Celebrating Women's HERstory Month: Women Writing Extreme Horror by Kenzie Jennings and Janine Pipe
You mean a woman can write extreme horror? No, there must be some mistake. Exploring the myths are two Splatterpunk Award nominees, Janine Pipe and Kenzie Jennings.
An actual conversation:
Me – hey, have you read any extreme horror?
Normie – what???
Average horror reader – oh yes you mean Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, Bentley Little, Whitley Strieber etc etc etc
Me – Oooooookay, but what about Kenzie Jennings, Christine Morgan, Monica J O’Rourke?
AHR – oh you mean women? Yeah, they *can’t* write that kind of gross stuff.
Me - *sigh*
Sadly, too many people seem to think this is a thing. That women can’t, won’t, don’t write extreme and graphic content in their work. These are likely the same people who cannot separate the separate the fictional story from the writer. YOU write sick stuff so YOU must be a pervert. Um, no? Okay then, but if you’re a *lady* (and if anyone calls me a lady, then they can fuck right off) you can’t possibly write about such depravity?
Oh really …
I was so sick of hearing people presume women won’t write about nasty stuff. We literally live our lives ruled by blood, why the hell shouldn’t we want to write about it? So, I asked fellow Splatterpunk Award nominee and slasher bestie, Kenzie, to help me address some common misconceptions and then shit all over them …
Myth number one - We should have likeable female protagonists.
KJ: There’s an unspoken expectation of female protagonists, perhaps more so than their male counterparts, and that’s that we need to like them, not just empathize with them…We need to really LIKE them like a BFF in order for us to root for them. The likeability trait often comes with the usual, tried characteristics: They must be sweet-natured, ever-supportive, relatively intelligent, emotionally codependent, maternally courageous, and adorably funny but not too funny as to overshadow their male cohorts. It seems to cut across all genres of fiction.
In extreme horror fiction, however, there’s simply no time for any of that shit. In fact, much of that is useless because you’re going to find your female protagonist having to spend an awful lot of time drenched in gut squirt and mutant hillbilly diarrhea. The entire experience for her is going to require her to be a badass and often with a dark sense of humor she’ll wield along with her weapons of choice in order to get through the ordeal you’re having her endure. She doesn’t have time to measure up to your antiquated expectations of women protagonists...or women in general come to think of it.
JP: When I think of a badass female protagonist, I think of Jen from Revenge, Sarah from The Descent and Jennifer from I Spit on Your Grave. At some point they’re going to be covered in shit and guts, so I don’t really care if we would share tea and scones – I want to believe she can cut off a rapist’s dick and shove it in his mouth whilst he is hanging from chains and bleeds out … thank you, Jennifer. This doesn’t mean she has to look and act like Lara Croft or Sara Conner – although goals Linda Hamilton, goals.
Extreme horror protagonists go through some extreme situations – natch. Therefore, it makes absolute sense that they need to be strong, in body and mind. They need to think fuck this, I’m not taking this shit – I’m gonna go out there and survive or even *shock horror* be the killer!!! Can you imagine that? A female serial killer who isn’t acting on revenge and just likes to gut people and get her rocks off whilst doing it? Have you met Harley Quinn?
Myth Number Two - We should not write about our female characters dealing with their…issues, especially ones having to do with whatever’s coming from their bodies.
KJ: Whatever. Extreme horror allows…hell, encourages its authors to let go of those pesky taboos involving natural bodily functions, body mutations, and/or body destruction. Unless we’re writing satire, we can’t possibly expect our female characters to get through their ordeals and come out the other end with nary a hair out of place, face virtually flawless save for a slight scratch or abrasion on the cheek or forehead, and self-respect intact clearly evident by the spotless rear end of her jeans and lack of sweat stains on her tank top. There isn’t any room for a concept like dignity in extreme horror.
JP: When I started writing Footsteps, a cautionary camping tale, it never really occurred to me to make it extreme. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t actively decide to use menstruation as a tool to gross people out, it just fit with the integral storyline. Three women go camping and meet a ‘fucked-up-wolf-man’. The predator is attracted by period blood! I actually presumed this had been used loads of times.
WRONG! Even though it is the most natural thing that the majority of women experience on a monthly basis, it is still seen as controversial. Boys have wet dreams in their teens, right? Erections at embarrassing moments like when they raise their hand in class. That’s deemed funny and used over and over in books and movies. But menstruation, tampons, maybe a woman who enjoys sex during her period??? How shocking is that? Um, not at all?
Save for a few notable mentions such as Carrie and Gingersnaps, it rarely features even in a genre that is obsessed with blood.
And just imagine the carnage a menopausal character could cause …
Myth Number Three - We should not write about socially sensitive topics either.
KJ: There is a certain degree of caution and awareness an author of ANY genre should maintain when approaching difficult topics (such as rape, racism, homophobia, misogyny and misandry). With extreme horror fiction, that degree of caution is a tightrope walk, barefoot, on razor wire over a gorge. The general consensus with extreme horror seems to be “write what you want, how you want.” However, even such masters of the genre like Edward Lee, Christine Morgan, Wrath James White, Monica J. O’Rourke, and David J. Schow (who even coined “splatterpunk”) recognize the seriousness of that tightrope walk and often come wearing thick-soled boots for the endeavour. I only speak from my own vantage (and unfortunate experience) on the matter, but when reading extreme horror, I’ve found that if the work contains such topics, they’re often handled with narrative intent (something integral to the story) or absurdity rather than believability, which, for me, lessens the traumatizing impact they could have on me, the reader. That’s not to say my experience is universal, of course, and what another reader finds traumatizing, I might not.
Even still, I tend to approach such topics in my own work with narrative intent, and I know Janine, my splatterpunk sister-in-arms, does as well. Otherwise, it’s all there gratuitously, with no purpose but to shock and make the reader uncomfortable, and nothing more than that.
JP: I think for me, the key to splatterpunk is exploring the depravity of human nature but through an interesting and gripping narrative. You can be as controversial as you like and explore all sorts of immoral and taboo subjects. But make it have a point. 300 pages of bonkers sex acts and enough bloodshed to make Beelzebub blanch is one thing. But if you want to attract a wider audience, create a decent plot, give your characters depth. Same as every other genre under the sun.
Too often extreme horror not only equals the bloodiest amount of violence, torture and gore you can put your characters through, but also a hell of a lot of pornographic level sexual scenes which again due to the storyline are often non-consensual. Sexual abuse, rape, bestiality, necrophilia. You name it. I have heard both men and women DNF a book not because of the writing or the bloodshed, but due to the way the victim of the rape is portrayed. Can women write graphic and disturbing rape scenes? Yes of course we can, we can literally write anything a man can. But since rape is more about power than anything else, we are more likely to come at it from a different perspective.
But women can and do write about sexual acts in the extreme, about both male and female characters climaxing whilst killing. So why is there this myth that women will only write about romantic sex? That it might be erotic, but it won’t be forced or brutal. I would point anyone who believes that particular fallacy to read RED by D J Doyle and say no more.
Aside from Kenzie, people whom I think always stick the landing and seamlessly blend splatterpunk nasty with a bloody good story, are Kristopher Triana and Christine Morgan. They are my muses and modern day go-to’s. The most important factor of extreme work is using shocking elements to elevate an already good story.
So, there we go. There are so, so, SO many more issues that we could look at but we’d be here all day. The bottom line is anyone can write extreme horror. Yes, some of the most well-known names for classic extreme stuff may be mainly men. But women are fast becoming well known and respected within this world.
Now, where’s my Cat O’ Nine Tails and ball gag …