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Horror, She Wrote: Five Centuries of Haunting Reads by, for, and about Stubborn Women

Women's Horror Literature
Women's Horror Literature By Courtesy of Sarah M. Rojas
By Vivienne N. Germain, Crimson Staff Writer

“Spooky Season” makes readers hungry for horror — a genre with literary roots in Gothic fiction. In that case, October is a time to highlight women’s writing — as the Gothic is fundamentally a women’s genre. Through Gothic literature, women writers have developed and dominated horror storytelling since the 18th Century to discuss social issues or to write complex female characters without focusing on romance and men — a literary phenomenon that continues today.

During the fall or any time of year, book-lovers can explore women’s ghastly writing and its growth throughout history by reading a handful of the following exceptional, frightful literary works.

21st-century novels: Today’s resurgence of Gothic literature contemporizes conventional elements of the genre.

Must-read: “What Moves the Dead” by T. Kingfisher

“What Moves The Dead” thrives from delectable narration, rich with alluring imagery, suspense, and humor. A reimagining of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the novel follows Alex Easton’s investigation of their questionably dead friend. “What Moves The Dead” is not pointedly feminist but subtly offers compelling ideas about gender; for example, it is set in a country that uses many pronouns and never perceives children in a gendered way. The novel is brief and builds on Poe’s characters without adding much to the classic plot — which results in a straightforward, fast-paced narrative that makes it a smooth read, allowing audiences to immerse themselves in the fearful tale.

More 21st-century women’s must-read Gothic novels: “White is For Witching” by Helen Oyeyemi, “Weyward” by Emelia Hart, and “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

21st-century short story collections: Some ghost tales are best told in a matter of minutes. In the contemporary era, they are often provocative and edgy.

Must-read: “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado

In “Her Body and Other Parties,” Machado experiments with the disturbing and the beautiful, the violent and the sexy, the strange and the familiar. The genre-bending collection of feminist and queer fabulist stories intertwines elements of Gothic fiction with psychological realism, science fiction, comedy, and satire. The collection evokes fear through the supernatural, the inexplicable, and the deadly, but the recurring idea of undoing women’s lives through their bodies and minds haunts the reader to a comparable, if not greater extent. While each troubling tale has a creative and fresh plot, Machado’s unique voice remains the most striking element.

More 21st-Century women’s must-read Gothic and horror short story collections: “Lovely, Dark, Deep” by Joyce Carol Oates, and “The Dark Dark” by Samantha Hunt.

20th-century fiction: The political, social, and technological changes of the early 1900s re-energized writers’ interest in Gothic literature due to the genre’s capacity for bleak criticism of modern culture.

Must-read: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

Jackson’s classic Gothic novel centers a peculiar girl Merricat while she lives in an eerie mansion where her entire family was killed, further complicated by an unwanted visitor. The novel focuses on female characters’ power and independence, and it pushes against patriarchal order and traditional domesticity. Still, the feminist concepts are secondary to the gripping horror. In addition to exploring secrets, murder, and creepy oddities, Jackson chills readers through a feeling of isolation, a view into a nightmarish mind, and a sense of uncertainty. Most notably, Merricat’s unreliable narration places the reader in an unsettling position: After realizing her honesty, accuracy, and transparency are in question, the reader has no one to trust.

More 20th-century women’s must-read Gothic fiction: “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier, and “The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

19th-century novels: The early 19th-century Gothic introduced pseudoscience to the supernatural. Next, during the Victorian Era, the genre declined in popularity, but its elements appeared in Realist novels.

Must-read: “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley

“Frankenstein” is core to the horror genre because it introduced monsters, science fiction, and psychological terror into the Gothic. The novel features a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a human-like monster. Remarkably, the narrative conveys feminist ideas. Victor’s attempt to create a man by himself — excluding a mother’s role — results in failure, emphasizing that women contribute to society in a valuable, necessary way. While the suggested necessity of a mother may seem close-minded in a 21st-century context, it asserts the necessity of women, which was radically progressive in Shelley’s 19th-century context. “Frankenstein” is barely a ghost tale, but its relevance to women’s Gothic literature secures its place in this collection — and it’s a fascinating read.

“Frankenstein” is pre-Victorian. Must-read Victorian Era works of women’s Gothic fiction: “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë, and “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë.

18th and 17th-century literature: The horror genre began to emerge with 18th-century Gothic fiction, but stories characterized by fear and the supernatural existed long before this time.

Must-read: “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

“Macbeth” is a play, not a book. Still, it’s worth reading — conventional editions of the text uphold the outstanding language, audiobooks bring the characters to life, and many modern versions, including graphic novels and novel adaptations, provide intriguing takes on the story. “Macbeth” is neither Gothic nor woman-written, and its protagonist is a man. However, supernatural elements and dark events create thrilling horror, as mystical witches, ominous apparitions, bloody murders, and riveting plot twists push readers and audiences to the edge of their seats. Even more intriguing, “Macbeth” reveals female power as natural and potent, disdains male power as impulsive and senseless, highlights the value of feminine qualities, and exposes the perils of toxic masculinity.

“Macbeth” is a 17th-century play. Must-read 18th-century women’s Gothic novels: “The Old English Baron” by Clara Reeve, and “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe.

Women and Gothic fiction: Looking back

The most enticing Gothic fiction features headstrong women characters, examines feminist ideas, and centers women’s voices. Despite the narrow focus on Western writing, this selection of texts displays a multiplicity of ways scary stories captivate readers in an interplay between gender and genre. By considering the development of the Gothic over time and the historic role of women in literary horror, readers can appreciate the genre’s vital function in feminist thought — during “Spooky Season” or year-round.

—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at vivienne.germain@thecrimson.com.

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