The Women of Horror Literature - Jessica Lilien - The Author's Own Words
|Jessica Lilien: "Come on in. Everybody's welcome."|
"Fed", Jessica's story in Night Terrors III from Blood Bound Books, deals with the fact that sometimes, women don't want to have babies. I personally have never wanted children, so I can really sympathize with the narrator...and then I feel guilty for doing so. I think Jessica really captures the social requirements and expectations versus how some women truly feel about reproducing...and it is haunting. Thanks for making me squirm, Jessica!
Jessica Lilien has also had work published in Meridian (winner of the 2016 Meridian Editor’s Prize), the Chattahoochee Review (nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize), LUMINA Journal (one of the winners of the 2013 Lumina Fiction Contest, judged by George Saunders), Clackamas Literary Review, and Columbia Journal online, among other places. Learn more at jessicalilien.com.
When I was little, I was a consumer of horror partially just because eight-year-old me thought it was scandalous or grown-up or impressive, I think. It got the most reaction out of adults: they were impressed that I was lugging around 400-page Stephen King novels, or they didn’t believe I could really understand Poe (I’m sure I didn’t), or they thought the cheap pulpy trash novels I asked my parents to buy me at garage sales were too scary or too gross for me. So it was both my urge to be praised and petted for being an advanced reader, and also my urge to be thought terribly shocking and rebellious, that made me a fan of that kind of writing. When I started writing myself, that was just what I loved best and knew best, and so that’s what tends to come out in my stories.
I think that subversive thing I got out of it when I was little is something I still like about it now. People tend to think that horror writing, or most genre writing, isn’t very smart. But it’s obviously a format that lends itself to big metaphors, and to expressing worries about things like violence and disease and sex and mortality. It can address these big meaty topics, and being able to slip all that in there under cover of, you know, sea monsters and werewolves and haunted houses and stuff - that little bit of subversion is fun to play with.
Q2. What type of horror is your favorite and why? Do you write a lot of it, or do you write in various subgenres, such as romantic horror, bizarro, splatterpunk, supernatural, science fiction, etc.?
I think I write in a lot of different genres - or at least I try to. I like a lot of different genres, and I try to write things that I want to read. There are definitely certain things I come back to again and again, though. I lean pretty heavily into sci-fi, but I wouldn’t want to have to try to separate out where one of those genres ends and the other begins. I love ghost stories. Ghosts can be anything. You can tell any story as a ghost story.
One of the horror genres I tend to find myself accidentally writing a lot of is body horror. It’s just flat-out fun to write, first of all: that excellent frisson that you get when you’re describing horrible things with beautiful language. My writing usually tends toward conversational and plain, so it’s fun to have an excuse to really slather on the metaphor, and body horror is my outlet for that. But in addition to being fun, it’s also one of the things that scares me the most, and I think a lot of that has to do with being embodied as a woman. Women’s bodies are fucking gory. They do things that are scary to other people, and also sometimes to the person inside that body. All that blood, obviously, that women are not only forced to get comfortable with, but that society wants us to keep a secret. And the things women do to their own bodies - starving them and twisting them up into new shapes and dyeing them and burning them and paying other people to cut them up. And then there’s this thing where some women actually make a whole other person right inside them! And then they feed it with their body! That’s horrible! It’s horrible and I can’t fathom why anyone does it, but wow, people sure do it a lot.
Honestly, the biggest thing I struggle with, genre-wise, is a push-pull between “genre” (like, as a whole) and “literary.” I love both, I love to read both, I love to write both, and I especially love the stuff that manages to be both at the same time, in whatever percentages. I like submitting stories to both horror-specific genre outlets and to the literary journals, and just seeing where they end up. To be fair, I haven’t been too often surprised by any of those results yet, but...someday I’m going to get that vagina-cannibal-monster story into Granta, or the too-clever modernisty meditation on capitalism into, you know, Terrifying Oozy Scare Monsters Quarterly.
