On the blog today, I have Johonny Compton, whose short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Arkham Tales, Pseudopod, and From the Asylum. He's written an essay on two of his favorite dark fiction stories penned by female authors.
There are a number of magnificent female horror writers working today: Sarah Langan, Sarah Pinborough, Mira Grant, Tananarive Due... hell, I'd be here all day writing a comprehensive list. But for Women in Horror month, I wanted to write about two stories penned by Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor that continue to influence my perspective on the horror genre. (Note: there will be spoilers.)
One of the prevailing themes I look for in fiction is control. Action-adventure stories often feature protagonists who exhibit enough control over their fate to create a happy ending. Love stories often explore how much (or how little) control people have over who they love, who loves them back, and how relationships develop. Horror is often about the lack of control you have over whether you live or die. It
presents illusions of control and abuses of control by malevolent or (perhaps worse) indifferent forces that threaten the lives of innocents. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “The Life You Save May be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor explore several of the aspects of control you might expect to see in a horror story.
“The Lottery” has an ending that is legendary and horrific, but there is more to the story that makes it frightening. The town’s annual lottery is treated as though it were some sentient force of the cosmos that must be appeased. A town elder cites a local adage, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” And yet there is discussion of other towns that have stopped holding the lottery, with no mention that said towns have endured consequential hardships. The story opens on a scene that suggests the land is fertile and lush even a full year removed from the previous lottery. Whatever nameless deity or force the lottery is intended to appease, it's only exerting an illusion of control.
The abuse of control actually comes from the townspeople themselves, in an interesting, ignorant and terrifying way. While many readers cite the story as a criticism of blind traditionalism, the townspeople have already broken several traditions of the ritual. Over the years they've gone from wood chips to slips of paper, gotten rid of the traditional chant and dropped the salute. It's easy to picture them as barbarous zealots, but by the time they get around to murdering one of their own they actually go about the entire process with an impatient orderliness. They start early so that everyone who didn’t die a stony death can “get home for noon dinner.”
Different people in town repeatedly talk about hurrying up so they can get the ritual over with. Once upon a time, people in this town may have genuinely been passionate acolytes, but at the time of the story they're more like punch-clock murderers who set their own hours. They have all the control, but they've convinced themselves otherwise. It's as if they've successfully conducted a version of the Milgram Experiment on themselves so that they may go back to their normal lives, blameless in their own minds.
The same refusal of accountability displayed by the townspeople in “The Lottery” is part of what makes the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” deplorable. “The Life You Save...” isn't as overtly horrifying as “The Lottery.” Most people probably wouldn't even consider it a horror story. Admittedly, I tend to have a broader definition of horror than most. As a Southern Gotchic writer, O'Connor's ventures into things simultaneously quotidian and grotesque feel like precursors for the kind of horror tales Joyce Carol Oates would come to master. Stories that cultivate a sustained sense of unease and dread.
The character of Tom Shiftlet is part of a tireless horror tradition of untrustworthy and scary faux-preachers. In comparison to the likes of Reverend Harry Powell or Kane from Poltergiest II, his menace is mundane, but no less present. While Shiftlet’s sermonizing isn’t explicitly religious, he still comes to Lucynell Carter's farm eager to proselytize his personal philosophy. He speaks of a world going rotten, a world where an innocent woman is impossible to find. Before he introduces himself he swings out his arms while taking in the sunset, letting his figure take the shape of a “crooked cross.” He refers to himself as a carpenter. He has fooled himself into believing he is not only a decent man, but one of few remaining in the world.
Lucynell Carter, who has a daughter of the same name, doesn't seem to be stupid enough to completely fall for Shiftlet's cheap words. But she is “(R)avenous for a son-in-law.”. Her daughter is a thirty-year-old invalid who literally cannot speak for herself, and her mother sees Shiftlet as a potential suitor that she can marry the girl off to. After he’s proven himself useful by doing handiwork around the house, of course.
It’s easy to underestimate Shiftlet as nothing more than an amateur con man. He talks Lucynell Carter into rewarding him with a car and some money for a honeymoon, while she offloads her daughter onto him. From her point of view, this is a fair barter. She doesn’t imagine that such a feeble-looking and transparent man would have it in him to abandon a helpless deaf-mute girl a hundred miles from home inside a diner while she is asleep. This is the story’s bleakest moment, when it’s petty, vicious horror pricks your skin. This is when all the elements of control at play in a horror story come to a head. Younger Lucynell is the powerless victim whose future and well-being are, at best, left in serious doubt (imagine when she wakes up in this strange place with no familiar faces in sight, and zero capability to communicate where she’s from or what’s happened to her). The elder Lucynell only had an illusion of control. Shiftlet abuses his ability to control the circumstances, then divorces himself from accountability for actions that could qualify him as a sociopath.
However, the story gives us one last gem to consider and be afraid of. Shiftlet drives off, his mood sour though he doesn’t seem terribly remorseful. The weather looks to worsen and Shiftlet decides to pick up a hitchhiker in what appears to be a random act of kindness. When he begins to wax sentimental over his saintly mother, however, the young man he’s picked up insults him and leaps out of the moving vehicle like he’s escaping the devil. It’s as if the hitchhiker can sense the deeper evil that motivates Shiftlet’s actions.
The environment seems to sense it as well. When Shiftlet calls upon God to wash the slime off of the earth, the nearby storm cloud descends and unleashes an exaggerated torrent, with rain drops “like tin can tops” beating down on the vehicle. This appears to go beyond symbolism. It would seem that the heavens have answered Shiftlet’s oblivious prayer by attempting to wash him away. And yet, the final line of the story says that he races the storm into Mobile, Alabama. He is reaching his destination. There’s no indication that Shiftlet’s progress is impeded, much less that he’s in danger of divine retribution. If this was an EC Comics horror story, he would have driven off a washed out bridge and drowned in a preternaturally swift flood (it’s even set up perfectly by the road signs that feature a title-drop). In this story, however, wrathful providence is ultimately impotent. Instead of featuring or suggesting the existence of an evil, nigh-unstoppable supernatural force, as is common in horror fiction, “The Life You Save” suggests a (possibly) benevolent, (certainly) vengeful supernatural force that can’t even force a single despicable wretch off the road. In the end, Shiftlet remains the sole controller of his immediate world.
I read these stories when I was much younger and remain an admirer. They provide a perspective on horror that is not frequently seen. But this is only a small example of what female horror authors have contributed. They are, of course, as varied as male horror authors. There are those that write more graphically gruesome stories, those that delve into psychological terror, those that write of monsters, those that write of serial killers. If for some unbelievable reason, you’re a horror fan who has never treated yourself to a story written by a female author, there’s never any time better than the present to rectify that situation. And to all the talented women of horror out there, thank you.