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From left: Mary E Wilkins Freeman; BM Croker, also known as Bithia Mary Croker; and LM Montgomery, most famous for Anne of Green Gables.

Unquiet spirits: the lost female ghost-story writers returning to haunt us

We know the heyday of the ghost story mostly as the province of men like MR James and Charles Dickens. But archivists are finding that some of the finest exponents were women

A s we drift into the season of mists, many of us may cosy up with a ghost story or two. But who are the best known authors behind the classics, who plied their chilling trade in the Victorian and Edwardian eras? There are the usual suspects: MR James, Charles Dickens, William Hope Hodgson, Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, Wilkie Collins. But what of Mary E Wilkins Freeman? Evelyn Henty? Olive Harper? Elinor Mordaunt? Lettice Galbraith? BM Croker?

That most of us won’t recognise these names is no accident: these women ghost-story writers were effectively erased from history over the last century. But thanks to the often painstaking detective work of a handful of dedicated anthologists, the balance is being restored in spooky tales.

“Much of the ‘great forgetting’ of women’s involvement with the supernatural is due to tunnel vision when it comes to editing anthologies and republishing work,” says Dr Melissa Edmundson, a specialist in 19th- and early 20th-century British women writers, with a particular interest in supernatural fiction. “So while these women were well known in their day, their work wasn’t included in many anthologies of supernatural and weird fiction. Then editors relied on the work of other editors, not doing the research themselves. This caused the same, relatively small selection of mostly male-authored works to be republished and republished yet again.”

Edmundson’s first anthology dedicated to overlooked female ghost writers, Women’s Weird , was published last year. It showcased writers who had fallen from the public eye, as well as familiar names whose ghost stories had been neglected, such as Edith Wharton’s Kerfol and Edith Nesbit’s The Shadow. In her introduction, Edmundson quotes from How to Suppress Women’s Writing, the 1983 polemic by Joanna Russ, who used the example of Sheridan Le Fanu to demonstrate how male editors champion male writers at the expense of women.

“Male editors appreciated themes of father-son conflicts and heroic struggles. Women’s supernatural writing tends to be more critical of these traditional, less complicated masculine values,” says Edmundson, who is about to publish Women’s Weird 2 , with 13 stories mixing unknowns with household names such as Cold Comfort Farm author Stella Gibbons and LM Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame. “Women focus on women’s experience in these stories, so their writing was conveniently labelled too ‘domestic’ to be included alongside the men. This label has become quite dismissive when it comes to discussing the quality of women’s ghost stories, which I disagree with. It’s as if people don’t think anything domestic could be scary – the home can be the scariest place of all, because it’s supposed to be the place where we feel safest or where we have the most control.”

Johnny Mains began his mission to shine light on the forgotten female ghost-story writers four years ago, when he was putting together an anthology of obscure fiction. While searching in an archive, he found Miss Massereene’s Ghost by one EA Henty, an Australian poet. “What was remarkable was that her story hadn’t been reprinted since it was first written in 1889. So I decided to go down the rabbit hole, to see how many ‘new’ ghost stories I could find.”

He is now publishing Our Lady of Hate , a volume of stories by Catherine Lord, of whom very little was known before Mains started his investigations. Lord wrote for just 10 years between the death of her husband and her own in 1901; though she was prolific, her work was never reprinted.

Recurring topics have emerged in his research. “The short story was an amazing outlet for Victorian women to talk about love, oppression, suffrage, sexuality and many other sociological issues that were dominant factors of the time,” he says. “Our Lady of Hate features four stories that deal directly with losing a young child and give another fascinating look at the Victorians and their beliefs on death and the grieving process.”

What sets these women apart from other writers of their day is the lack of class barriers between them. “Women with connections normally wrote and were published by the magazines of the day,” says Mains. “But I’ve discovered short stories in newspapers that were written by housewives and working women. These were not women with nannies or parlour maids to help run the household. For me, this has been the most exciting aspect of this – writing was an achievable goal.”

For Edmundson, her work is not only about correcting a historical imbalance. “These woman are good at what they do,” she says. “I can honestly say that no two stories are alike. Many times, when I’m reading stories by male authors, I don’t develop any kind of connection with the protagonists. It’s more about describing the supernatural or weird events that occur. Women, on the other hand, pay just as much attention to the people in their stories; they never lose sight of the human element. And that is fundamentally what all good scary stories do: they tell us about ourselves, our fears and anxieties, how we cope with the imperfect, unpredictable world around us.”

Women’s Weird 2 , edited by Dr Melissa Edmundson, is published by Handheld Press on 27 October. Our Lady of Hate by Catherine Lord, edited by Johnny Mains, will be published by Noose & Gibbet in December.

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female ghost story writers

23 Great Women Horror Writers to Freak You Out This October

Because sometimes fictional terror is a nice break.

It’s finally October, which as we all know is officially the spookiest month—and thus the perfect moment to brush up on your literary horror bookshelf. Sure, it’s really on-brand for the season, but sometimes it actually is nice to accompany the new chills in the air with some new chills in your reading list. Horror writing is traditionally overrun by zombies men, but in recent years (and if you think about it, all along) women have been exploding the genre, writing entertaining, immersive, frightening novels and stories that run the gamut from high-brow, award-winning literary horror to bloody, murky genre masterpieces. So if you’re not sure where to start this season, here are a few recommendations of great writers of horror (the genre admittedly here broadly defined) to get you started. Of course, this is by no means a definitive list—one has to stop somewhere, lest the madness descend. On that note, please feel free to add on in the comments section.

female ghost story writers

Most obvious (and most venerable) first. With the staunch prominence of male writers in the genre, it’s easy to forget that one of the earliest and best horror novels was written 200 years ago by a teenage girl showing off for her boyfriend and their friends. I’d say she won that famous campfire competition of who could tell the best horror story by a significant margin—unless you count what happened to Percy’s heart after his death. Actually, that was probably her story too, so she wins twice.

lauren beukes broken monsters

South African writer Beukes is one of the biggest names in contemporary horror right now, and for good reason: her novels are intelligent, fast-paced, and leave you with that horrible sick feeling—you know, the one you read horror novels for. For me it was a toss-up between  Broken Monsters  and  The Shining Girls , but considering I locate the nexus of horror in the Internet right now, I’d say start with the former, which opens with the discovery of a body in Detroit: a young boy, whose lower half has been cut off and replaced with that of a deer’s.

Tananarive Due my soul to keep

“What I think readers should understand,” the beloved and brilliant Due said in an interview, “[is that] it’s not just that I like to scare people, although I do like to scare people, because I myself get scared, but I’m trying to take things that are not real, at least to me.”

I have not experienced—I have not had a ghost encounter, for example. So these are not experiences from my life. These are nightmare scenarios that actually act as metaphors for the real-life horrible things that happen to us every day.

All of us on this journey are going to sustain losses, and some of them are going to be quite, quite devastating. And I’ve always felt so ill-prepared for that. I think I decided to write about nightmare scenarios so often, really, to create characters who can walk me through the process. “This is what you do when your world falls apart.” And every book is sort of a re-examination of how all of us and all these characters have to triumph over whatever life throws at us.

My Soul to Keep  is the first novel in Due’s African Immortals series, and word on the street is, it even kept Octavia Butler up at night.

mira grant feed

Mira Grant primarily writes zombie/political/medical horror—if that sounds like a confusing mix, Feed follows a presidential campaign set in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, and it is really great (and the first in a series to boot). Seanan McGuire is primarily known for her urban fantasy novels. They are the same person, and this person writes unputdownable books.

female ghost story writers

Jennifer McMahon has written a host of great horror novels, most of them the kind that won’t make you puke or get squeamish but  will  make you check all the locks three or four times. So, the best kind (in my view). You may want to tuck this one towards the end of the list, so you can read it once it’s cold. That’s the best environment for this ghost story/murder mystery set in the freezing isolation and dark of rural Vermont

female ghost story writers

Like others on this list, Machado’s work bends and transcends genre, incorporating elements of horror as well as fairy tale, realism, romance, erotica, and (famously) television. “Horror is one of my favorite genres because it’s so limber,” Machado said in a 2017 interview .

In some ways, it’s regressive—it’s still very male and white. . . . On the other hand, horror can be a very transgressive space. It reflects so many of our anxieties and fears. When you enter into horror, you’re entering into your own mind, your own anxiety, your own fear, your own darkest spaces. When horror fails, it’s because the writer or director isn’t drawing on those things. They’re just throwing blood wherever and seeing what sticks. But horror is an intimate, eerie, terrifying thing, and when it’s done well it can unmake you, the viewer, the reader. That tells us a lot about who we are, what we are, and what we, individually and culturally, are afraid of. I love the ability of stories to have spaces in them where the reader can rush in. That is the work I am most interested in, and that is the work I am most interested in writing.

We are interested in reading it, too.

security wohlsdorf

Fair warning: Wohlsdorf’s debut is  bloody . This would normally put me off, considering I very much prefer cerebral, psychological horror, but the thing is, this book is that too. Its central narrative conceit is brilliant, ultramodern, and shocking, and line by line, it’s a shocking, thrilling delight.

things we lost in the fire mariana enriquez

Another hybrid: gritty Buenos Aires realism plus supernatural-tinged horror makes for a compelling, harrowing debut collection from Enriquez. “ My stories are quite rooted in realistic urban and suburban settings and the horror just emanates from these places,” she said in an interview with David Leo Rice. “Some places in cities and especially in the suburbia of Latin American cities—that is, in the slums and poor neighborhoods around the cities, I guess it’s very different from the concept of suburbia in North American cities—have a special feel to them related to their history.”

In the same interview, she explained her interest in female body horror and her affinity with Clive Barker:

I like to write about liberated bodies and desires, especially for women. In the story “No Flesh Over Our Bones,” I’m writing about fascination with death and ultimately about anorexia and a woman’s desire to look like a skeleton because I feel that is a legitimate desire, a desire to be respected and not judged. Mind you, if I had some kind of extreme mental disturbance like that I’d hope my loved ones would help me, but in literature I really care about the themes of bodies and desire and don’t think they should be restrained by medical discourses, or religious or social taboos or whatever. In terms of the expansion and change of the flesh, Clive Barker is my guide.

And yeah, they end badly, but it’s more a matter of genre. They all end badly. In this regard, I follow the genre lines and so I don’t want to save someone that has a particular sexual fetish because of gender politics. That’s for real life. 

. . . Barker is indeed underrated and famous. Very few people actually read him I think, that’s the reason. I take from him the idea that evil can be satisfying and instructive in a way. Pleasure and sin.

anne rice interview with the vampire

I feel your side-eye, and I don’t know what to tell you. Rice’s 1976 smutty vampire classic is really good—if you’re into that kind of thing, which you must be, because you’re reading this list—and has also paved the way for all of the various vampire-related media you enjoy or enjoy disparaging today. I mean, the woman has been writing bestselling horror (among other things) for forty years, and there’s a reason. So if you’re starting, start from the beginning.

octavia butler fledgling

Hey, speaking of vampires: this is one of the best vampire books out there, and also a little different than the others on this list—more SF, less blood curdling. Though to be fair, blood is consumed, and some pretty horrifying things happen, and it’s basically a masterpiece of the vampire genre, so I’m counting it.

By the way, her most famous novel,  Kindred , is also a horror novel of sorts—though since the horror is just What Happened In America Not That Long Ago + time travel, I thought that one was better left to another list.

female ghost story writers

I don’t know if this really counts as horror, but it’s certainly horrifying—a twisted little novel that resists logic and also health and happiness—so I couldn’t help but mention it here. I don’t know what she’ll do next, but if it’s anything like this I’ll be reading it with every light in the house burning.

we have always lived in the castle cover

To be fair, it’s really  The Haunting of Hill House  that’s Jackson’s premiere horror novel, but I just don’t like it as much as  We Have Always Lived in the Castle , and I’m in charge of these recommendations. It doesn’t really matter, because Jackson is one of literary horror’s most beloved doyennes, and you really can’t go wrong. Just start reading her, if you haven’t.

kristen roupenian you know you want this

You probably know Kristen Roupenian from her viral hit  New Yorker  story , “Cat Person.” I have heard her referred to as “the Cat Person Lady” multiple times. What isn’t exactly obvious from that story, but becomes clear as soon as you open her forthcoming collection, is that she’s really a horror writer—and not just “horror” in the sense of modern dating and gross men, but also in the sense of gruesome acts, terrifying scenarios, and creeping dread. Come January, everyone’s in for a surprise. Dum dum  dum !

the orange eats creeps

I really wish Krilanovich would write another novel. I loved her first one, an extremely weird book about “Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies” trudging along the California highways that is unlike any horror novel, or indeed any novel of any kind, that you’ve ever read.

female ghost story writers

A novel that makes deft use of both psychological horror and  horror  horror. Four plane crashes happen around the world, all at the same time. Everyone dies, except three children, who were each on different planes. But why —and what’s wrong with them?

