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Today’s guest is Helene Wecker! She is the author of “Majnun,” a story published in the World Fantasy Award–nominated anthology The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories, as well as the New York Times bestselling novel The Golem and the Jinni. Her first novel, a wonderfully written historical fantasy book combining folklore with New York City around the turn of the twentieth century, also won the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize and was a Nebula and World Fantasy Award finalist. The Hidden Palace, a sequel to her debut, will be released soon—on June 8!

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker - Book Cover Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker - Book Cover

I wanted to be an actor, once upon a time.

This was in my school years, during the height of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Broadway musical spectacles, back when one could still sing Memory unironically at a tryout. I memorized every Original Cast Recording I could find, but I only won a few roles in my school plays, probably because I couldn’t carry a tune.

In high school I was cast in The Crucible, and even though mine was the smallest part in the show (Betty Parris, ten years old, spends most of the play asleep in bed) the rehearsals still ate into my study hours. Predictably, my grades tanked. I was horrified, and so were my parents. So I quit acting and worked crew instead, which was stage-adjacent but less demanding. I painted sets, hung backdrops, and mooched around in the wings, envying my friends who’d managed to land good parts and maintain their GPAs.

The big production my senior year was Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale extravaganza. Even if you aren’t familiar with it, you know the main characters: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, Cinderella and Rapunzel, a malevolent old witch, and a baker and his wife. A Narrator stands at the edge of the stage, in command of the story, as the characters venture from their homes into the nearby woods, all of them in search of something. Cinderella wishes to attend the royal ball; impoverished Jack has to sell his beloved cow. The baker and his wife — Sondheim’s own creations, but rooted in folktale tropes — want to lift the curse that prevents them from having a child.

Along the way, the characters cross paths. Cinderella meets her prince; Rapunzel escapes her tower. Jack climbs the beanstalk and slays the giant. By the end of Act One, the villains have been thwarted, the curse lifted. Punishments and rewards are bestowed as appropriate. We reached the right conclusions / And we got what we deserve, they sing as they leave the woods. All is tenderness and laughter / Forever after!

At rehearsals, the true theater nerds among us told stories, almost certainly apocryphal, of audience members at the Broadway premiere who’d left at the end of the first act. The stories had reached their well-known ends; they’d assumed, quite reasonably, that the play was over.

Fast forward twenty years, give or take.

In 2013 my first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was released into the world. It’s the story of Chava and Ahmad, two supernatural creatures who arrive in Manhattan in 1899. Chava, the golem, is shy and cautious, and drawn to help others; Ahmad, the jinni, is capricious and free-spirited. Both must learn how to disguise themselves as ordinary human immigrants, and make new lives for themselves. Being polar opposites, they spend their scenes together in constant argument. Nevertheless I’d ended the book on a hopeful note, suggesting that they were about to embark on a relationship together.

I was lucky, and The Golem and the Jinni was successful enough that, before long, I could start thinking seriously about selling my next book. Readers seemed interested in a sequel; my publisher, too, liked the concept. I had a few vague ideas for other, non-Golem-and-Jinni books, but none of them were clamoring to be told. I was now mother to a two-year-old, with a baby on the way. I was turning forty, and I was tired. The first book had taken me seven years to write. I really, really didn’t want to do that again.

Write a sequel, said my weary brain. It’s got to be easier than starting over from the beginning.

I began to think up plot outlines, likely-sounding scenarios. I wanted something multi-layered and full of detail, with my two main characters at its heart. I also invented another golem, this one male, as well as a jinniyeh, a female jinni. These new dramatis personae would be closer to their traditional portrayals in folklore and legend than Chava and Ahmad, whom I’d designed as more human-seeming. I brought back a number of supporting characters from the first book; one of them, the Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, I elevated to main player status. And at the center were Chava and Ahmad and their new, tentative romance. How would it work, in practice? They’d have to learn to reconcile their conflicting natures, to meet in the middle somehow — and that would create tension enough to power a novel, wouldn’t it?

I wrote a proposal, got the go-ahead, and dove into the first draft — and before long, the problems set in. How much of the previous book did I need to recap? Could I do it gracefully, without As-You-Know-Bobbing my way through the first hundred pages? I began with a cold open set a decade after the first book, and alternated the forward motion with flashbacks — but then the flashbacks started to take over the book, and the momentum slowed to a crawl. I stopped, backed up, started over. Intoxicated by my research, I shoved in all sorts of flotsam: policemen, boxing rings, gentlemen’s clubs, nickelodeons, New York State sanatoriums. I came to my senses after a while, and cut out half the plot.

