An illustration of a woman reading in a bathtub
Illustration by Joe Wilson

A Haunting

An author’s life is mirrored in the work of a sci-fi legend

by Amy Gentry

A thunderclap shakes me awake, rattling the glass of water on the nightstand. It is 4 a.m., and I am alone in a strange bed, in a room that smells raw and damp under frigid air conditioning. As I struggle to sit up, a sheet of water falls and hits the pine trees all at once, announcing an East Texas downpour.

It is my third trip to Holly Lake. This time I’ve left my family in Austin and come here alone to research, write, and spend mornings in the—oh god. The canoe.

There is no time for an umbrella or even a flashlight. I run out into the hammering rain in my nightgown, cursing myself for tethering the battered canoe that afternoon instead of pulling it ashore. I kneel on the slimy dock amid flashes of lightning and haul in the vessel, its belly sloshing with water. What am I even doing here?

Back inside, warm and dry, I decide to blame Lisa Tuttle. After all, she is the one haunting me.

Early in the pandemic, scary books were the only kind that held my attention. Our day care had shuttered in the first week of lockdown, the owner sobbing as she handed me a garbage bag full of finger paintings and Pull-Ups through our car window. With two jobs, no child care, and everyone in quarantine, our cozy house quickly became stifling. Even the playgrounds were draped in yellow police tape, like crime scenes. I needed the stakes of the stories I read to be higher than the stakes of real life.

We had to break free. I longed for a road trip to New Mexico or Virginia, but given the circumstances, my husband wanted to stay within state lines. So, we found Holly Lake, a pleasantly rundown resort community about 100 miles east of Dallas that seemed as promising a place as any to swap off child-care duties and fret over our laptops. We bundled our 2-year-old son and an ice chest full of food into the car and started driving. The lake house rental was beautiful, rustic, and booby trapped with hidden steps and bumpy tiles; I nearly broke my ankle five minutes after arriving and stubbed my toe daily after that. But it had a flyblown screen porch and a lake whose surface was sprinkled with water lilies and butter-yellow flowers resembling snapdragons. There was also a flight of stairs that functioned as an ersatz playground for the toddler. We settled in.

The first night, after putting my son to bed, I poured a glass of wine and headed for the bathtub with a collection of horror stories called A Nest of Nightmares, by an author in Scotland I’d never heard of. I’d put it on my Christmas list the previous year during a search for women-written horror but was surprised when my sister-in-law, who has a taste for historical mysteries, gave it to me. The original 1986 Nick Bantock cover art was so unsettling that even I hesitated to pick the book up. It was only a pair of baby birds, but there was something distressing about their flesh-colored bodies and one bird’s open, hungry beak. Only now, looking more closely, did I notice the voids in their bulging eyes.

The stories were unlike any horror I’d read. They were grounded in the everyday, featuring ordinary women struggling to balance their roles as wives, best friends, daughters, and lovers with their private, unfulfilled desires. The supernatural stole into their lives subtly, slipping in through the cracks between who a woman is and who she’s supposed to be. All the stories engrossed me, and a few frightened me. When I read “Flying to Byzantium,” I nearly dropped the book in the water.

In it, a young author writes a successful novel, allowing her to escape the small coastal Texas town she hates and move to Los Angeles. There, she acquires expensive clothes, an actor boyfriend, and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. When she’s invited back to Texas as the guest of honor at a sci-fi convention, it looks like her victory over her past is complete. But the visit quickly turns sinister. Her luggage and money are stolen; she loses her contacts and is forced to wear ugly glasses and stay with a fan who reminds her of her controlling mother. Soon, she begins to regress back to her awkward, cowed adolescence. She develops acne and a slouch, her boyfriend won’t answer her calls, she bombs her keynote. By the time she realizes the town doesn’t intend to let her go, it’s too late.

Wait, doesn’t this author live in Scotland? I skimmed the introduction for biographical details, pretty sure wherever she was now, Lisa Tuttle had to be from Texas. Because there’s nothing more Texan than wanting to leave.

I grew up in Houston in the 1980s and ’90s, always wanting to escape. Being a fourth-generation Texan on both sides felt less like an identity than a trap. I was a bookish girl obsessed with fairy tales; I couldn’t identify with the rugged, masculine myths of my home state. Wearing a plaid shirt once a year on “Go Texan” day did not thrill me, nor did learning to spell “sesquicentennial” during my school’s yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of Texas’ independence from Mexico. While dutifully singing Texas, our Texas! All hail the mighty state! at school assemblies, my mind wandered to unicorns and snow, equally unlikely sights in Houston. I got to see the latter, at least, when my family moved to a suburb of Chicago during third grade. In Naperville, I wrote poetry, won a statewide writing contest, and started telling people I wanted to be an author. But a few years later, we moved back to the Memorial area in west Houston, land of pricey leather bucket bags and Ralph Lauren cowboy prints. The two-and-a-half years away from Texas felt like a wonderful book I’d started reading and then lost before I got to the ending.

