Sure, there are a few impressive male horror writers out there (I hear this Stephen King guy is a real up and comer), but most of the stories that truly give me waking nightmares are penned by women. Perhaps it’s because women already know the horror of living under the patriarchy, or because many women (though certainly not all) have bodies that do things like bleed and give birth to small screaming demons, but women-centric horror seems to be particularly brutal. Here are a few deliriously creepy books written by women (but you might want to keep the lights on).
Women have been writing horror for a long time, too. Cool goth teen Mary Shelley kick-started the modern horror genre with Frankenstein, which just so happened to also start our modern genre of science fiction (because everything you love was invented by teen girls). Shelley also learned how to write her name by tracing the letters on her mother’s grave, because she is more goth than you. Since that first story of reanimated corpses and irresponsible scientists, horror has evolved from Gothic novels of adventure and woe to creepy modern stories that will crawl under your skin and keep you up at night. Here are just some of the must-read horror stories by and about women:
1. ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson
Merricat Blackwood lives in a big house with her beloved sister and her confused uncle. Everyone else in their family is dead. As we get to know Merricat, our narrator, and her strange world of make-believe, we start to get the sneaking suspicion that something is a bit… off with the Blackwood family. Or perhaps very off. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is quite simply a masterpiece of creepy tension, culminating in a plot twist that will make you want to hide under the covers.
2. ‘White is for Witching’ by Helen Oyeyemi
The haunted house is a pretty standard horror trope. But in Helen Oyeyemi’s hands, the haunted house becomes a beautiful, emotional punch to the gut. White is for Witching is the story of the Silver family, who are trying to recover from a tragic loss. The daughter, Miranda, seems to be manifesting her grief by hearing women in the walls and developing a newfound appetite for chalk, until the dark night that she vanishes completely.
3. ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca is about as classically creepy as you can get. At first glance, our heroine seems to be living in a romance novel: she’s a lowly orphan maid who’s been swept off her feet by dashing widower Maxim de Winter. Great, right? But once she arrives at Mr. de Winter’s enormous country estate, she begins to realise that the previous Mrs. de Winter might be threatening to destroy her marriage from beyond the grave.
4. ‘Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Short Stories’ by Silvina Ocampo
Possession in a house of sugar. A marble statue of a winged horse that speaks to a little girl. Arsonist children who lock up their own mothers. A little dog who can record dreams. I don’t know where Silvina Ocampo gets her bizarre, surrealist ideas, but her short stories are brilliant and creepy as hell.
5. ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley
You can’t talk about lady horror authors without talking about Mary. Frankenstein was not technically the first Gothic novel, but a lot of our horror tropes started with this one weird book. If you only know the Hollywood version, check out the original novel: it still holds up as the creepy, gut-wrenching story of one mad scientist who was also a terrible father to his corpse baby.
6. ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie
Ten strangers, each with their own dark and complicated past, find themselves invited to the same island for an eccentric millionaire’s party. But surprise: there’s no party, and the guests keep dying, one by one, in all sorts of inventive ways that also just so happens to be written in a poem on the wall. And Then There Were None combines everything you love about the game Cluedo with everything you love about Saw, and it’s a must-read for all horror fans.
7. ‘The Fever’ by Megan Abbott
Deenie and Eli Nash are typical high school kids: Deenie the diligent student and Eli the hockey star and popular jock. But when Deenie’s best friend has some sort of seizure in the middle of class, the Nash family find themselves in the middle of a growing hysteria. There is some spreading contagion in this idyllic suburban town, and no one knows where it came from, or how to stop it.
8. ‘Bødy’ by Asa Nonami
The word “body” is already pretty horrifying. Asa Nonami’s Bødy takes it a step further, though, with thematically linked stories of straight up body horror. Each of the five stories focuses on someone’s perception of a body part, covering the buttocks, blood, face, hair and chin, and each story is more chilling than the next.
9. ‘Ghost Summer: Stories’ by Tananarive Due
Gracetown is a sleepy little town in rural Florida, so you know something creepy is about to go down. In Ghost Summer, Tananarive Due weaves together one novella and several short stories to tell us of both literal and figurative ghosts. Her stories look at the people affected by the strange and paranormal and, in at least one tale, even take on the monster’s perspective.
10. ‘How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend’ by Linda Addison
Don’t think poetry can be horrifying? Try reading Linda Addison. How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend includes both fiction and poetry, and both will give you the sneaking suspicion that someone is watching you from the crack in the closet door. Here you’ll find young witches, UFOs, land sharks, and a haunting look at Halloween paranoia.
11. ‘Strangers on a Train’ by Patricia Highsmith
Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno are passengers on the same train. They both have people in their life who are giving them grief. They both kind of wish those people would go away. So they figure… why not help each other out with a little outsourced murder? Strangers on a Train is more in the thriller/mystery vein than typical horror, but Highsmith’s ability to get inside a murderer’s mind is about as creepy as it gets.
12. ‘The Shining Girls’ by Lauren Beukes
Time traveling serial killers. Time traveling serial killers. Harper Curtis is a man from another time, and Kirby Mazrachi is a girl who isn’t supposed to have a future. Harper is meant to kill all of the “Shining Girls” throughout history, but Kirby is determined to bring him to justice. Half horror thriller, half sci-fi mystery, The Shining Girls will keep you guessing as Kirby draws closer to the impossible truth.
13. ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ by Joyce Carol Oates
For a short horror read that will utterly ruin your entire life, try Joyce Carol Oates’ Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? It’s loosely based on a real life serial killer (so that’s fun), but it’s also kind of about the devil. The entirety of Oates’ creepiest story revolves around a strange man called Arnold Friend trying to coax a young woman into his car. That’s it, that’s the whole plot. But it’s so stomach-churning, so chilling, so next-level creepy that Arnold Friend will stay with you for a long, long time.