Women Write Lovecraft: An Interview with Editors Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles


Silvia Moren-Garcia and Paula Stiles are editors of the new anthology She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of Lovecraft-inspired stories by women authors. Silvia and Paula were kind enough to answer a ton of email questions I posed to them about Lovecraft’s enduring legacy, dealing with race in his work, and the fact that duh of course women can write stories based on the Lovecraft mythos. The anthology is available from Innsmouth Free Press.

 What inspired this anthology?

Paula: Silvia and I got tired of hearing, “Chicks don’t/can’t write in the Lovecraft Mythos,” and of talking repeatedly about authors like C.L. Moore, who wrote Mythos stories with female protagonists (Jirel of Joiry) during Lovecraft’s lifetime. So, we decided to do an entire anthology of Lovecraft stories, written by and about women. We figured if that didn’t make our point, well….

Silvia: Author Molly Tanzer, who appears in the anthology, can vouch for this: at one point someone on Facebook said women were biologically incapable of writing Lovecraftian fiction.

How did you select the stories for this anthology? What kind of things were you looking for in terms of style,tone, and content?

Silvia: The main interest was to find stories about women, since women don’t really appear in Lovecraft’s fiction. They only get a more prominent role in his “collaborations” with Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop. So there is this odd vacuum.

Art for "She Walks in Shadows" by Sara Bardi

Art for “She Walks in Shadows” by Sara Bardi

Paula: Aside from the main premise–stories by and about women–we wanted to get as wide a variety of stories from as wide a variety of women as we could get. Different countries, different cultures, different time periods, different Lovecraft stories and characters used, LGBT characters, different types of plots, different styles, even different types of POV. If you don’t like one story, try another. We wanted to show that women not only can write Lovecraftian stories, but that they can write a variety of them.

Why does Lovecraftian horror continue to have such a huge influence on fiction and culture?

Silvia: Part of it is the open quality of it. People can contribute to this universe in ways you can’t, to say, Lord of the Rings, even if there are LOTR pastiches.

Paula: Well, in some ways, it’s like vampires or zombies–it’s a fad. I was involved with a Permuted Press and other zombie-lovin’ folks a few years ago when zombies were white-hot, published a few zombie stories, some reasonably well-regarded. That kind of thing takes on a life of its own.

But then you look at these fads and they’re perennial. Some tropes and themes come up over and over again. Lovecraft pops up, I think, because he’s almost unique, both in the Pulp Era and today. Sure, he had antecedents, but there’s a bleakness to his work that was brand-new in his time and is rarely paralleled today. Lovecraft didn’t invent the cursed tome or the doomed narrator or even the Thing-I-Can’t-Describe-Or-You-Dear-Reader-Would-Go-Mad, but he did almost singlehandedly invent scientific cosmic horror.

The other thing is…well, I’ll answer that in the next question.

Lovecraft was famously racist and sexist – how might a modern fan approach the more problematic elements of his work without excusing or glorifying them?

Paula: Well, as I said above, this is a corollary to the previous question. First of all, Lovecraft was certainly racist and arguably sexist (though more in the avoidant form of not talking much about women than in actively negative portrayals), in both his public and private writings. But the sexism doesn’t change the fact he was henpecked his whole life. It was also pretty vanilla compared to some of the virulent stuff going on with women in his lifetime (or his views on race, for that matter). Even female writers of the time struggled with a good deal of self-hatred and limited horizons compared to women today.

As for the racism, that’s a lot harder to handwave. While I can find my gender’s being represented by the likes of poor doomed Lavinia Whateley and Asenath Waite irritating, some things Lovecraft wrote about race (and we’re talking about the premise of entire letters or even published stories) were hurtful then and are hurtful now. That said, you’re also talking about contemporaries of Lovecraft like the KKK and the Nazis who not only talked in racist terms, but did some really terrible things to promote their racist views. So, the bar for Worst Racist Ever of the early 20th century is set pretty high (or low, as you fancy the metaphor) and Lovecraft doesn’t even come close to meeting it.

I also find it curious that Lovecraft gets singled out for the sexism and racism labels, when more successful contemporaries like Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs had equally nasty things in their stories that are unpleasant to read today. Conan and Tarzan remain very popular, and people basically gloss over the more problematical stuff.

I think that while he came to conclusions many of his readers find objectionable today, Lovecraft explored the idea of exploring race in horror, rather than just having racist stereotypes for the stalwart Heroes to beat, more deeply than his contemporaries or even writers today. As such, he came up with tools that are still useful today in writing stories from a more diverse perspective. Lovecraft really knew what it was like to be an outsider.

