By Bob Freville
1. Kathe Koja
Long before modern readers embraced the brutal, gut-churning minimalism of Chuck Palahniuk, Kathe Koja introduced a clipped literary style to speculative fiction that was brusque, brave and fringe before fringe was really a thing.
A prominent figure during the 90s genre paperback boom, Koja made a name for herself with the seminal novel “The Cipher,” her debut book and the first title from Dell Books’ then-new Abyss imprint. “The Cipher” introduced us to a female voice that was neither flowery nor delicate but angry and foreboding.
Koja’s characters were grungy and subversive in ways that the literary world hadn’t seen before. Indeed, early works like “The Cipher” and “Bad Brains” introduced relatable twenty-somethings at a time when the mainstream was getting it all wrong with flicks like Reality Bites.
The dysfunctional couple at the heart of “The Cipher” is emblematic of Koja’s singular cultural perspective and the horrors of the book show us that girls don’t just wanna have fun, they also want to reach into the dark and rage.
2. Hannah Forman, aka Hannah Neurotica
The early-2000s saw a relative drought when it came to the kind of lovingly assembled homemade print zines that many of us had grown up on in the Eighties and Nineties. That is, until a young New Yorker by the name of Hannah Neurotica took a metaphorical sledgehammer to the duel concepts of publishing and gender politics in horror.
Neurotica began making her own DIY horror publication, Ax Wound Zine, in 2009, and it quickly filled the void left in the wake of Fangoria folding its print arm. It also filled another void, one felt by female horror fiends all across the nation. It was and is billed as the first feminist horror publication.
Ax Wound Zine became a place where women could discuss their favorite genre classics and put the themes of those classics squarely within the context of a woman’s perspective. That Neurotica did so with such bravery, wit and gusto speaks to why she remains an important voice, both in the zine world and among the women of horror.
Dudes, take note: Ms. Forman didn’t need balls to get the job done. She created something groundbreaking and wildly collectible simply by being passionate and steadfast.
3. Darcey Steinke
Most of the people I know in the horror/New Weird/Bizarro community are unaware of this blessed belletrist and her bloody incredible body of work. That is a shame since her second novel, “Jesus Saves,” is one of the most brutally imagistic and beatific fables I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Steinke got her start with the tough-as-nails romantic novel “Suicide Blonde,” so named for the INXS song that was popular at the time. A groundbreaking achievement in literary fiction, it paved the way for the bloody bildungsroman “Jesus Saves,” a tale of suburban domestic horror, child abduction, lost innocence and faith in the face of hopelessness.
What makes Steinke’s writing so potent is the economy of her language and the way that she is able to deploy it. Somehow, the simplest of descriptions becomes an onyx puddle of heartbreaking poetry. I challenge any visually-minded person to read the first chapter without automatically coming up with a shot list in their head for a film adaptation.
Men might make up the majority when it comes to best-selling horror, but few of them are as capable of writing truly imagistic prose like the kind found in Steinke’s work. If there’s one thing that her books teach us it’s that an author’s style can benefit from being at turns scathing and sensitive.
4. Emma Alice Johnson
Emma Johnson is one of the strongest voices in bizarro and horror; she’s also a fellow Bizarro Pulp Press alum. Represent! But aside from sharing a publisher in common, I’ve had no real world contact with Ms. Johnson.
The only contact I have had is with her work, such as the gleefully gruetacular short story collection “Berzerkoids” and, more recently, short but (bitter)sweet “Lake Lurkers.” Suffice it to say that Johnson’s work has touched me despite our lack of actual contact, and that’s part of what makes her writings so special.
What this Wonderland Award-winning writer does so well is immerse you in a world that reminds you in some sick way of your own despite its ferociously foreign landscape. Expertly planting plot twists around every corner in the leanest of shorts, Johnson is able to gross the reader out and then tug at their proverbial heart strings in a matter of three pages or less.
Let that be a lesson to the Stephen Kings of the world who have to describe a pickup truck’s paint job or a wet fart for seventeen paragraphs before they’re satisfied that their work is done. The ladies have spoken and less really is more.
5. Francesca Lia Block
I’m not usually one to read YA books, but when my girl introduced me to “Wasteland,” I knew that it was back to the realm of S.E. Hinton for me. Francesca Lia Block’s prose are every bit as poetic in nature as the aforementioned Darcey Steinke, but they’re also elegantly plotted.
What Lia Block does in novella after novella is what the Coen Brothers have done with cinema; each of her books is a singular work, usually in a dramatically different genre than what came before. She never visits the same place twice and, yet, the reader always feels a certain semblance of familiarity. That’s because Lia Block’s signature is ingrained in the language.
