By Ashly Moore Sheldon • October 09, 2019
"I always want to frighten them more."—Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson died in 1965 at the age of 48. By all accounts, she was an odd, reclusive women whose talent was somewhat dismissed during her lifetime. When her notorious short story, The Lottery was published in The New Yorker in 1948, it set off a firestorm of controversy, consternation, and even contempt. The tale featured a village community joining together for an annual ritual of randomly selecting person among them to be stoned to death. Letters poured in calling the piece "outrageous," "gruesome," and "utterly pointless." Yet in the decades since, it has been widely anthologized and reproduced. There's even a Simpson's episode dedicated to it!
Perhaps she was ahead of her time. Or maybe the mores of the period frowned on a woman—a wife and mother—delving into such disturbing territory. But in recent years, Jackson has been getting attention as a frontrunner spawning a new generation of girls who like to get ghoulish. If you haven't yet had the opportunity to get creeped out by Jackson, her fantastically strange novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a great place to start. (And it's a slim 146 pages!)
"If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!"—Mary Shelley
While Jackson was certainly a groundbreaker for a new darker psychological brand of horror, she was by no means the first woman to write scary stories. We would be remiss not to mention Mary Shelley as the O.G. horror mistress with her classic Frankenstein, written more than 200 years ago when Shelley was only a teenager.
"Boredom is a pleasing antidote for fear."—Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, published in 1938, beautifully blends horror with the romanticism of the time. Her Jamaica Inn is also a gorgeously gripping read. Perhaps it was the historical social pressure on women to be soft, placid, and cheerful that makes the subversive tales of these groundbreaking gothic ladies so potently powerful.
"Evil is always possible."—Anne Rice
If you think about it, it makes sense that women would excel in this genre that is all about inciting fear. Girls typically grow up with more of a sense of the danger in the world around them. They know what it is to feel vulnerable. This undoubtedly adds a palpable reality to the spooky yarns they knit.
Our list of contemporary greats wouldn't be complete without the author who has been writing bestselling occult classics for the last 40 years. Anne Rice serves up an appealing sensuality in her rich, gothic tales. She is perhaps best known for 1976's Interview with the Vampire, adapted into a popular 1994 movie with a seriously killer cast.
"Sometimes, freaks could talk!"—Tananarive Due
Another modern-day master is the brilliant Tananarive Due. Her stories weave together themes from African-American history with gripping paranormal suspense. Her work has drawn favorable comparisons to Stephen King, but she definitely stands on her own. Start with 1997's My Soul To Keep, first in her African Immortals series.
"Everyone is broken."—Lauren Beukes
These trailblazers have shown the way, laying the groundwork for dozens of exciting new female horror authors who are creeping out of the woodwork. Truly, there are so many that it was hard to narrow it down. Here are just a few who left us feeling particularly petrified.
South African author Lauren Beukes is landing on all sorts of creepy best-of lists and for good reason. Her books are taut and inventive. We recommend Broken Monsters, praised by the New York Times Book Review as being "exquisitely paced and impeccably controlled." The Shining Girls is also terrific!
The bestselling Mira Grant, who also writes under the name Seanan McGuire, is known for her political zombie horror. Feed, the first of her Newsflesh Series, follows a presidential campaign set in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. It scared the dickens out of us—really!
"People crave fear."—Mira Grant
"To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls." This quote from Jackson beautifully sums up our feelings about this hair-raising genre. Hopefully you're inspired to immerse yourself in the season of darkness with some of these fabulously freaky female authors.