Another thing that makes it easier to use Lovecraft’s work than some of his contemporaries, I think, is that Lovecraft’s protagonists are such losers–neurasthenic little men who aren’t too popular with the neighbors. The winners in most of Lovecraft’s stories are the monsters, the bad guys, the cult leaders, those creepy people who scared him so much. We don’t have to deal with the Myth of White Superiority in Lovecraft’s works, the way we do with Howard’s Conan or Burroughs’ Tarzan. That makes it rather easy to turn it around and write stories where the monsters, bad guys, and cult leaders *are* the Heroes. Or at least the protagonists. In a weird way, in Lovecraft’s original stories, they almost already are. Look at the Hero of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Look at how much more interesting he becomes when he learns to stop worrying and embrace the racial taint that calls him to the sea.

Silvia: Lovecraft made some sexist statements in his letters early in his life, but he seems to have grown out of it. He certainly recorded his admiration for several women writers, corresponded with women, and thought highly of his mother and aunts, who raised him.

He didn’t outgrow his racism. My research is in eugenics and around this time period scientific racism, eugenics, it was all the rage. You can see IQ tests of the time period where we are “objectively” told that “science” has determined black people and other people who are also racialized, like certain European populations, say Eastern Europeans, are not as intelligent as certain white people. Lovecraft did not come up with these ideas out of thin air.

The important thing when it comes to Lovecraft is two-fold: one, this racism seemed to manifest in a way that was crippling to him. Most racist people can go on with their daily lives without going into fits, like Lovecraft did. His wife describes him basically having panic attacks when he encounters visible minorities on the street in New York. His racism is probably the main element which wrecked his marriage. So it’s something very, very heavy laying on Lovecraft psychologically. And it ties to notions of race, but also of class and manliness. Lovecraft was terrified because in many ways he was unfit, he was that dreaded Darwinian horror.

The other important thing is his biological and racial concerns manifest in his fiction in a way that is not manifested in the fiction of other racist writers. Henry James had some nasty thoughts about immigrants and some of his unpleasant thoughts on Jews certainly make it into his fiction, but it’s all in a very muted way compared to Lovecraft. With Lovecraft it’s very obvious, very palpable and it’s a terror which seems to have a different kind of quality because even though you see a lot of images of evil Asian men, for example, on covers of magazines, it’s a terror that is always ultimately vanquished by the good white hero. But the funny thing about Lovecraft is the good white hero normally perishes.

The Other takes centre stage in Lovecraft’s fiction in a way that it doesn’t with other writers. And it’s a bit like Julia Kristen says in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. The abjection is about rejection, but in rejecting something you necessarily conjure it. The abject is a threat which threatens to breakdown order but it can never be completely eliminated.  We are both drawn to and repelled by the abject and it does not abandon us.

Modern writers can tackle abjection, can tackle Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors, and a myriad of other elements, and they need not do it with the same racist colours Lovecraft used. I mean, to be perfectly honest, *most* of science fiction, fantasy and horror has very racist and sexist roots. I understand this, I know it, I react to it, I produce new stuff. I’m not going to write another “The Queen Bee.” I’m referring to the story by Randall Garrett, published in 1958.

Some white supremacists seemed upset when they viewed a panel on racism and Lovecraft I was in, which was posted on YouTube. Some people are upset we did an all woman anthology. But ultimately Lovecraft does not belong to me or you or anyone. Writers can respond to him in their own way and that’s the beauty of it. We have more than half a dozen POC writers in this anthology writing their version of cosmic horror, of Lovecraft’s Mythos, of Weird fiction. I think that’s awesome.


Four Thoughts on How To Fight a Dragon’s Fury

How-to-train-your-dragonThe first How to Train Your Dragon book (How to Train Your Dragon) came out the year my daughter was born. We love the show and the movies, but they are very different from the book series (which we started reading out loud at bedtime when daughter was around five) and the book series has a special place in our hearts. The last book, which happens to be the twelfth book (How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury), was released in the UK just in time for daughter’s twelfth birthday, and I special ordered it from the UK and read it before I wrapped it. Many tears were shed. Here’s a short, non-spoilery review – it will be released in the USA on November 3, 2015. But you guys, a word to the wise – shipping from the UK is actually pretty cheap. I’m just saying.