So far, so familiar; I’d had growing pains with the first book, too. But something more troubling was happening. The more I wrote about Chava and Ahmad’s fledgling relationship — the flying sparks, the tension that was supposed to propel the book’s emotional engine — the more irritating and superficial their arguments became. He looks at other girls, Chava fretted. She thinks she’s better than me, Ahmad grumbled. Oh, grow up and get over yourselves, I wanted to tell them. These were characters I’d spent years getting to know, and now I felt like I was stuck at a dinner party next to a couple of self-involved jerks, wishing they’d go to couples therapy already and leave the rest of us alone.

But I couldn’t figure out what else to do. I’d designed the entire book around this putative romance, so I gritted my teeth and kept writing. Deadline extensions came and went. At last I gave the manuscript to a trusted reader. Their response was multi-layered, full of detail. At its heart was the word boring.

It’s over, I thought as I lay in bed, staring up into the dark. I thought there was more to their story, but I was wrong.

And the back of my brain told me, That was just Act One. They went into the woods, and they came out again. It’s the start of Act Two.

The second act of Into the Woods is quite a bit darker than the first.

It doesn’t start off that way. Jack and his mother now live in luxury, thanks to the gold he stole from the giant. The baker and his wife have a new baby; Rapunzel and Cinderella have married their princes. All have gotten what they thought they wanted — but none of it is quite what they expected. Jack pines for the kingdom in the sky, and the baker is uncomfortable with fatherhood. The princes, having won their elusive sweethearts, realize that it was the pursuit itself they truly loved.

Then, disaster arrives. A Giantess, the wife of the giant from Act One, climbs down the beanstalk looking for justice. She blunders about in search of Jack, destroying houses and castles. The terrified characters debate whether to give the boy to her before she tramples them all. But he’s nowhere to be found — and so, in their panic, they offer up the Narrator instead.

The quiet pause onstage as the characters’ calculating gazes turn toward the oblivious Narrator is one of my favorite moments in all of theater, and it gives me the shivers every single time. Simply by acknowledging his presence — and, by extension, their own fictional existence — they break free of the story’s control. Anarchy is loosed upon the stage. “You’ll never know how the story turns out!” the Narrator cries as his own creations drag him to his doom. “You don’t want to live in a world of chaos!”

The Giantess kills the Narrator and stomps off, squashing Rapunzel by accident. Soon Jack’s mother and the baker’s wife are dead as well. The characters aren’t in the Narrator’s tidy story anymore, but Sondheim’s, which is uglier and messier and far more real. Here, people die for no good reason. The consequences they suffer may be from someone else’s actions, and sometimes the only decision that’s left to them is whether to run from an unpleasant truth, or turn to face it head on.

I began to ask, what unpleasant truths were my characters running away from? What could I find that was already there, that would give life to their tedious resentments?

I went back, again, to the beginning. I put everything else aside and, in a spirit of desperate experimentation, wrote a scene where Chava and Ahmad go to Central Park on a cold winter night. In the park, they pass by a frozen pond, and Ahmad decides to try ice skating for the first time. Chava is against it: he’s a creature of fire, and a fall through the ice would kill him instantly. He waves away her objections and wobbles out onto the lake. Chava calls after him to be careful. Intent on his keeping his balance, Ahmad calls back, Stop fretting, Chava, I know enough to hide from the rain!

That line transformed the entire book.

Ahmad lives half a world away from his desert home and his own kind. An iron cuff around his wrist keeps him locked in human form, which means that he can’t speak in his own language anymore — but he can still think in it. It’s an inner link to his past, which he remembers as a truer existence than his life in New York — a past, moreover, that he feels he must hide from the woman he loves. The cavalier ways of the jinn go against everything Chava believes in, and he’s afraid that if she looks too deeply inside him, it’ll only drive her away.

Chava, of course, has noticed Ahmad’s refusal to talk about his earlier life, but she doesn’t realize the true reason behind it. She can only assume that he thinks her too prudish and naive to hear the details; at times, she wonders if he’s right. And on the rare occasions when Ahmad lets something slip — when, for example, he unthinkingly translates a jinn idiom into human language — it’s a painful reminder of the gulf that still exists between them, even after everything they’ve shared.

Finally. Some real tension.

