WEIRD GIRLS AND OTHER ANOMALIES





BY LISA MORTON









WHEN I WAS 15, I SIMULTANEOUSLY DISCOVERED BOTH WEIRD FICTION AND USED BOOKSTORES. I recall the specific age because it was a year after my parents divorced and I was living with my mom. We didn’t have much money Mom refused—against, of course, both the advice of her attorney and prevailing wisdom—to take any alimony, saying that she could make her own living. I made some spending money from being an amateur magician (I did a lot of kids’ birthday parties), although I was as likely to have book money from foregoing lunch at school and saving those few cents for books instead. Who cared about a little hunger when there were books to devour?

We were living in San Diego at the time, and I discovered a used paperback book store in El Cajon (although I also got Mom to occasionally drive me to the late, great Wahrenbrock’s and Adams Avenue Bookstore). For fifty cents each, I could load up on paperbacks. I was soon moving past the classics I’d already gorged myself on as I discovered Robert E. Howard (thanks in no small part to the Frank Frazetta covers), H. P. Lovecraft, and more.

I loved them. I thrilled to Conan’s muscular adventures. My youthful brain was blown by Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors (although even as a kid I recall reading “The Horror at Red Hook” and being disturbed by the racist overtones). Clark Ashton Smith’s visions of fantastical worlds left me dreaming.

One thing, though, made me begin to turn away from these tales, and it was this: there was seldom anyone like me in these books. By “like me”, I mean a female protagonist who wasn’t a hero’s love interest or a terrifying demigod’s victim.

I’m guessing I wasn’t the only girl who wanted a piece of the sword-swinging, monster-bashing, eldritch god-invoking pie. My fantasies never once involved fainting at the feet of some serpentine abomination while a mighty male carved a trail of carnage to set me free. Somehow I never imagined myself being tied to an altar while a whey-faced priest summoned something to eat me…or worse. I grew up with The Avengers on the telly, watching Mrs. Peel dispatch bad guys while Steed poured champagne was it so much to ask to find just a little of that in my fiction?

Apparently it was, because with the very, very occasional delight like the Aquilonian pirate Valeria in Howard’s “Red Nails”, there were few interesting women to be found in early weird fiction. Even antagonists were rare note that Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep”, featuring the villainess Asenath Waite Derby, was described (accurately) by Peter Cannon as being “the only Lovecraft story with a strong or important female character.”





One might suppose that part of the problem is that very few women were publishing weird fantasy, but here’s where we open the portal and step into an alternate world: a surprising number of female writers were published in the nascent years of weird fiction, just as many more women wrote ghost stories in the nineteenth century than most of us realize. One overview of Weird Tales, for example, estimates that about 17% of its authors were female sometimes they wrote under initials (C. L. Moore is surely the most famous example of this), and sometimes they bore names that…well, sounded likelier to be masculine (Bassett Morgan). The most extraordinary of the female contributors to Weird Tales during its heyday must be Allison V. Harding: with 36 Weird Tales stories to her credit, she was ahead of contributors like Ray Bradbury and Frank Belknap Long. She produced one character, “The Damp Man”, who proved so popular with readers that she wrote two sequels. Yet Harding has vanished into obscurity, leaving behind much speculation about who she was: an attorney named Jean Milligan, who didn’t want to be associated with the pulps? The wife of a man named Lamont Buchanan, who worked for Weird Tales and may have been the actual author? Or was it some sort of “house name” like Ellery Queen?


Or take Amelia Reynolds Long, a prolific author who wrote in multiple genres. Long’s 1930 Weird Tales contribution “The Thought Monster” was filmed in 1958 as Fiend Without a Face (whose animated brains-dragging-spinal columns are the stuff of legend in my house). Long’s weird fiction has never been collected.


Mary Elizabeth Counselman was second only to Harding in the number of stories published in Weird Tales (30 in total) her 1930 story “The Three Marked Pennies” is considered to be one of the most popular stories to have appeared in the magazine. Counselman’s fiction, at least, was collected…once, in the 1964 British paperback Half in Shadow (later reprinted in hardback by Arkham House).





SO WHAT HAPPENED HERE? WHY ARE THESE WOMEN LARGELY CONSIGNED TO HISTORICAL DISCUSSIONS AND FOUND ONLY IN MOLDERING COPIES OF PULP MAGAZINES WHILE THEIR MALE COUNTERPARTS CONTINUE TO BE REPRINTED AND READ?


Some of the answer seems to be that these women simply didn’t want to be found. They wrote under initials and pseudonyms to disguise their writing interests from employers they didn’t attend conventions, they didn’t write letters to their male colleagues, and they obviously didn’t have social media. They all had other jobs —they were attorneys, teachers, and librarians.

Since they didn’t care about literary fame and probably didn’t need the writing paychecks to survive, why did they do it?

There’s only one answer: they loved it. They all possessed the peculiar gifts for writing weird fiction, and they relished any chance to put those gifts to use to entertain readers.

Which brings us to 2019, and this magazine.

Fortunately, things have changed in the last eighty or so years. Sure, some women still use initials, and they still can’t live on what they make as writers…but they can now promote themselves, they go to public events right alongside their male writer friends, and they have their own books out there. Women in weird fantasy and horror are even celebrated now, with themed anthologies, an entire month (yes, one whole month!) dedicated to them, and magazines like this one daring to offer up all-female rosters.

Sure, there are still a few Damp Men crouched in corners of dank basements (usually in their parents’ houses), feverishly tapping out their messages that “Women are too delicate to write horror.” Well, to that endangered species whose extinction no one will lament I say…

Fuck that shit.

Now turn the page and read some great fiction from writers who love what they do, and who just happen to be women.






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