If you can’t get enough, Lotz has no fewer than three pseudonyms: she writes urban horror novels (with Louis Greenberg) under the name S.L. Grey; she writes a “YA pulp-fiction zombie series” (with her daughter) under the name Lily Herne; and she writes “quirky erotica novels” (with authors Helen Moffett and Paige Nick) under the name Helena S. Paige.

jac jemc

This is one of the best haunted house novels in recent memory. It’s also a love story. Both aspects are creepy, dreadful, and psychologically unsound.

helen oyeyemi white is for witching

Oyeyemi is another writer who mixes horror tropes and techniques with those of fairy tale, myth, and realism, creating a genre all her own. This is the creepiest of her novels, in which a young woman with a hunger that cannot be sated lives in a house (and bed-and-breakfast) that can’t tolerate strangers, unable to shake the memory—or is it just a memory—of her mother, who died when she was sixteen.

kanae minato

If this isn’t a horrifying premise, I don’t know what is: a middle school teacher stands in front of her class. She tells them she knows that two of them killed her daughter. She tells them how she has taken her revenge, and what she has done to them. I suppose Confessions , Minato’s debut, is technically a crime novel, but I think the subject matter, and the intense dread it elicits in the reader, rather pushes it over the edge into horror.

woman in black

Susan Hill is a giant of 20th-century horror, and her 1983 gothic ghost story  The Woman in Black  has become a classic.

the hunger katsu

If you fancy a bit of historical horror, you may enjoy Katsu’s latest, a fictionalization of the already very horrifying events of the Donner Party. You may think you know everything there is to know about the Donner Party—they ate each other!—but you probably don’t. “I think that while a lot of people have heard of the Donner Party, they don’t know the details,” Katsu said in an interview .

We’re told about it in elementary school and if we remember anything it’s that something terrible happened a long time ago and it involved cannibalism. But once you start digging into it, you see the real dimensions of the horror: after months of struggle in the wilderness, close to 100 people find themselves trapped in the mountains with no food and no chance of escape. These are all families, so it’s mothers and fathers forced to watch their children die of starvation. It’s completely horrific. You can absolutely understand why someone would contemplate cannibalism.

The more I learned, the more it seemed that the party was doomed from the start. So many macabre things happened—they left sick people behind to die; one man, convinced he was going to be robbed, went out to bury his gold and was never seen alive again—that you got the feeling they were cursed. To be cursed implies that you did something to deserve it—and that’s where the idea for the book came from. That we all have the potential in us for evil, and if you feed the evil side, you’ll unleash the monster.

Sounds like a pretty good horror novel to me.

Asa Nonami body

Short stories of body horror from the author of Now You’re One of Us —in case you really can’t handle more than a few pages of utter discomfort at a time. I would understand.

gemma files experimental film

Canadian horror master Files was once a film critic for a Toronto newspaper, and she uses her knowledge to great effect here, when her narrator—a newly fired film history professor—catches a glimpse of a figure from Wendish mythology on an old scrap of silver nitrate film. Looking for the story behind the film, she calls exactly the wrong kind of attention to herself.

female ghost story writers

In general, I wouldn’t call Toni Morrison a horror writer. But I would call Beloved , her best known and most read novel, a horror novel. Not only is it a compelling and terrifying ghost story, but it also lays bare America’s worst and most horrifying sin.

See also:  Silvina Ocampo, Kelly Link, Kathe Koja, Joan Samson, Sarah Pinbourough, Melanie Tem, Alyssa Wong, Camilla Grudova, Elizabeth Kostova, Angela Carter, Agota Kristof, Caroline Kepnes, Daphne du Maurier, Sara Gran, Cass Khaw, Kelly Robson, etc. etc. etc.

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11 Women Horror Writers You Need to Read

By anna green | oct 26, 2017 | updated: oct 2, 2020, 8:00 am edt.

Edward Gooch/Getty Images

In 1818, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein , a novel so gripping it would continue to scare readers and shape genre literature for the next 200 years. But if Shelley is the godmother of modern horror, who are her goddaughters? Women have written some of the most blood-curdlingly scary stories of all time, but they haven’t always gotten the credit they deserve. To set the record straight—and give you some delightfully spooky reading this Halloween season—here are 11 women horror writers you need to read.

1. Daphne du Maurier

If you love Alfred Hitchcock movies, chances are that you already love Daphne du Maurier. The director adapted three of her novels into films: Jamaica Inn , Rebecca , and The Birds . If you were drawn to the premise of The Birds but perhaps found the special effects a little hokey, the du Maurier story is well worth checking out.

Hitchcock wasn't the only director who wanted to bring her work to the big screen. Her short story "Don't Look Now" was adapted into an extremely creepy movie starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in 1973. In all, du Maurier’s works have been adapted for film 12 times, and for television even more frequently. But, as with many adaptations, her original stories are even more haunting than their on-screen counterparts.

2. Charlotte Riddell

For great Victorian-era ghost stories, look no further than Charlotte Riddell . Scholar E.F. Bleiler once called her "the Victorian ghost novelist par excellence," and her stories are both extraordinarily spooky and subtly snarky. Born in Ireland in 1832, she was a prolific writer of supernatural tales, haunted house stories in particular. Though she and her husband often struggled financially, Riddell—who initially wrote under the masculine pen names F.G. Trafford and R.V.M. Sparling—was a popular writer in her time, publishing classic short stories like "The Open Door" and "Nut Bush Farm" along with four supernatural novellas. Today, Riddell's stories feel old-fashioned in the best possible way—they're full of dusty, deserted mansions and ghosts with unfinished business.

3. Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson was one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House was adapted for the big screen twice and once for Netflix, and her short story " The Lottery " is assigned in English classes across America. Despite her literary success, Jackson suffered from lifelong depression and anxiety, and often felt oppressed in her own home. Though she was her family's primary breadwinner, her husband controlled her finances and expected her to ignore his philandering. Her feelings about domestic life often came out in her work. In novels like Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle , Jackson cultivates an atmosphere of unease and dread while questioning the very idea of home.

4. Joyce Carol Oates

The Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Joyce Carol Oates is a modern master of Gothic horror. Oates, who has been called "America’s foremost woman of letters," is famous for writing stories that will scare your pants off. Her catalogue of more than 100 books can be overwhelming, so we’d recommend starting off with her story collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque . Or, try her famous short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?", which was inspired by the real-life serial killer Charles Schmid .

5. Octavia Butler

female ghost story writers

Though she’s primarily known as a science fiction author, Octavia Butler's stories often incorporate elements of horror. Her final novel, Fledgling , published the year before her death, is perhaps her most horror-inspired work, telling the story of a young girl who discovers she's a vampire. In her stories , Butler addressed racism from a fantastical perspective—her works are full of futuristic dystopias and alien planets—but she never shied away from its horrors. But even those with more straightforward science fiction premises are often suffused with dread, exposing the suppressed horrors of American history. Referring to her time-travel novel Kindred , Butler explained , "I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that Black people have had to live through in order to endure."

6. Asa Nonami

Asa Nonami’s writing has been compared to everything from Rosemary’s Baby to The Twilight Zone . She’s an award-winning crime and horror writer whose novels often feature complex female characters in impossible situations. In her short story collection Body , Nonami tells five tales of terror, each inspired by a different body part, while her novel Now You’re One of Us tells the story of a young bride who discovers her husband and his family may not be quite what they seem. It’s a ghost-free horror tale that builds its sense of suspense from its sheer unpredictability.

7. Lisa Tuttle

female ghost story writers

Remember those '80s horror paperbacks that tantalized with terrifying covers, then disappointed with incomprehensible plots? Lisa Tuttle is the antidote to that. She’s everything you hoped mass-market horror could be, in fact. Her novels, beginning with 1983's Familiar Spirit , are disturbing, creative, and most importantly, well written. Tuttle got her start collaborating with George R.R. Martin on the science fiction novel Windhaven before emerging as an important voice in '80s horror fiction with works like Familiar Spirit , Gabriel , and the short story collection A Nest of Nightmares . She’s also written fantasy, young adult fiction, and nonfiction—in 1986, she even published the reference book Encyclopedia of Feminism.

8. Tananarive Due

Tananarive Due isn’t just one of the best contemporary horror writers around, she’s also one of the coolest. Back in the mid-1990s, when she was still an up-and-coming young author, Due attended a literary festival and somehow ended up onstage, in a rock band, with Stephen King. She then proceeded to get King to write a blurb for her second novel, My Soul to Keep (he called it an "eerie epic"). Nowadays, Due is an accomplished scholar and short story writer in addition to being a novelist. Her works include the African Immortals series, the haunted house novel The Good House , and Ghost Summer , a collection of short stories that somehow manages to be both nightmare-inducing and extremely moving. She is even taught a course at UCLA inspired by Jordan Peele ’s 2017 horror movie Get Out called "The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic."

9. Mariko Koike

Mariko Koike is an award-winning Japanese author of suspense, romance, and, of course, horror. Her novel The Cat in the Coffin is a thrilling exercise in the macabre. But her greatest work of pure horror is the 1986 novel The Graveyard Apartment , which tells the story of a young family that moves into a brand new apartment complex overlooking an old graveyard and crematorium. The novel patiently builds dread from seemingly ordinary images: a bird's feather, a yellow hat, a smudge on the TV screen. It’s a chillingly tense haunted house novel from an author who understands that the greatest horrors often hide in the mundane.

10. Helen Oyeyemi

female ghost story writers

Helen Oyeyemi’s writing defies classification, blending horror, fantasy, fairy tales, and folklore. Though her works don’t always fit comfortably into the horror genre, they range from unsettling to truly frightening and often employ elements of the paranormal or bizarre. In The Icarus Girl , which Oyeyemi published when she was just 20, an awkward young girl makes a strange new friend who may or may not be real. The novel mixes paranormal and Gothic themes with Nigerian folklore. In her 2009 novel White is For Witching , meanwhile, Oyeyemi tells the story of a mysterious house in Dover, England, and the secrets of the family who lives there. Reviewing that novel, The Austin Chronicle dubbed Oyeyemi the "direct heir to [Shirley Jackson’s] Gothic throne."

11. Jac Jemc

Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It tells the story of a young couple who moves from a cramped apartment in a big city into a spacious suburban home, only to find it haunted by mysterious forces. That might sound like a traditional horror premise, yet the novel is anything but. Instead, it's surreal and disorienting, written in feverish prose that keeps you in its grip even when nothing in particular is happening.

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From Daphne du Maurier to Helen Oyeyemi, these are the female ghost writers you need to know about

If you’re looking for some spooky reading this halloween, then try a ghost story… but forget the obvious male authors, women writers have got you covered, and always have had, says david barnett , article bookmarked.

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‘I don’t know about ghosts,’ she was saying, ‘but I do know that our souls can be made to go outside our bodies when we are alive’ – ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, Thomas Hardy

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When we think of ghost stories, we often mainly consider male authors. From the classic Victorian-era writers such as MR James, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, to the modern masters like Stephen King, James Herbert and Adam Nevill.

So you might be forgiven for thinking haunted houses, rattling chains and things that go bump in the night is strictly a man’s game. But think again.

“There is a tendency to focus more on male writers of ghost stories, and I think this has to do with a few factors,” says Dr Melissa Edmundson. “Women writers typically confined their supernatural fiction to the short story, and this genre has historically been overlooked by critics. With the recent interest in short stories, combined with the mainstreaming of gothic studies, more attention is being paid to the role women played within the ghost story tradition.”