I went forward from that scene and rewrote all their bickering with this new dynamic in mind. The entire shape of the book began to change. Now, instead of looking like a bad teen comedy, their relationship hinged upon a deeper question: Is it possible for someone to assimilate into a radically different society while maintaining a sense of continuity, a wholeness that includes both past and present? And can their loved ones in their new, adopted home — their friends and partners, the children they bear — ever truly understand the life they left behind?

Nowadays, instead of the entire musical, high schools can choose to perform “Into the Woods Jr.,” a stripped-down version that omits the second act. I understand why such a thing exists; the original’s a heavy lift, especially with Sondheim’s notoriously tongue-twisting lyrics. I also assume that some schools skip the second act so they can avoid its difficult subject matter, and I can’t help feeling a little salty about this. Yes, some of the characters make bad and cowardly choices, and they aren’t necessarily punished for them. There’s philandering, and abandonment, and plenty of indiscriminate death. (When the play debuted in 1987, many theater critics saw the rampaging Giantess as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis. Apparently Sondheim’s reply was that he hadn’t intended it, though he didn’t argue against it either.) But at the end of the second act’s chaos and misery lies the possibility of self-knowledge. The grieving characters no longer wish for the things that a story has told them to wish for. Instead, connected to each other by their shared experiences, they leave their demolished homes and come together to care for each other, a found family. The play ends not with the first act’s superficial happiness, but the possibility of future joy.

In the end, the book that became The Hidden Palace took me just as long to write as The Golem and the Jinni did. I finished it during a pandemic, in a months-long marathon of sleepless nights that I really, really don’t want to do again. I’m forty-six years old, and I am tired. But at last my book is something I think I can be proud of, and after seven years spent wandering through the woods, I’m feeling pretty joyful about it.

Photo of Helene Wecker
Photo by Kareem Kazkaz

Helene Wecker is the author of THE HIDDEN PALACE (Harper, June 8, 2021). It is the sequel to her debut novel THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI (Harper, 2013) which was awarded the Mythopoeic Award, the VCU Cabell Award, and the Harald U. Ribalow Prize, and was nominated for a Nebula and World Fantasy Award. The novel was chosen as an Amazon Editor Top 20 Pick, an Amazon Spotlight Debut, an Indie Next Pick, one of Entertainment Weekly’s top Ten Works of Fiction for the year, Audible’s Top Debut Novel Audiobook of the Year, and featured in Buzzfeed’s and Kirkus Reviews’ best books of the year features as well as many other national outlets. Her work has appeared in Joyland, Catamaran, and in the anthology THE DJINN FALLS IN LOVE AND OTHER STORIES. A Midwest native, Wecker holds a B.A. in English from Carleton College and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and children.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is fantasy author M.J. Kuhn! Her debut novel, Among Thieves, is described as “a high-stakes heist novel set in a gritty world of magic and malice, and perfect for fans of Six of Crows!” While waiting for its release on September 7, you can read some great posts on her blog, find her on Facebook or Instagram, or follow her on Twitter.

Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn - Book Cover

I think most of us have seen those posts online calling out some of the super cringey ways some cishet male authors describe their female characters. But sexism in writing isn’t all ridiculously personified breasts and damsels in distress. Sometimes, it’s a lot more subtle than that. So subtle, in fact, that even self-proclaimed feminists like myself need to be wary of falling into the traps.

That’s right. This is gonna be a call-out post—of myself.

Well, sort of.

Growing up, I read almost nothing but fantasy—and I read a lot of it. Some of my favorites at the time were the classic, old-school fantasy series. The “fun” thing about many of those older fantasy reads, like tales by Tolkien or Jordan, is that the female characters are either nonexistent, or their arcs are almost completely defined by their desire to impress or win over the male characters around them. Not exactly a great template for young fantasy writers who want to tell stories about compelling, self-possessed women. The good news is, the market is definitely shifting to include more stories about characters who are not white, cishet men! Finally, stories about complex female characters actually have a fighting chance! The bad news is, in order to actually write those stories about compelling women, authors have to fight more than just outdated industry standards.

We have to fight our own internalized misogyny.

How many of us have caught ourselves having unwelcome, socially conditioned thoughts regarding other women (or ourselves)? In everyday life, internalized misogyny can show up in the form of body image issues, or a general unconscious bias in favor of men (ugh). But it doesn’t stop at the tip of the pen. If we’re not careful, it can seep into our writing as well.

