20 Women in Horror: Recommended Reading
There are lots of good posts out there supporting Women in Horror Month, many arguing its merits and shortcomings. There are also many, many lists of female horror authors. I don’t know about you, though, but I find them a little daunting. I mean, it's great to have a master list, but where should I start in a list of dozens or even hundreds of names, many of which I’ve never heard before, and whose books I know nothing about?
So today, I'm sharing a list that's a little less overwhelming and a little more specific. To be clear, I have no intention here to include every single female horror writer out there, to be fair and balanced, or even to provide something for everyone. I’m simply going to share with you my personal favorite women horror writers and why you might want to read them. Just keep in mind that if your tastes don't match up with mine there are still plenty of other authors out there to try.
Without further ado and in no particular order, my favorite recommendations for those seeking to read works by women in horror, any time of year.
1. Toni Morrison
In my opinion, Beloved by Toni Morrison is not just the best horror novel by a woman, it’s the best horror novel ever written. It’s exquisite and gut-wrenching. Brilliant, deep, and meaningful. Painful in the ways only horror can make you feel. The highest quality writing you can find. Unique, stylistic, powerful… I could go on. (And maybe I should, but this is a list, after all. I did my rave review here a couple years ago.) I love that Beloved has some intersection with Black History Month as well as WiHM, too. Morrison takes the brutal history of slavery in America and renders it, bleeding, on the page. Not an easy, read, no, but one of the most important in the literary canon. I personally think it’s the great American novel.
When it comes to popular horror authors, the first woman’s name to pop up is almost always Anne Rice, and for good reason. Rice is the reigning queen of gothic horror, with her signature blend of fear, romance, and historical detail. Her smart prose rendered for anyone to enjoy makes her an upmarket dream. She’s best known for her Vampire Chronicles series, but her Mayfair Witches series is full of the same dark, juicy goodness. Her horror often comes at you sideways, insidious and surprising.
One more of my absolute squee-worthy favorites before I move on to some authors you’re less likely to have heard of. Shirley Jackson has to be one of the most underrated writers we have. Sure, many people read “The Lottery” in school, and you’ve probably at least heard of The Haunting of Hill House, but Jackson has so much more to offer. Personally, I think her other short stories are equal to or even surpass “The Lottery,” perhaps because they’re fresher and more nuanced. “The Tooth” will haunt me for the rest of my life. And while The Haunting of Hill House is absolutely a masterpiece classic—seriously, you must read it—We Have Always Lived in the Castle is actually the one I find more complex and interesting.
Gemma Files won me over forever with her story “This is Not for You.” You want smart, sharp, oh so dark horror that takes on issues like feminism, gender identity, religion, violence, and cultural roles? Just… go read it. I loved it so much I bought her novel, Experimental Film, and it did not disappoint. Complex, deep, and heartfelt. Scary in a very fresh, subtle way. I truly loved it and highly recommend it.
Regular LitReactor readers already know of my love for Sarah Waters. Her books draw from horror, romance, gothic, drama, literary fiction, mystery, and more, each leaning a little more this way or that. (I give quick-shot reviews of all 6 Sarah Waters books here.) The Little Stranger leans distinctly toward horror. It’s subtle, eerie, and crawls under your skin to nest for the night. It’s fantastically feminist in its angle without being about feminism. In fact, it’s the most clever critique on the genre I’ve read so far. But even without that, it’s a damn fine gothic horror novel.
Another one that should come as no surprise to LitReactor regulars; I adore Laurell K. Hamilton, specifically her Anita Blake series. The first ten books are packed full of ultra-memorable horror scenes. The series shifts genre quite a bit—most noticeably after book ten, where it becomes largely paranormal erotica—but the first ten are all solidly horror-leaning. They also incorporate mystery, fantasy, noir, and a healthy dose of drama and romance. They’re fun, fast-paced reads with some stand-out horror.
But back to short stories that reeled me in. Have you read Lucy A. Snyder’s Bram Stoker Award® winning story “Magdala Amygdala”? If not, go read it right now. It is the very best kind of what the fuck. Weird and daring and so memorable that I still remember it some six years after reading it. No punches pulled.
