Editor Spotlight: Interview with Lisa Morton

We were there from the start. […] Like all Lovecraftians, I’m interested in the past. In traditions. Women have their own literary tradition to reclaim in the Mythos, and I hope to see more of us doing so in future anthologies and collections.

Ann K. Schwader, “Reclaiming the Tradition,” Strange Shadows & Alien Stars vii-viii

Women have always been a part of the weird fiction tradition, a fact recognized by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, yet many of the authors of supernatural fiction of the 19th and early 20th century have been overlooked by anthologists and collectors. Two works that go a fair way to addressing that gap are Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923 (2021) and its sequel Weird Women: Volume 2: 1840-1925 (2022), edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie Klinger. Together, these two volumes reprint works by women authors both popular and obscure—and represent the kind of weird works by women that Lovecraft and his contemporaries would have read.

Author and editor Lisa Morton has been good enough to answer a few questions regarding these books, how they came to be, and her thoughts of co-editing two volumes of Weird Women:

How did Weird Women come to be?

Lisa Morton: My editing partner Les Klinger and I had done one book together (Ghost Stories: Classic Tales of Horror and Suspense, published by Pegasus Books in 2019), and we were looking for a next book together. Les was traveling back east and met up with a friend who had recently curated a library exhibition called “Weird Women”, so he brought up the idea of us doing a book of that title. Needless to say, I was on board with that instantly!

What was the reaction to Weird Women? Was there any pushback about publishing an anthology of weird fiction by women?

LM: Thankfully, no. Our publisher (Pegasus again) loved the idea, and the reviews were wonderfully gratifying. It came out a short time after Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction, so it seemed like the time was ripe for readers to explore these authors who had been unjustly shoved to the back of the literary shelves.

In the introduction to the first volume of Weird Women, you noted that you could only publish “less than half of those we loved”—did the other half make it into the second volume, or was there a different selection process for the second volume?

LM: Yes, many of them did make it into that second volume! We continued to read for Volume 2, though, so I think there were a few that still didn’t make the cut as we found things we liked more. One we ended up not using after considering it for both volumes was “The Weird of the Walfords” by Louisa Baldwin; instead, we put it on our book’s website so we could still share it, with the caveat that it does indeed depend upon some…ahem…rather purple prose. It can be found here: https://lisamorton.com/blog/the-weird-of-the-walfords-by-louisa-baldwin/

Most of the selections for Weird Women and its sequel are from before 1923—which is when Weird Tales began publication. Was it a deliberate choice to exclude women pulp authors from consideration, or did they just not make the cut?

LM: Actually neither. It was instead a purely business/legal reason: we had no budget to pay for stories, so we used only works that we knew were in the public domain. However, Les—who is an attorney by profession and is knowledgeable about copyright issues—started researching the status of stories used in Weird Tales, and ended up finding out that many had fallen out of copyright. That revelation came too late for us to use any of those works in either of the Weird Women volumes, but we did use “The Laughing Thing” by G. G. Pendarves to close out our last book, Haunted Tales: Classic Stories of Ghosts and the Supernatural (which just came out in August of this year). 

When making selections for Weird Women, did you make a deliberate choice to avoid more popular stories? I notice “The Giant Wistaria” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was selected rather than “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for instance.

LM: Yes. For all of our books, we have occasionally ruled out stories that we thought have been widely available in a variety of forms. “The Yellow Wallpaper” has really never gone out of print, and is widely taught in schools, so we thought many readers would already know it…but how many would know that the author wrote other works of horror as well? 

“Spunk” by Zora Neale Hurston is the only story by a woman of color in the two volumes; how do you feel race and gender intersect when it came to publishing weird fiction in the past?

LM: Les and I have often talked about how we would love to do an anthology gathering early weird fiction by diverse authors, but…it’s just simply not there. An argument could be made for some of the women we included in our books being LGBTQ+—the immensely popular Marie Corelli, for instance, spent most of her life living with a female companion who she even dedicated some of her books to—but of course very few LGBTQ+ persons were open about their sexuality back then, so we can’t even know for sure in those cases. We tried to find nineteenth-century Black writers of weird/supernatural work, and, although perhaps some wrote under pseudonyms, we just couldn’t come up with any. It’s not until the early twentieth century (“Spunk” was first published in 1925) that we start to see authors of color openly producing works of weird short fiction. 