When you read a Lia Block book, you feel secure in the arms of a guardian or guide, someone who is spiriting you away to a very unique locale. Once you get there, you never really want to leave. And like all of the best writers, Lia Block knows to cut it short, lest you leave without wanting more.
6. Flannery O’Connor
When folks think of Southern Grit Lit, they often think of Barry Hannah or Harry Crews, but the South had no finer scribe than Flannery O’Connor, a woman whose first novel, “Wise Blood,” said more about the Southern plight than Jimmy Carter.
Her portrait of a war-ravaged man resolving to form an anti-religious ministry opened the door for the irreverent social commentary of authors like Kurt Vonnegut (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces) and, yes, even Harry Crews (The Gospel Singer).
Chauvanism is such that the male literati long believed that women writers belonged penning meek little poems in the same way that they thought their wives belonged in the kitchen. What O’Connor proved in stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Revelation” is that a woman is more keenly aware of the world’s flaws than the myopic male who’s blinded by his animal desires, desires that O’Connor chronicled with acerbic humor and blunt conclusions.
7. C.V. Hunt
Author C.V. Hunt has been churning out books of all shapes, sizes and striations for several years now. From the doped out proto-bizarro How to Kill Yourself to her macabre twist on the #MeToo movement, Cockblock, Hunt kicks her readers in the crotch with bold concepts, batshit characters and Rabelaisian takes on ultra-relevant topics.
As the owner of Grindhouse Press, Hunt has established herself as an integral figure on the indie lit circuit, but it’s her words as much as her commitment to the words of others that really stands out. Consider the first line from 2013’s Thanks for Ruining My Life: “The city was burning down all day.”
It’s a blunt object to the solar plexus, immediately setting Hunt’s work up as something chaotic and matter-of-fact. Not convinced? Consider the opening of 2014’s Baby Hater:
“The first time I punched a baby in the face I didn’t realize what I’d done until its mother started shrieking. I stood slack-jawed in the middle of a sparsely populated mall in the middle of the afternoon, staring at the mother’s white knuckles gripping the stroller handle.”
This is how C.V. Hunt writes, with paradoxical abandon and precision, meting out developments in a flash and sparing no cringy detail. Some of our snowflake beta-male writers would do well to pay attention.
8. Elle Nash
As I said in my interview with Elle Nash earlier this year, this is an author whose debut novel is highly readable and highly literary at a time when many millennials have eschewed the word literary like it was leprosy.
Instead of making a splash with some silly first book about robots with giant alien penises or has-been celebrities in a steel cage match with cyborgs, Nash carefully crafted an uncompromising portrait of a bizarre love triangle and an imperfect protagonist who is allowed to be human.
That’s kind of amazing given the move toward more cartoonish plots by the indie press. And her novel, Animals Eat Each Other, is easily one of the most exciting releases of 2018.
What Nash possesses is the talent to let her work breathe; each page feels lived in, like you’ve been with her characters before. This sense of self or the uncanny is what makes it something to be devoured.
If her first novel is any indication of what’s to come, everyone should start clearing space in their Kindle libraries.
9. Tiffany Scandal
Tiffany Scandal sucks! At least, that’s what her official site would have you believe. But don’t get it twisted, this Scandal is one that won’t pass any time soon. In just five years, she’s gone from an Eraserhead Press New Bizarro Author with a scorching (and body melting) debut novella to a well-regarded mixologist of bizarro and hardcore horror.
Her third book, Shit Luck, was hotly anticipated by her peers and didn’t let anyone down. In it, Scandal does what all great writers do, she conceives of relatable characters who fend off life’s myriad facefucks.
While all you neckbeards are busy dreaming up steampunk adventures for cardboard cut out facsimiles of your pathetic asses, chicks like Tiffany Scandal are cranking out dope ass renderings of real people facing interesting problems. And that’s where my money’s at, Jack.
10. Riya Anna Polcastro
Finally, we’ve got Riya Anna Polcastro who took us on a gilded tour of Crazy Town in her debut novel, JANE. In the book, Polcastro expertly explores the ever-more-tenuous line between sanity and insanity, pitting a young female protagonist against the worst antagonist of all: heritage.
To say much more would be to spoil this hefty hell broth of mood swings, mixed emotions, madness and resignation. The best thing I can say about Riya Anna Polcastro is that her book is so challenging that it leaves you aching to read her next book, if for no other reason than you cannot imagine what she’ll hurl at you next.
Whoever said that chivalry was dead may be right, but if my experience reading these incredible women’s words are any sign, I’d say that admiration certainly isn’t. Snatch up a copy of each of these books today and heed my warning: Take notes, my man.