The Wonderfully Weird Women Writers You Should be Reading this Halloween
The nights are drawing in, Netflix is featuring its creepiest shows, and Halloween in all of its gothic glory is very nearly upon us. While the gothic tradition has more than its fair share of virginal, swooning women designed to be rescued by men, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of women writers out there making weird fiction into something powerful. Here’s just a small selection of some of the women you should be reading, if you like your horror with a healthy dose of feminism.
In a time when most female characters were virginal objects of a hero’s affection, Charlotte Dacre’s 1806 novel, Zofloya, broke from tradition spectacularly. Featuring a woman who’s refreshingly open about her sexuality, Victoria defends her lovers from assassins, kills her husband, and is ultimately hood-winked by Satan himself. Although written under a pen-name when it was first released, the book was deemed so shocking, that one critic at the time wrote that its author was ‘afflicted with the dismal malady of maggots in the brain.’ Sounds like a ringing endorsement, to me!
Of course, no Halloween reading list would be complete without the creator of Frankenstein. Arguably the first ever science-fiction novel, the true monster of Shelley’s seminal work isn’t the creature, but Man, in the form of the relentlessly ambitious Victor Frankenstein. Not only was Mary Shelley a staunch feminist and talented writer, she was also the living embodiment of the gothic, keeping the calcified heart of her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, in her desk drawer until she died, wrapped tenderly in a shroud of his own poems. What a queen.
We all know that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first published in 1897, but 1897 was also the year a far lesser-known, and far stranger vampyric tale hit the shelves. Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire features Harriet Brandt, the daughter of a mad scientist and a voodoo priestess. Although beautiful and talented — as all of our favourite gothic women are — everyone who gets close to her sickens and dies. Could it be a coincidence, or is Harriet herself to blame? Florence Marryat published over 60 novels in her lifetime, but this bizarre book’s sensational plot and uncanny characters make it a superbly creepy, and sadly over-looked classic. Damn you, Dracula!
Shirley Jackson might not be exclusively known as a horror writer, but her most famous novels the Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle definitely belong in the category of strange fiction. The Lottery is probably her best known short story, but the creeping unease, psychological horror, and paranormal disturbances to family life, are explored and up-turned repeatedly in her novels. A practising witch during her too-short life, Jackson once claimed that she made the publisher Alfred A. Knopf — who was involved in a dispute with her husband — break his leg while skiing in Vermont. This is the kind of spooky retribution I can definitely respect.
Born in England in 1917, Leonora ran away to Europe to become one of the great surrealist artists, eventually escaping to Mexico after being forcibly committed to an asylum in Madrid. Her short stories are rife with mythic imagery and animal symbolism, and her 1974 novel, The Hearing Trumpet, is sometimes described as the occult twin to Alice in Wonderland. Featuring a 92-year-old woman in a home where buildings are shaped like Birthday cakes, and a gateway to the underworld has been opened, this is a book guaranteed to thrill you like nothing you’ve ever read before.
Octavia Butler may be best-known as a sci-fi author, but many of her stories are steeped in elements of horror. Fledgling, the last book she published before her death in 2006, tells the story of a young girl who discovers she’s a vampire, and her works deal extensively with the horrors of racism and prejudice, in wickedly fantastical settings. She was a powerful and transgressive feminist writer, saying famously that ‘in order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix must first burn’. And if that’s not a statement to rally behind, I don’t know what is.
Stories by Japanese writer Asa Nonami have been compared to the Twilight Zone, and they’re recognisable by her distinctive style of gothic suspense. Famous for her strong women characters, her book Now You’re One of Us is a deliciously creepy story about a young bride who discovers her husband and his family aren’t what they seem, and her short story collection, Body, imagines a series of disturbing stories based around individual body parts. If you’re looking for an entrance into the Japanese gothic, with lashings of feminism and body horror, Asa’s unnerving tales are where you should begin!
Finally, I have to confess to falling head over heels in love with Sarah Perry’s writing when I read her second novel, The Essex Serpent, belatedly last year. The Victorian gothic story centres on Cora Seaborne, a woman newly-widowed and thrilled with her widowhood, and it is a darkly beautiful tale of monsters, womanhood, and political and social change. But if you’re really looking for the dark and wonderful this Halloween, her latest novel, Melmoth, has just been released by Serpent’s Tale, and the only advice I can give you is this: proceed with caution, because Melmoth is surely watching from the shadows, and she knows what’s in your heart…
What are your favourite horror reads by women writers?
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