In the introduction to the first volume of Weird Women, you mention Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—do you think his essay has strongly influenced how women weird fiction writers were read and received?

LM: It’s an undeniably influential piece on the genre as a whole. Although it wasn’t technically the first study of the genre, it’s the one that’s been reprinted the most and has led many readers to discover the works of the authors he discusses. I remember first reading it when I was a teenager, and I recall immediately seeking out a few of the authors (especially M. R. James) that Lovecraft writes about.

You partnered with Leslie Klinger to edit the two volumes of Weird Women. How would you describe your working relationship? What did you both bring to the task?

LM: Les and I have been friends for a long time—we both live in the Los Angeles area and we’ve both done a lot of work with the Horror Writers Association. We are also big fans of each other’s work. After I’d written my non-fiction book Ghosts: A Haunted History, we were having lunch or something one day when Les almost off-handedly brought up the idea that we should do an anthology of classic ghost stories together, and that was an easy “yes!” from me. We have a great deal of fun putting together these books; we both read like crazy and make lists of things we like and then talk them over. We occasionally go back and forth on which stories to include, but our tastes are similar enough that we usually come to an agreement quickly. I write the first draft of the main introduction, Les tends to write the first draft of a lot of the individual story introductions, we both take a pass on the annotations, and then we trade off and do our own passes on each other’s work. 

A few of the stories in Weird Women have Lovecraftian connections—Lovecraft had read and commented on “The Were-Wolf” by Clemence Housman and “The Wind in the Rose-Bush” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Was this deliberate, or just coincidence?

LM: I think we found “The Were-Wolf” via Lovecraft, but otherwise it was coincidence. We actually read a number of stories by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman before deciding on “The Wind in the Rose-Bush.” I should perhaps mention another interesting connection Freeman has to Lovecraft: his first book publisher, Arkham House, also kept interest in Freeman’s work alive with their 1974 collection of her Collected Ghost Stories.

“They were writing tales of cosmic horror half a century before Lovecraft ever put pen to paper”—do you think Lovecraft’s prominence in weird fiction discourse has disguised the role women have played in the field?

LM: I suspect there are other reasons these women got lost. My own theory is that very few of the women authors of the nineteenth century wrote only in the supernatural/weird genre; back then genre wasn’t the marketing tool that it is now, and most authors wrote in a wide array of genres. What that means is that when these authors brought out collections, there might be one ghost story and a dozen non-horror pieces; compare that to, say, M. R. James, who could produce an entire collection of just ghost stories. We remember James in large part because of his seminal collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary; but we’re less likely to know Dinah Mulock’s collection Nothing New, because it contains only one ghost story (“M. Anastasius”).

What is your opinion of women occultists who also wrote fiction like Dion Fortune and Helena Blavatsky?

LM: I confess to being not a huge fan of Blavatsky’s fiction. Fortune we never considered because her fiction is likely still under copyright (although I do enjoy her work). We did use fiction by a few Spiritualists—Marie Corelli and Florence Marryat come to mind immediately.

While not all of the stories in Weird Women have female protagonists, do you think these stories as a whole reflect women’s contemporary interests and concerns?

LM: Many absolutely do. One of my favorite stories in either volume is “The Dream Baby” by Olivia Howard Dunbar, which is about two women living together who end up centering their lives around a non-existent baby one of them dreams about nightly. The story, which dates to 1904, not only describes the pressures that single women experienced in those days, it also tells us how difficult other parts of life were then—it comes to a head during a heat wave, which of course in those days was a catastrophic event that led to many deaths. Many of the stories, in fact, deal with children in some way, because certainly children were a key part of the lives of women, whether they were mothers, nannies, or women who were defying society’s expectations of them. It’s also interesting how many of these stories show women in the role of domestic servant, something you don’t find often in weird fiction by men; being a domestic was one of the few occupations available to poorer, unmarried women in the nineteenth-century, after all. 