In high school, I had friends who also wanted to escape. Every weekend, five of us would squeeze into my best friend’s dodgy red ’88 Mustang and get out of the neighborhood as fast as we could, taking Westheimer toward the Loop. We cruised down the eight-lane, neon-flashing super-arterial with enough speed to pierce the heart of the city and come out the other side. We’d fly under the Galleria’s chrome halos to Montrose, where we hung around Empire Café, drinking black coffee and ashing unsmoked cigarettes until it was time to trundle home to our mothers, who were, inevitably, waiting up.

Today, those friends live in New York, Washington, D.C., the Bay Area, and Tokyo. I made it as far as Austin for college, and I’ve been here ever since. I did try moving away twice, but it never worked out.

It was easy enough to confirm Tuttle’s Texas roots. She was born in Houston in 1952 and grew up not far from me, albeit a generation earlier.

Her biography intrigued me, and I started making plans to reclaim her as a Texas author. Tuttle has a certain chutzpah often attributed to Texas women. In high school, she started a science-fiction magazine and fan club and began exchanging letters with fellow readers and authors, including speculative-fiction icon Harlan Ellison. Through the strong network of fandom, she learned he was passing through Houston on his way to a guest appearance at Texas A&M and needed a ride. She picked him up at the airport and wound up hosting him at a club meeting in her parents’ living room. She didn’t tell him she wrote her own fiction until seeing him again in San Diego at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, which she attended twice while a student at Syracuse University.

After graduation and a brief house-sitting gig for Ellison in Los Angeles, she moved back to Austin, where she spent her 20s publishing short stories, laboring over a novel, and cobbling together odd jobs to pay the rent. She eventually landed a job at the Austin American-Statesman, where the editor who hired her, a science-fiction fan, was stunned to see Ellison listed as a reference. Tuttle worked her way up from the typing pool to a daily column as the paper’s first TV critic. Meanwhile, in the sci-fi community, she was making a considerable impact, winning the prestigious John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1974 and co-founding the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop alongside Howard Waldrop, Steven Utley, and other Austin science-fiction writers. The workshop, which is thought to still exist, has played host to a legion of now-canonical writers over its 50 years of existence. Bruce Sterling, another early member, christened it “a cradle of cyberpunk” for its role in developing the popular subgenre in the ’80s. In 1988, the group compiled The Turkey City Lexicon, a well-known science-fiction manual that is both blisteringly funny and genuinely useful for writers in any genre.

Tuttle’s influence pervades the scene. Snapshots from the ’70s show a small, still figure with a youthful face and enormous glasses surrounded by towering men who, in many shots, look like they’re goofing off to impress her. In one photo, she casts a sly grin toward the camera.

The ’70s and ’80s were a boom time for women in science fiction. The previous generation had seen inroads into the genre by Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr., Kate Wilhelm, and other pioneering women. By the time Tuttle was writing, scholars of second-wave feminism like Joanna Russ were applying a feminist critique to a genre that still skewed heavily male. In 1986, Tuttle, an avowed feminist, wrote Encyclopedia of Feminism, which holds up today as a thoughtful and intersectional chronicle of its time. But despite her beliefs, she was never a firebrand in her fiction. She never tells the reader what to think, instead allowing us to feel patriarchy invading women’s lives and bodies on a visceral level.

But more radical than her depiction of women’s pain is her frank exploration of women’s pleasure. In Tuttle’s work, female desire is a powerful but unpredictable force, breaking taboos and offering agency that strains at the leash. In book after book, her characters let their desires guide them down paths toward ambiguous endings. In her 1983 novel Familiar Spirit, a lonely young woman pining over her ex is drawn into an intensely sexual relationship with an evil entity who both satisfies and enslaves her. Agnes, the heroine of the 1996 novel The Pillow Friend, conjures a storybook lover to fulfill her erotic dreams and literary ambitions, only to see some of them curdle into nightmares. “You can have whatever you wish for,” the character’s aunt tells her, “but you also have to deal with the consequences of your wishes.” And yet these stories never read like morality tales—they feel driven by wistful curiosity, with a touch of cruelty.

