I've done a lot of posts lately about Poe and Lovecraft, but I don't want to give you the impression that the big names in the horror genre are all men—far from it! Female authors have been at the heart of the horror genre since it's very beginning. Here are just a few of my favorite female horror writers from throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
This popular Victorian author was close friends with other well-known writers of the era such as Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. Today she's best known for her novels, such as North and South and Wives and Daughters, but during her own time, much of her popularity came from the ghost stories she published in Dickens's journal, Household Works. There's quite a few to choose from, but one of my favorites is "The Old Nurse's Story." In this spooky tale, a young nursemaid struggles to shield her orphaned ward from the little ghost girl who haunts the estate. In the process, she inadvertently digs up dark secrets from the aristocratic family's past.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Another Victorian author who supplemented her novel-writing with ghost stories, Mary Elizabeth Braddon is still widely celebrated for her sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret. Though best known for one book, Braddon was an extremely prodigious writer and produced over 80 novels, as well as many short stories, in a variety of genres. One of her creepiest works is a short story titled "The Cold Embrace." The tale features a young artist who betroths himself to his first love and declares that not even death can separate them. She drowns herself after he abandons her, but she doesn't forget his promise. Now every time the artist is alone, he can feel his lover's cold, wet arms around his neck...
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a cornerstone piece of American psychological horror. Written just before the turn of the century, the story depicts the slow mental deterioration of the unnamed female narrator. After giving birth to a child, the woman is prescribed the "rest cure" often suggested to female patients, and she retreats into the nursery room of a rented mansion. With nothing else to occupy her mind, she becomes obsessed with the room's wallpaper, convinced that there is a woman hiding within the pattern who needs to be set free.
You've probably seen Shirley Jackson's name before. Her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is still prominently featured in bookstores half a century after her death, and another of her novels, The Haunting of Hill House, is regarded as a seminal work of gothic horror. But it was through her short story "The Lottery" that I was first introduced to Jackson. Often assigned in high school English classes, this story is a masterful example of slowly revealed horror. It begins with the excited inhabitants of a small rural town preparing for some significant yearly tradition. Children gather stones and families assemble in the town square to draw their slip of paper. But it turns out, you don't want to be the winner of this lottery...
Daphne du Maurier
You may not know her name, but you probably know her works. Famous horror film director Alfred Hitchcock adapted a number of Daphne du Maurier's stories, including her novels Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, as well as her short story "The Birds." If you enjoyed the Hitchcock films, I highly recommend you visit the original texts, especially Rebecca, which is a chilling, suspenseful tale about a woman's obsession with her new husband's late wife. There have also been some excellent newer adaptations of her works, including Roger Michell's film of My Cousin Rachel, which came out just last year. Like many of the other authors on this list, du Maurier was a prolific writer, and she has a lot to offer.
Have you read any works by these women? Do you have other horror fiction ladies you'd like to add to this list? Let me know in the comments!