How to Train Your Dragon is a series by Cressida Cowell about a Viking boy, Hiccup, and how he becomes a hero “the hard way” with the help of his extremely badly behaved dragon (Toothless), his best friend (Fishlegs) and his other best friend (Camicazi). The movie series of the same name shares names, settings, and some common themes, but is very different in story and detail. For instance, in the books Hiccup speaks Dragonese and can talk to dragons, and Toothless is very small and chatty, while in the movies Toothless is huge and Hiccup communicates with dragons through observation, instinct and empathy but not language.


Here are four non-spoilery thoughts on the final book:

Yes, it really is the last book.

It is actually the last one, and it has an ending that means spin-offs within the universe are possible but the arcs of the main characters are resolved.

It’s dark…

In keeping with the rest of the series, which became progressively darker since Book 3 (How to Speak Dragonese), this book is very dark and scary and at one point I grew so concerned that I skimmed ahead a little just to see if poor Hiccup would ever get some first aid and maybe a snack.

…But it’s also hopeful and inspiring.

As the series grew darker, when my daughter was still pretty young, I worried that it would scare her or upset her, but she was fine. This last book (and the preceding book, How to Betray a Dragon’s Hero), are REALLY intense. However, I like that the series doesn’t talk down to kids. It basically tells them, “Look, being a hero is HARD. And life is hard. But it’s also full of love and joy and friendship, and you can handle it. Now go be awesome.”


It’s beautiful.

I cried my face off. Seriously. BAWLED. And I won’t tell you if it was a sad cry, a happy cry, or both, but I will tell you that for the most part I was satisfied by the ending. Thank you, Cressida Cowell. Best birthday present ever – at least for me!

USA cover

USA cover

Guest Review: Station Eleven

Sestra Geek Girl Heather Thayer is back with a squeeing review of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel!

I recently finished Station Eleven, and for a long time I couldn’t communicate coherently because I was still so wrapped up in the world of the book that nothing else seemed to matter.

Station Eleven is, at its most simple, a tale of the apocalypse (a flu epidemic), held together by following the pre- and post-apocalyptic stories of a people loosely connected to an actor who dies in the first few pages of the book. In the “bookclub notes” in the back of the book, one of the questions is whether there is a main character in the book. I would posit that there is not, and the book is all the richer for it as we follow the very different characters to or through the end of the world.

It is difficult to describe just why or how this book excels in every way. Looking back on it, the sensation is of being embraced by a warm dream – a vivid dream of the end of everything. A dream of hope and nostalgia; a dream of life, determining what is important, and what we hold on to when everything we know is gone.

If the world ended, what would be important to you? What would you miss? What would you want to preserve? What would you want to teach the children about the world that was? This book asks all the important questions and takes the reader on an exploration of the possibilities, without providing pat answers – other than a line written by Ronald D Moore for a Star Trek episode – “Survival is insufficient.”

Written with prose that somehow manages to be both wistful and gripping, it doesn’t let words get in the way of an exquisitely drawn world, experiences and characters. So many books that win awards (this one has won several, including the Morning News Tournament of Books), have overwrought writing that drown the subject in words, reveling in their own cleverness, but this book is clean and enthralling – letting the story speak for itself. One doesn’t notice the writing as one is carried along by the narrative and the mood of the book. This is the kind of book that makes a person leave a party early so that they can go home and keep reading. Yup, that happened.

Through a compelling narrative with interesting characters, the book explores the ways that people create art, celebrate life, preserve the past, and do more than simply survive. While the larger themes are there, they hover in the background and do not get in the way of the story. It is only afterwards, when it is impossible to stop thinking about the book that one notices that there was all this meaty stuff in there to chew on and mull over.

Find some time, read this book, and marvel at the wonders of the world.

Book Review: AD ASTRA: the 50th Anniversary SFWA Cookbook

AdAstraCookbookI do not like to cook but I sure do love reading cookbooks. My latest treasure is the quirky, funny, delightfully weird AD ASTRA cookbook from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), edited by Cat Rambo and Fran Wilde. This book of recipes by speculative fiction authors is hilarious in several senses and has some recipes I might just use.

Here’s what I find so wonderfully funny about this cookbook – there are no “What to make for your family during the week” type recipes (although most of the potluck dishes would work for that). Apparently, writers do the following things:

  1. We eat the fastest food we can possibly come up with, often while weeping into our keyboards, while trying to meet a deadline – hence an entire section called “Tight on Time or Budget?”
  2. We drink, hence the chapter “Beverages”.
  3. We go to parties, hence all the rest of the book (“Savory Snacks”, “Sweet Snacks and Desserts”, “Brunches,” and “Potluck Dinners”).

