{Book Review} Monster, She Wrote by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

Now that February is Women in Horror Month, it’s the perfect time to dig into Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction (Quirk Books). Written by Lisa Kröger  and Melanie R. Anderson, the book is a comprehensive overview of the role that women played in the evolution of horror and speculative fiction. Part literary history, part fun biographical facts, Monster, She Wrote includes an incredible amount of information that celebrates and uplifts the genre’s female voices.

There have been plenty of other books on the history of the horror genre (Stephen King’s Danse Macabre comes to mind), but none have so successfully mapped out the course of female writing within the genre and why it’s so necessary. As the editors write in the introduction, “Why are women so great at writing horror fiction? Maybe because horror is a transgressive genre. It pushes readers to uncomfortable places, where we aren’t used to treading, and it forces us to confront what we naturally want to avoid.” They add, “When writing is an off-limits act, writing one’s story becomes a form of rebellion and taking back power.” In that regard, the authors make a compelling case that writing at all, especially such strange tales, was unconventional and defiant for a number of the featured authors. Their stories gave voice to shared anxieties.

Margaret Cavendish/Photo Courtesy of the British Library

As an example, they point to Margaret Cavendish, a 17th Century author who wrote about science and philosophy, which, at the time, was considered the purview of only male minds. Cavendish, also known as the Duchess of Newcastle, is the first subject of the book, found within the section labeled “The Founding Mothers.” Furthermore, she may have been one of the first “celebrities” in English history, who openly pursued fame as a way to thumb her nose at society, a “Kardashian before there were Kardashians.” Perhaps more importantly, the authors give a short analysis of Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing World, published some 150 years before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Cavendish’s novel could well be the first science-fiction novel, though some scholars still debate that title. Regardless, what Kröger and Anderson do throughout the text is give credit where credit is due.

Each chapter is structured similarly and focuses on one female author per chapter within the time period/sections of the book. The chapters include a short overview of the author’s life, a brief analysis of some of their work, and then a recommended reading list. The structure/short chapters make for a quick but fascinating read. Even the facts of some well-known authors, like Mary Shelley, may come as a surprise to readers. For instance, Kröger and Anderson recount some of the salacious details of Mary and poet Percy Shelley’s relationship, such as their early secret liaisons at the grave of Mary’s mother, feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. These facts are a testament to the deep research done for this book, and they make for an entertaining read.

Shelley is not the only well-known author covered. Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, V.C. Andrews, and Ann Radcliffe are all given their just due, but for every well-known author, there are several that are deserving of more attention, such as Eli Colter, author of “weird Western tales,” which are as they sound- supernatural stories set against a Wild West backdrop. Unfortunately, while Colter was once considered a popular writer of weird tales, her stories are harder to find. Luckily, however, the reading list offers some places online where her work can still be found.

Along with comprehensive research on each author, Kröger and Anderson also include a historical overview of various movements in the horror genre, which includes everything from Victorian ghost stories, to horror paperbacks of the 1970s, to contemporary “new Gothic fiction.” The beginning of each section analyzes the key literary characteristics of these movements and the social, philosophical, or historical events that influenced them. For example, the authors note that Victorian ghost stories are indebted to the influence of Spiritualism, a 19th Century phenomenon that occurred after sisters Margaretta “Maggie” and Kate Fox captured the public’s interest in 1848 by “talking” to spirits via knocks on the wall. They told their parents that they could communicate with spirits, and stunned, their parents invited neighbors to see what the daughters could do. Eventually, the Fox sisters captured the global public stage. These historical tidbits make for an engaging read and provide historical context to the fiction that Kröger and Anderson then analyze and recommend.

Overall, Monster, She Wrote is the perfect book to read during Women in Horror Month. It’s a celebration of female horror authors, some known and some lesser known, who deserve a wider audience. The writing and deep research is incredibly accessible for a general audience. The historical and biographical tidbits are riveting, and the reading lists at the end of each chapter provide easy access points for anyone seeking to expand their knowledge. This book is an absolute must read.