I didn’t realize until fairly recently, but February is Women in Horror Month! February 2016 marks the 7th annual Women in Horror Month, or WiHM, which aims to “encourage supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries.” Women in all parts of the horror genre are represented—female horror directors, female horror writers, female horror artists, and many more.
I love that this initiative exists! Why should boys have all the fun? Everyone can contribute to horror. It’s refreshing to see women who love horror come together to support each other. There are many talented individuals sharing in this genre, be it through fiction, film, comics, or art.
As a writer myself, I read other (male and female) writers for inspiration and improvement. There are a lot of excellent male horror writers, some of which have greatly influenced me. I love old school gothic romances, many of which were written by men. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is imaginative and made a huge impact on the genre. Obviously, Stephen King has written some of the scariest and most influential horror novels of all time. Joseph Fowles wrote The Collector, which is one of my favorite novels ever.
However, certain female horror writers have captivated me in ways that I never thought a novel or short story do. I have a deep and abiding admiration for women who write horror. Their stories are just as scary, creepy, and gifted as their male colleagues. They have valuable perspectives that add to the richness of the horror genre. And many of them write original and well-written stories that transcend genre lines.
I realize that it is a little sad that we have to write articles and blog posts about female horror writers, because they should just be writers, but such is the world we live in. I won’t lie; it’s depressing to see all the viewpoints that aren’t represented in horror. All we can do is keep talking about these points of view and keep contributing our own creativity to the genre. It can seem like a lonely road, but I know that whenever I experience anxiety and self-doubt about my writing abilities, I remember the female horror writers who’ve come before me. Their achievements inspire me to keep writing.
In the spirit of WiHM, I wanted to share a short list of the female horror writers who inspire me to trust my literary vision and push myself to do better. I also included a short list of female horror writers who inspire me even though I haven’t read their work, which I am honestly ashamed of. It’s now a stated personal goal to read more female horror writers, and I’ll be starting with the writers on this list.
Female Horror Writers I Have Read
- Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is one of the best horror novels of all time and Mary Shelley is a literary giant. Even if you don’t like this novel, you must admit how influential it has been. Not only did Shelley practically invent the modern literary horror genre, she also laid the foundation for the science fiction genre, arguably writing the first science fiction novel.
She was a true pioneer.
While Frankenstein immediately won popular acclaim, many reviewers were very critical of the novel upon its release, due to a mixture of 19th century sexism and weak stomachs. Thankfully, literary scholars have since realized how important and well written the novel is. Yes, the writing is not my favorite style, but the strength of Shelley’s story succeeds despite the at times overwrought 19th century prose.
This story resonates so intensely that it endures today, having inspired countless literary reinterpretations and horror adaptions, as well as becoming a cornerstone of the horror genre as we know it today. Its themes explore the biggest concerns of the human condition—is it right to play god, especially if I might improve the life of every person? What if I fail? Must I be responsible for my actions, even when there are unintended, horrible consequences? What is the purpose of life? Why do we feel loneliness, despair, and existential uncertainty? Additionally, Frankenstein raises questions of ethics and the nature of scientific research. How much is too much discovery? When should humanity refuse to pull back the veil of our ignorance?
Personally, I have always loved how Frankenstein is told from a very feminine viewpoint. Specifically, I think it is very important to note that Frankenstein deals directly with themes of creation and parenthood. Frankenstein can be interpreted as a warning not to interfere with the natural order, which is further interpreted as a warning to men, more often than not. The mad scientist horror archetype is depicted as almost exclusively male. Think of such films as The Fly and Re-Animator, where men in pursuit of elusive scientific goals unleashed horrors threatening the secondary female characters.
That’s why it cannot be discounted that Mary Shelley wrote this novel firmly within her own experiences as a woman; she is a woman whose mother died after giving birth to her, a woman who wrote this classic novel at the tender age of 19, a woman who was an early feminist. She wrote a creation story that took on its own mythic proportions, tapping into human fears of biological reproduction and our own destructive creativity. It is a fear everyone has, regardless of sex. She is a clear example of how women do not write stories only for women, anymore than men do. She wrote Frankenstein for everyone.
