Being a Woman Is a Horror Story

Stephanie Feldman's "Saturnalia" is a near-future novel that breaks gender norms and harnesses fear as a therapeutic device

Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva

In the opening pages of Saturnalia, Nina deals herself The Drowning Girl from a divination deck, a symbol that suggests either death or renewal is looming. While Nina doesn’t believe in the fortunes she reads for her clients, today is different. It’s Saturnalia, a time for celebration, debauchery, and a flirtation with the supernatural at the biggest party of the year, hosted by an exclusive club. Nina doesn’t understand why her ex-friends have found success and acceptance within the members-only club while she remains alone and unhappy. So when the only friend she has left asks her to carry out a secret mission at the club, she accepts, not realizing the danger she’s in.

Set in a futuristic Philadelphia, and against the backdrop of a dying planet, Nina will fight for her future and her soul before the night is over. In rich, literary prose, Stephanie Feldman has created a vivid and strange universe, narrated by an unforgettable, if unlikely, heroine.

Stephanie and I spoke virtually about her unique relationship to genre, the importance of horror stories, and why the climate crisis described in Saturnalia doesn’t feel “near-future” anymore.

Jody Keisner: Saturnalia has a subtle and effective undercurrent of horror to it, which often appears suddenly and unpredictably in beautiful prose, yet I wouldn’t characterize the book as a horror novel. I’d describe it as a cross between literary fiction and fantasy. How did you discover the right genre for this story? Or perhaps a better question is, how did you discover the right balance of horror to include?

Stephanie Feldman: This question hits me right in the existential angst! My work has been called magical realism, fantasy, literary cross-over—so far Saturnalia has also been called horror, dark fantasy, and a thriller. As popular–and vibrant, and expansive–as literary speculative fiction is, I’ve still run up against a lot of resistance from editors. 

When I started out as a writer, I believed in my ideas, however weird they were–I believed that their weirdness made them worthwhile. After several years in publishing, I began to think I was bad at genre and that my uncategorizable ideas were a flaw to be conquered. I tried to write a “fantasy” novel and a “mainstream” novel, but they weren’t successful, in part because I still failed at fitting in a marketing box. My fantasy was too literary (whatever that means), and my mainstream novel was either too commercial or not commercial enough. 

In the midst of this, I heard the author Jeffrey Ford talk about the power of the “idiosyncratic vision.” It was such an important moment for me. It reminded me what makes my stories–any story–powerful. Breaking genre isn’t my flaw; it’s my strength. 

As for putting this into practice and balancing genre elements: I think of genre as a set of tools to draw on, rather than a set of limits. I may draw on tropes from different story types, but they’re all in service of the world, mood, and character arc. My earliest conception of Saturnalia included monsters (human, inhuman, questionably human!), but I also maintained focus on my protagonist, Nina, and her emotional journey. The novel isn’t about magic or monsters; it’s about Nina trying to confront her past, repair or obliterate her relationships, and break out of her self-imposed exile.

JK: Speaking of Nina, she’s on a journey to understand who she is within the context of a society where most people are looking out for their own self-interest. I found her character incredibly complicated. She continually evolves and tests herself. She isn’t always easy to understand—or like, in some instances—and in one climactic moment, her anger saves her. You have broken gender expectations with Nina. What was your intent for Nina when you first conceived of her? How intentional were you in having her break gender norms?

SF: At the beginning, Nina doesn’t quite understand herself. She has a lot of conflicting desires: she sees through the elite and their rituals, but wants to be one of them; she’s been gravely hurt, but still loves the people who hurt her; she recognizes her own misdeeds, but doesn’t have the courage to atone for them. She’s ashamed of her anger. She wants to be liked. So much of this is grounded in her experience as a woman, how people treat her and how she’s been socialized. 

For example, Nina struggles to negotiate her own ambition. How can she prove herself and be accepted among powerful and wealthy men, especially when they objectify, sexualize, and even assault her? How can she maintain her friendship with another woman who’s also a competitor? What does it mean when a man you love manipulates and hurts you? To return to the earlier question about genre: I think of Saturnalia as a horror story about being a woman.

It’s also a story about not giving up. Nina’s on a kind of obstacle course across the Philadelphia landscape, but also the social landscape: neighborhoods and institutions, networks and hierarchies. Fighting, trying—failing and trying again. Confronting the fears and beliefs that hold you back. It’s a messy business.

JK: Some people have questioned my choice to write about fear and other darker topics in my memoir, which reminded me of the refrain in your book: “blacker than black.” Have you ever been questioned about your choice to write about darker topics and “a horror story about being a woman”? What would you say?

SF: Yes, people have definitely suggested what I should write. (My least favorite suggestion: “You should write children’s books!” Because I have kids. It’s insulting, as if motherhood should be my primary and only interest—but that’s a whole other topic.) I have fancy reasons for why I explore dark material: fantasy and horror are fertile with metaphors for exploring society, power, and patriarchy, all topics I find desperately urgent. I also have a simple and inexplicable reason: I like it. Horror, the supernatural, the macabre—it’s my taste and my idiom. That’s generally what I tell people. “I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in this.

She’s ashamed of her anger. She wants to be liked. So much of this is grounded in her experience as a woman, how people treat her and how she’s been socialized.

I’m dedicated to writing about women’s perspectives, and it’s impossible to do that without writing about what frightens us. Fear itself is hugely illuminating. What we fear reveals so much about who we are and about the community we live in. As you explore in Under My Bed, our fears also chart the stages of our lives, and reveal a certain kind of female experience. 