I cannot argue with this assessment of a writer’s dietary needs (I’m particularly intrigues by Doom Cookies, submitted by Steven Straus, which combines graham cracker crumbs, chocolate, condensed milk, and coffee grounds). Writers are subject to sudden attacks of joy and despair as the writing ebbs and flows and pieces get picked up or rejected, so there’s a remarkable number of recipes for things like an individual serving of cake in a coffee mug (“Celebrations for One: Writer’s Break Sweets in a Mug” by Ricia Mainhardt). The masterpiece here might be “Toasted Cake” from Tina Connolly, who suggests that you bake a cake, frost one piece, eat it, and each day pop a new, individual piece in the toaster oven for a couple of minutes and then frost it – you get gooey drippy warm frosted cake that doesn’t taste stale.

I’m not sure how many things I’ll actually make from this cookbook but I sure had fun reading it. I got a kick from Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s faintly bitter recipe for tuna salad (“If you’re on a diet, it’s healthy, filling, and painless – and if’s you’re not on a diet, why are you eating tuna salad?”). Connie Willis offers a recipe for Mars Colony Cake, also called Bash Cake. Jane Yolen, who is also a fan of Bash Cake, offers a partial list of occasions in which she had to make it, plus a limerick:

As SFWA president for two years, I had plenty of times to need to bake this cake. There was the John Shirley/Scott Card bash cake. There was the Blue Jay books bash cake. There was the Nebula controversies (redux) bash cake. There was the who-hung-up-on-me-this-time bash cake.

And here’s the limerick:

There once was a writer of trash

Whose insides were knots, kinks, and mash.

So I taught him to make

A Delectable cake

Now instead of an ulcer, there’s Bash!

This cookbook also features cartoons by Ursula Vernon.

As general, all-purpose cookbooks go, this one is not the best, but as a cookbook for writers it’s a hoot and also quite useful since I do go to a lot of potlucks and there’s only so many times I can bring my crockpot Butternut Squash Winter Stew before they are on to me. I loved seeing recipes from all over the world and hearing the stories about how people got the recipe from a friend or from many generations of family members. For instance, Elaine Issak’s “Alien Scones”, so very aptly named, got their name by accident because her mother made a cookbook for the family, ran it through spellcheck, and didn’t notice that spellcheck replaced “Elaine” with “Alien”. It’s also a fun cookbook if you are familiar with any of the authors – whether you admire the work or whether you are lucky enough to have met them in person. It’s a bit of an in-joke cookbook, but I had a good time reading it and I am planning to make David Levine and Kate Yule’s “Country Pumpkin Chicken Chowder” just as soon as we get fall weather in California (so…not soon).

A final note, I fear the cookbook may deeply offend members of the alien and elf community. A section at the back gives directions on how to cook elf (step one is “Kill an elf”) and how to stew an alien “Do not, under any circumstances, use broccoli…brocoli is just awful in stew.” So there you go – no broccoli for you.

Between The Lines Book Club: The Sustainable Food Movement

between the lines book club logoHey Sacramento followers – Between the Lines Book Club meets tomorrow (9/26/15) at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM! Not in the Sacramento area? Leave your comments about The Third Plate here!

In The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber talks about the importance of making sustainable agriculture part of elite cooking. Barber wants to make it fashionable to use all the parts of an animal or vegetable, rotation crops like barley and rye, and humanely and sustainably raised livestock.

Every culture has in some way grappled with the concept of sustainable agriculture, a term which basically means how to use land without using the land up to the point where it is no longer productive.. An early example from the Americas is that of the “The Three Sisters.” Several Native American Tribes had a practice of planting “The Three Sisters,” maize, beans, and squash, together. Each plant has components that keep the soil healthy, ensuring good farming in future years. The crops also proved a balanced diet when eaten together.

Sustainable agriculture is described today as agricultural practices that maximize human nutrition and quality of life while also maximizing the health of the environment and its ability to continue to provide food. This means that a farm cannot exhaust the nutrients in soil through over-farming, nor use chemical fertilizer that damages local water sources. My California readers will be most familiar with the concept in terms of water usage. While water is a renewable resource, California farms pull water out of the aquifer much faster than the aquifer can be refilled. The term “sustainable agriculture” became popular in the 1980’s. Other issues to consider are how much land is being used and how much energy a farm uses.

Discussions about sustainable farming can take a low-level approach (using different fertilizers and crop rotation, or a more radical approach (urban farming, vertical farming, and changes in the economy as a whole.