- Shirley Jackson
I love Shirley Jackson’s writing.
She’s a master of psychological horror and knows exactly how to play tricks with her characters’ minds as well as those of her readers. Who could forget the creepy tale of two co-dependent sisters in We Have Always Lived In The Castle? What about the dizzying story of a fragile shut-in who goes crazy in a house that may or may not be haunted in The Haunting of Hill House? And what about her iconic, classic, punch-to-the-gut short story “The Lottery?
Today, we know her as the quiet yet prolific writer who wrote the struggles of her daily life into her fiction, thereby giving us some of the best modern horror literature. I personally love how her stories work on multiple levels, preying on our deepest insecurities. Her characters are nuanced and multi-dimensional, her narratives are tight and expertly paced, and her horror is slow burn but provocative.
But her writing wasn’t always held in such high esteem. “The Lottery” was poorly received upon its 1948 publication in The New Yorker, garnering such a negative response The New Yorker lost subscriptions. Jackson was accused of being a communist and “showing the perversion of democracy.” Despite the public outrage, Jackson was undeterred and kept writing her insightful, provocative stories.
I think it’s a damn shame that Jackson isn’t as well known, especially considering her marked influence on some of the most prolific and widely-praised horror writers.
Richard Matheson strongly evoked Jackson’s own The Haunting of Hill House in his 1971 novel Hell House (the similarities are notable). Joyce Carol Oats declared that Jackson’s work “exerts an enduring spell.” And Stephen King was transfixed by the opening lines of The Haunting of Hill House, writing in Danse Macabre “I think there are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are any finer than this; it is the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for: words that somehow transcend the sum of the parts.”
Read for yourself:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
I wish I could write like that.
- Anne Rice
I’ve always found Anne Rice to be an extremely inspiring writer. She’s published 33 novels under her many pseudonyms, a bunch of short stories, and written television treatments for various projects. She has sold over 75 million copies of her books. Her work has been adapted into film, television, musicals, and even comic books. Her long career is encouraging to me, among many other aspiring authors.
I love how rich Rice’s stories are. She creates very intricate novels about with supernatural beings, with gothic elements and bloody parts in good measure. I’ve never found her books to be scary, but there is plenty of chilling, messed-up stuff in her stories. I love how Rice isn’t afraid to get weird, truly weird. It makes her work inventive and original. Some of her plot points are awesomely over-the-top and fun, like Lestat’s rise to fame as an out-and-proud vampire rock star. Other stuff gets a little too bizarre, even for my tastes, which is basically how I felt about all of Memnoch the Devil. But I respect that she takes risks and owns her choices. No one tells her what to write.
And the worldbuilding! Rice has a real talent for painting a lurid picture on the page. Years before I had visited New Orleans, I felt as though I had already seen it thanks to her lush descriptions. Granted, Rice sometimes adds too much purple to her prose and other times desperately needs an editor to help refine her vision, but the talent and vision is all her. She is always firmly in the driver seat.
I have a soft spot for Anne Rice. Not only was Interview With The Vampire my first “adult” horror novel (I got tired of Goosebumps real fast) but also I read it during a dark and lonely part of my life. I cannot sufficiently express how comforting it was to read about a character that felt sad and isolated the way I did. I found Louis’ struggle very relatable, which helped me with my own sadness. That is perhaps why I adore Interview With The Vampire in particular. It made a monster incredibly sympathetic, and in doing so opened up the vampire archetype to all sorts of new possibilities.
- Angela Carter
Who doesn’t love creepy and disturbing re-imagination of a beloved fairy tale? Especially when those reimagined fairy tales are spectacularly feminist? It might seem like a weird combination—beloved fairy tales, sex, violence, magic, and feminism, but trust me; The Bloody Chamber is a wonderful collection of short stories that should not be missed.