  • Why horror is having its moment at the London Film Festival

Dr Edmundson has a PhD in 19th-century British literature and specialises in ghost stories by women writers. She is the author of Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain , published by the University of Wales Press in 2013, and next year sees the publication of her book Women’s Colonial gothic Writing, 1850-1930: Haunted Empire .

One reason why women writers have been overlooked, she says, is that the fad for paperback anthologies of ghost and horror stories that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s often simply ignored them.

She says: “They tended to reprint the same stories by men over and over again while ignoring the majority of women’s stories. The contribution of women is also complicated by the fact that so many of their original collections are incredibly rare. Oftentimes, it takes a tremendous amount of detective work to track down these lesser-known stories.

“To be able to discuss many of these women writers, I’ve become an amateur rare book collector, scouring secondhand bookshops and the like to find that one obscure collection that contains these incredible stories that no one knows about, simply because there are so few copies available.”

Which is where Johnny Mains comes in. He’s the editor of a new book, due out next month, which gathers together Victorian-era ghost stories by women writers, most of which have never seen the light of day since their initial publication.

Called A Suggestion of Ghosts – Supernatural Fiction by Women, 1854-1900 , the volume will be published by Black Shuck books in a limited edition hardcover followed by a paperback. Was it his intention to focus on women writers?

“It was a happy accident,” says Mains. “I was working on a book called Half-Remembered Nightmares an anthology of ghost and horror stories I had read in my teenage years. I was searching through archives for a particular story, I forget what, but I came across ‘The Ghost of the Nineteenth Century’ by EA Henty and was really taken by a remarkably written story.

“I couldn’t find anything about the author, apart from the fact that she wrote a book of Australian poetry with her husband, and that’s when the penny dropped. How many more stories could I find by female authors in the 19th century that were so obscure that they probably hadn’t been read or discussed since initial publication?”

Dr Edmundson says: “As anthologists and critics continue to rediscover these forgotten writers and return them to the attention of modern-day readers, we will have a more complete picture of the ghost story tradition, one that should always include the ‘usual suspects’ of MR James, William Hope Hodgson, Le Fanu, Dickens, Blackwood, and Poe, but which also embraces a greater variety of voices who represent different perspectives.”

It’s likely that the modern horror tradition was started by a woman anyway. While Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , published in 1818, wasn’t actually a ghost story, it did come out of that infamous night of telling spooky tales at the Villa Diodati and Lord Byron’s suggestion that they all try to write their own.

“Women were integral to the formation of the modern ghost story, a tradition that really came into its own in the 19th century,” says Dr Edmundson. “It’s a genre dominated by women, but we will never truly know how many women published ghost stories because so many wrote under pseudonyms or wrote anonymously. Women also tended to use male narrators, so many stories that were written anonymously and thought to be by men were actually written by women.

“The entire second half of the 19th century into the first half of the 20th century was a remarkable period of productivity when it came to women writing supernatural fiction. Certainly some of the best known women writers of ghost stories came out of the 19th century, such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Riddell, Margaret Oliphant, Edith Nesbit and Vernon Lee, to name only a few.”

Mains agrees, calling the 19th century a “golden age” for women ghost story writers. He adds: “I think when we look at the Victorian ghost story closely, it was mainly a female-led field.”

Dr Edmundson adds: “However, there are many wonderful collections of supernatural/horror fiction published in the 20th century as well. Authors such as Margery Lawrence, Violet Hunt, Margaret Irwin and Eleanor Scott excelled in this blending of supernatural and horror, but their work is often overshadowed by that of MR James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and HP Lovecraft.”

Could it even be that, despite the ghost story being a male-dominated form, at least in perception, that women actually do it better?

Mains says: “Michael Cox states in The Oxford Book of Ghost Stories that writing also gave Victorian women a supplemental income, ‘a sense of freedom from social stereotypes and they were able to express their thoughts on love, death, madness, and sexuality’ in a way like never before. This ‘golden age’ of fiction was then taken over by men, as men are wont to do, and females again were on the back foot.”

“Given my research, I’m a bit partial, but personally, I think women write better ghost stories,” says Dr Edmundson. My own opinion is based on what I think makes a ghost story so important and what I think also differentiates stories written by women as opposed to stories by men. This is a more fully developed emphasis on what I’ve termed the ‘social supernatural’. Women tend to be more concerned with social issues in their writing, particularly regarding gender and class difference. In women’s stories, there is a more developed sympathy for individual characters and their personal relationships. Women frequently tackle sensitive topics such as violence against women, child abuse, the effects of poverty, war, imperialism, class and racial prejudice, and aren’t afraid to describe gruesome deaths in their narratives, particularly the murder of women.

“Ghost stories and haunted houses also allow women to critique the perceived safety of the domestic home as a place of terror. Another major theme is revenge and retribution.

“There are many memorable stories where villains get their comeuppance in some particularly creative ways. It is this social element that gives ghost stories their power.

“As Elizabeth Bowen put it in 1952, after living through two world wars, ‘Ghosts exploit the horror latent behind reality.’ These stories are always more terrifying when the fictional ghosts reveal the darker elements that exist in the everyday world, and often within ourselves, elements that could disrupt our safety and security at any time. In this sense, ghost stories are like mirrors. When we read one, we’re being shown ourselves, our own fears and anxieties.”

While waiting for Johnny Mains’ anthology A Suggestion of Ghosts , and Dr Edmundson’s Haunted Empire , to be published, here are 10 women writers who you should be checking out this Halloween:

Kathryn Tucker Windham

Alabama-born Windham died in 2011 and left an intriguing body of work, exemplified by a series of books purporting to be true ghost stories… which she was allowed to do as she had an actual ghost living in her house. Called Jeffrey, he took up residence with her in October 1966 and inspired her first volume, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey .

Hill is best known for her classic ghost story “The Woman in Black”, filmed with Daniel Radcliffe in a starring role, and has a fine oeuvre of modern gothic fiction under her belt. She deftly wrangles echoes of M.R. James and Daphne du Maurier into her stories, and a special delight is her 1992 novel The Mist in the Mirror .

Lady Cynthia Asquith

Friend of DH Lawrence, secretary to JM Barrie, wife to the son of British Prime Minister HH Asquith, Lady Cynthia also had a profound interest in supernatural fiction, and edited an anthology called The Ghost Book , as well as writing her own ghost stories, the most famous of which is “The Follower”.

Ashworth, 29, has written a novel about a Mormon family in Chorley, based on her experiences of the Church, which she left at 18. 'The Friday Gospels' is due to be published next January

'When you are 12 or so you can go to the temple to do baptisms for the dead – you're baptised, fully under the water, and say a dead person's name. It's supposed to be the pinnacle of our year, but it was scary, odd. I just felt puzzled, like there was some flaw in me.

'When I went to university I just thought, 'This is rubbish,' so I kicked it all out and lived my life. But I felt a great sense of loss. It was it was my heritage. I missed the music and the community.

'I'm a cultural Mormon, now. I don't believe the doctrine and I think there's quite a lot about the Church that has to be challenged, but there are some challenging it from within, which is fantastic.

'I don't think Joseph Smith was a prophet; I think he was a very charismatic person who created something that got out of hand.'

Jenn Ashworth

Ashworth (above) is a contemporary writer who you should definitely investigate, especially her most recent novel Fell . Set among the constantly-shifting landscape of Lancashire’s Morecambe Bay, it’s an ambiguous, literary triumph that utilises its backdrop to full effect and leaves an unsettling residue long after you close the covers.

Joanne Harris

Harris rose to fame as the author of Chocolat , which was the subject of a much-loved film adaptation, but in recent years especially she’s delved more and more into the worlds of folklore and myth (her latest, A Pocketful of Crows , is a dark and lovely treat). Her novel Sleep, Pale Sister , which was published before Chocolat , is a spooky gothic gem.

Margery Lawrence

According to Dr Melissa Edmundson, “Margery Lawrence is a personal favourite of mine, and the one writer I refuse to read before bedtime,” which should be recommendation enough. She was born in Wolverhampton in 1889, and one of her best known works is Number Seven, Queer Street , a collection of stories from the casebook of her occult investigator Dr Miles Pennoyer.

Shirley Jackson

If you don’t read anyone else from this list, American Shirley Jackson, who celebrated her centenary last year (she died very young, aged 48, in 1965) is the one you should. The Haunting of Hill House is a truly terrifying novel, and a new film adaptation of her eerie We Have Always Lived In The Castle is due out next year.

Helen Oyeyemi

Her first novel, The Icarus Girl , was published while Oyeyemi was studying for her A Levels, and since then she has mined myths and folklore from around the world for her tales, including Cuba for The Opposite House . White is for Witching has very MR Jamesian roots, while her latest book, published last year, is a collection of short stories entitled What is Not Yours Is Not Yours .

Daphne du Maurier

Cornwall’s greatest export, du Maurier is famous for her short story “The Birds”, which Hitchcock based his movie on, the dark doings of smugglers in Jamaica Inn , and the gothic melodrama of Rebecca . She also wrote a healthy clutch of good, old-fashioned ghost stories, including “Don’t Look Now”, which Nic Roeg turned into a movie, and “Escort”, in which a ship gets a very spooky distress call.

Sarah Waters

Author of Victorian-set novels Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Affinity , all of which mix sexuality and gothic overtones, Waters turned her hand to a classic ghost story in her 2009 novel The Little Stranger , set in a tumbledown Warwickshire mansion in the 1940s, which pushes all the right buttons with creepy noises, spooky writing on the wall and silent phone calls.

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Penguin Random House

The Best Horror Books by Women

Look at most lists of heavyweight horror authors and you’re bound to notice a trend – they’re mostly men. king, straub, campbell, barker, ketchum, hill – all masters of the genre, to be sure. but women authors are writing some of the most innovative and terrifying horror fiction out there. take a look at a few of our favorite horror writers..

Motherthing Book Cover Picture


By ainslie hogarth, paperback $17.00, buy from other retailers:.

Rebecca Book Cover Picture

by Daphne du Maurier

Hardcover $30.00.

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Mexican Gothic

By silvia moreno-garcia.

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by Alma Katsu

Paperback $12.99.

Dark Places Book Cover Picture

Dark Places

By gillian flynn, paperback $18.00.

Hide Book Cover Picture

by Kiersten White

The Woods Are Always Watching Book Cover Picture

The Woods Are Always Watching

By stephanie perkins, paperback $10.99.

The Haunting of Hill House Book Cover Picture

The Haunting of Hill House

By shirley jackson.

Little Eyes Book Cover Picture

Little Eyes

By samanta schweblin.

The Original Frankenstein Book Cover Picture

The Original Frankenstein

By mary shelley, paperback $16.00.

The Silent Companions Book Cover Picture

The Silent Companions

By laura purcell.

The Little Stranger (Movie Tie-In) Book Cover Picture

The Little Stranger (Movie Tie-In)

By sarah waters.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding Book Cover Picture

The Haunting of Alma Fielding

By kate summerscale.

Beloved Book Cover Picture

by Toni Morrison

Hardcover $32.00.

The Unleashed Book Cover Picture

The Unleashed

By danielle vega.

The Fervor Book Cover Picture

Wilder Girls

By rory power.

The Deep Book Cover Picture

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings

By charlotte perkins gilman, mass market paperback $7.95.

Cackle Book Cover Picture

by Rachel Harrison

Build Your House Around My Body Book Cover Picture

Build Your House Around My Body

By violet kupersmith, paperback $18.99.

Silk Book Cover Picture

by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Mass market paperback $9.99.

Dark Tales Book Cover Picture

Near the Bone

By christina henry.

The Bloody Chamber Book Cover Picture

The Bloody Chamber

By angela carter.

House of Salt and Sorrows Book Cover Picture

House of Salt and Sorrows

By erin a. craig.

The Anthill Book Cover Picture

The Anthill

By julianne pachico, paperback $16.95.

The Woman in Black Book Cover Picture

The Woman in Black

By susan hill.

White is for Witching Book Cover Picture

White is for Witching

By helen oyeyemi.

House of Hollow Book Cover Picture

House of Hollow

By krystal sutherland.

