Horror and writing women's bodies


01 March 2024
Horror author Danielle Valentine describes why she wanted to write pregnancy-themed body horror for her first adult novel

I remember the exact moment I came up with the idea for Delicate Condition. It was 18 September 2019, and I was sitting in a restaurant with my husband, six months pregnant.

I had just that morning made the devastating decision to shelf a book I’d been working on for the better part of a year. It had been my first attempt at an adult thriller and it had been a complete mess, terrible, flat characters, a boring plotline, twists you could see coming a mile away. The failure of that book had me doubting that I would ever be able to make the switch from writing horror for teens, which I’d been doing for ten years, and writing a novel for adults. And, because I was pregnant, I couldn’t even have a glass of wine to numb the disappointment.

My husband was trying to cheer me up, or maybe he was just trying to prevent a downward spiral. He spent most of the night throwing out prompts, trying to get me to come up with a new, better idea. I don’t remember most of the suggestions, but at one point he said, 'What about science fiction? You could write a sci-fi horror novel?' to which I replied that I would never do that, because the greatest science fiction horror story of all time has already been written, and it’s Alien (my cats are named Ripley and Jones, I’m a big a fan.)

And yet, even as I said that, it occurred to me that Alien was the sort of movie you got when you didn’t think a lot about what women’s bodies can do. Maybe that seems like a stretch, so let me explain. In order to write Alien, some dude would’ve had to sit down and try to come up with the scariest thing he could imagine, and what did he land on? The idea of a thing growing inside a person, using their body to feed it, to nourish it, and then bursting out of them in a mess of blood and gore.

So… childbirth?

And yet even this, one of the scariest stories of all time, doesn’t get at the full horror of what it means to be pregnant. It doesn’t touch on what it feels like to love the thing that’s causing you near constant pain, or how frightening it is when you realize something that around 86% of women will do in their lifetime is still so shrouded in mystery. It doesn’t get what it’s like to watch your own body be taken over by something else, to feel as if you can’t breath as its head pushes into your lungs, to feel constantly hungry because your body is choosing to feed it instead of you, to have every question you have about what’s happening to you met with 'no one knows for sure.' It’s alarming to me, even now, how much there is about women’s bodies that 'no one knows for sure.'

My husband’s prompt did what it was supposed to do. I felt inspired. I’m a horror novelist. And not just a horror novelist, but one who specializes in body horror. My first successful novel included a scene where a teen girl peels off another girl’s fingernails. I’ve always thought of pain as a metaphor. And hasn’t horror always capitalized off of women’s pain? Horror stories are built on the mutilated bodies of women, on teen murder victims and rape survivors, on women tortured and stalked and trapped. Stories of women who aren’t believed, never believed until it’s too late. Isn’t one of the most successful horror stories of all time the story of a pregnant woman? The story of what a male writer thinks it is to be a pregnant woman?

I had never seen or read a story like the one I wanted to tell, a story that grappled with the reality of what it meant to be pregnant. On the contrary. I noticed that even as people were becoming more comfortable tackling taboo topics in public spaces.

Why weren’t we talking about how bizarre it was to watch something inside your body move, something separate from you, with a mind and a will all its own? Why was no one discussing the truly gruesome side effects of pregnancy. I’m not talking about morning sickness or cravings. I’m talking about bloody gums, fingernails so dry they split in half, or the feeling of pain shooting up your leg that’s referred to, charmingly, as 'lightning crotch.'

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And then there are the other horrors, the ones that to this day I only ever heard discussed in hushed tones and usually after a few glasses of wine. Stories that start with 'my heart stopped beating while I was giving birth' and 'the doctors had no idea what was happening,' and 'I was in pain for months but everyone said that was normal.'

Nearly every woman I know has a story like this. I wrote Delicate Condition for them.

Delicate Condition by Danielle Valentine is published by Viper


Read more about the ways in which reality is horrifying from horror author Jamison Shea