Carter is a skilled storyteller, taking time to craft a vivid, descriptive world in which to unravel her unique interpretations of the fairy tales. The female protagonists, often naïve and weak in fairy tales, instead possess keen sense of self and determination.
If you are worried that Carter’s retelling would rob those beloved fairy tales of their mystical, imaginative qualities, don’t be. Somehow, stripping these tales of their Disney-fied elements and upping the horror breathes new life into these stories, giving them new magic. For example, The Bloody Chamber, which lends its name to the title of the collection, is a fierce and chilling retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale (or should I say cautionary tale?) that is somehow more messed up than the original.
Personally, I love it when classic stories are reimagined, especially when a writer reimagines myths and fairy tales. These stories are already potent, full of meaning and symbolism and trading on archetypes that people of all backgrounds recognize. When such a story is told with a twist, we can see the subject matter in new light. We learn things we didn’t know before, pick up on threads we ignored before, and find more and more ways that the story applies to our lives. The story can still speak to us.
- Helen Oyeyemi
I must admit that I have kind of a literary crush on Helen Oyeyemi, and I’m in love with her novel White Is For Witching. She is a creative storyteller, melding together literary fiction with elements of gothic romance and horror, all of which she firmly roots in her experience as a Nigerian-immigrant raised in London. She’s a superb writer with a poetic command of language. Her prose is stunning and labyrinthine, like a dream. All of her stuff is like a dream—dripping with significance but always just out of reach. You know she is saying something incredibly important, but it’s as if you can’t quite grasp her message. In this way she pulls you further into her tale, but it’s not like you want to leave the eerie worlds she creates, even when spooky things happen.
All this is to say that Oyeyemi possesses a somewhat rare and valuable literary perspective. It should not be that way.
Of course, you’ve probably heard of her 2014 novel Boy, Snow, Bird, which was a commercial and critical success making several “Best Of” lists. While Boy, Snow, Bird does not possess any real horror elements, it was a fascinating retelling of Snow White that examined family dynamics and notions of beauty through lenses of racial prejudice. IT was a stunning book—rich, complex, and poignant.
All of her writing can be characterized in this way, especially the novels that have more of a supernatural bent. In Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi weaves a complicated story that explores with fresh eyes the old horror trope of imaginary childhood friends. In White Is For Witching, Oyeyemi creates a spellbinding tale that pays homage to the haunted house tale as it pushes those boundaries. In both novels, Oyeyemi renders vivid and haunting stories where characters stand on uneven ground between the past and the present, between Nigerian and English cultures, between life and death.
I don’t know if I will ever be able to write with such poignancy and clarity, but I’ll sure try.
Female Horror Writers I Haven’t Read
I have a book problem—there are countless unread books on the shelves in my office. Despite my earnest attempts to free up time, I can never read as many books as I would like.
All of the below writers are represented on m bookshelves I want to read them. Either someone recommended them to me or I stumbled upon them by a happy accident. And while I’ve yet to read these writers, I am inspired by their hard work, the attention they’ve garnered, and the success they’ve achieved. I can’t wait to read them!
- Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler is inspiring in her own right as a very successful science fiction writer, and a woman of color at that. She started her writing career in the early 1970s, when overwhelmingly white male writers dominated science fiction. But she didn’t let that deter her. She published fifteen novels, two short story collections, and countless essays. She was also the first science fiction writer ever to win the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant“.
Butler was highly regarded for combining elements of science fiction, weird fiction, and horror in her examination of “African and African-American spiritualism, mysticism, and mythology.” Her point of view as a woman of color choosing to confront issues of race and gender gave power to a voice rarely heard in literature.
She sounds kick-ass.
I am particularly interested in reading Bloodchild, a collection of short stories. “Bloodchild” the titular short story, won both a Hugo and Nebula Award, which are two of the highest honors in Science Fiction. Publishers Weekly described the story as “a compelling and horrifying novella combining a love story between a human and an alien with a coming-of-age tale; it is, as Butler puts it, a `pregnant man’ story.”
Sounds creepy as hell!