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25 Female Horror Writers That Will Haunt Your Bookshelves Forevermore

These female authors will make your blood run cold.

female horror authors

Tucked away on the dark and dusty shelves of libraries around the world are pages packed with murder: tales of lands where only the most wicked of creatures dwell. Year after year, hands pass over the spines of these treasures, leaving more cobwebs on their covers than in the stories themselves.

The battle of due recognition in the literary horror/thriller/suspense genre has been a tough one for women writers. And while authors like Ann Radcliffe, and later on, Daphne du Maurier, wrote novels that stand as cornerstones of the Gothic horror genre, many female horror writers have remained under-appreciated.

Today, we look to some of the women writers who lead the genre of the sick and twisted, admiring their short stories, poetry, and prose. Here is a thorough round-up of the female horror writers doing incredibly important (and dare we say entertaining?) work in the genre. Some of these names you may know, and many others you may not—but once you do, they’ll surely haunt your bookshelves evermore.

These women range from pioneers of the genre, representing classic horror novels, to the standard-bearers of today, writing some of the most popular and bestselling horror fiction of modern times.

Want more the best horror authors? Sign up for The Lineup 's newsletter, and get our scariest stories delivered to your inbox.

Experimental Film

Experimental Film

By Gemma Files

This Canadian horror author first gained recognition through short fiction. In 1999, her short story “ The Emperor's Old Bones ” won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Story. If you’ve seen the television horror anthology series The Hunger , you may know that five of Files’s short works were adapted for it. She has also gained significant notoriety for her film criticism, especially in relation to horror cinema.

Related: Gemma Files: Where to Begin with the Shirley Jackson Award-Winning Author of Horror and Dark Fantasy

Her 2015 novel, Experimental Film , was the recipient of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, as well as the winner of the Sunburst Award for Best Canadian Speculative Fiction Novel. This book centers on former film teacher Lois Cairns. Lois isn’t having an easy time making ends meet, raising an autistic son while freelancing as a film critic. But when she discovers the early work of spiritualist Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb at a screening, the silent footage might change everything. She sets out to prove this woman—who disappeared mysteriously back in 1918—was the first female filmmaker in Canada. But parallels begin to emerge between her and the vanished Mrs. Whitcomb—parallels that lead to the emergence of a demon demanding  a price be paid.

April Fools

April Fools

By Richie Tankersley Cusick

Since her first novel, Evil on the Bayou , was published in 1984, Richie Tankersley Cusick has written upwards of 25 books—including contributions to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer book series . She has written several novels for the Point Horror book series, a collection in the 90s which was most popular with teenage girls.

April Fools , a Point Horror book from 1990, follows a teen named Belinda. After an April Fools’ party, Belinda and her friends are the cause of a terrible accident. Terrified their mistake will result in a murder conviction, they agree to keep the incident under wraps and flee the scene. But Belinda’s conscience isn’t so quiet, and when a mysterious stranger uses a series of cruel pranks to torture her, it’s clear that someone else is in on the girls’ dirty little secret.

little eyes

Little Eyes

By Samanta Schweblin

An Argentine Spanish-language author, Schewblin's work has been translated into over 20 languages. Her first novel, Fever Dream , was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. In the 2018 translation of Little Eyes , homes across the world have been invaded. Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, Indiana—no place is left untouched. They're everywhere. But who are "they?" Us.

Related: 13 Must-Read Horror Books by Diverse Authors

They're nothing like  pets, specters, or robots. They're people as real as you or me. Yet one living in Berlin can freely walk through the home of someone living in Sidney. They could be sharing a meal with your children across the world and you wouldn't even know it. And if you did know if, they are entirely impossible to find.

Two souls connecting can be a beautiful thing. But in a world of too much connection, things get ugly. Fast.

little eyes

Spook Lights

By Eden Royce

As a writer from Charleston, South Carolina, Eden Royce has a natural flair for Southern Gothic horror. You’re most likely to see her short fiction in anthologies and print or online magazines, but her debut middle grade novel, Root Magic was just published in January of 2021. She’s received recognition for her talents through a nomination for a Shirley Jackson Award and the bestowment of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds grant.

Spook Lights is Royce’s first collection of short stories, bringing 12 tales together to push atmospheric terror to a whole new level. Rich in history, nuance, and metaphor, these stories are of the South through and through. From witchdoctors to sinister shop keeps to the embrace of monsters, these stories across foggy cemeteries and sulfuric marshes are deeply macabre.

spook lights

Broken Monsters

By Lauren Beukes

If you haven’t heard of Lauren Beukes, where have you been? The work of this South African writer has been praised by some of the biggest names in fiction—from Stephen King to George R.R. Martin. Though her work has been published in two dozen countries, she’s also made notable contributions to television, film, comics, and journalism. And if you’re someone who wants to dive recklessly into high-concept novels that doesn’t pull any punches, then her work is for you.

In her 2014 novel, Broken Monsters , a serial killer is terrorizing the streets of Detroit. Detective Gabriella Versado is no stranger to death, but she’s never seen bodies quite like this. It starts with a boy. Or half one. The other half belongs to a deer, fused to the victim in some unidentifiable way. Meanwhile, Versado’s daughter strikes up a dangerous online flirtation, a journalist risks everything to get the exclusive scoop on the killer, and a homeless man desperately tries to keep his family safe. And reality seems to crumble as more and more horrifying bodies turn up.


1. Ann Arensberg


By Ann Arensberg

Ann Arensberg was born in Pittsburgh in 1937, and started out her career as an editor for Viking Press. Her range as an author is broad, spanning from the romantic comedy of her novel Group Sex to the disturbing supernatural horror of Incubus . Across all her work, the National Book Award-winning author writes on the theme of sexual desire, particularly as it pertains to the female experience of eroticism. It’s certainly a fresh and unique take amidst the near slog of gratuitously sexual situations in the male-dominated corner of the horror genre.

In Incubus , a dark presence has settled over the town of Dry Falls, Maine. Unholy atrocities have begun to take place: the flourishing crops drying up into husks, animals birthing mutated abominations, and all of the men suddenly losing all interest in sex, while the women keep having eerie sexual encounters in the night. But are these erotic dalliances strange dreams, or something far more sinister? The faith-shaken pastor’s wife, Cora Whitman, is right at the center of the unsettling tale.

2. Mo Hayder


By Mo Hayder

Mo Hayder is a British writer of dark and twisted thrillers, best known for her Jack Caffery series, which follows a Detective Inspector in the Bristol Major Crime Investigation Unit. The fifth installment in the series, Gone , won her the 2012 Edgar Award. That book follows Caffrey’s investigation into a routine carjacking case as it turns out the car wasn’t the target, but rather the eleven-year-old girl in the backseat—and she’s not the only child who’s gone missing.

Hayder left school at 15 and made a living in odd jobs as a barmaid, a security guard, an English teacher in Asia, and a hostess at a Tokyo club. Along the way she became a flim-maker, and got her MA in film from The American University in Washington DC, as well as an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University UK. Her path in life has clearly treated her well, as the Times refers to her sophomore novel The Treatment as one of “the top ten most scary thrillers ever written.”

If you’re looking for an author to get your heart pounding and your stomach churning, Mo Hayder is the place to start.

3. Kathe Koja

the cipher kathe koja female horror writers

By Kathe Koja

Kathe Koja has a love of writing stories about people given the opportunity to become more than what they are. This theme of transcendence is especially prevalent in her earlier works, from her first novel The Cipher through her 1996 novel Kink . She’s a prolific writer of short stories, and has a notable collection of Young Adult fiction under her belt, but it’s her adult horror/speculative fiction novels that really get under your skin.

The Cipher won both the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Horror Novel and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. The gritty story centers around young aspiring poet Nicholas and his lover, Nakota. Upon discovering a strange, dark hole—something somehow both intangibly ethereal and viscerally sentient—in the storage room floor, the two of them begin to lose control of their lives, spiraling down a path of obsession, violence, and transformation.

the cipher kathe koja female horror writers

Related: 13 People Share the Scariest Books They’ve Ever Read

4. Ania Ahlborn

brother ania ahlborn female horror writers

By Ania Ahlborn

Polish-born author Ania Ahlborn clawed her own way into the horror scene with her first novel Seed , which she self-published in 2012. Seed quickly became the number one bestselling horror novel on Amazon, leading the company to option the movie rights for the work. Since then, Ahlborn has published 9 more chilling novels and novellas, including the horrifying Appalachian tale Brother.

Brother follows the gruesomely dysfunctional Morrow family and their cruel and violent “traditions.” They’ve fallen on hard times, but they find ways to keep their spirits up—and it helps that no cops turn to them when girls start disappearing off the side of the road, and they’re too deep in the mountains for anyone to hear any screams. It’s all running smoothly and routinely, until 19-year-old Michael becomes smitten with a pretty girl in the next town over, and starts to question how well he fits in with the ways of his family. Luckily his older brother Rebel is there to keep him in line…

Though one of Ahlborn’s earliest memories is of her sneaking through a chainlink fence to swan around the old cemetery by her house, she claims the dark fiction she splashes across the page doesn’t extend to her own personal life. In fact, she cites her overly cautious brain as inspiration, with horrors spawning from her subconscious conjuring of worst-case scenarios.

brother ania ahlborn female horror writers

5. Alma Katsu

the hunger alma katsu female horror writers

By The Hunger

Alma Katsu certainly has an intriguing background. Born in Alaska but raised in Massachusetts, Katsu has worked for three decades for the US federal government, flourishing in several positions dealing with intelligence, foreign policy, and technology. In her writing, Katsu melds the historical with the supernatural, delivering vivid stories which feel so deeply rooted in possibility that the terrors sink deep in the reader’s psyche.

Her most well-known works include those in the Taker Trilogy , following a woman whose gift of immortality starts to feel like a Faustian punishment after the sins of her past start to catch up with her. The Hunger , published in 2018, is described by the Master of Horror Stephen King as being, “deeply, deeply disturbing.” The novel follows the historically notorious Donner Party, threatening the travelers on the ill-fated journey with an evil that may go beyond the madness of human desperation.

Her newest novel, The Deep , is set to be released on March 10th, and centers around a haunting story amidst the historical disasters of the Titanic and its sister ship the Britannic .

the hunger alma katsu female horror writers

Related: 17 Upcoming Horror Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2020

6. Mariko Koike

the graveyard apartment mariko koike books for fans of the turning

Mariko Koike

By The Graveyard Apartment

Japanese novelist Mariko Koike is lauded for her thrilling detective fiction and blood-curdling horror works. She started out writing essay collections and short stories before she turned to novels, winning the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Short Stories in 1989 for “My Wife’s Girlfriends.” Though she thrives writing elements of terror and suspense, she also has a passion for love stories, making many of her works genre-bending masterpieces.

Her most popular English-translated work is The Graveyard Apartment . A young married couple and their daughter are filled with an idealistic hope for the future as they move into a new apartment building. That optimistic dream soon darkens as a claustrophobic and isolated story of terror unfolds, and one by one their neighbors flee as strange occurrences haunt the building. Something is lurking in the basement—something as dark as the family’s past.

the graveyard apartment mariko koike books for fans of the turning

7. Jac Jemc

the grip of it jac jemc female horror writers

By The Grip of It

Jac Jemc is a captivating new voice in the horror genre. With every piece she writes, she treads new personal ground, never revisiting old concepts and keeping her stories fresh with a broad scope of the terrifying and disturbing. Her short story collection False Bingo consists of twenty stories spanning alternate universes, fears come to life, and vicious revenge.