That horrible, unwanted sexism tends to creep into my own first drafts in a few places. The first is small, but ultimately still important, in my opinion. Unnamed side characters. The random guards my characters must sneak past, the tavern-keeper they order an ale from once—you get the idea. 99% of the time, in my first drafts, I automatically default to writing these characters as men. Which invariably results in Editing Brain M. J. reading through that draft and saying, “WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN IN THIS WORLD?”

The other place I find myself fighting against my own social conditioning is in building the female members of my main cast. Every fantasy project I have ever written has had a majority female cast… and early on in every single project, I have had to fight against the trap of the Strong Female Character™. You know the one. She’s strong because she’s muscly and ice-cold and unfeeling. In other words, she’s as flat as a piece of cardboard. Every project, I have to remind myself that my emotionally vulnerable female characters are just as strong as the scarred, jaded ones. A warrior can have feelings and still be a badass—even if she’s a woman.

Those are just the few that I personally struggle with, but there are more! Fantasy worlds riddled with unnecessary sexual violence, manuscripts filled with oversexualized descriptions of female characters… Internalized misogyny is a sneaky thing. So, how do we combat it? How do we cure ourselves? I won’t pretend I have all the answers here, but I don’t think there is a silver bullet for this particular werewolf. I think it’s just like any other kind of internalized or unconscious bias… you have to put in the work. It’s all about self-awareness—catching yourself in moments where that social conditioning is taking over, and taking a moment to stop and think: “…wait a second, I don’t really believe that.” Then rinse and repeat that literally for the rest of our lives and careers.

When it comes to the battle against internalized misogyny in writing, I know I’m not perfect, but I know it’s a battle worth fighting… so dammit, I will keep fighting it!

Photo of M.J. Kuhn
Photo by Amanda Pregler
M.J. Kuhn is a fantasy writer by night and a mild-mannered university employee by day. She lives in the metro Detroit area with her husband Ryan, a dog named Wrex, and the very spoiled cat Thorin Oakenshield. You can find more information about M.J. online at MJKuhn.com.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Nicole Kornher-Stace! Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Best American Fantasy, among other publications, and her speculative poetry has been on the Rhysling Award ballot a couple of times with “The Changeling Always Wins” placing second in the Short Form category. Archivist Wasp, her debut novel, was a Norton Award finalist, and both this and its sequel, Latchkey, were on the Locus Recommended Reading List for Fantasy for their respective release years. She has two new books coming soon: Firebreak, a near-future science fiction novel described as “a refreshing take on Ready Player One, with a heavy dose of Black Mirror,” will be out on May 4, and her middle grade debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, will be out on July 20.

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace - Book Cover Jillian Vs Parasite Planet by Nicole Kornher-Stace - Book Cover

When I was in high school, I had the same weird conversation several times with different girls in my classes. Out of the blue they’d say something to me like “Wow, you’re actually really nice. I assumed you were a huge bitch for some reason.” And I’d kind of mumble something noncommittal and go back to whatever I was doing, because what do you say to that? Thanks, I guess?

In hindsight I think the “some reason” had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve always been a loner and I’ve always had what people refer to as “a presence,” which I translate as: I’m kind of on the tall side and I have legendary resting bitchface.

What really struck me about it, though, was that some of these same girls reacted very, very differently to guys with the same traits. A loner dude is fascinating and mysterious. A loner girl is snooty and cold. A dude with a permanent scowl gets a fascinating backstory headcanoned onto him fast enough to break the sound barrier. A girl wearing that same expression is dismissed as overbearing and hostile. Etc.

I’ve always been a writer—I learned to read and write at age two, and started diligently trying to publish professionally around age 13 or so, with predictable results—and for better or worse, fiction is the lens through which I’ve always seen the world. So I started thinking about how fictional characters get classified according to their traits and genders, and the double standard isn’t pretty. We love to forgive the asshole qualities of male characters, mining their every microexpression for the barest hint of internal contradictions and hidden depths. As main characters they get to be violent, antisocial, self-serving, ruthless, brooding, abrasive, calculating, cruel. Meanwhile these same qualities, impossibly rare in female protagonists, are easy to find in female villains, or in female secondary characters whose anti-hero qualities are often conflated, incomprehensibly, with sex appeal to a male protagonist and not further explored. The same traits that make a male character compelling make a female character “unlikeable.” As if being “nice” is some kind of prerequisite for being an interesting character. Unless, of course, you’re a dude.

It’s the exact same double standard I was experiencing in high school. You don’t see asshole male characters being scorned as “unlikeable,” no matter what they do. They can murder a whole pile of people in cold blood and be worshipped by zillions of readers and viewers, but a woman character who so much as stands up for herself is too harsh, too bossy, too mean.

