Macabre History is a Delight in ‘Monster’

When I told my husband the book I was reading was called Monster, She Wrote, he said, “You’re only reading that because it sounds like Murder, She Wrote,” and then proceeded to describe a whole horror-themed knockoff of the classic 1984-1996 series starring our absolute queen, Angela Lansbury.

Which was completely insulting, because the Murder, She Wrote connection only accounted for probably 60, maybe 70% (fine, 80%) for my initial interest in Monster, She Wrote. The rest was genuine curiosity about the female writers who have built our canon of spooky, creepy literature through the years—often with little fanfare then and utter dismissal now even when their work remains relevant.

When I grow up, I want to be Jessica Fletcher. I’m not being dramatic.

Mary Shelley is there, of course, as are other classic authors of old (and new), including Elizabeth Gaskill, Edith Wharton, Shirley Jackson, Ann Rice, V.C. Andrews, and Toni Morrison (who is listed with a birth date but no death date because this was published months before Morrison’s death in 2019). But also included are women who caused splashes in their day but whose ripples haven’t been as obvious to us now, such as Regina Maria Roche, Vernon Lee (a pseudonym for British Writer Violet Paget), and Eli Colter (the pen name for May Eliza Frost; there are plenty of male-coded pen names here, unsurprisingly, but not nearly as many as you’d think). 

Opening Monster, She Wrote, I got pretty much what I expected: sketches of individual authors and contextualization of their work. In many ways, it read fairly similarly to Lady Killers, which detailed the lives of female serial killers across the ages (also an excellent read). But authors Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson don’t just place their subjects’ lives in a timeline—they show how these writers interacted with each other and other, sometimes more well-known names from their respective eras, as well as what kinds of events or literature likely inspired them and how their work continues to resonate through the canon today. Also, reading lists, which has already turned me to some fantastic gems I didn’t know even existed before.

This can safely be considered a compendium.

For every few straightforward bios, you get one that sticks out with its tragedy, triumph, or just plain weird quality. An unsurprising number of these women wrote like the devil to put food on the table and keep the roof over their heads and horror was what did that the best (if it bleeds, as they say, it leads). Some saw their penning of stories that toed the edge of respectability as a larger part of life spent dancing on the line of propriety in ways that we’d reward with a fist-pump today. Take Amelia Edwards, who wrote both horror and travel stories, and who was buried beneath an Egyptian obelisk and stone ankh next to her long-term female traveling partner. Or another very likely member of the LGBTQ+ family, Daphne du Maurier, who described herself as having two personas: a female energy that she presented to the world, and a male energy that controlled her writing, and who had crushes on women (but hated the term “lesbian”). 

Or Pauline E. Hopkins, who was one of the first Black speculative fiction writers in the biz—and a woman, to boot—and hugely prolific at the turn of the last century. Or Margaret St. Clair, whose fantastical underground world present in some of her work was the inspiration for part of the world creation in Dungeons & Dragons, and whose legacy was, for years, limited largely to a footnote to that effect. C.L. Moore devised characters who would become the prototypes for loveable rogues of science fiction, like Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds. 

Ohh, D&D, come give granny a kiss.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that there is just name after name of writers well-known and obscure, and they keep on going and going. The frustrating bit of that is I think culturally when we think “horror writer,” the average person’s mind is still going to go straight to Stephen King. But as Monster, She Wrote shows time and time again, who is considered the master of the genre depends considerably on your time and place in the world—and who is controlling the narrative.

I found Monster, She Wrote hugely informative and thought-provoking, not to mention fun. But I will admit its lack of narrative made it easy for me to forget to pick it back up, which is, in fairness, a problem I also had with Lady Killers even though I really liked that one, too. This is the kind of book you read once and then use as a resource from there on out. It is the kind of book you read a chapter or two of while you’re waiting in a socially distanced line for the pharmacy or checkout lane. I doubt it was ever intended to be anyone’s binge read. And it’s okay to let books be what they are intended to be.

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