Her 2017 novel the Grip of It delivers a cerebral and and suspenseful haunted house story. A couple—Julie and James—in the midst of relationship woes move into a new home which escalates their troubles beyond imagination. While readers are grounded in reality by the very real emotional navigation of the main characters, a slow creeping and steady dread is woven around the relatability. The house the couple has inhabited has its own dark agenda—terrorizing Julie and James with eerily mysterious and grating noises, a claustrophobic and changing architecture, and stains on the walls which seem to map over Julie’s skin in bruising patterns.

the grip of it jac jemc female horror writers

Related: 16 Haunted House Books That Will Leave You Sleeping with One Eye Open

8. Daphne du Maurier (pictured above)

female horror writers

By Daphne du Maurier

Born in London in 1907, Daphne du Maurier was the daughter of the prominent actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier and actress Muriel Beaumont. She grew up among creative types, and her blooming passion for literature and writing was nurtured by family and friends. As her career grew, she was categorized as a “romantic novelist,” though today she fits best among the Gothic writers. du Maurier found success on the big screen as well: many of her novels were adapted for film including Jamaica Inn  (1939), Frenchman’s Creek  (1944), Hungry Hill  (1947), My Cousin Rachel (1952) , and of course, Rebecca (1940). Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) was based on a treatment of one of du Maurier’s short stories, as was as the film Don’t Look Now (1973). The Doll is one of 13 of du Maurier’s “lost” stories, described as, “gothic, suspenseful, and macabre.” She wrote it when she was only 21.

female horror writers

Related: 8 Award-Winning Horror Books You Need to Read Now  

9. Silvina Ocampo

female horror writers

Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Stories

By Silvina Ocampo

Born in Buenos Aires in 1903, Silvina Ocampo’s writing career began with Viaje Olvidado (1937) and continued to flourish with three books of poetry, novels, and a shot at playwriting as well. Ocampo fell into the shadow of her good friend Jorge Luis Borges, the acclaimed Argentinian writer, and her eldest sister who was the founding editor of the journal, Sur . When Ocampo’s work started gaining traction in the literary world, it often fell into the category of the fantastic and surreal, focusing on ideas such as space and time, children, and metamorphosis. Her style often veered into the unusually cruel, which at the time, was not well-received by critics. In fact, in 1979, Ocampo was denied the Argentinian prize for literature on the basis that her work was “far too cruel.”

female horror writers

10. Sylvia Townsend Warner

female horror writers

Lolly Willowes

By Sylvia Townsend Warner

Unmarried and unassuming, Laura Willowes seeks an outlet beyond the uptight London streets. After fleeing her brother’s home in an act of rebellion and clarity, Willowes finds her place in a village of witches. Such is the premise of the 1926 novel Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. The well-received book traipses through haunting scenes with Satanic undertones, and it bends and challenges societal norms. Unfortunately, however, many missed the truly contemporary and modern thought lying hidden between the lines. In one thank you note to friend and fellow author David Garnett, Townsend Warner wrote, “Other people who have seen Lolly have told me that it was charming, that it was distinguished, and my mother said it was almost as good as Galsworthy. And my heart sank lower and lower; I felt as though I had tried to make a sword, only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade.” Townsend Warner went on to write a number of short stories and other novels during her literary career including, Summer Will Show  (1936) and The Cat’s Cradle Book  (1940).

female horror writers

Related: 13 Horror Novels to Read While on Vacation  

11. Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho

By Ann Radcliffe

Though she is considered one of the founders of Gothic literature, very little is known about Ann Radcliffe’s personal life. Author Christina Rossetti attempted to write a biography about Radcliffe, only to abandon the project due to lack of information. Her literary life, however, consists of six novels, a book of poetry, and some non-fiction. She set the tone of her writing style with The Romance of the Forest  (1791) and inspired Gothic writers with The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe , and Jane Austen have all pulled from the “Radcliffe School” in their work, and she’s even been credited with influencing the writing of Fyodor Dostoevsky. “I used to spend the long winter hours before bed listening (for I could not yet read), agape with ecstasy and terror, as my parents read aloud to me from the novels of Ann Radcliffe. Then I would rave deliriously about them in my sleep,” Dostoevsky wrote. Radcliffe was a proponent of terror over horror, stating that terror aims to stimulate readers through imagination and perceived evils, while horror closes them off through fear and physical dangers.

12. Shirley Jackson

female horror writers

The Lottery and Other Stories

By Shirley Jackson

Best known for her short story The Lottery  ( 1948), Shirley Jackson has been credited with influencing such writers as Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, and Richard Matheson. Throughout Jackson’s career, she faced reactions from fans that her male counterparts may never have encountered. Many insisted that the darker aspects of her work were a product of “personal, even neurotic, fantasies.” Jackson preferred to allow her books to speak for themselves, veering away from the spotlight as often as she could. She was quoted as saying how pleased she was that the Union of South Africa banned The Lottery because: “she felt that they, at least, understood the story.” Her succession of Gothic novels began in 1951 with the publication of Hangsaman , and, in 1959, when The Haunting of Hill House was published, it became regarded as the “quintessential haunted house tale.”

female horror writers

Related: 7 Under-the-Radar Authors Who Will Terrify You  

13. Marjorie Bowen

female horror writers

Black Magic: The Rise and Fall of the Antichrist and Other Works

By Marjorie Bowen

British supernatural horror writer Marjorie Bowen was born in 1885. She produced more than 150 volumes of work, though they may be difficult to come by, as much of what was published appeared under pseudonyms. Joseph Shearing, George Preedy, Robert Paye, John Winch, and Margaret Campbell were the bylines of Bowen’s original works. She wrote mystery novels inspired by true crimes. The books that saw the most commercial success fell under the pseudonym Joseph Shearing. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the general public came to know the true author of these haunting tales. She has been described as “one of the great supernatural writers of this century” and “one of the best of our modern novelists.”

female horror writers

14. Tananarive Due

female horror writers

My Soul to Keep

By Tananarive Due

Tananarive Due has been terrifying her readers for over 20 years, from her African Immortals series to standalone horror novels like The Good House . Although some of Due’s novels land more in the speculative/fantasy genre than horror, each entry offers something particularly horrifying. In My Soul to Keep , the first book in the African Immortals series, Jessica discovers a major secret after her marriage to David. Namely, that he’s part of an Ethiopian sect that traded their humanity for immortality—and now the group that gave them immortality is calling him back to Ethiopia. Jessica, David, and their child battle for their lives amongst terrifying creatures and strange characters.

female horror writers

Related: A Famous Horror Author Shares Her Tricks … and a Ghost Story  

15. Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall

Wylding Hall

By Elizabeth Hand

Waking the Moon has become a cult classic over the years thanks to its specific and engrossing take on Gothic fantasy. Her fantasy-tinged horror has thrilled readers over the years. Wylding Hall is the most straightforward horror offering from Hand, and it’s sure to satisfy. When the lead singer of a band goes missing during a recording session in a crumbling castle, the other bandmates are left confused and terrified. Years later, they come together once more to try to find Julian.

16. Carmen Maria Machado

female horror writers

Her Body and Other Parties

By Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s only written short stories so far, but what we’ve seen has left us deeply impressed. 2017’s Her Body and Other Parties gained a lot of internet buzz. But these stories aren’t just the next trendy collection. From body horror to dystopian plagues, Her Body and Other Parties has it all. The strange, sexy, and spooky stories will leave you haunted. We’ll be waiting, not so patiently, for Machado’s next work.

female horror writers

17. Mary Shelley



By Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she wrote Frankenstein , one of the most enduring horror stories of all time. By 1816, the young woman had already experienced her share of tragedy. Shelley’s mother died in childbirth and Shelley herself had lost a prematurely born daughter. Her experience with birth and death is said to have influenced the twisted story of unnatural life in Frankenstein . However, Shelley herself said that the inspiration for the scientist who stitched together human body parts and brought his creation to life came to her in a vivid nightmare one rainy summer in Geneva, Switzerland. Though Mary Shelley’s name is instantly recognizable today for her major contribution to Gothic literature, for the majority of her writing career she was overshadowed by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley’s career was also plagued by the suggestion that Percy was the real author of Frankenstein , and that she had simply taken credit for his work. However, in recent years Mary Shelley’s literary output has been studied more closely, finally putting to rest any doubts about her talent as a writer.

Related: Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley Kept Her Dead Husband’s Heart for 30 Years  

18. Sarah Rayne

Property of a Lady

Property of a Lady

By Sarah Rayne

Sarah Rayne is known for her inventive paranormal stories and plots that twist and turn until the very last page. The author of over 25 books, Rayne considers herself a history buff and lover of old houses, which certainly shines through in her Michael Flint series. Property of a Lady is the first of six books featuring the Oxford professor. This particularly chilling ghost story takes place in Shropshire, England, where Michael has agreed to look after Charect House, a centuries-old manor that his American friends have inherited. As Michael unravels the house’s disturbing past through the discovery of long-hidden documents and diary entries, inexplicable events plague him and the people he’s closest to, from sightings of a strange woman in the house to two young girls an ocean apart experiencing the same recurring dream. Publishers Weekly lauded Rayne for her ability to “turn the picked-over bones of the haunted house story into something fresh and frequently terrifying.”

19. Diane Hoh


By Diane Hoh

We credit this bestselling author of young adult horror with fueling our nightmares. Diane Hoh’s Nightmare Hall series consists of twenty-nine terrifying books revolving around the spooky experiences of college students. Captives is the scariest of the bunch. Four students seek shelter from a violent storm in an off-campus dorm. After barricading themselves in, they discover there’s a psychopath lying in wait, hunting them down one by one. Hoh also contributed to the Point Horror series and the anthology collection 13 Tales of Horror by 13 Masters of Horror .

Related: 10 Women in Horror Who Scare Us to the Bone  

20. Joyce Carol Oates

Dis Mem Ber

Dis Mem Ber

By Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates began her literary career when she was fresh out of college and hasn’t looked back since. Now a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, Oates has dabbled in many genres over her long writing career, but she’s particularly excelled in psychological terror. Oates was recognized for her superior achievement by the Horror Writers Association when she took home the Bram Stoker Award in 1996, 2012, and 2013. She is a famously prolific writer, having published more than 50 novels and 30 collections of short stories. If you’re considering diving into Oates’ work for the first time but find the vast options intimidating, allow us to help out: Begin with this collection of short stories exploring the fear experienced by vulnerable women and girls. Oates’ powerful and incisive social commentary about our deepest fears makes Dis Mem Ber a chilling and thought-provoking read.

Featured photo: Alchetron

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female ghost story writers

Feminist Phantasms: Recent Haunted House Novels by Women Writers

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Anne Mai Yee Jansen

Anne Mai Yee Jansen is a literature and ethnic studies professor and a lifelong story addict. She exists on a steady diet of books and hot chocolate, with a heaping side of travel whenever possible. Originally hailing from the sun and sandstone of southern California, she currently resides with her partner, offspring, and feline companion in the sleepy mountains of western North Carolina.

View All posts by Anne Mai Yee Jansen

The haunted house novel has a long, rich history. Many scholars date its inception in U.S. American literature to the late 1700s and the beginning of the gothic tradition . Names like Horace Walpole, Edgar Allan Poe, and Edith Wharton often rise up from the depths of memory.

But haunted house novels are part of the tapestry of contemporary literatures, too. Whether literary ghosts conjure rememories of Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Stephen King’s The Shining , Tananarive Due’s The Good House or Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching , the fact remains: haunted house novels are going to possess our bookshelves for a long time to come.

Interestingly, some critics have noticed that haunted house novels (and stories) have some interesting implications for gender. For instance, Emma Higgins’s scholarly work The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories explores the connections between literary ghosts and gendered liminality. In fact, Melissa Edmunson has argued that the ghost story served as an entry point for Victorian women writers and “gave women a voice in a society that often disregarded women’s thoughts and opinions.” On the flip side, Ruby Brunton posits that there is a genre of haunted literature that comes out of male fear of female refusal to conform to social expectations — what she calls “wailing women” ghost stories.

Some of the works on this list are new classics in the vein of traditional haunted house novels. Others offer interesting interpretations of paranormal prose, delivering surprising specters that will linger in your imagination. Whichever book you choose to pursue, you’re in for a hauntingly good read!

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich book cover

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich has won innumerable awards for her writing (including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, to name just two biggies). Her latest novel, The Sentence , is yet another engrossing read. It’s a haunted house novel…or rather, a haunted bookstore novel. Flora, an irritating customer, has died and come back to haunt an indie bookstore in Minneapolis. New employee Tookie ends up having to get to the root of Flora’s haunting. Of course, Tookie has plenty on her own plate without an annoying ghost haunting her workplace, but nobody said the afterlife had any regard for the living.