There are, of course, exceptions. Girls and women in fiction who are allowed to be good guys and assholes at the same time. Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender is unfriendly, selfish, and inflexible. Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph is war-hardened and brutal. Gideon from Gideon the Ninth is refreshingly, unapologetically annoying. The vast majority of the women in The Expanse give no fucks about their image. Jessica Jones has all the traits of the hard-drinking, hard-boiled, traditionally male noir detective. None of them are nice. They don’t even try to be likeable. They’re too busy getting shit done. But still, many of these aren’t protagonists, and their not-“nice” traits get called out by other characters (think Toph being made to explain her brusqueness to Katara, or Calhoun’s take-no-shit attitude getting justified by other characters recounting the tragic backstory that Made Her That Way), while the same traits in male characters are accepted without question. Not only that, but the same readers and viewers who dismiss these female characters as “unlikeable,” even after their problematic behaviors are so carefully justified by other characters or narratives within the source material, will take on the labor themselves of justifying the same behaviors in male characters, which the narrative never bothers to do because nobody within the narrative expects it.

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace - Book Cover

It’s always made me angry. And my response when something fictional makes me angry is to write fiction the way I want to see it—not only to make myself feel better (though to be honest that’s part of it) but also for other readers looking for the same. So I write female protagonists who aren’t at all “nice” in the traditional sense. My YA debut Archivist Wasp is a good example of this. In an extremely post-apocalyptic society millennia removed from the collapse, Wasp is a ghosthunter priestess of the goddess of the dead. She was forced into that position from birth and forced to view other girls as rivals, as she has to fight them in ritual serial combat to the death, annually, to keep the role of Archivist. It’s not a role she wants, but she also doesn’t want to be, you know, murdered, so she’s in a bit of a dilemma. She’s angry, and maybe most importantly to me, she never stops being angry. On top of that, this way of life hasn’t let her make any friends, so when she finally does begin to realize she’s actually making one despite herself, it’s a painful process for her, extremely awkward and begrudging. She’s not friendly, she’s not a people person, she’s not “nice,” her entire upbringing has traumatized her tactically and systematically for over a decade—but she’s fierce and loyal and not nearly as self-serving, in the end, as she was raised to be.

I have two books coming out in 2021, and both also have the kind of female protagonist that I had such a hard time finding in fiction. Mal, the main character of my adult SF debut Firebreak, was described by one beta reader as “so crusty yet so loveable” because she’s good without being nice, compassionate without being friendly. She’s awkward and antisocial and angry and really direly awful at feigning bubbly perkiness for the audience of the VR game she livestreams, which is unfortunate for her because she has to scrape together a living from viewer tips. But at the same time she has a strong sense of justice and she sticks her neck out to help people. This is going to sound weird, but she’s a lot like Toby from The West Wing: cares deeply about people on a macro level while being just so very very bad at them on a micro level. Watching that show, I found Toby’s character contradictions really refreshing, but nothing I’d ever seen or thought I was ever likely to see in a female character—he’s got a good heart but he can be extremely unpleasant, and female characters don’t tend to get away with that kind of incongruity—so I decided to write one myself, and that’s Mal. And then in my middle-grade debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, it was important to me to write a kid with anxiety, whose anxiety is depicted as something other than “shyness.” Anxiety wears so many more asshole hats than that! My kid has anxiety and so do I, and it doesn’t look like shyness in either of us. It can, however, look like extreme grumpiness and irritability, and I really wanted to depict that in a girl protagonist, because if there’s one place we need to see female characters allowed as wide a range of emotions as male ones, it might be media aimed at kids. We need to normalize this early and often, and the last thing we need is to tell ten-year-old girls that the occasional shitty mood dooms female characters to fandom dismissal or outright scorn, while falling over ourselves to laud the exact same behaviors in male characters. And while we’re at it, let’s stop saying it to people of all ages and genders, and making our female characters justify their personalities in a way that our male characters never do. Literally nobody—in fiction or in real life—ever needs to hear it.

Nicole Kornher-Stace is the author of the Norton Award finalist Archivist Wasp and its sequel, Latchkey. Her adult SF debut, Firebreak, is forthcoming from Saga in May 2021, and her middle grade SF debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, is forthcoming from Tachyon in July 2021. She lives in New Paltz, NY with her family. She can be found online at www.nicolekornherstace.com or on Twitter @wirewalking.