Want more short stories? I’ve grown to need them over the years, and my number one go-to source is editor Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series. Of course Datlow is herself a woman working in horror, but her anthologies also include stories by women writing in the field (along with many talented men). The Best Horror of the Year series is a great way to sample different authors without committing to full novels. I’ve discovered several of my favorite horror writers in them, and I’m sure you will too. One of the joys here is that although these are put out every year, the stories themselves never expire, so you can go back and read all of the volumes if you want.
What about when you just want a good classic? I really enjoyed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but be forewarned: it’s not for everyone. It’s science fiction horror, but it’s also old science fiction horror. There’s a huge stylistic difference between books written in the 1800’s and what modern readers have become accustomed to. That said, it’s often argued to be the birth of the horror genre, so it’s good to have read it at least once. It'd be difficult not to appreciate it when you think about the fact that she was truly the first one doing this sort of thing. Pretty inspiring.
If you happen to be in the mood for a good classic but aren’t quiiite willing to put up with fifty pages of exposition every couple chapters, try The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. It reads like an old-school ghost story—and is truly atmospheric and chilling—but it was written for the modern reader. Best of both worlds. Oh, and it’s better than the movie.
If you like your horror a little bit more, um, fucked up, V.C. Andrews is where it’s at. Flowers in the Attic is still one of the darkest, sickest reads I can think of, and there’s little to no gore in its pages. It gets its power from its emotional setup, which is gross and so well done that you’ll want to scrub your brain with steel wool after. It’s traumatizing and frightening on several levels, and definitely worth a read. Just beware that the sequels and spin-off series go further and further downhill as you go, so be prepared to hit that stop button when you feel yourself sliding.
I debated whether to include this one or not because it’s the only thing by Sarah Pinborough I’ve read so far and it was a mixed bag, but Behind Her Eyes is one hell of a horror novel. I think a big part of the problem is that it isn’t marketed as a horror novel—and the bulk of it doesn't read like one—so lots of psychological thriller readers were upset by the turns it takes, but I ended up loving it. I was satisfied but not thrilled until the ending, and holy hell that ending! It gave me full body chills. Superb. A moment of horror that, for me, was worth the entire read. I’ll be checking out more Pinborough in the future for sure.
I hope you'll forgive me for including myself. I'm not calling myself a favorite, but Women in Horror Month is about promoting women working in horror and that’s what I am. So add me to your to-read list, if you'd like. Don’t worry, I won’t wax poetic; I’ll just point to a few of my stories you can read free. “So Sings the Siren” in Apex Magazine is on the 2017 Bram Stoker Award® Preliminary Ballot and it'll be appearing in Year's Best Hardcore Horror Volume 3 by Comet Press. It’s super short, so a great place to start. Another shortie is “Hide,” first published in Black Static Issue 43 and then audio podcast at Pseudopod. Slightly longer and a bit less heavy and more fun, “Zanders the Magnificent” is at Fireside Magazine and comes with gorgeous art by Galen Dara. If you like those, feel free to check out my full list.
I can't very well have no poety on this list, can I? There are many women doing great work in horror poetry, but these days the name I find myself drawn to most often is Stephanie Wytovich. If you read dark poetry at all, you've probably read some of her work around. I found her first in the HWA Poetry Showcase anthologies, but what really won me over was her poem "The 21st Century Shadow" in The Best Horror of the Year Volume Eight. It's a strange little prose poem/free verse hybrid that works beautifully, dragging you on by the throat. Every poem I've ready by her since is haunting, enchanting, or otherwise engaging—so you can bet I'll be reading more.
A few extra mentions to wrap things up. In the nonfiction camp, three books in particular stood out to me as fascinating and useful for any horror lover: Lisa Morton’s Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, Rachel Herz’s That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, and Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I’m not a big nonfiction fan, but these three had me thoroughly interested throughout.
And finally, what about those books and authors who reside in the hinterlands? Who dabble in horror or take elements from it without diving all the way into that deep, dark pool? Some honorable mentions. Three books by women excelling in dark mystery with strong horror elements: Broken Harbor by Tana French, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, and Night Film by Marisha Pessl.
Okay, maybe my list was pretty long after all. I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that there aren’t many women kicking ass in horror. This is just books, y’all; I didn’t even touch on movies, TV, art, etc. But I tried to tell you a little bit about each so you can tell if these authors might be for you to check out. I hope you will.
Who are your favorite women writing in horror? Favorite books, stories, poems old or new? Why do you love them?
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