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Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw book cover

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

If the cover isn’t terrifying enough for you, what’s inside should be. This slim volume by Cassandra Khaw is no less chilling for its brevity. When five erstwhile friends meet up in a Heian-era mansion for the creepiest wedding ever, you know nothing good can come of it. And, of course, nothing good does. Simmering under the surface of this haunted house novel teeming with yokai are socioeconomic, romantic, and gendered tensions. I mean, the mansion’s backstory (given fairly early on, so I’m not plot spoiling here) involves a stilted bride being buried alive in the walls to await her no-show groom. Seems fitting that the present-day characters have convened for a wedding of their own…

book cover for Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

It seems like Mexican Gothic is quickly becoming the go-to haunted house novel of our time. Can’t say I have a problem with this. I mean, you’ve got a rebellious Mexican socialite, her mysteriously absentee former-bestie cousin, and a haunted house on a hill that’s so foggy that Heathcliff would be jealous. I think one of the reasons this haunted house novel is so successful for me is that it embraces the gothic literary tradition while also managing to do some really fresh things with the genre. Sure, we’ve got an eerie mansion, some deeply disturbed and/or disturbing men, and the requisite graveyard. But we’ve also got mycology , feminism, and a critique of colonialism. (Bonus points if you read “The Yellow Wallpaper” along with this novel — there’s some really interesting interplay between the two.)

The House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward book cover

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

Mysterious teenager + her solitary father + queer Bible-reading house cat = ah-mazing. This is a genre-defying book in the best ways. It’s got the horror thing going on for sure. Definitely a chills-fest. It’s also kind of a mystery (both for some of the characters and for the reader). And it’s deeply invested in what might be considered the psychological thriller. It’s also a really good read, pure and simple. It’s no wonder the critical acclaim for this one has been so loud. If you want a captivating haunted house novel that will leave you reeling, this is a great option for you.

White Smoke by Tiffany D Jackson book cover

White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson

This YA haunted house novel delivers in spades. Captivating story with interesting characters? Check. New hometown for a protagonist with a past? Check. Unsettling house with mysterious voices, disappearing belongings, and voices in the walls? Check. And like the best ghost stories, this one has some twists. Jackson has shared that two things inspired her to write a haunted house novel: 1) a trip to Detroit and the urban legends about haunted houses there, and 2) a story of a real-life haunting in Japan that resonated with her.

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith book cover

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

I am obsessed with this book. It centers on the disappearance of Winnie, a mixed-race Vietnamese American woman who has moved to Vietnam in order to lose herself. There’s so much to talk about that I don’t know where to start. Option 1: the novel’s criticism of ongoing legacies of colonialism. Option 2: the incredible network of women on both sides of the grave. Option 3: hair. So much hair. Whatever aspect of this haunted house novel you zero in on, the fact remains that the haunted rubber tree plantation at the heart of this book is disturbing from any angle.

The Upstairs House by Julia Fine book cover

The Upstairs House by Julia Fine

Remember Margaret Wise Brown ? You know, author of bizarro children’s books like Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny and The Color Kittens ? Well, she’s the (first) ghost in the attic in this haunted house novel. Seriously. And it’s a really interesting read. It’s about new-mother Megan and her struggles with postpartum depression. When the nurse tells her to breastfeed her newborn daughter, Megan muses, “But it wasn’t as easy as that. Nothing about motherhood was as easy as that. This I knew from the moment they moved Clara from the bloody sheet and up onto my belly.” And so the story begins to unfold and Megan and Clara get swept up in Margaret Wise Brown’s unfinished business and all the danger it entails.

When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen book cover

When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen

This haunted house novel is set in a small southern town in the U.S. Mira tried to leave the pain and racism in her past but has returned for her friend’s wedding at the former-plantation-turned-chic-resort. Amidst the echoes of the tortured enslaved, Mira and her childhood friends Jesse and Celine are forced to navigate their own fraught relationships as the past brings itself to bear on the present. I almost want to suggest a literary threesome: When the Reckoning Comes + Nothing But Blackened Teeth + Build Your House Around My Body . Between the three books, you’ve got two plantations, two ill-fated weddings, and three protagonists who have tried desperately to escape their pasts.

Not Afraid of These Ghosts?

Check out this post on 30 Haunted House Books That Will Give You the Creeps or this one about 20 of the Best Award-Winning Horror Novels . And if you wanted to read more about Edith Wharton, check out this deep-dive into her writing .

female ghost story writers

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The Haunted House in Women's Ghost Stories: Gender, Space, and Modernity, 1850–1945 by Emma Liggins (review)

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Witches, ghosts and feminism: how female authors are rewriting horror fiction

From Francine Toon to Daisy Johnson and Sara Collins, recent fiction has been filled with a sense of the otherworldly. Why have so many women writers turned to horror tropes, and what does it tell us?

Depending on which new novels you’ve been reading lately, you may have found a whiff of gothic between their covers. In Francine Toon ’s debut, Pine , released in January, there was the persistent sound of dripping, an inexplicable smell of rotting meat. In Sisters , released this summer, Booker-shortlisted author Daisy Johnson constructed a house that is riddled by “thumps and thundering, the sound of many footsteps, the crash of windows opening and closing, sudden explosions which sound like shouting”. Last year, author Sara Collins introduced her titular Frannie Langton to a London where “the cold seemed to carry its own smell, like raw meat, and came on me sudden as a cutpurse.” In 2021, poet Salena Godden will introduce us to Death herself, “a homeless black beggar-woman with knotty natty hair”, who tells stories of murdered women lost to history in Mrs Death Misses Death .

These are just a few examples of recent literary fiction written by women which reinvents horror and gothic tropes. Harpies, witches, ghosts and the otherworldly have snuck into the pages of books that wouldn’t necessarily be categorised as horror, but nevertheless suggest a shift in how female writers, especially, are reflecting the world today. Are we in the midst of a gothic resurgence, and if so, what does it say about being a woman at the moment?

Women have long been associated with gothic fiction. Catherine Spooner, Professor of Literature and Culture at Lancaster University, points out that, at the end of the 18 th century, gothic fiction comprised approximately a third of the books published. “Women writers were critical to that”, she says. Often these stories would feature women trapped in a castle, dungeon or abbey (“a stand-in for the domestic environment”), and they have been trying to escape ever since. From Shirley Jackson to Helen Oyeyemi, the haunted house narrative has proved ripe for literary reinvention.

'Gothic offers a ready-made vehicle for today’s writers to address things such as the MeToo movement'

In Sisters , Johnson’s mother character Sheela “has always known that houses are bodies and that her body is a house in more ways than most”, a neat nod to the body horror genre ushered in by Frankenstein in the 19 th century. “It’s a heady mix,” says Spooner, of how motherhood, womanhood and domesticity have collided with horror over the years, “and it provides a ready-made vehicle for today’s writers to address things such as the MeToo movement or everyday sexism.”

In March, Evie Wyld united disparate female voices in The Bass Rock in a biting criticism of generations of male violence in a book described by The Guardian as “a gothic novel, a family saga and a ghost story rolled into one.” Sophie Mackintosh ’s Booker-longlisted debut, The Water Cure , combined the eerie stylings of The Virgin Suicides in a reflection on toxic masculinity in 2018.

“I think women are uniquely qualified to write about horror because almost all women are told from childhood that the world is a dangerous place for them,” says Kirsty Logan , author of Things We Say in the Dark , a collection of dark short stories. “I believe one of the underlying reasons women find the image of a witch so appealing is because of that power and agency to inhabit any space they want and to live without threat,” wrote Francine Toon in The Irish Times earlier this year.  

Pine is a novel about motherhood, grief, ghosts and a legacy of witchcraft, something Toon gained lived experience of after moving to the Scottish Highlands as a 10-year-old. “We lived near Dornach, which was the last place to execute a woman for witchcraft, in 1727,” she tells me when I call her up. “Growing up, a witch, for me, was a real person who got killed by people. There was a lot of superstition that had been there for hundreds of years.”

Nevertheless, both Logan and Toon are swift to acknowledge the recent interest in what Logan refers to as “a connection to spirituality in a witchy, tarot sense”. Azealea Banks’ announcement that she was a witch, in 2015, encouraged The Guardian to declare the era as “season of the witch”, a term borrowed by Publisher’s Weekly to reflect the rise in books on the subject. Last year The New York Times trilled: “We have reached peak witch.”

Like a good spell, there are a range of ingredients behind the phenomenon. Toon makes a convincing case for nostalgia, spinning recollections of a Nineties childhood filled with urban legends being told in playgounds, The Worst Witch on after-school telly and sleepovers fuelled by The Craft . “Women who grew up with these kind of figures in their adolescence and childhood have now reached their twenties and thirties and are drawn to it, but in a different shape,” Toon says, pointing out the Netflix remake of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Stephen King-inspired Stranger Things as evidence of creepy throwbacks taking grasp of pop culture.

'The witch character is always outside of the patriarchy and kind of fascinating but also enraging to male characters'

But feminism's at play, too: “I think that’s kind of appealing to young women who are wanting to feel empowered. The witch character is always outside of the patriarchy and kind of fascinating but also enraging to male characters,” Toon adds. Plus, she explains, the witch figure is an inclusive one: “not only in terms of gender or sexuality, but also throughout the world.”

Spooner agrees that in recent years women writers have reclaimed folk horror, a genre that, since the Sixties and Seventies, has “been quite male-dominated and masculine in tone”. A way of talking about the British landscape with reference to folklore, it could be thought of as a kind of spooky nature writing (which has also been picked up and remoulded by female writers over the past decade). This month saw the publication of Hag , a collection of “forgotten folktales” from “the islands of Scotland to the coast of Cornwall” written by female authors including Irenosen Okojie, Johnson, Eimear McBride and Liv Little.

Spooner also cites Pine , Daisy Johnson’s first collection Fen , Folk by Zoe Gilbert (“which mixes folk tradition with Angela Carter in a really exciting way”) and Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucky McKnight as examples of women “transforming” the genre. Why such a proliferation? “I think this really speaks to certain themes that are very prominent in contemporary culture,” she replies. “First of all, the urban-rural divide that we can see in British politics at the moment, which I think it’s reflecting that in really interesting ways, and secondly - perhaps even more prominently - the ecological crisis and what we make of the landscape at this particular time.”

'There’s a tendency, especially with female writers, that subsequent generations kind of forget about them'

Logan, meanwhile, believes that the turbulence of the past five years has led to us looking to the otherworldly for a sense of stability – after all, the first explosion in gothic writing did collide with the French Revolution.

“Most horror is not really about death or violence or destruction, it’s about survival,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it’s uplifting, but it’s a consolation in a way. Women are uniquely situated to understand that the world is a site of horror and danger but that it can be survived, that you can come out of the other side.”

What Spooner is keen to point out, though, is that women writing gothic and horror-inflected fiction has never really gone away as much as be erased from the canon. “There’s a tendency, especially with female writers, that subsequent generations kind of forget about them. There’s a huge wealth of writers that we’ve just neglected.” While many will remember Stephen King’s dominance over 1980s horror, for instance, the international popularity of Anne Rice’s vampire fiction gets overlooked.

What, then, can we expect from gothic in the near-future? Jeanette Winterson’s Frankisstein , which was published in January, is among a new wave of horror-inspired work to deal with queer narratives. And, while gothic tropes have appeared in slave narratives since the 19 th century – not least in Toni Morrison ’s Beloved – there is also more recent experimentation with the genre coming from more inclusive voices. “What’s happening now is a huge variety of gothic and horror fiction coming from writers of colour,” says Spooner, “which is really exciting and feels very new.”  

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The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories, by Emma Liggins

Ruth heholt discovers how supernatural fiction is deeply revealing about changing attitudes to class and gender .

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Doll in chair with girl in mirror reflection

The title of this book promises much: uncanny domesticity, hauntings and “occupied” houses (houses that are perhaps a little too full). Pointing to the appearance of a guest or intruder, or the hovering presence of servants, Emma Liggins evokes questions about “hospitality” and belonging. Who really belongs in these houses? When does a house become unhomely ( unheimlich ) or uncanny in the Freudian sense? What happens when the place where we are meant to feel safest shifts, slides and becomes threatening? Liggins explores these ideas in the work of six women writers: Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Vernon Lee, Edith Wharton, May Sinclair and Elizabeth Bowen.

