bystander, as the story within the story unfolded. Outside was hot and I felt the temperature rising as I sat there coming to the same conclusions as the psychic but then, on the very last page, everything shifts and nothing was as it seemed. I love it when an author has the ability to lead you into a particular way of thinking without making it obvious, just so that they can blindside you with something you weren’t expecting. That “How didn’t I see that before?” moment is one I really enjoy if it’s done well. Although this isn’t a horror story in the usual sense of the genre, it still made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and certainly creeped me out as I put the book down, switched off my light and snuggled down under my duvet hoping for sweet dreams!
chosen by Neats Wilson

In Vermis Veritas, by Poppy Z. Brite
Poppy Z. Brite writes visceral and sensual prose like no one else I've ever read, but always in search of beauty and pleasure. Her work transcends genre, as it transcends bodily putrefaction/disgust. It finds beauty even in the darkest places, and is so sensually alive, it can be overwhelming... and overwhelmingly disturbing. Her novel, Exquisite Corpse, about the love story between two gay, cannibalistic serial killers, lost her a contract with Penguin UK.
   In Vermis Veritas (from the collection Self-Made Man), opens with a quote from the painter Francis Bacon. It is narrated by a maggot in a slaughter house, written in eloquent prose that paints as vividly as Bacon ever did, and it blew my mind when I first read it.  It is an exquisite short story about the beauty of physical decay, narrated by a 'connoisseur of mortality', and is required reading for any 'connoisseur' of genre writing.
   Poppy would later undergo gender reassignment, to become Billy Martin. I don't know the borders or strictures of Women In Horror Month, so it's possible (given the reactionary elements of life online) that some might think my choice here somehow doesn't fit...
   Fuck 'em.
   Trangression was Poppy's stock in trade. ‎
chosen by Neil Snowdon

Disturb Not My Slumbering Fair, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved going to the bookstore, looking for a scary cover, and finding story after story inside. One book that has been on my shelf for years is The Monster Book of Monsters: 50 Terrifying Tales. There are a lot of gems in this one, but Disturb Not My Slumbering Fair stole my heart with that lovely first line: “It was already Thursday when Diedre left her grave.” The smell of the grave clung to every page.  It may have been the only story in that book that was written by a woman, but Diedre’s hunger was unrelenting, and her story endures.
chosen by Marianne Halbert

Paskutinis Illuzia (The Last Illusion), by Damien Angelica Walters
I read this as part of the excellent 2014 collection Sing Me Your Scars on a recommendation from the GingeFather himself, Jim Mcleod. The whole collection is fantastic and highly recommended, but The Last Illusion stands out for it’s extraordinary blend of pathos and terror. It’s the nightmare of every parent made flesh, and the horrors, of oppression and arbitrary state violence and control, are all the more visceral for their real world grounding. There’s just enough love and brightness in the mix to totally break your heart. Spectacular. I wish I’d written it.
chosen by Kit Power

The Lost Ghost, by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman
I can’t remember the first time I read this story, but over the years I’ve come across it here and there, and I included it in the TOC for Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women.  It’s quite a gentle story, two women chatting over their embroidery and crochet while one relates the time she purports to have met a ghost – and yet it’s also quite chilling. The tale within the tale is one of abandonment and loss, a little phantom girl who likes to help around the house, but is always looking for her mother. The truth of what happened to her, and what she finds at the end of the story, is tragic – and definitely tugs at the heart strings.
chosen by Marie O’Regan 

Reasons I Hate My Big Sister, by Gwendolyn Kiste
Reasons I love Reasons I hate my big sister
#17 Stories have layers.
#29 Great stories don’t reveal everything to the reader in a single serving. There is a sense of another tale, another meaning. A reason to go back and read the story again. To understand everything. And then to go back again. And again.
#48 Great stories go beyond the words into the ideas that underpin the story. I have three big sisters; lines such as I have no name, no identity of my own. I’m just “Elise’s little sister.” Without her, I don’t exist. resonate with someone who went through his school years in the footsteps of his elder sisters. It’s an observation. A truth. Great writing is about highlighting those truths.
#86 Reasons I hate my big sister lives in the mind long after reading. There is a stoicism to the narrator’s words which is beautiful and terrifying. It draws you in and holds you. Holds you tight. Holds you forever.
chosen by Richard Farren Barber

Open Your Window, Golden Hair, by Tanith Lee
Ever since I was introduced to Angela Carter as a teenager, retellings of fairy tales have captured my imagination, so the anthology Fearie Tales was just like all my dreams come true and while there are plenty of good stories to engage a reader, this one stayed with me in particular.  Little touches like only referring to the protagonist by his surname of “Brown” and the rather old-fashioned prose really help give it an immediate sense of time and place and while it's based on Rapunzel’s tale, Lee manages to take every aspect and twist it into something far more sinister. We learn that the occupant of the tower was not a beautiful girl, but a creature “bred... by force on a human woman”. In the original tale, the mother’s undoing is her craving for the herb called Rapunzel, but here “special liquids and herbs of power” are force-fed to the pregnant woman. There is no golden hair for a prince to climb, but instead a yellow creeper covers the tower walls; up close it has a radiant golden hue and a sweet smell. But touching it is fatal...
   In ten short pages, we follow Brown’s journey from curiosity to unconscious obsession and finally realisation. And Lee’s mastery of the short story ensures that his struggles will stay with you long after you’ve moved onto another tale.
chosen by Charlotte Bond

