In 1818, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, a novel so gripping it would continue to scare readers and shape genre literature for the next 200 years. But if Shelley is the godmother of modern horror, who are her goddaughters? Women have written some of the most blood-curdlingly scary stories of all time, but they haven’t always gotten the credit they deserve. To set the record straight—and give you some delightfully spooky reading this Halloween season—here are 11 women horror writers you need to read.
1. Daphne du Maurier
If you love Alfred Hitchcock movies, chances are that you already love Daphne du Maurier. The director adapted three of her novels into films: Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds. If you were drawn to the premise of The Birds but perhaps found the special effects a little hokey, the du Maurier story is well worth checking out.
Hitchcock wasn’t the only director who wanted to bring her work to the big screen. Her short story “Don’t Look Now” was adapted into an extremely creepy movie starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in 1973. In all, du Maurier’s works have been adapted for film 12 times, and for television even more frequently. But, as with many adaptations, her original stories are even more haunting than their on-screen counterparts.
2. Charlotte Riddell
For great Victorian-era ghost stories, look no further than Charlotte Riddell. Scholar E.F. Bleiler once called her “the Victorian ghost novelist par excellence,” and her stories are both extraordinarily spooky and subtly snarky. Born in Ireland in 1832, she was a prolific writer of supernatural tales, haunted house stories in particular. Though she and her husband often struggled financially, Riddell—who initially wrote under the masculine pen names F.G. Trafford and R.V.M. Sparling—was a popular writer in her time, publishing classic short stories like “The Open Door” and “Nut Bush Farm” along with four supernatural novellas. Today, Riddell’s stories feel old-fashioned in the best possible way—they’re full of dusty, deserted mansions and ghosts with unfinished business.
3. Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson was one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House was adapted for the big screen twice and once for Netflix, and her short story “The Lottery” is assigned in English classes across America. Despite her literary success, Jackson suffered from lifelong depression and anxiety, and often felt oppressed in her own home. Though she was her family’s primary breadwinner, her husband controlled her finances and expected her to ignore his philandering. Her feelings about domestic life often came out in her work. In novels like Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson cultivates an atmosphere of unease and dread while questioning the very idea of home.
4. Joyce Carol Oates
The Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Joyce Carol Oates is a modern master of Gothic horror. Oates, who has been called “America’s foremost woman of letters,” is famous for writing stories that will scare your pants off. Her catalogue of more than 100 books can be overwhelming, so we’d recommend starting off with her story collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque. Or, try her famous short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, which was inspired by the real-life serial killer Charles Schmid.
5. Octavia Butler
Though she’s primarily known as a science fiction author, Octavia Butler’s stories often incorporate elements of horror. Her final novel, Fledgling, published the year before her death, is perhaps her most horror-inspired work, telling the story of a young girl who discovers she’s a vampire. In her stories, Butler addressed racism from a fantastical perspective—her works are full of futuristic dystopias and alien planets—but she never shied away from its horrors. But even those with more straightforward science fiction premises are often suffused with dread, exposing the suppressed horrors of American history. Referring to her time-travel novel Kindred, Butler explained, “I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that Black people have had to live through in order to endure.”
6. Asa Nonami
Asa Nonami’s writing has been compared to everything from Rosemary’s Baby to The Twilight Zone. She’s an award-winning crime and horror writer whose novels often feature complex female characters in impossible situations. In her short story collection Body, Nonami tells five tales of terror, each inspired by a different body part, while her novel Now You’re One of Us tells the story of a young bride who discovers her husband and his family may not be quite what they seem. It’s a ghost-free horror tale that builds its sense of suspense from its sheer unpredictability.
7. Lisa Tuttle
Remember those ’80s horror paperbacks that tantalized with terrifying covers, then disappointed with incomprehensible plots? Lisa Tuttle is the antidote to that. She’s everything you hoped mass-market horror could be, in fact. Her novels, beginning with 1983’s Familiar Spirit, are disturbing, creative, and most importantly, well written. Tuttle got her start collaborating with George R.R. Martin on the science fiction novel Windhaven before emerging as an important voice in ’80s horror fiction with works like Familiar Spirit, Gabriel, and the short story collection A Nest of Nightmares. She’s also written fantasy, young adult fiction, and nonfiction—in 1986, she even published the reference book Encyclopedia of Feminism.
8. Tananarive Due
Tananarive Due isn’t just one of the best contemporary horror writers around, she’s also one of the coolest. Back in the mid-1990s, when she was still an up-and-coming young author, Due attended a literary festival and somehow ended up onstage, in a rock band, with Stephen King. She then proceeded to get King to write a blurb for her second novel, My Soul to Keep (he called it an “eerie epic”). Nowadays, Due is an accomplished scholar and short story writer in addition to being a novelist. Her works include the African Immortals series, the haunted house novel The Good House, and Ghost Summer, a collection of short stories that somehow manages to be both nightmare-inducing and extremely moving. She is even taught a course at UCLA inspired by Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror movie Get Out called “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic.”
9. Mariko Koike
Mariko Koike is an award-winning Japanese author of suspense, romance, and, of course, horror. Her novel The Cat in the Coffin is a thrilling exercise in the macabre. But her greatest work of pure horror is the 1986 novel The Graveyard Apartment, which tells the story of a young family that moves into a brand new apartment complex overlooking an old graveyard and crematorium. The novel patiently builds dread from seemingly ordinary images: a bird’s feather, a yellow hat, a smudge on the TV screen. It’s a chillingly tense haunted house novel from an author who understands that the greatest horrors often hide in the mundane.
10. Helen Oyeyemi
Helen Oyeyemi’s writing defies classification, blending horror, fantasy, fairy tales, and folklore. Though her works don’t always fit comfortably into the horror genre, they range from unsettling to truly frightening and often employ elements of the paranormal or bizarre. In The Icarus Girl, which Oyeyemi published when she was just 20, an awkward young girl makes a strange new friend who may or may not be real. The novel mixes paranormal and Gothic themes with Nigerian folklore. In her 2009 novel White is For Witching, meanwhile, Oyeyemi tells the story of a mysterious house in Dover, England, and the secrets of the family who lives there. Reviewing that novel, The Austin Chronicle dubbed Oyeyemi the “direct heir to [Shirley Jackson’s] Gothic throne.”
11. Jac Jemc
Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It tells the story of a young couple who moves from a cramped apartment in a big city into a spacious suburban home, only to find it haunted by mysterious forces. That might sound like a traditional horror premise, yet the novel is anything but. Instead, it’s surreal and disorienting, written in feverish prose that keeps you in its grip even when nothing in particular is happening.
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