In the introduction, she claims that the haunted house “transforms domestic space into a place of terror that threatens marital relations and women’s lives and sanity”. She has already written a book about women who were unmarried or did not “fit”, Odd Women? Spinsters, Lesbians and Widows in British Women’s Fiction, 1850s-1930s (2014), and this one continues her exploration of women’s place.

The female ghost story has long been seen as a way to criticise the patriarchy and particularly the misogynistic family structures and spaces that imprison women. Liggins convincingly maps the haunted house narrative on to the nascent feminist movement and the changing status of women, beginning in the 1850s with the vexed “woman question”. Supernatural interference, she writes, “becomes a way in which to expose and challenge the Victorian reification of the home, at a time when women’s occupation of domestic space was seen as fundamental”.

She also demonstrates that a levelling process is often present in ghost stories. Narrators/ghost seers can be servants or mistresses, ladies or drudges. The ghosts themselves transcend class and gender boundaries, too, as well as spatial ones: ghost servants, for example, will not “stay in their place”. As Liggins comments: “Despite Victorian ideals of privacy, the permeability of boundaries allowed the phantoms to get through doors or across thresholds.”

The book focuses on the short story – ever the staple for ghost fiction. Short ghost stories, by necessity, do not give the full picture and this can be a technique that disquiets and disorientates the reader. Liggins argues (as have others before her) that the ghost story can be a subversive form of literature which brings “invisible women” to the fore, but she goes further than other critics in her application of spatial theory to the haunted domestic space. Providing what she calls “a genealogy of the haunted house narrative”, she looks at the changes in representations of place, from the manor house to the suburban villa; space (architecture, gardens, closed doors and locked rooms); and technology, such as electricity and telegraphy. Moving from the Victorian period to the modern and past two world wars, the haunted houses get smaller and more claustrophobic. At the same time, technology advances and becomes uncanny.

Rather than just examining the English ghost story, Liggins ranges across Europe and to America, producing a deeply satisfying book that offers important commentaries on this period of history and vital and unexpected observations about women’s place in the haunted home.

Ruth Heholt is senior lecturer in English at Falmouth University . Her most recent book is Catherine Crowe: Gender, Genre, and Radical Politics  (2020).

The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories: Gender, Space and Modernity, 1850-1945 By Emma Liggins Palgrave Macmillan, 324pp, £69.99 ISBN 9783030407513 Published 1 July 2020

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A Haunted History of Invisible Women: True Stories of America's Ghosts


"Deliciously eerie.” —Leslie Rule, Bestselling Author

From the notorious Lizzie Borden to the innumerable, haunted rooms of Sarah Winchester's mysterious mansion this offbeat, insightful, first-ever book of its kind from the brilliant guides behind “Boroughs of the Dead,” featured on NPR.org, The New York Times , and Jezebel, explores the history behind America’s female ghosts, the stereotypes, myths, and paranormal tales that swirl around them, what their stories reveal about us—and why they haunt us . . .

Bram Stoker Award Finalist for Superior Achievement in Nonfiction Sorrowful widows, vengeful jezebels, innocent maidens, wronged lovers, former slaves, even the occasional axe-murderess—America’s female ghosts differ widely in background, class, and circumstance. Yet one thing unites them: their ability to instill fascination and fear, long after their deaths. Here are the full stories behind some of the best-known among them, as well as the lesser-known—though no less powerful.

Tales whispered in darkness often divulge more about the teller than the subject. America’s most famous female ghosts, from from ‘Mrs. Spencer’ who haunted Joan Rivers’ New York apartment to Bridget Bishop, the first person executed during the Salem witchcraft trials, mirror each era’s fears and prejudices. Yet through urban legends and campfire stories, even ghosts like the nameless hard-working women lost in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire —achieve a measure of power and agency in death, in ways unavailable to them as living women.

Riveting for skeptics and believers alike, with humor, curiosity, and expertise, A Haunted History of Invisible Women offers a unique lens on the significant role these ghostly legends play both within the spook-seeking corners of our minds and in the consciousness of a nation.

"A Haunted History of Invisible Women looks beyond the legends of maligned female ghosts and gives us their real histories. It is both a meditation on the misogyny of a ghost-hunting culture that capitalizes on false narratives of sex and death, and a fascinating look at the flesh-and-blood women behind the ghost stories. This book is a long-overdue search for historic truth, yet it recognizes that “When it comes to ghosts, truth is as elusive as the spirits themselves.” — Chris Woodyard, Author of The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Afterword by Bram Stoker Award-winning author Linda D. Addison

About the Author

Leanna Renee Hieber is an award-winning author and paranormal history expert. A regular speaker at Sci-Fi / Fantasy conventions, she’s appeared on film and television on shows including “Mysteries at the Museum” and “Beyond the Unknown.” She’s a three-time Prism Award-winner for her debut novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, and a Daphne Du Maurier Award-finalist for Darker Still. After earning a BFA in Theatre Performance and a focus study in the Victorian Era, she spent many years in the professional regional theatre circuit, skills that serve her well as a speaker and a ghost tour guide for Boroughs of the Dead in New York. Leanna lives in New York, NY and can be found online at: LeannaReneeHieber.com   Andrea Janes is the Founder and owner of Boroughs of the Dead, New York City's premier ghost tour company, which has been featured on NPR.org, The New York Times , Jezebel, TODAY, The Huffington Post, Gothamist, The Travel Channel, CondeNast Traveler, Mashable, and more. Andrea is also the author of the YA novel GLAMOUR and several short horror stories, and a fiction horror novel Boroughs of the Dead, (the inspiration for her company).  Visit boroughsofthedead.com

Praise for A Haunted History of Invisible Women: True Stories of America's Ghosts

Praise for A Haunted History of Invisible Women

"Delightfully harrowing and full of spine-tingling horrors, A HAUNTED HISTORY OF INVISIBLE WOMEN is not your average book of ghost stories. Hieber and Janes go far beyond the obvious thrills and chills, providing fascinating context and lavish detail in this incredibly empathetic book as they gently remind us not only of what we are but what we may become. You’ll be thinking about this one long after you finish. Read it with the lights on!" — Deanna Raybourn , New York Times and USA Today bestselling author   "Thought-provoking and deliciously eerie, this intriguing study of phantom females not only delves into the history behind the legendary hauntings that chill our blood, but also gives detailed descriptions of real-life ghost encounters." — Leslie Rule , Bestselling Author   “This book accomplishes the impossible –to tell true stories of abuse, murder, horror, and the plight of women, and somehow make that an elegant and compelling piece of writing. This should not only be read…but taught. Brava!” — Jonathan Maberry , New York Times bestselling author of Relentless and Ink   "An absolute must-buy for the spooky people of the world. Hieber, and Janes lead the reader on a guided tour of America's most fascinating and noteworthy female ghosts that is utterly brilliant and deeply compelling. The authors examine these stories with a keen feminist lens and resurrect the real women behind them with respect they were seldom afforded in life. It's extraordinary to find a book that is so chilling, yet so full of heart. You'll find yourself haunted by these stories." — Mallory O'Meara , bestselling author of The Lady from the Black Lagoon and Girly Drinks   “A Haunted History of Invisible Women is a beautifully researched and well-written observation of women’s ghosts across time. From the famous to the not-so-famous, their stories and the history surrounding them both fascinate and mesmerize. If this book doesn’t leave with you a sense of wonder and a healthy dose of goosebumps, check your pulse—you may already be among the spirits." — Marc Hartzman , author of Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination with Spirits and the Supernatural   "This is the book I have always wanted to read. Expert storytellers Hieber, and Janes take us on tour through the lives of real women who would become legendary ghosts adding depth to stories I thought I knew and introducing me to characters I’ve never met before. With wit and empathy, A Haunted History brings the spirit of these women to life. Their stories are touching, shocking, inspiring, and intimately relatable. They tell the ways women have learned to navigate their world, to thrive, and live authentically against the odds. They reveal the ways society objectifies and classifies women who defy norms and challenge the expectations of their time. These ghosts still have something to say and have much to teach. — Leila Taylor ,  author of Darkly: Black History and America's Gothic Soul. 

"Deeply researched and lovingly written by a powerhouse trinity of authors, A Haunted History of Invisible Women is the ultimate paranormal compendium on female ghosts of America. Not only is this a compulsively readable book, it'll send a chill down your spine while illuminating the dark shadows of a nation." — Kris Waldherr , author of The Lost History of Dreams and Unnatural Women: A Novel of the Frankenstein Women

“A Haunted History of Invisible Women looks beyond the legends of maligned female ghosts and gives us their real histories. It is both a meditation on the misogyny of a ghost-hunting culture that capitalizes on false narratives of sex and death, and a fascinating look at the flesh-and-blood women behind the ghost stories. This book is a long-overdue search for historic truth, yet it recognizes that “When it comes to ghosts, truth is as elusive as the spirits themselves.” — Chris Woodyard , author of The Victorian Book of the Dead

“The things which truly frighten us are the things which are real. That is why women love horror: it allows us a healthy exploration of our real-life terrors. There is a sisterhood of haunted women throughout history, both actual people and fictional characters. I was thrilled to learn more about them all through the eyes of two women who are members of that sisterhood.” — Ohioana Library Magazine

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Ghost stories by Victorian women, a reading list chosen by Melissa Edmundson

  • Post author By Peter Meinertzhagen
  • Post date 20/01/2019
  • 2 Comments on Ghost stories by Victorian women, a reading list chosen by Melissa Edmundson

Ghost stories by Victorian women, a reading list chosen by Melissa Edmundson

The supernatural has long been a convenient way to address socially taboo topics, especially during the nineteenth century when ghost stories became increasingly popular. Indeed, the ghost story very much became a Christmas tradition, which you can read more about in our review of Spirits of the Season . For women writers during this period, the short story became an empowering form, giving women both a professional and social voice. This is the theme of a new collection of ghost stories by Victorian women writers edited by Melissa Edmundson, featuring ten great representative authors. Naturally, her book is the best place to start if you’re looking to explore these stories – buy the book here . If you’re looking for further reading, I spoke with Melissa about what other books she would recommend; here are her choices.

1. The Virago Book of Ghost Stories

“This collection, reprinted in 2009 and edited by the late Richard Dalby (one of the preeminent anthologists of our time), is an excellent and comprehensive introduction to women’s ghost stories. The collection includes over 30 stories and covers over 100 years of women’s supernatural writing. It combines stories from previous anthologies, including The Virago Book of Ghost Stories: The Twentieth Century (2 vols., 1987 and 1991) and The Virago Book of Victorian Ghost Stories (1988). Dalby edited many collections of women’s ghost stories, but many are sadly now out of print. I would recommend searching secondhand book sites to find affordable copies. You won’t be disappointed!”

2. The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women

“This anthology, edited by Marie O’Regan and published in 2012, is a nice complement to Dalby’s collection. It covers writers from the nineteenth century to modern-day authors. You’ll find stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, Amelia B. Edwards, Edith Wharton, Cynthia Asquith (also a noted anthologist of supernatural literature), Muriel Gray, and Lisa Tuttle, among many others.”

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3. Twilight Stories, by Rhoda Broughton & Weird Stories, by Charlotte Riddell

“These collections, both edited and introduced by Emma Liggins for Victorian Secrets in 2009, are a great introduction to two of the Victorian period’s most talented practitioners of the supernatural. Broughton, who was the niece of famed Gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu, originally published these tales in 1873, as Tales for Christmas Eve . They were then republished as Twilight Stories in 1879. This new edition includes some of her best stories, ranging from the ghostly to the weird: ‘The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth,’ ‘The Man with the Nose,’ ‘Behold it was a Dream,’ ‘Poor Pretty Bobby,’ and ‘Under the Cloak.’ Charlotte Riddell struggled with finances throughout her life and had to support her family through her published writing. She published many popular novels, and her most well-known supernatural collection, Weird Stories , was published in 1882. This collection includes ‘Walnut-Tree House,’ ‘The Open Door,’ ‘Nut Bush Farm,’ ‘The Old House in Vauxhall Walk,’ ‘Sandy the Tinker,’ and ‘Old Mrs. Jones.’ Many of these stories show how well the genre of the ghost story can lend itself to an exploration of serious social themes, including gender, class, and economic issues.”