The Strawberry Tree, by Ruth Rendell
Mark asked me to write about a favourite horror story by a woman. Some might say that my choice meets only 50% of the guidelines, asking whether this even is a horror story. After all, nothing particularly gruesome occurs. In fact, the tale could even pass for mainstream fiction, with its wistful exploration of an ageing woman’s troubled past and the strange characters who invade her present. The story (a novella) relates how, many years earlier, Petra’s brother fell in love with the beautiful Rosaria during a family holiday in Majorca. Then they both disappear, and Petra’s parents seek desperately to find them – but to no avail. Much later, after the deaths of her parents, Petra inherits a fortune and returns to the Mediterranean island where this disappearance occurred when she was a child. Here she chances upon two people claiming to be her brother and his wife, but is it really them? Rendell explores Petra’s emotional involvement with this couple in an increasingly sinister way, using the story’s titular strawberry tree and its bogus fruit as a telling metaphor. In a lesser writer’s hands, the tale would be just about whether the newcomers are genuine, but in Rendell’s it becomes so much more that: a truly unsettling investigation into interpersonal relationships and questions of authenticity and whether that even matters to those who, despite material comforts, are most vulnerable in the world. The horror exists in the implications of Petra’s decision at the end of this truly unsettling work. It’s haunted me for over 20 years, ever since I first read it. There’s a TV version, but avoid that; the real dark stuff occurs inside Petra’s head, in the nebulous flux where inadequate memory blends with irrepressible desire.
chosen by Gary Fry

Red As Blood, by Tanith Lee
Fairy tales have always been steeped in horror, so I think it's right to recognise those who first lifted the shears to prune that gnarled old tree into new shapes. Angela Carter's seminal collection, The Bloody Chamber (1979), often comes to mind when we think about chilling re-tellings, but that same year Tanith Lee's Red as Blood, her version of Snow White, was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
   It quickly earned attention (and a nomination for a Nebula Award), and became part of the title of Lee's 1983 collection of fairy tales channelled through her dark, poetic sensibility: Red As Blood, Or, Tales from the Sisters Grimmer.
   Red As Blood still stands out as a gorgeous, deadly recasting of the story, in which it is the young, vampiric Bianca who is the treacherous foe from the outset.
'There stood a little girl child, nearly seven years of age. Her black hair hung to her ankles, her skin was white as snow. Her mouth was red as blood, and she smiled with it.'
   But what's interesting is that Lee does not cast the stepmother - referred to as the Witch Queen - as automatically 'good' in opposition. Knowledgeable women are powerful and complex in Lee's stories. Both girl and woman employ occult powers, and both are willing to manipulate and sacrifice to carry out their will.  For instance Bianca's summoned 'dwarves' are startling:
'Through the forest, into the clearing, pushed seven warped, misshapen, hunched-over, stunted things. Woody-black mossy fur, woody-black bald masks. Eyes like glittering cracks, mouths like moist caverns. Lichen beards. Fingers of twiggy gristle. Grinning. Kneeling. Faces pressed to the earth.'
   This is a fine example of Lee's lush, evocative prose which was always utilised at its best for twisted dark fantasy stories.
   This Snow White pivots differently at the end than most variations of the story, with the saviour Prince being part of a glorious redemptive spell which cancels evil - its conjuror is canny and maternal.  This final trick is aided by Lee's sublime, artful writing which elevates this fairy tale into a story of dreadful wonder.
chosen by Maura McHugh


My thanks to all the contributors!

17 comments:

  1. A really good selection of stories - NEAR ZENNOR, for nobody who has read it is a MUST read. An invincible, perfect story.

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    1. Great stuff - and thanks for your contribution too mate!

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    2. Yes, I had considered writing about that too.

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  2. It's quite stunning that Caitlín R. Kiernan isn't on this list.

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    1. I'm not sure I'd say "quite stunning", it's simply that nobody who contributed thought her work was better than the choice they made.

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    2. I wouldn't even say that. I didn't choose the best story I've ever read (there isn't one!), I just chose something that had really impressed me that I wanted to draw more attention to. I've sung Caitlin's praises elsewhere many times (and once wrote a whole piece on The Red Tree for WiHM a few years ago--she's one of my favorite writers, hands down). This is supposed to be an idiosyncratic list of recommendations, not a definitive best-of. You know, like a mixtape!

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    3. Be funny if 'unknown' was Caitlin... ;)

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    4. It would be funny (but it isn't her).

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  3. It could also be considered stunning that there's nothing by Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O'Connor, Livia Llewellyn, Margo Lanagan, Lynda Rucker, Angela Slatter, Kaaron Warren., etc. All people whose work I considered writing about, including Caitlin R. Kiernan. What this illustrates is that there are way too many talented women out there.

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  4. Wonderful list. Thanks very much for posting. Cheers!

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  5. Thanks again for including me in this project, Mark. I've loved reading everyone's answers. I wanted to include THE DAPH as I like to call her as she was a formative part of my reading landscape. She was one of my gateway drugs.

    Thanks also to Phil Sloman for including me on the list. Your cheque's in the post.

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    1. Thank you for being involved, Priya - and for the leading the charge, as usual! :)

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