In the introduction to the second volume, it is noted “parts of these stories may be difficult for modern readers to swallow” because of depictions of prejudice, class consciousness, Colonialism, and misogyny—do you think a “warts and all” approach to historical fiction is necessary?

LM: Yes, I absolutely do. For one thing, reading the attitudes that we now consider ugly in these stories help us to understand the history that leads to where we are now. I don’t believe in censorship so I would never edit those uncomfortable parts out, but we can certainly annotate or comment on them in the text. 

There have been several other reprint anthologies lately focusing on women authors of weird fiction, including Women’s Weird (2019) and The Women of Weird Tales (2020)—do you think there’s an impetus now to rediscover women’s role in the history of weird fiction?

LM: I think there’s an impetus to discover the roles of all kinds of authors who were marginalized in the past, and that’s fantastic! 

Besides being an editor, you’ve written a good bit of Lovecraftian fiction yourself. What draws you to write it?

LM: I discovered Lovecraft as a teenager, and the best of his work was very influential on me. I loved not just the Mythos stories, but those odd little sketches like “The Picture in the House” and “The Outsider.” I think sometimes his skills for things like creating characters get lost in the analysis of his use of cosmic horror. He also crafted a very distinct version of New England that probably taught me a little about how to transform your home area into horror (I’ve used my native Southern California in many of my stories). 

In terms of me writing Lovecraftian fiction, I owe a considerable chunk of that to editor Stephen Jones, who invited me to contribute to the three “mosaic” novels in his series The Lovecraft Squad. I really enjoyed writing for that series, which forced me to study Lovecraft’s works and re-imagine them within the context of Steve’s series (which, for those who don’t know, proposed that Lovecraft was actually writing non-fiction and a secret division of the FBI was set up to monitor the activities of the Elder Gods). 

Has writing Lovecraftian fiction changed how you relate to Lovecraft and his fiction?

LM: It probably made me examine some of his techniques more closely, although I was already fairly knowledgeable about all that.

From your experience, do women who write weird fiction today face the same prejudices and difficulties as they have in the past?

LM: Welllll…first, I’ll offer up what might be a shocking opinion: women writers of the nineteenth century actually had one major advantage over contemporary writers in that they could make a living from writing just short stories. When we were putting Weird Women together and researching these writers, I was astonished to discover how many had turned to writing as a reasonable way to make a living, usually after a father or spouse had died and they had to support themselves and perhaps a family. I’m sure, of course, that there were plenty of women who tried writing as a vocation and did not succeed, but even so…can you imagine today suddenly being forced to support yourself and saying, “I’ll write short stories”? That also speaks to the fact that works by women back then were welcomed by most editors.

Compare that to when I first started writing fiction in the early 1990s; it wasn’t at all uncommon to see anthologies and magazines come out without a single female contributor, and that had been the case for a while. In the 1980s there some remarkable women authors who came into the horror field and led the way for the rest of us—Nancy Collins, Nancy Holder, Roberta Lannes, Elizabeth Massie, and of course Anne Rice all come immediately to mind. Now, since the 2000s arrived, it’s thankfully become that rare book that offers little or no work by women writers. 

And of course it would be disingenuous of me not to note that contemporary women writers certainly do have some obvious advantages over their peers of the past: they don’t have to add a “Mrs.” before their byline, for example, or publish anonymously…although I know many writers now who still prefer to employ gender-free initials for their name.

While editors don’t play favorites—what’s your favorite story from Weird Women and why?

LM: Oh my goodness…there are so many that I love for different reasons, whether it’s Harriet Beecher Stowe’s delicious use of folklore in “The Ghost in the Mill” or the rich southwestern desert setting of Mary Austin’s “The Pocket-Hunter’s Story” or the beautiful melancholy of the afore-mentioned “The Dream Baby” by Olivia Howard Dunbar…but in the end I think I have to go with Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne.” I’ve become a real fan of Braddon’s work; her dialogue is often peppered with enough sass to make her characters easily relatable, and I really love all the interpersonal relationships in “Good Lady Ducayne,” especially that between the young heroine and the elderly woman she’s hired as a companion to. It also has a wonderful sense of building dread as the heroine begins to suffer a mysterious decline. 

