I am often amazed by my good fortune. Not only did I gain a great mentor through the AHWA mentor program, I also ended up with an excellent fellow mentee (is that the right word?)! Stacey Larner is an exciting new voice in speculative fiction who is starting to garner some well deserved attention, as her recent Ditmar nomination for Best New Talent attests. I’m really excited to have her on board this week, as I found this post about Suburban Gothic and some of the darker aspects of motherhood fascinating and it’s made me want to go and find out more.
When David asked me to fill in at short notice I thought “Yes of course!” And then I realised I had to write something original, about writing… and I immediately cast about, floundering for something that might be interesting.
Then I was introduced on twitter to a writer who calls her stuff “Suburban Gothic”. And my mind went ding. My good friend Jodi Cleghorn said to me once that what I was writing wasn’t so much urban fantasy as it was suburban fantasy (that was actually horror). I said yes, then lamented that it’s a hard sell.
I went for a bit of a Google and found that Wikipedia has an entry: Suburban Gothic is a sub-genre of Gothic fiction, film and television, focused on anxieties associated with the creation of suburban communities, particularly in the United States, from the 1950s and 60s onwards. It often, but not exclusively, relies on the supernatural or elements of science fiction that have been in wider Gothic literature, but manifested in a suburban setting.
The appeal of traditional Suburban Gothic horror seems to have waned somewhat. Horror reflects the anxieties of society, and for the many writers who grew up in suburbia (like myself), it’s not something we feel particularly anxious about. However a new kind of character-driven, intensely personal Suburban Gothic is surfacing, often centred around parenthood and the uneasy reconciliation of modern lives with traditional parenting roles.
The way I see it, I’m writing a particular kind of horror that finds its roots in domesticity. Parenting (an in particular, mothering, the perspective I know most intimately) is filled with mundane, repetitive tasks that are often thankless, invisible, and devalued. Birth is an abject state: your boundaries dissolve—physical and mental—as a being that was part of your body for 9 months is ejected out into the world, and becomes a being separate from you, yet still intimately and desperately attached. There are all kinds of bodily fluids, there is the threat of death. And for a period of time afterwards you lose yourself, part of you dies, and you are slave to a tiny dependent being, whose very survival is your responsibility.
It’s pretty fucking full on. You don’t go through that and come out unscathed. But no one wants to know. Everyone sells you this picture of motherhood that is blissful, amazing, hard work, yes, but worth it. Mothers are self-sacrificing, saintly, kinda boring—or they are bad. The Suburban Gothic vibe in my work explores the intersection of the expectation of motherhood, and the reality. Or perhaps it delves deep into what it means to be a mother: including the hard decisions you have to make for the sake of your children, or your sanity. Instead of taking you out of the home, it traps you inside it, inside the claustrophobic confines of suburban life.
I think also more men are writing about parent-centred themes as they become more involved in parenting. Modern fathers are finding themselves impacted by having children in a way that 1950s fathers never were. Obviously the way men and women enter parenthood is different, but Suburban Gothic is particularly suited for both women and men to express their fears about parenthood. For women, it lends itself well to explore the feminist tension between autonomy, independence, and work-as-worth on the one hand, and isolation, dependency, and domestic drudgery on the other. The desire to do what is right for the child, sometimes at odds with what the mother as a person desires for herself.
In my repertoire there’s the story about the new mother with post natal depression who is trying to figure out if what is happening to her is real, or a function of her mental illness. There is the story about a young single mother who sells herself into demonic slavery in order to save her child. There is the story about the couple who lose their baby in utero after struggling with infertility, and how the parasitic nature of pregnancy affects them.
There are some fantastic writers out there, like Margo Lanagan, Kaaron Warren, and Angela Slatter who are not afraid to write diverse mothers, who don’t shy away from parent-centred dark themes. For other examples of this modern Suburban Gothic, check out Michelle Jager’s “Jar Baby” in issue #8 of Midnight Echo, or Simon Dewar’s “The Kettle” in the upcoming Bloody Parchment anthology.
I know many parents who relate to feeling ambivalent about their roles, but there is a definite taboo against talking about it. Horror writers break taboos, though—that’s our job! I gleefully break this one, and hope that, in telling these stories, we can help normalise and destigmatise the very real anxieties felt by modern parents.
S. G. Larner lives in Brisbane, where it’s way too sunny and humid for her liking. Her three children keep her occupied most of the time, but she sneaks off to write whenever she can. She tends to write stuff that is dark and weird to balance her mundane existence. She blogs at foregoreality.wordpress.com and erratically tweets as @StaceySarasvati.