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Thank you to all of last week’s guests for another wonderful week of essays! Here are their guest posts in case you missed any of them:

All of the guest posts from April 2021 can be found here.

It’s the last week of April, and the rest of this year’s Women in SF&F Month guest posts will go up over the next few days. The schedule for the rest of the month is as follows:

Women in SF&F Month Schedule Graphic

April 26: Nicole Kornher-Stace (Archivist Wasp, Latchkey, Firebreak)
April 27: M. J. Kuhn (Among Thieves)
April 28: Helene Wecker (The Golem and the Jinni, The Hidden Palace)
April 29: Hannah Whitten (For the Wolf, For the Throne)

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Tori Bovalino! Her YA debut novel, The Devil Makes Three, is a gothic horror/mystery thriller story in which a summer job at the school library leads to unintentionally freeing a demon from an ancient grimoire. The Devil Makes Three will be out on August 10, and her next novel, a retelling of Christina Rosetti’s “Goblin Market” titled Not Good for Maidens, is scheduled for release next year.

The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino - Book Cover

On the Amorphous Nature of Horror
Tori Bovalino

Thank you to Fantasy Book Café for having me! Today, we’re talking about horror. So many elements of horror come into SFF, especially in recent times when darkness is its own type of escapism.

When I was growing up, my search for reading material had one major bit of criteria: will this scare me? I tore through RL Stine’s catalogue and moved on to Stephen King way before it was socially acceptable. My sister and I had a hardback copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and the subsequent sequels, which came out at every sleepover. We’d turn the page onto illustrations with our eyes half-closed to reveal Harold or the woman searching for her lost toe. This passion for spooks spread into other aspects of my life: when I had the TV to myself, I’d go searching for ghost hunting shows or murder documentaries. I spent hours online reading ghost stories from my little corner of Pennsylvania, until I was nearly too afraid to sleep. Even now, I spend way too much time on Reddit’s nosleep forum, searching for my next terror.

Horror exists to petrify, to terrify, to remind us of the things that may or may not lurk in the dark. Elements of horror bleed into other areas of fiction constantly: see the supernatural elements and undercurrent of fear in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle and the mix of body horror and suspense in The Cruel Prince by Holly Black.

But what are elements of horror? It’s such a varied genre that it can be hard to pin down. To go back to my childhood, asking Will this scare me? is as good a test as any. At its root, horror is intended to make a reader feel afraid or unsettled. Atmosphere plays an important role in this: does the voice of the book paired with the setting and the emotional reactions of the characters elicit dread? Horror can also contain elements of the supernatural, such as ghosts and demons.

The difference between a book with horror elements and a horror novel, though, is the intention: is fear the primary reaction, or does the plot have a different aim? We can see this difference in films like What We Do in the Shadows. Though the film has many elements of horror (gore, supernatural creatures, dark and mysterious house) these elements are overshadowed by the comedic plot. Thus, Shadows is not primarily a horror film.

The lines are certainly blurry. And the genre itself is incredibly varied. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica is a recent horror offering set in a realistic world in which humans are farmed for meat. It is very different from a book like Mexican Gothic by Silva Moreno-Garcia, which centers on a peculiar family living in a gothic house. Though these books have their differences, the elements of fear and dread are still present and primarily in the forefront.

When you evaluate the primary question of horror, Will this scare me?, it’s no surprise that there is such variation. How can a genre meant to terrify be consistent when every person’s fears are different? Horror has to be varied to cater to a variety of scary tastes.

When I write horror, or a book with horror elements, I know it’s not going to scare everyone. That’s a given since fear is subjective. If I’m scaring myself, then I’m doing a good enough job. Fear is a basic part of humanity, so of course fiction would seek to mirror that. I love to be scared because it reminds me, with every accelerated heartbeat, that I am alive.


Tori Bovalino is the author of THE DEVIL MAKES THREE, available August 10, 2021 from Page Street.

Photo of Tori Bovalino

Tori Bovalino is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and lives in London. She holds a BA in English and anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently a student in Royal Holloway’s Creative writing and practice-based PhD program. Her debut novel, The Devil Makes Three, is forthcoming from Page Street. Tori is represented by Dr. Uwe Stender and Amelia Appel at TriadaUS Literary Agency. She is active on social media as @toribov.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Angela Mi Young Hur! I’ve been excited to read her first speculative fiction novel, Folklorn, ever since I read its description: “A genre-defying, continents-spanning saga of Korean myth, scientific discovery, and the abiding love that binds even the most broken of families.” Folklorn will be released in just a few days—on April 27!

