Kathe Koja on Godmothers of Horror: Emily Brontë & Mary Shelley
I recently re-read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë because KATHE KOJA kept on raving about what an innovative and wonderful, rebellious book it is. I had read it before, as a teenager, and loved the gothic moody tone, but it was eye-opening reading it again, after having submerged myself in the horror genre, realizing this is not strictly a love story. It is an expertly told ghost story. I had a chat with Kathe on my podcast, Get Lit With Leza, about the unexplored horror elements in Wuthering Heights, the legacy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the trailblazing work of Shirley Jackson, particularly The Haunting of Hill House. Enjoy this in-depth exploration of the legacies of badass women in horror with someone who should need no introduction in that arena.
KATHE KOJA creates immersive narratives: novels, performances, and events. THE CIPHER is upcoming in September 2020. DARK FACTORY is in process.
So, despite the fact that recently there’s been much more of an appreciation of ‘Women in Horror’ and authors like Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson, you still don’t see people really talking about a writer like Emily Brontë. Granted it’s just one book, but for some reason Wuthering Heights has defaulted into the realm of gothic Victorian romance. Most film adaptations focus on the love story and completely disregard the fact that it is a ghost story. Why do you think people don’t seem to think of Emily Brontë as a horror author?
I think you diagnose it correctly as misidentification: Wuthering Heights categorized as gothic romance rather than a story of the supernatural— despite the novel’s opening, which is literally a ghost’s assault on a human!
How much more supernatural does it need to be? And every character in the book takes the apparition of dead Cathy as a given! There’s no beard tugging over, Can this be true!?
The novel ends the same way: dead Cathy and dead Heathcliff roaming the moors, clearly visible to a local lad, who says he dares not pass them. Again, no one disputes this. And Emily Brontë is sui generis. Like the other great Emily, Dickinson, like Kit Marlowe, like Arthur Rimbaud, she creates her own genre.
It’s really strange to me, upon second reading recently, seeing just how supernaturally steeped it is. Not only that but it is so dark. At its time people were quite appalled at the amoral tone and message of the book. I remember you said, Wuthering Heights is punk as fuck! And it really is. It’s more in the spirit of a splatterpunk novel than anything in the gothic fiction realm.
It IS punk as fuck! It doesn’t care if others are offended by its bleakness, its insistence on viewing the story’s heroine and hero as two extremely willful, almost savagely willful, people, people who pretty much spend no time at all giving a fuck about what others think. Cathy has a brief period of trying to conform to societal norms, and that ends up ruining pretty much everyone’s lives. Certainly, it ruins hers!
And if there’s anyone in the book who romantically dies for love, it’s Heathcliff, not Cathy, and the one character who keeps urging everyone to mind their morals and act right spends most of her time manipulating people, if not outright deceiving them. So much for the moral majority.
It is such a strange book on so many levels, expertly told through POV’s within POV’s like some kind of trick box.
And when you suddenly reflect that Nelly might actually be the villain, it’s like turning the kaleidoscope. Everything changes, everything you believed you COULD believe becomes suspect.
But what confirms it as a novel of the supernatural is its unwavering grasp of, and delight in, the numinous. The moors aren’t just a cool place to run wild to Cathy (and through her, to Heathcliff), they are an essential habitat that connects her to eternity. Not like pastel cloud Heaven eternity (she dreams of being flung out of heaven by angry angels), but actual timeless existence. NOTHING is more amoral than eternity.
Questions of creation, destruction, and of monstrous creations bring to mind the themes explored in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Was Frankenstein a book you enjoyed upon first reading? What were your first impressions?
I had come to Frankenstein late, and through a cultural path, and was pretty unprepared for the enormous sadness I found there. And that ending!
Yeah if you see the movies first it really is no preparation for the profound existential questions explored in the book. I think the Kenneth Branagh version, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein got closer to the spirit of the book than other versions I’ve seen.
The whole thing turns on the axis of, is life desirable? Useful? Do we even want or need to be alive? Not a monster story at all. And as we’ve discussed, Mary Shelley knew a thing or two, and painfully so, about grappling with those questions.
Right. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, arguably the first feminist essayist, died only 11 days after birthing her. It was due to the sloppy hygiene practices of the doctors of the time, but Mary did not know that and was tragically haunted with a terrible survivor’s guilt.
