An Overview of Classic Horror Novels Written by Women

How does a horror novel become a classic? First of all, it has to be good, or at least unusually compelling. But quality alone doesn’t ensure that a book will become a classic: it also has to be read, admired, and spread widely enough to inspire other creators.

There are thousands of novels that could have been classics but instead languished unread on shelves. Statistics published by Strange Horizons and VIDA: Women in Literary Arts show that books written by female authors receive less attention from publishers, reviewers, and readers. That’s not just in horror; that’s everywhere in publishing outside romance and chick lit (two genres that get even less mainstream literary respect than horror).

The result of women’s work being subtly and not-so-subtly ignored over the decades pretty clear: if you take a look at the horror best-of articles on the Web, you’ll see lists of books overwhelmingly populated with male-penned novels.

But in even the most male-centric lists of classic horror novels, you’ll usually find one written by a teenaged girl: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. When Mary Shelley’s 1818 science fiction horror novel was first published, her name wasn’t on it, and readers widely assumed a man had written it. And that novel has spread through popular culture like perhaps no other book. Even if a person somehow managed to graduate from school without having been assigned Frankenstein in English class, he or she knows Frankenstein (or any of the legion of mad/misguided scientists based on him) and his monster from viewing any of the hundreds of movies, TV shows, and cartoons based on Shelley’s characters and cautionary plot. Horror novels just don’t get more classic than Frankenstein.

But Shelley’s novel was certainly not the first horror classic by a female author. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe was published in 1794; today it’s widely considered to be one of the most important early Gothic novels. One important genre element the book helped establish was the brooding Gothic villain, who later evolved into the Byronic hero, a figure familiar to any modern reader, television viewer, or movie fan who has enjoyed narratives about conflicted, bad-boy protagonists such as Lestat de Lioncourt, Angel, Eric Draven, John Constantine, Dream … or even Edward Cullen. With its dark castles, psychological terrors, and an atmosphere even creepier than Dracula, Radcliffe’s novel helped pave the way for other authors: Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and H.P. Lovecraft. It’s possible that in its way The Mysteries of Udolpho has left nearly as large an impression on the horror genre as Frankenstein, but comparatively few modern readers and writers recognize the importance of Radcliffe’s lasting influence on later, more popular authors.

Another author whose work clearly bears Radcliffe’s influence is Daphne du Maurier. Du Maurier, whose stories “The Birds” and “Don’t Look Now” are modern horror classics turned into influential movies, is known for her gorgeous, chilling prose. Alfred Hitchcock, who filmed “The Birds”, also turned her 1938 gothic novel Rebecca into a 1940 movie; both the movie and her novel received wide critical acclaim and commercial success. While some horror readers question whether Rebecca “counts” as horror because the terrors in it are subtle, it is unquestionably a modern gothic classic that influenced Stephen King and other horror and thriller authors.

Shirley Jackson, another of Radcliffe’s literary descendants, authored a great deal of classic 20th Century horror. Her chilling 1948 short story “The Lottery” is familiar to high school students and English majors alike, and her 1962 We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a masterpiece of quiet horror: an unsettling novel about Otherness and mundane evil.

Jackson’s appeal as a writer comes from her skill as a storyteller. Her work is deeply textured and gorgeously written. It’s for mature readers, not because of graphic content, but because of its subtle complexity. Jackson expects that her readers are intelligent, fully capable of comprehending a metaphor, and in possession of an adult’s attention span.

Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959, is without question one of the most influential horror novels produced in the past 100 years. Jackson’s slim book has been filmed twice and has inspired dozens of other movies. Countless stories and novels have been written in Hill House’s literary shadows, including Stephen King’s Carrie and The Shining and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. What makes this small novel so hugely compelling? Part of its appeal surely comes from the subject matter: the haunted house. Jackson’s is a brooding, gothic country manor whose skewed architectural lines reflect the twisted madness of the man who built it. But Hill House doesn’t hold chain-rattling spirits; it has a supernatural intelligence that draws out and exploits the deep-seated fears of the people foolish enough to cross its threshold. And into this dread house Jackson puts a young protagonist who is familiar enough to be sympathetic and weird enough to be interesting. We can’t help but be fascinated as we watch her eccentric loneliness blur to insanity as her psychic powers bloom to create the haunting the other characters fear most.

In 1976, a new gothic horror novel crept onto the scene: Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice. Although it received mixed reviews, the book went on to sell millions of copies and its enthralling mix of creepiness and eroticism attracted a huge following. Rice has gone on to pen a dozen books in The Vampire Chronicles series and its vampire protagonists Louis de Pointe du Lac and Lestat de Lioncourt became well-embedded in the reading public’s imagination, particularly after the 1994 film version of Interview With The Vampire and 2002’s Queen of the Damned. Many recent-generation horror authors (myself included) can mark Rice’s books as influences on our own work.

Another classic gothic horror novel is Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. This supernaturally chilling novella was released in 1983 and has since been adapted for television, film, and the stage. During its initial debut, the book got positive reviews but gained relatively little attention. It wasn’t until playwright Stephen Mallatratt happened upon the book in a shop while he was looking for something to read on vacation. He purchased the book, loved it, and later asked for Hill’s permission to develop it for the stage. It was only after the theatre production that the novella got the attention it deserved, years after its first release.

The story behind The Woman in Black’s gradual success highlights the difficulty of any book reaching “classic” status: people have to notice it, champion it, and it has to be read by other emerging writers who then use what they learn from the book in their own works. So, it’s a tricky thing to determine what woman-authored novels written since then genuinely qualify as “classic” horror.

For instance, is Poppy Z. Brite’s 1992 novel Lost Souls a classic? Of the book, Billy Martin (formerly Poppy Brite) writes “(It’s a) first novel, and boy does it ever show.” But only the most narcissistic author thinks of her work as being flawless, and the stylish, bloody novel populated with amoral vampires got a lot of attention in the horror community. It was especially popular with college-age horror fans. So, many fortysomething authors working today can definitely count Lost Souls among their literary influences.

Another contender for a modern horror classic is Nancy Holder’s nightmarish Dead in the Water, which debuted in 1994. For that book, Holder earned the first Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel ever won by a woman author.

Other women-penned novels have won Stokers since then, and many of them could become modern horror classics. For instance, one of the most critically acclaimed (and prolific) authors in the past 50 years has been Joyce Carol Oates, and she has written tremendously influential fiction. Her 1995 novel Zombie, an exploration of the mind of a serial killer, won the Stoker but did not receive especially wide attention. If the novel ever becomes a major motion picture, will it capture a wider readership and be considered an influential horror novel, as happened with The Woman in Black?

Only time will tell. But the moral of these classic novels’ stories is clear: good books should be championed. If we as readers want to see more women-written books on the best-of lists, we have to enable the change we want to see in the genre. If you find a book that you think is stellar, don’t sadly watch it fade into obscurity. Or, worse, selfishly keep it to yourself like a literary Gollum hoarding a golden ring. Share the book with your friends. Share it with strangers on the train. Blog about it. Review it. Get the word out. Show the world the gorgeous dark prose and delightfully terrifying tales you have discovered, and the world will thank you for it.

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