At the same time, we can’t write without a sense of curiosity. I loved the observation in your book that fear and curiosity are opposites, and that we’re curious as children and fearful as adults. Maybe, even as you and I reflect on and capture fear, we’re really exercising our sense of curiosity–we’re dedicated to growing through fear, not being constrained by it.

JK: On that note, I’m very much interested in Isabel Cristina Pinedo’s idea of “recreational terror” and how women in particular experience it. In other words, we not only grow through fear, but we sometimes enjoy experiencing it! In what ways do real life and fictional horror stories offer women a safe place to experience terror and rage, emotions young girls are often taught to suppress? Relatedly, what scary stories do you return to? Which scary stories would you like to someday subvert?

SF: So much–maybe too much–of my recreation is terror-based. I love scary movies and scary stories. I look like a soccer mom but I’m a goth at heart. Horror is therapeutic. I love nothing more than putting a horror movie on in the background to help me relax while answering emails. 

Horror stories let us experience our greatest fears at a safe distance, and that’s cathartic–not just mentally, but physically. There’s no release for the tension we feel when we’re walking alone through a dark parking lot, keys thrust between our fingers. Even when we make it to the driver’s seat and click the lock, the threat is still out there. Stories let us see it through to the end. Like you observe in Under My Bed, we know what to expect physically–the adrenaline, the pounding heart–so we can take pleasure in it.

The one type of horror that’s too tough for me–the home invasion narrative. Perhaps because it feels too real, too possible. I do have one great idea for a home-invasion story, but I don’t even want to write it.

I return again and again to haunted house stories. They’re classic, of course, but I also think I just spend too much time at home–and this was true even before COVID. When my youngest was a baby, my fiction went through a “woman stuck in a house” phase. Not a very successful phase–it’s hard to create drama when you can’t go anywhere. Saturnalia was a reaction to those dead manuscripts, I think–I had to send my character out into the world.

JK: Humanity and the natural world are at odds in Saturnalia, most obviously through the climate crisis but in other ways, too. At one point, Nina thinks, “Everything we live by—our beliefs, our culture—it’s all a response to our environment.” Relatedly, some of Nina’s friends attempt to manipulate the natural world to their own advantage, which backfires spectacularly. Is there a warning in here for readers? Why did you want climate change to play a key role in the world you created?

SF: So much of this story explores anxiety about the future, and climate change (catastrophe, disaster) is one of our foremost collective anxieties. Exploring nature and climate didn’t feel like a choice, but a necessity. Saturnalia’s world is fantastic, but it’s still meant to feel like our own, and it’s impossible to discuss our lives today without discussing the environment.

Exploring nature and climate didn’t feel like a choice, but a necessity.

When I started writing, I thought of Saturnalia as “near-future”: Philadelphia, but deeper into climate collapse. As I wrote, though, environmental change accelerated, or at least the effects became more evident. Early drafts referenced a tornado–unheard of here–damaging infrastructure. While I revised, several tornadoes did touch down in our region, flooding city and suburbs. One tornado went down my street. A tree landed on our roof and our house was declared uninhabitable. I completed the final draft living with family–and the fictional tornado’s impact on the city and characters grew.

We’re back home and I don’t think of Saturnalia as near-future anymore. Sure, there are some different messes, like the book’s tick-borne illnesses and refugee crisis, but all of that could easily be happening now, or could appear tomorrow. 

JK: I agree! Saturnalia certainly doesn’t feel futuristic anymore. Also, society’s current misogynistic attitude toward women hasn’t improved in Saturnalia. Nina, for instance, wryly notes: “If you get raped […] it’s still your fault.” Men continue to freely ogle women, peering down their dresses and groping under their hemlines. Abortions must be court-ordered. Men want to create life without the use of an egg or female womb. The world you’ve created and the world we are currently living in are unfortunately very similar, though I’ve seen reviews calling Saturnalia a dystopian society. Can you speak to similarities between our “real” world and the world you’ve created? Are women already living in a dystopian society?

SF: If I once thought of Saturnalia’s physical environment as a thought experiment about the near-future, I always considered the women’s experiences as true to our contemporary world. In the book, abortion is illegal in Pennsylvania. It’s still legal in reality, as of writing, but it’s going to require a huge fight to keep it that way. If the book is dystopian, then American society is dystopian.

When the alchemists in the book create a human-like creature, Nina is the only one to immediately sense its humanity. Everyone else only cares about how they can exploit it. The characters treat each other in the same way, as tools they can use for selfish means. Nina has to come to terms with how she herself has been objectified and dehumanized. For all of our progress, women–and trans, nonbinary, and gender-queer folks–are still demanding to be recognized as people worthy of not just equal legal rights, but dignity and respect. Saturnalia is interested in our personal struggle to believe we deserve that dignity and respect. We need to believe in our worth so we can demand fair treatment from others.

JK: Power, money, knowledge, magic: it’s all used in various capacities by characters who are seeking a leg up no matter the cost to others, though we get glimpses of goodness–and “dignity and respect”–in how Nina’s friends used to once care for each other. In fact, friendship is what gives Nina hope and helps her find a way forward. Have I read this message correctly? Is friendship what will ultimately save us from our more base instincts and selfishness?

SF: Yes! Or, at least, what we need–as individuals, as a community–is solidarity and empathy. 

The characters who can’t move past selfishness and desire for power don’t fare well. We also need to balance ferocity and vulnerability. At the beginning of the novel, Nina is in retreat. She learns she can’t survive–physically or spiritually–on her own.

Which isn’t to say there’s a moral to the story, but I can’t rest in bleakness and dystopia. As dark as Saturnalia may be, I do think of it as a hopeful book, and myself as a hopeful writer. I like to end with possibility. 

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