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur - Book Cover

In Folklorn, headstrong and ambitious scientist Elsa Park, whose prickly exterior barely hides her wounds, contends with her mother’s claim that the women in their line are cursed to repeat the narrative fates of their ancestors—otherwise recognizable as Korean folklore characters. My novel is mostly a realist family drama examining intergenerational trauma brought on by war, immigration, and racism, though there are also flourishes of the gothic, absurd, and fantastical. Most important, numerous Korean folktales are woven throughout that I reinterpret through first-person monologues of feminist fury and lament.

One of these retellings is based on an actual ancestral legend of my family, the Gimhae-Gim-Heo clan, explaining the origin of our surname through my ancestress Queen Heo Hwang-Ok, also known as Suriratna. (My surname “Hur,” like “Heo,” is one of many Romanizations for “허.” My second cousins use a different spelling. My parents and brothers initially used “Huh” as early immigrants in the U.S., later changing it officially before I was born.) Queen Heo’s story is recounted in the Samguk Yusa, a 13th century Korean chronicle of history and legend. But the story’s even older, by a thousand years, as the Samguk Yusa references its inclusion in the Garakgukgi (Record of Garak Kingdom), now lost.

Folklorn is about the inheritance of myth from parents and culture, how these stories shape our identity and our lives, whether we submit, challenge, or reject. So it was delightfully Easter-eggy to include an actual family legend in this novel about story-fates and folkloric ancestors. Moreover, I incorporate this legend because her story echoes many of the folktales that are important to Korea and interrogated in Folklorn. Spoiler alert: in several tales, water is where girls and women are drowned by others, or led to sacrifice themselves, or spied on while bathing and then abducted. But seen another way, water is also the site of transformation, rebirth, or portals to another world.

My surname-sake ancestress, according to the legend, was a princess from the kingdom of Ayodhya. (Most archaeologists and historians believe this to be Ayodhya in Northern India, though some believe it’s the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Thailand.) One day, the princess’s parents put her on a ship with red sails and sent her in the general direction of east because they’d dreamt that’s how their daughter would meet her future husband. (I too have been tricked by my Asian mother into a surprise date with her friend’s son at The Cheesecake Factory. “He works at Google and bought his mother a house!” she said, announcing he’d pick me up in a half hour so I better slap on some makeup.) Luckily for my ancestress, she wasn’t left drifting too long because King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya (a kingdom in what’s now Korea) also had a prophetic dream. Now this is where my mother and Wikipedia differ.

According to Mom, the King also sailed out to find his future Queen, a maritime meet-cute for the ages, two royal ships coming together as equals in the ocean between them. I believed my mom’s version was the only one until I researched for my novel as an adult. The legend as it’s described in Wikipedia is confusingly loaded with details of emissaries, slaves, a pitched tent and the removal of silk garments as offering to the mountain spirit. I use my mother’s version instead but bend it further to suit my thematic needs. Mom’s retelling is also quite telling in itself. That’s something I explore in Folklorn—not just the stories we inherit and create about ourselves, but also how much we reveal in what and how we tell these stories.

My parents grew up in a very patriarchal Korean culture that’s sexist, often misogynist. They also grew up during the Korean War, a trauma that instilled in them the ethos to protect your own and survive at all costs—which in war, especially a civil war, isn’t always compatible. Immigration, building a business, and raising a family, while surviving multiple muggings and a near-fatal assault, didn’t leave much time for personal growth, healing, or political awakening for my parents. A mantra I often heard in Korean while growing up was: “Eat and survive.” That was life. And yet my mother, who’d always been told that her greatest asset was her beauty and gentleness, whose ladies’ college in Seoul had been a glorified charm school preparing her for marriage, had in her own way railed and raged against the tyranny of Korean patriarchy. My mother didn’t raise me to be a feminist, not in name. She is still very much a product of her generation and culture. But she did want me to be strong and proud of being Korean, to know I came from a princess who arrived in a new country and became its Queen, who accepted the King’s proposal only on condition that two of her children bear her surname and pass it on.

Portraits of Queen Heo and King Suro
Painted portraits of Queen Heo and King Suro from our jokbo

Maybe my mom did put her romantic spin on the story for a reason—displaced yearning, wish-fulfillment? Maybe she wanted me to subliminally absorb that I should demand equal footing from my future partner, to be treated like a queen. I can’t project too much though because her feminism is one that’s been slowly developing. She’s eighty, still learning.

