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Sexism in horror fiction is a fairly hot topic at the moment, and the role of the all-female anthology is the subject of some debate. Is it a good thing? Do women horror authors still need this kind of leg-up from the industry? And so on. Whatever one's opinion, no-one can deny that it's been quite a while since a major women-only collection has come out, as far as I'm aware. So I was keen to pick up Mammoth's latest doorstop collection, The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women, especially since the editor is Marie Regan, one half of the duo that brought us the excellent Hellraiser mythos-themed collection Hellbound.

In her introduction Regan claims that she attempted to showcase old and new fiction, but in fact recent stories outnumber "oldies" by 2 to 1. This is possibly out of a desire to avoid simply duplicating Richard Dalby's seminal Virago Books of Ghost Stories from the 80s. The older material consists entirely of established, some might even say over-published, classics. Of course, I could never begrudge the presence of Edith Wharton's 'Afterward', a beautiful piece of understated Edwardian writing, or Mary Cholmondely's 'Let Loose', a fine antiquarian ghost story that actually predates MR James and his boys' club, and may well have inspired many male authors. And a lot of these familiar Victorian stories also appear to have been picked for their proto-feminist message - bad juju tends to result from neglecting or mistreating women, a message shared by the thoroughly depressing 'The Shadow In The Hall'(Mary Elizabeth Braddon) and Elizabeth Gaskell's 'The Old Nurses Tale'. The quality of these old-school yarns is not in doubt, though several tend towards the emotive rather than the outright scary and I did sigh to see Mary Wilkins Freeman's child abuse tear-jerker 'The Lost Ghost' appearing yet again.

Most of the recent stories are very recent and previously unpublished - some may even have been specially-written for the collection. A disproportionately large number of these authors come from the frequently overlapping fields of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Now, I'm not a big fan of either of these subgenres and enjoy tutting noisily every time I walk past the "Paranormal Romance" section in Waterstones', in the forlorn hope that someone nearby will hear me and say "Yes, dreadful isn't it all this vampire-werewolf shagging stuff?" And setting asides questions of literary merit, you could even make an argument that these subgenres are rife with misogyny. Even if you ignore the ludicrous excesses of Twilight you are still faced with some heavy-duty woman-hating from leaders in the field such as Charlaine Harris and Laurell K Hamilton. Yes, their books tend to feature arse-kicking heroines, but these women are far too frequently portrayed as the dazzling exception, with all other female characters reduced to the status of bitchy rivals. Still, paranormal romance and urban fantasy do seem to attract a lot of female authors at the moment, so it makes sense that they should be represented here, and I was ready to give these stories a chance. Unfortunately Nancy Holder, Nancy Kilpatrick, Lilith Saintcrow all put in forgettable appearances - literally so in the case of Saintcrow's 'Moira', the plot of which I was unable to remember for more than one day. The emphasis is once more on emotions rather than fear, but the pizzazz of the great Victorian authoresses is sadly missing.

Worse still, this collection contains no fewer than three paranormal detective stories. It begins with a bloated, page-hogging thing by Kim Lakin-Smith called 'Field of the Dead' and ends with steampunk rearing its ugly head in the form of Gaie Sebold's 'A Silver Music'. I'm not sure Sebold's plot - a machine-woman is romantically reunited with her creator in the grave, aaaw how sweet - would fit anyone's definition of feminist, but both these overlong stories are outdone by repeat offender Gail Z Martin's yawn-fest 'Among The Shoals Forever'. Yet more alternate history is on offer as we visit Martin's olde curiosity shoppe, but with the clock turned back to antebellum Charleston so that her wealthy band of misfit psychics gifted with "Magic" can strike a decisive blow on behalf of some poor folk who've had their souls trapped in glass boxes by a horrid necromancer. The author incompetently sidesteps the thorny issue of race representation in alternate history fiction by featuring an unbelievably cliched big black fearsome but ultimately kind-hearted witch doctor lady, who assists our honky heroes without cramping their style. I was also infuriated by the way half the characters have too many consonants in their names (Sorren, Evann, Coltt... Who the fuck is called Coltt?) All of this is written in a soul-destroying soup of modern idiom and posh "old days" speech. If George Orwell once wrote that good prose should be like a window-pane, then Martin and her ilk are peddlars of the most hideous overpriced curtains imaginable. And unforgiveably, Martin doesn't even have enthusiasm for her own work - this is real lazy hackery. Can someone please turn this woman's literary "talent" off at the mains before she turns up in any more anthologies?

But to get back to the main topic: how well are womens' concerns represented in this book? I think it's fair to expect an anthology like this to contain an element of feminist fiction, and there is a fair bit of that here. If you like your feminism furious and bloody, there is Elizabeth Massie's 'Sister, Shhh' (a savage indictment of Mormon-style religious community life), or the Carteresque dystopia of Sarah Langan's 'The Ninth Witch'. Alex Bell takes on the pressures faced by women striving for perfection in 'The Fifth Bedroom' and in 'Return' Yvonne Navarro sees a dead child abuse victim serve vengeance on her horrible family. None of these stories are really outstanding, however.

And some of the stories dispense with feminism altogether. Marion Arnott's 'Another One In From The Cold' is an extremely distasteful variation on the theme of the Magic Foetus That Will Make Everything Better, with the heroine's ambiguity about her pregnancy conveniently resolved by the intervention of World War I dead. (She decides that "beginnings are more appealing than endings", apparently.) The style and content of the story hint at a publication from the 70s, but in fact it came out just this year! Remarkable, in a bad way. Likewise, Alison Littlewood's 'Scairt' involves a young heroine who relies on the ghost of a small boy to help her out in a jam, though with its message of collaboration between vulnerable people of both sexes it is a good deal less offensive than Arnott's contribution. Soulful and heart-warming rather than frightening though.

It would be wrong to state that there are no good new stories in this book. Sarah Pinborough comes through with 'Collect Call' (a horror story about the afterlife which didn't bore me, hurray!) and I'm always happy to see a Nina Allan story. Her 'Seeing Nancy' addresses a topic Richard Dalby has raised before: the status of women as othered ghosts in the "real" world of men. And she does so with her usual finesse - no bludgeoning or axe-grinding here. Ultimately, however, I consider this collection a bit of a failure. Sexists have traditionally accused female writers of only being able to write subtle, emotion-centric ghost stories rather than "proper" frighteners, and I'm afraid to say the line-up here would give those sexists plenty of ammo. Although there is a place for the gentle, slow-burning stereotypically "feminine" ghost story there are also plenty of female writers who don't come across as gendered and can certainly scare as well as the men! But Regan neglects most of these and there are several surprising omissions: Edith Nesbit, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates. All these women write visceral, muscular fiction that often addresses womens' issues without being excessively feminine, so why aren't they here?

Because of these issues I'm afraid this collection gets the thumbs-down from me, even though I approve of the principle behind it. For me, women authors are still way too overlooked in horror and supernatural fiction and they deserve all the championing they can get. But this isn't the way to go about it.


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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