Q3. What is your opinion on women in the horror genre? Do you think WiHM is necessary and helpful, or can it create a rift by singling out one type of writer?
This sort of feels like asking female comedians if they think women are funny. I love chicks in horror! There should be more chicks writing horror! I also think there should be more people of other genders writing horror and more people of color writing horror and more people of all sorts of types writing horror, in order to more accurately reflect the readers that already exist - or the ones that could become fans, if they thought it was a genre that was for them. And it’s interesting especially in a genre like horror, where women and people of color and immigrants and queer people and other underrepresented minorities maaaaaaybe have different kinds of things to fear. Diversity in general is always a good thing, but especially here, there are just so many reasons - so many benefits to the writers and the readers and the publishers - to increase representation across the board.
Yadda yadda soapbox, I guess, but it’s purely out of selfishness: I want to read the kind of horror that underrepresented writers write, so I want those writers to get published.
And if one of the ways to bring underrepresented writers to people’s attention is through something like Women in Horror Month, that’s fucking great. I’m always grateful to have new writers that I might not have otherwise accidentally stumbled across pointed out to me.
Q4. What do you think the future will be within the horror genre, both in general and specific to women? Do you think WiHM will help with that future?
Horror (or romance, or comedy) gets presented in different ways over time, but it’s kind of always the same story, right? Good-looking people want to kiss each other, and clumsy people fall down and make faces, and monsters and diseases and pain and loneliness are coming for you. Maybe we’ll tell those stories in AR apps, and maybe more women will tell those stories, and maybe it’s going to be clumsy personal-helper robots falling down. But however it’s presented, the future of horror is going to still be about finding that universal sore spot and then poking sticks at it. That predictability is part of why people are genre fans.
Q5. Are there any women in the horror entertainment area that you have looked to for guidance? Including authors, actresses, screenwriters, directors, wherever you find inspiration!
I’ve learned the importance of having great woman mentors in your life. I don’t have that kind of relationship yet with anyone working in horror. (But like, call me, guyz.) But, though I don’t know her, one of the biggest influences on my writing has been Ellen Datlow. Her collections - especially her Best Horror of the Year anthologies - have introduced me to so many writers, and so many books, and so many journals and magazines and websites and other outlets. The “Summation” chapter at the beginning of each of those volumes is ridiculously invaluable, as both a reader and a writer. And I love that she holds herself accountable enough to include a note about how many of the writers in each Best of were male or female or from what countries. (It would be awesome if she were even more intersectional than that - but that’s true for all of us.)
Q6. Do you have a favorite female character in the horror genre, and what about this character do you identify with?
I identify, for sure, with Carrie: “Quiet quiet quiet quiet WELL OKAY FUCK IT I GUESS I’M JUST GOING TO BURN THIS THING DOWN THEN.”
Though if we’re talking “admire,” rather than “identify with,” I’d go for either Mandy Lane, or The Girl from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Both of them have that fantastic cool self-possession and self-reliance and self-assurance, and a simple calm control, and an utter quiet unknowableness. And Mandy’s pretty great at wrestling inside rotting-cattle-carcass-goo pits, and The Girl has some pretty sweet skateboarding moves. They’ve both got a way with boys. I’d take either one for a cool older sister, to teach me how to put on lipstick and use a tampon.
Q7. Just for fun: are you a token victim, the best friend who dies, or a final girl?
I’m the person who got dragged off by a whole pile of ravenous monsters in the first act, but then - ooop, twist - reappears in the third, wearing a welding mask and football pads, carrying a homemade flamethrower. Sure, you can hang out in my fortified penthouse apartment, stocked with caviar and beer. Me and the one who fell down and twisted her ankle earlier, and the one who had sex with her boyfriend, and the best friend who died, and the final girl, and all the rest of us - we were just in here, inventing water filtration systems and power grids, and establishing an ethical government, and talking about boys. Come on in. Everybody’s welcome.