What I know for certain—why she told me this story, and about my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather who was a magistrate of Kaesong, and about so-and-so scholar-granduncles on my father’s side. Why didn’t I ask her about her own family’s stories until a few years ago? Wouldn’t she rather be telling me the story of her own ancestress queen? Her reply was that their clan wasn’t fancy, no remarkable people. Just landed farmers who made good money.

Truth is, I didn’t inquire further as a child because I didn’t fully understand the significance of these stories, not until I became an immigrant mother myself, with mixed-race immigrant children who look different from the other kids around them. I live in Stockholm, Sweden, with my Swedish husband. In telling the story of Queen Heo to my six-year-old daughter I understand my mother’s intentions more fully.

As a child, I was often bullied by the Japanese-American boys at my school who called me ugly and kimchi-girl and likely hated that I was the “smart one” in the class. (My novel also examines the complicated nuances of internalized racism and intra-racial prejudice, often rooted in history and hierarchal race structures.) Luckily, I had my father’s innate sense of pride / superiority, and the bullying didn’t erode my self-esteem too much, though it did make me sad, withdrawn, often mute. I certainly didn’t tell them to fuck off because I was a descendant of a queen. I shrugged off the story my mom told me, knowing I’d be humiliated and mocked at school if I mentioned it, since I was obviously not rich, not royal, didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a princess. Everyone knew my father ran an auto body shop in a “bad” part of town and sometimes teased me about that too.

But now, when I tell my daughter the story of our ancestress, I embellish with storytelling flair to impress upon my six-year-old the grandeur and beauty of her ancestral myth. My daughter is a fantasy and sci-fi nerd, who loved the movie Labyrinth at age four, read My Little Pony comics at five, plays Portal the video game, and draws dragons with ice powers. She’s the kind of kid who muses right before bedtime: “What if this is all a memory or a dream, and when we wake up, magic is real?”

I want my daughter to be proud of her Korean ancestry, especially as a mixed-race immigrant in Sweden. I want her to know she comes from a line of women who’ve braved new lands, exploring and learning and teaching. I want my daughter to know her name comes from an immigrant who became Queen, whose written story disappeared when the Garakgugki was lost, but was recovered, reclaimed, and reinforced in the Samguk Yusa, a thousand years later. During that millennium in between, how was this woman not forgotten? She became an oral story melding history and fantasy, compressed into gem, with facets of symbol and code—she became a myth so we could remember her and pass on her tale. And by sharing this with my children—a story told to me by their grandmother, who’s also a published essayist writing in Korean—they will understand why I gave them both “Hur” for their middle names.

I wonder why though I also deflate the magic for my daughter by telling her this queen’s descendants, bearing her name, number more than six million; that Korea was made up of multiple small kingdoms, so many can claim royal descent. I explain how legends are born from history and fantasy. I also show her our jokbo, official genealogy book, and explain how these have been meticulously recorded and preserved throughout Korean history, how our jokbo goes back over sixty generations and is our claim to the Gimhae-Gim-Heo clan. I don’t tell her that some jokbo were stolen or forged or bought into—just as noble names were purchased or self-given in Europe during the same time. I don’t go this far, but the impulse remains—to protect my daughter, from what? From believing too much in fantasy? Perhaps my child-self still worries what the other kids would say? Considering the genetic spread over human history, millions of us are indeed likely descended from Queens and Explorers, Adventurers and History-Makers—why can’t my daughter be one of them?

Fortunately, the story is not only shaped by the teller, but also by the receiver. My daughter tells her Swedish scientist father that she is descended from a princess who came by ship to Korea and became its Queen. And just last week, she wondered aloud if she and her brother should also pass on “Hur” as a middle name to their children. I’d never suggested this before, but I agreed it would be cool. This is how her mind works, absorbing the story and adding herself to it, wondering to whom she’ll pass it on.

Photo of Angela Mi Young Hur Angela Hur received a BA in English Literature from Harvard and an MFA in Creative Writing from Notre Dame, where she won the Sparks Fellowship and the Sparks Prize, a post-graduate fellowship. Her debut The Queens of K-Town was published by MacAdam/Cage in 2007. Hur has taught English Literature and Creative Writing at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, in Seoul, Korea. She’s also taught for Writopia, a U.S. non-profit providing creative writing workshops for children and teens. While living in Stockholm, Sweden, she’s worked as a Staff Editor for SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. She is currently living in Stockholm, with her husband and children.