Here’s a funny story about its appearance in Weird Women 2: we’d actually wanted to use it in the first volume, but it’s really a novella and was too long to fit. When we got the deal to do Volume 2, I think the first thing I said to Les was, “We’re using ‘Good Lady Ducayne’!”

Thank you Lisa Morton for answering these questions, and I hope we see more from you in the future.

To find more of her work, check out https://lisamorton.com/ and Lisa Morton’s author page on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Lisa-Morton/e/B001JRZ8NC

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Zolamin and the Mad God” (2013) by Lisa Morton

“You can best me at dice, girl, but let’s see how well you do in my bed.”

She’d grinned, but Amarkosa had shouted from the bar, “You, sir, would be well advised to release her arm while you’ve still got one of your own.” The spectators had all guffawed, but the barbarian had flushed and yanked Zolamin close. “I think I can handle this—”

When she broke the bottle of ale over his head, he was only stunned—but when he found the jagged bottleneck pressed to his throat, he’d sobered up quickly. “You can leave like a good boy,” Zolamin told him, “or you can leave like a dead man. Your choice.”
—Lisa Morton, “Zolamin and the Mad God” in Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyberborea (2013) 111

Pedants can argue whether or not Clark Ashton Smith’s stories of Hyperborea count as sword & sorcery; stories like “The Seven Geases” are replete with sorcery, but little swordplay. As with his contemporaries like Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, E. R. Eddision, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, J. R. R. Tolkien, Smith took inspiration from Orientalist fiction such as the 1,001 Nights and epic tales such as the Prose Eddas. Their settings of Pegāna and Elf-land, Witchland and Demonland, Middle Earth, the Hyborian and Thurian Ages, Hyperborea and Poiseidonis are exotic fantasy-lands, filled with thieves, warriors, wizards, and monsters. Each of them added to a growing fantasy milieu which blossomed in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, and inspired the huge resurgence in fantasy settings which continues today.

What differed for each writer was the approach. Howard’s tales of Conan the Cimmerian, Kull of Atlantis, and and Solomon Kane are action-packed, bloody, dark, with a gritty, hardboiled American sensibility. Clark Ashton Smith’s stories such as “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” and “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” are more sardonic, less focused on bloodshed, giving more detail to the descriptions of gems and cruelty, to sorcery and horror. If Howard’s tales are heroic fantasy, driven by protagonists that live by their swords and their wits, Smith is closer to dark fantasy, with few heroes to triumph, where many of the main characters are undone by their own hubris and unbridled desires.

Lisa Morton’s Zolamin shares a literary lineage with Howard’s Valeria (“Red Nails”) and Bêlit (“The Queen of the Black Coast”) and Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, in that she is a woman warrior and mercenary; but the setting of the story and the overall tone is definitely Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea…though a little more explicit than Smith could ever publish:

She remembered her mother, forced into a life of prostitution after her parents had traded her at the age of ten for a pair of oxen. Zolamin’s mother had borne her while still a teen; her father could have been any of dozens of men. Determined that her daughter would not follow in her footsteps, mother had done her best to disguise the child’s gender and raised her as a boy […]
—Lisa Morton, “Zolamin and the Mad God” in Deepest, Darkest Eden 114

Zolamin’s backstory is essential to her character for this story, because the Mad God plays on her ambitions, small and different as they are. Her character drives the story, and if it is not quite hardboiled fantasy in the vein of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest with swords, it is still a respectable entry in a fairly small body of work: stories set in the worlds of Clark Ashton Smith, and striving to capture some of the mood of his tales rather than pastiche the way he wrote them. Like “Hode of the High Place” (1984) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, it isn’t sword-skill which determines the course of the story as much as choices made which are a bit darker and more psychologically driven. There are scenes of action but they are often anti-climactic, interrupted by the visions of the Mad God, and that in itself is part of why the story works, because Zolamin has to decide how to handle the messy affair she has stumbled into…and unlike Conan and the Tower of the Elephant, there is no mercy to be dealt out here.

“Zolamin and the Mad God” was published in Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyberborea (2013). It has not yet been reprinted.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.