The relationship that altered the trajectory of Tuttle’s life came in 1980, when she moved to London “in pursuit of a romantic dream,” as she has said in interviews, marrying British science-fiction writer Christopher Priest. After a few years, the marriage dissolved, an experience echoed in The Pillow Friend and the novella My Death. But the dream had been bigger than Priest. Tuttle stayed in London, where her career was taking off. She published her first novels and collections, and in 1982 her short story “The Bone Flute” won the Nebula Award. (She turned it down to protest a change in the ways authors lobbied for their stories.) A couple years later, she started dating writer and editor Colin Murray. He knew who she was before they met—he had edited one of her books. They married and have lived together on Scotland’s craggy west coast for more than 30 years.

I am familiar with the “romantic dream” that vanishes when you wake up. Tuttle crossed the Atlantic Ocean once for love; I’ve crossed the United States three times for it. After graduating from The University of Texas, I joined my best friend in Portland, Oregon, to live an idyllic version of the writer’s life. That ended abruptly when she got a job in Russia. I moved back to Texas and nearly married a man who was as much a fantasy as anything in The Pillow Friend. I enrolled in a graduate program in Chicago, hoping he’d take a job there, but he waited until I was out of the country and moved to Seattle instead. While I was toiling toward my doctorate, he sent my letters back along with my birthday present, a DVD of the animated film The Last Unicorn. It was the first and last time I’ve ever been broken up with by care package.

My third cross-country move was back to Austin for the man I ultimately married, an ex-boyfriend from UT. Here in Texas, I found love. Here, I had my child. And here, I became the writer I have wanted to be since the fourth grade.

But if Texas is my happy ending, why am I obsessed with the author who got away? Maybe it’s for the same reason that Tuttle’s work is preoccupied with crossings and returns to Texas. And not just any Texas—my Texas. As I read her Familiar Spirit at the lake house on the night before the thunderstorm, I felt as if Tuttle’s character was following footprints I’d left 20 years ago. The main character, a UT student, rents a house at MoPac and 35th Street for $85 a month—a good deal even for a haunted house in the late ’70s. (Hell, I’d take it.) She hangs out on Speedway, Medical Arts Boulevard, the Drag, and all the other places where I spent my formative years. The Pillow Friend hit even closer to home. Bookish Agnes Grey grows up in west Houston yearning to get away; she goes to UT for college and dates a musician who works at Conans Pizza. She tells my Texas grandfather’s favorite off-color joke, which I’ve never heard anyone else tell—with good reason—and for her birthday she gets an antique, jointed porcelain doll just like the one I inherited from my great-grandmother. Agnes and I share a love for Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice and the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Goose-Girl,” which will never become a Disney movie because it involves nailing a horse’s decapitated head over a doorway. And, of course, Agnes Grey, named after a Bronte novel, shares my initials.

There’s too much exquisite, bizarre plot in the labyrinthine The Pillow Friend to relay it all. Agnes moves back and forth between Texas and the United Kingdom multiple times. She’s on a path that loops and swirls, like the handwriting of an author who keeps writing her name over and over again to see if, this time, it’s still the same.

The light outside at Holly Lake appears green and hazy on the spindly pines and the warm, cloudy lake. The windows perspire as I begin writing a horror novel about art, motherhood, and the choices women make. As it turns out, the butter-yellow blossoms floating on the surface of the water are carnivorous bladderwort. This is why you go back to a place more than once. You get to know its flora and fauna, its ghosts and its carnivores.

This is my third trip to Holly Lake—the number of fairy tale wishes, the number of Bloody Marys you say in the mirror, the number of times I moved away and came back to Texas. If Tuttle is haunting me, it can only be because I conjured her.

Later, I will get the courage to interview her over Zoom for an introduction to the upcoming reissue of My Death. I will meet a soft-spoken, bespectacled woman with long, silver hair and bright blue eyes whose slight Texas twang deepens over our conversation. When I ask her if she’s a Texas author, she demurs. “That time in a person’s life always feels so vivid,” she says, perhaps to be polite. Suddenly the idea of reclaiming her for our state seems self-serving, as if I were trying to reenact the plot of “Flying to Byzantium,” trapping her somewhere she didn’t want to be.

Yet the Texas I found in her words has convinced me that desire—for work, for love, for self—can become a home in itself if you follow it faithfully, even into the dark. Horror can come to us anywhere, in the form of an evil spirit or a global pandemic. We fear it. We face it. We live to write the story.

From the September 2023 issue

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