Then her own child with celebrated Romantic poet Percy Shelley also perished exactly 11 days after it was born. It was after this miscarriage that she began to have haunting dreams about trying to bring her little baby back to life. When Lord Byron challenged the crew at Villa Diodati that famous stormy summer in 1816 near Geneva, Switzerland to write a scary story, she had the fuel for it all keyed up. It was personal for her.
And from that borderland, a mother without a child and a child without a mother, she created a dark and immensely potent life. Her novel far outlived her! As did Brontë's Wuthering Heights.
Their monstrous legacies endure. It takes so much courage to delve into the darkness, into one’s darkest fears. These women wrote stories that not only captured people’s imagination, but these are stories about the feminine experience made universal. Something like miscarrying a life you carried in your body is a very specific kind of experience. Being a woman in a time when women were not allowed the same education as their male counterparts, and nobody expected much of them, being relegated to being a governess or schoolteacher, as the Brontë sisters had to do to make ends meet, were the grounds upon which they laid their seeds. Loss, social rejection, sexism, these themes grow big in their hands.
The isolation these women must have felt, relegated to the fringes of society when they knew they had plenty to say and contribute must have been maddening. I think of the loneliness of the creature and I think of the loneliness of Mary Shelley trying to be heard in a man’s world. It is interesting though, how Wuthering Heights seems to celebrate isolation, whereas in Frankenstein it’s a torment.
I don’t believe Emily saw herself as isolated at Haworth/the moors, but as becoming one with that other in that numinous landscape, and so, more fulfilled than she could have ever been by humanity. Any society might have suffocated her. In Frankenstein it’s the failure of a bond that isolates, the loss and the rejection.
The familiarity, almost mundane treatment of the supernatural in Wuthering Heights brings to mind Shirley Jackson, who openly said she was a practicing witch, but nobody believed her. They thought it was part of some gimmick. I think she was. I have no doubt in my mind. I also have no doubt she experienced haunting first hand. I am finally reading The Haunting of Hill House and recently watched the Robert Wise version and I gotta say, this is how hauntings manifest. It’s little things that eventually drive you a bit mad and make you question your senses. Of course there is the psychological angle of it all.
I also believe that Shirley Jackson knew herself to be a witch, and sometimes kept that identification at arm’s length, by using humor (the famous story of how she broke an editor’s leg, say). And in her fiction, she knew how to keep that sense of the supernatural, the inevitability of it, simultaneously at a remove and right up and breathing in your ear. Stephen King points out that she never had to raise her voice: nor did she! And she trusted enough in her own powers not to feel she had to insist.
I just finished The Haunting of Hill House today and started Hangsaman literally as soon as I finished, and am just floored by her storytelling mastery. The balance between interior and exterior worlds, making a dynamic over the interplay of them, how she never shows her cards fully. You are always free to draw your own conclusions. If you interpret her stories as psychological explorations or tales of the supernatural or BOTH, you can. She does not force your hand. She draws you in with her language, but her stories are not indulgent. They have tight narratives with layers that unfold beautifully.
She’s very economical— nothings there that doesn’t need to be.
What’s your favorite Shirley Jackson story/book?
Hill House and “Notes for a Young Writer,” in Come Along with Me, a total master class in 19 paragraphs.
Oh nice. I will definitely read that. What makes Haunting of Hill House special to you?
Haunting of Hill House continues to be my favorite of Jackson’s works because that novel to me contains the essence of a whole genre: it’s a horror novel, it’s a haunted house novel, it totally plays by the rules of its chosen arena, but it’s never hampered or limited by those rules. Brontë and Shelley remade genres, Jackson shows how to work with originality within one.
Lastly, what are some current strong female voices in the horror or hybrid horror genre that are inspiring you right now?
Maryse Meijer is top of my list. Another writer whose work is not seen as horror, but whose oeuvre, and particularly her newest book, out in September, The Seventh Mansion, is completely at home in the genre.
PS, do NOT read the PW review of this book, it's a good review but they did not GET IT.
Awesome! Thank you Kathe, this has been a pleasure. Thank you for chatting women in horror with me. Any parting words?
The genre is where you find it. Or make it.
And thank you for conceiving this idea, it was fun!!
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