I’m always surprised – and a bit disheartened – to come across lists of recommended horror books, or glance along the horror shelf at a bookstore, and see it populated almost exclusively with books by men. Nothing wrong with books by men, of course – I read plenty of ’em myself – but there are so many women writers with the capacity to scare our pants off, it’s a shame they don’t get more of a look-in. So, as always, I’m determined to be part of the solution. Here’s my round-up of great horror books written by women.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Most people who haven’t read Daphne du Maurier assume that she wrote fluffy mid-century romances. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rebecca is one of the most haunting Gothic horror novels – written by women or men, or anyone else! – from that era. The story follows a young naive woman, swept up in a marriage to an older wealthy widow. She moves into his mansion and finds it haunted, the specter of his late wife looming in every corner. But what really happened to Rebecca? Why does her housekeeper cling to her memory so tightly? Read my full review of Rebecca here.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Imagine you’re trapped in a holiday house with Lord Byron, he’s bored and he’s drinking and he suggests a game. Sounds like a horror story in and of itself, doesn’t it? That’s the situation Mary Shelley found herself in when she came up with the idea for Frankenstein, one of the most iconic horror books written by women – and the genesis of the science fiction genre. I recommend finding an edition with detailed biographical information about the author, because the more you learn about Shelley’s many personal tragedies, the richer this story of a monster rejected by his creator becomes. Read my full review of Frankenstein here.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The scariest thing about horror books written by women is that they are often rooted in horrifying realities for many women, around the world and throughout time. Take The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – perhaps more of a story than a full-length book or novel, but terrifying all the same. It is styled as a series of journal entries by a woman prescribed “treatment” by her psychiatrist husband for her supposed ailments (“nervous depression” and “hysteria”). Confined to her room, isolated and forbidden from working, the narrator slowly descends into true madness, the “cure” proving worse than the disease.
Flowers In The Attic by VC Andrews
Not every horror story has to be traditionally scary, in the jump-scare-throw-your-popcorn-in-the-air sense. Flowers In The Attic is technically a horror novel, but really, the scariest thing about it is the horrible writing – and the grip it had over teenage girls in the ’90s. This book went the old-timey version of viral, passed around playgrounds and under school desks. Young girls were intrigued by the story of teenage Cathy, locked in an attic by her mother with her siblings for years. That in itself is pretty twisted, but it gets worse: Cathy falls in love with her rapist… her brother. Ew! Read my full review of Flowers In The Attic here.
Lakewood by Megan Giddings
Her career is only a few years old, but Megan Giddings has already produced some of the best horror books written by women in recent memory. Her debut, Lakewood, has a killer premise – one that particularly resonates in light of the failing health system in the U.S. The main character, a black millennial woman named Lena, is forced to drop out of college and find a way to cover her family’s astronomical medical debt. She thinks she’s found salvation in a research program testing new drugs and therapies, offering her body (and, it turns out, her mind) as a test subject. Of course, it also means a loss of privacy, great personal risk, and the penalties of a terrifying NDA… but if it saves her mother and gets her family out of debt, it’s worth it, right? Wrong. Read my full review of Lakewood here.
Bonus: read my review of Megan Giddings’ follow-up novel, The Women Could Fly, here.
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
Millions of people around the world recoil when they see a copy of The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, having been traumatised by it in a high-school English class. The fact that teachers continue to assign this book – one of the most terrifying horror books written by women in the 20th century – to adolescent students is beyond me. Jackson had a unique talent for making the mundane – suburban streets, family homes, childish games – into something that will keep you up at night. Strangely, she was equally adept at eliciting a laugh – some compensation, I guess, for all that lost sleep.
Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice
If you find yourself surprisingly… well, turned on by Interview With The Vampire, don’t worry. You’re not weird, and you’re definitely not the only one. Even though Anne Rice produced some of the best horror books written by women, she laced them with erotic and sensual subtext that has left readers both scared and stimulated for decades. (Proof is in the pudding: the film adaptation starred ’90s heartthrobs Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.) The story is related by Louis de Pointe du Lac, a vampire who tells the story of his life to a reporter. It’s a rich and sensual story, one that will remind you that sex and death are closely interwoven.
Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
Picnic At Hanging Rock is one of the best horror books written by women from Australia. In it, you can find the early seeds of dark academia and the lost girl aesthetic that has become so popular in certain circles of #Bookstagram. Set in 1900, the story follows a group of girls from Appleyard College for Young Ladies who take a picnic on St Valentine’s Day. A cloudless summer day in the outback might seem like a strange setting for a horror novel, but as anyone who’s experienced one will tell you: the idea of three young girls going missing in that setting will make your stomach drop. That’s exactly what happens in Lindsay’s tale – and, best of all, the ambiguous ending will leave you haunted.
Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of short stories, a kind of genre stew with hints of science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, horror and more. So, maybe it doesn’t belong completely on a list of horror books written by women – but it’s my list, and the horror bits are so good, I say it counts! As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. The stories aren’t linked by character or plot or even style, but they all address similar themes: sex, death, queerness, vulnerability, women, and their bodies (as the title might suggest). Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.
Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
Entertainment Weekly called Baby Teeth (among other things) “We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Gone Girl meets The Omen” – can you imagine anything scarier? There are so many levels to this story, it’s hard to know where to begin. Seven-year-old Hanna looks to all the world like a sweet young girl, a real Daddy’s Girl who can do no wrong in her father’s eyes. But Suzette, her mother, sees a different side – one far more frightening, and one that could pose a real threat to their family. Horror books written by women often explore the terrifying dark side of domesticity, a nexus that male writers have historically overlooked (not all, of course, blah blah blah) – and this is one of the finest examples.
You by Caroline Kepnes
The Netflix adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’s debut novel You has become a widely-beloved and much-discussed blockbuster – but for fans of spooky reads, the original book is well-worth checking out. This is one of the horror books written by women that speaks directly to our contemporary concerns around privacy and patriarchy. Joe Goldberg, the main character, works in a bookstore and sets his sights on a beautiful customer. All he has to do is Google her name, and he finds enough information to ingratiate himself in her life. He becomes her lover, her defender, and he’ll do anything to prevent their “happy” lives together from being disturbed. Anything – even murder.
The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood
The scariest horror books written by women often cross over in a Venn diagram with feminist dystopias. Take The Natural Way Of Things, a novel by Stella Prize-winning Australian writer Charlotte Wood. A group of young women are held – drugged, and dressed in rags – in a stark compound hidden deep in the Australian outback. Some of them vaguely recognise one another, but nothing clearly links them – until painful events from their pasts emerge, and it becomes all too clear why they’ve been isolated together. They’re being held for a reason, by people more powerful than you could imagine. What hope do they have of getting out?
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
Remember when Cat Person went viral? A seemingly quiet piece in The New Yorker was suddenly everywhere, trending on Twitter and causing arguments in hetero relationships around the world., Kristen Roupenian managed to blow a spark into a flame, how we perceive and navigate relationships between men and women in a post-#MeToo world. That story is included among others by Roupenian in You Know You Want This. Like the story that captured global attention, this collection is one of the horror books written by women that doesn’t offer jump-scares or loud squeals, but quiet creeping terror that seeps into the realities of our everyday lives. This is one of the sharpest and most surprising interrogations of sex and power you’ll find on your shelves.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
Hurricane Season is a murder mystery (of sorts) based on true events that happened in Fernanda Melchor’s hometown. I’ve got to tell you: this is a HEAVY read, more horror than whodunnit. Trigger warnings for literally everything you can imagine. It has these beautiful long lyrical sentences that lure you in, but the visceral, carnal, brutal nature of the events it depicts are not for the faint of heart. It all begins when a group of children discover a decomposing body in a canal, that of the local Witch, and the story unfolds through the perspectives of bystanders, accomplices, and (of course) the perpetrators… Read my full review of Hurricane Season here.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
Fans of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman who haven’t read any of her later work might be surprised to see Earthlings on a list of horror books written by women. Murata’s protagonists are kooky, sure, and she leans towards the dark and eccentric – but is that enough to constitute “horror”? Trust me, you need to read this one to see what I mean. Natsuki is pretending to be normal, living a quiet life in an asexual marriage, hoping that she can someday succumb to the pressure to be truly “normal”. Unfortunately, the horrors of her childhood won’t be quieted so easily. This one takes twists and turns you will never see coming. Read my full review of Earthlings here.
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