- Caitlín R. Kiernan
Kiernan has been on my reading list for a while, as she’s an acclaimed and accomplished author. She’s published 12 novels and 11 short story collections. She’s been nominated for several awards, including the Bram Stoker Award for her 2012 novel The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, and has won many International Horror Guild Awards.
I think I’ll probably start with Drowning Girl, though her whole body of work intrigues me. Drowning Girl sounds like a chilling ghost story and psychological horror novel, where a troubled artist’s encounter with a mysterious woman sets her on a downward spiral into the realm of the surreal. As Peter Straub has written, “With The Drowning Girl, [the author] moves firmly into the new vanguard, still being formed, of our best and most artful authors of the gothic and fantastic.” Publishers Weekly declared “[In The Drowning Girl,] Kiernan evokes the gripping and resonate work of Shirley Jackson in a haunting story that’s half-mad artist’s diary and half fairy tale.”
She also possesses a unique point of view that I have not been exposed to—Kiernan is transgendered and a lesbian. I am largely ignorant of LGBTQ voices in fiction, and especially so where it concerns horror fiction. I think it does us all good to expand our horizons; thus I’m eager to read her work.
Kiernan also makes my list because she actively avoids labeling herself as a genre writer. In her words, “It’s not that there are not strong elements of horror present in a lot of my writing. It’s that horror never predominates those works. You may as well call it psychological fiction or awe fiction. I don’t think of horror as a genre. I think of it – to paraphrase Doug Winter – as an emotion, and no one emotion will ever characterize my fiction.
I respect that sentiment.
- Sarah Langan
Sarah Langan always crops up when there’s a discussion of contemporary horror fiction or when I search for new books to read. It’s understandable—she’s won 3 Bram Stoker Awards and is both a judge for the Shirley Jackson Award and serves on its Board of Directors.
She’s particularly well known for The Missing, her prize-winning 2007 novel about a school field trip that goes horribly, terribly wrong. The Missing has been said to “recall, in the best way possible, the early work of Stephen King.” Additionally, praise for Langan has been glowing; “Langan has the control of a pro, parsing just enough horrific details to allow the truly gruesome scenes to play out unbound in the imagination; this solid sophomore effort proves that The Keeper‘s disturbing ability to burrow into readers’ heads and stay there was no fluke.”
I read this interview with Langan recently and found her confidence incredibly refreshing. She knows she works hard and knows her books are good. She gets after it. She owns it. I love that! Her attitude is inspiring apart from her accomplishments because it encourages me to take pride in my efforts. Sometimes it’s too easy to nitpick and self-criticize. I like that she recognizes her own talent and isn’t afraid to show it.
- Elizabeth Hand
Elizabeth Hand is someone who is associated with such descriptions as “imaginative” and “edgy” with a “refined prose style” and a penchant for coloring outside the genre lines. She writes a variety of beautiful and eerie fiction, having published novels, short story collections, even motion picture film novelizations.
I’m particularly interested in her 2007 novel Generation Loss, about an aging photographer with a rough pass in NYC’s 70s punk scene, who stumbles upon a voracious and devastating mystery in a small Maine town. As the bodies pile up, Cass finds herself pulled into the mystery even as she struggles to control her old inner demons.
Publishers Weekly found it “gritty” and “profoundly unsettling.” The Washington Post said, “Generation Loss moves like a thriller, it detonates with greater resound. It’s a dark and beautiful novel that should not be read by anyone under the age of 30.”
I love how raw Hand seems to be, how she puts all of her own struggles and past pain into her writing. And she’s very honest about where her inspiration comes from, how her writing is a way for her to sort through her past trials. The best writing comes from real experience.
I could summarize an interview she gave here, where she talked about everything from her past to her process to failed projects, but you should go read it yourself. Let’s just say she seems to have had a really interesting, at times difficult life. Despite that, she’s committed to producing excellent writing that deeply affects her readers.
Have I forgotten any one? Do you have a recommendation for a good female horror writer? Leave your suggestions in the comments!