4. At Chrighton Abbey and Other Horror Stories, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

“Braddon is perhaps more well known today for her work as a sensation novelist, most notably the bestselling Lady’s Audley’s Secret (1862). Like Charlotte Riddell, Braddon supported her husband and several children through her writing and was one of the most popular authors of the Victorian era. This edition, published by Wildside Press in 2002, is a great introduction to her supernatural work. It’s affordably priced and includes many of her most famous ghost stories, including the title work, ‘The Cold Embrace,’ ‘The Shadow in the Corner’, ‘Good Lady Ducayne,’ (her take on a vampire tale), and ‘Eveline’s Visitant.’ If you really take a liking to Braddon’s work, check out The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the 4-volume collection of her supernatural fiction, published in paperback by Leonaur. There’s also the upcoming The Face in the Glass: The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon , edited by Greg Buzwell and published as part of the British Library Tales of the Weird series.”

5. Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, by Vernon Lee

“This Broadview Press edition from 2006, edited by Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham, offers a nice overview of the supernatural fiction of Vernon Lee, ranging from the 1880s to the 1920s. Lee was a transitional figure in the history of the ghost story because her work spans the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. There’s also a unique blend of historical and modern in Lee’s supernatural tales. This edition includes her important ‘Preface to Hauntings’ (1890), a fine piece of criticism on the supernatural in literature, as well as the stories ‘Amour Dure,’ ‘Dionea,’ ‘Oke of Okehurst,’ ‘A Wicked Voice,’ ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady,’ ‘A Wedding Chest,’ and ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers.'”

6. A Suggestion of Ghosts (2017) and An Obscurity of Ghosts (2018)

“I’m cheating again on this next recommendation by recommending two books at once, but these form a planned trilogy of women’s ghost stories published by Black Shuck Books. Editor Johnny Mains has uncovered many unknown stories by women published in British and American newspapers. These stories have not been republished since their original appearances in the nineteenth century and come from fairly obscure regional papers, making these anthologies all the more important for their recovery of these popular tales. The final volume, currently in the works, will focus on women’s ghost stories of the First World War. A Suggestion of Ghosts is available now in paperback, and An Obscurity of Ghosts will be published in paperback this summer.”

Avenging Angels: Ghost Stories by Victorian Women Writers edited by Melissa Edmundson is published by Victorian Secrets. Buy this book on Amazon . 

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2 replies on “ghost stories by victorian women, a reading list chosen by melissa edmundson”.

Great article and very useful! Thank you!

Will defo look into getting some of these

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female ghost story writers

Everyone knows that Halloween is the best time of year to indulge in ghost stories, but what happens when you've run out of new material? If you have already read "Turn of the Screw" and recited "The Black Cat" this year, don't fear, because there are still plenty of classic ghost stories by women you probably haven't heard yet.

If you love ghost stories as much as I do, then you're probably familiar with classic authors like M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce. Every year, you count on their spooky stories of haunted houses, fearsome phantoms, and spine-chilling specters to give you a fright for Halloween. But what is truly terrifying is the fact that when we talk about ghost stories, more often than not, we're discussing those written by male authors, despite that fact that at the height of their popularity, 70% of ghost stories were written by women . Unfortunately today, many of those once-famous females of the 19th and 20th century have been forgotten, and so have their superb supernatural stories.

That is, until now, because this Halloween, I'm celebrating classic ghost stories written by women , starting with these ten. Some are by famous authors you already love, others are by writers you've probably never heard of but definitely should know, and all of them are guaranteed to creep you out.

"The Lost Ghost" by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

In this creepy tale, a young girl appears to a woman again and again, repeating the phrase "I can't find my mother." Is she really lost, or is she a spirit from the otherside?

Where to read it: A New-England Nun and Other Stories by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

"Home" by Shirley Jackson

You probably know her haunted house masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House , but have you read any of her shorter ghost stories? In "Home," the mistress of horror tells another spine-tingling tale about a supernatural dwelling and the unlucky people who try and live there.

Where to read it: Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

"The Open Door" by Charlotte Riddell

One of the most popular ghost story writers of the Victorian period, Charlotte Riddell penned plenty of terrifying tales, but "The Open Door" is by far her most famous. It follows a young man who, desperate for money, takes a job at an old mansion where he is tasked with figuring out why a door in just won't stay closed, and what exactly is trying to get in from the otherside.

Where to read it: The Wimbourne Book of Victorian Ghost Stories by various authors

"The Old Nurse's Story" by Elizabeth Gaskell

If you know Elizabeth Gaskell for her famous social novel North and South , you might be surprised to learn that she also wrote supernatural stories, and truly chilling ones at that. In "The Old Nurse's Tale," a woman recounts the time she spent in her youth at a mansion haunted by the ghosts of its dark and devastating past. After reading this sinister story, you'll never be able to listen to the sound of an organ the same again.

Where to read it: Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell

"Man-Size in Marble" by E. Nesbit

Perhaps best known for her children's books and her poetry, Edith Nesbit was also wrote more than one chilling ghost story. In "Man-Size in Marble," a married couple moves into a cottage that the locals say is haunted. Every All Saints' Eve, according to the legend, the effigies of evil knights come to life and torment all who they come across.

Where to read it: Man-Size in Marble and Others: The Best Horror and Ghost Stories of E. Nesbit by Edith Nesbit, illustrated by M. Grant Kellermeyer

"Escort" by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier knows a thing or two about spinning a spooky story, a fact she once again proves with "Escort." A haunting tale set during World War II, it follows the first mate of a steamer who comes across a strange, possibly supernatural ship that promises to help he and his crew get to port safety.

Where to read it: Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

"Bewitched" by Edith Wharton

If you aren't familiar with the ghost stories of Edith Wharton, "Bewitched" is the perfect place to start. In this spine-tingling tale, a woman is furious and heartbroken over her husband's affair with a younger girl, a girl who just might be a ghost.

Where to read: The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton

"At Chrighton Abbey" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

At the center of "At Chrighton Abbey" is a deadly curse that claims the lives of the unmarried sons of the Chrighton family. Will Sarah's cousin Edward be the next victim, or will his impending wedding to Julia save him from the fate of so many others?

Where to read it: At Chrighton Abbey and Other Horror Stories by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

"The Phantom Coach" by Amelia B. Edwards

In "The Phantom Coach," a man is out hunting when a sudden snowfall leaves him stranded at a mysterious farmhouse. While waiting out the storm, he listens to the farm's strange owner tell scary stories about ghosts, prophecies, and the supernatural before eventually setting back out to catch the midnight mail coach nearby. On board, he finds three other men who don't speak or move, and they set off for a destination unknown.

Where to read it: Great Ghost Stories edited by John Grafton

"A Haunted House" by Virginia Woolf

In this eerie tale from the author of To the Lighthouse , a couple haunts their old house while its new resident tracks their movements in the hopes of learning what it is that they want. One of the inspirations behind David Lowery's celebrated film A Ghost Story , "A Haunted House" is a true classic you don't want to miss.

Where to read it: A Haunted House and Other Stories by Virginia Woolf

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7 Haunting Ghost Stories by Black Women Writers

female ghost story writers

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In literature, we have used ghost stories to tell the things we are too scared to hear about.

female ghost story writers

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A neighbor once told me that a woman died in my house. From then I was constantly looking in my house for signs—every creak was a footstep, every sound was a whisper, a loud scream. My mother says that the way Americans see death as a horror only tells half the story. The other half of death is called memory, fantasy, ancestor. 

Book cover with woman and plants on the border

My novel, The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts , is filled with—you guessed it—ghosts. Some come from the Caribbean folklore I grew up with: the Rolling Calf, Mama Dglo, and Ol’ Higue. But my book also features other ghosts: the physical presence of colonization haunting the island of Trinidad and Jamaica, and the haunting that comes from grief and regret. But more than that, there’s the family of Black women that I see as my novel’s heartbeat that tell stories of their characters’ histories, their deepest secrets, their wildest dreams. 

Throughout time, Black women have told ghost stories as a way to record the histories we were often left out of. Stories of trickster spirits have been used to explore the small ways we take back our power from our oppressors through trickery. Like the story of Anansi tricking Tiger and Lion into becoming the god of storytelling. Like the story of replacing the master’s sugar with cyanide. In literature, we have used ghost stories to tell the things we are sometimes too scared to hear about: like what happens when we become possessed by the traumas of our ancestors, or the terror in becoming a mother during slavery, or the complicated grief that comes from losing the person who raised you. With that said, here is a list of seven contemporary Black women authors who have continued this long tradition of Black ghost storytelling. 

The Ghost as a Haunting Paranoia  

White is for witching by helen oyeyemi.

Unlike other haunted houses, this one speaks. The house warns its readers as well as its guests what may happen if we step out of line. A mannequin pushes a poisonous apple into the mouth of a Nigerian housekeeper. An elevator traps the child of an undocumented housekeeper and gardener all night long. In the background of these hauntings, there are other horrors happening: The fourth Kosovan refugee has just been stabbed, another detainee at the Immigration Removal Center hangs themself. 

The house, like the family that lives there, develops a paranoia of everything outside their four walls, showing us that what lies beneath liberal white politeness may only be the sinister fear of the unknown—the same fear that erupted into Brexit eleven years after this book was published. The white and wealthy owners of this house decide to convert their home into a bed and breakfast, only to find that it is not kind to outsiders—specifically the Black immigrants that pass through its walls. Author Helen Oyeyemi, who was born in Nigeria, but raised in London, creates a ghost story that holds us hostage in its terrifying splendor.

The Ghost as Forgotten History

The jumbies by tracy baptiste.

The Jumbies is one of those books I wish I had as a Caribbean girl growing up in America. Trinidadian author Tracy Baptiste is a former teacher who writes in her author’s note that she, like myself, grew up not seeing Caribbean folklore represented in children’s books and fairy tales. It is one of the few books on this list that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. 

The novel is inspired by the Haitian folktale, “The Magic Orange Tree,” and takes place on an unnamed island where townsfolk are growing afraid of the jumbies who they see as coming to take over the island. Yet if you asked the jumbies, they are the ones who originally inhabited this place and are, in fact, the ones who emancipated everyone else from slavery. Through this imagined history, Baptiste demonstrates that the history of the Caribbean is wrapped up not only in slavery and colonization, but also in emancipation and ghosts.

The Ghost as the 8th Stage of Grief

What we lose by zinzi clemmons.

In Zinzi Clemmons’ novel, Thandi and her father grieve their mother, who has died of cancer. Clemmons weaves seamlessly between moving anecdotes of grieving her dead mother, meditations on racism, and original chartings of the seven stages of grief. 

At one point, Thandi tells us that “The most important aspect of the ghost is the need that creates it.” The protagonist makes the decision to create a ghost out of her mother in order to help herself grieve, showing us that loneliness can create the feeling of haunting, whether it physically exists or not. 

The Ghost as Your Deepest Regret

female ghost story writers

“Old Habits” in Uncanny Magazine by Nalo Hopkinson

Ghosts wander a Toronto mall for all eternity, forced to relive their deaths each day. The unnamed protagonist thinks about the stupidity of his death, having been caught in an escalator due to a newly bought silk tie. These ghosts are hungry for life, and for the smells, tastes, and sensations they no longer possess. One teenage girl who died by hitting her head in the mall bathroom can still remember the smells of food and perfume. This girl gets literally devoured by the other ghosts who wish to consume her memory. When they are finished in their consumption, the teen ghost vanishes into nothing.

This short story, originally published in the Science Fiction & Fantasy anthology, Eclipse , is written by the first Caribbean fantasy and sci-fi writer I was ever exposed to, Jamaican-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson. Hopkinson, known for re-telling Caribbean ghost stories, wrote something about the ways ghosts can be used to explore regret and the small pleasures we take for granted in being alive.

The Ghost as the Things that Get Left Unsaid

“second chances” by lesley nneka arimah from what it means when a man falls from the sky : stories .

Sometimes we think that if that one special person came back from the dead, we would be able to say the things we never could when they were alive. Not is the case in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story where Uche wakes to find her mother has stepped out of a family photograph after having died eight years earlier. The incredible absurd humor of Uche’s father and sister’s nonchalance at seeing their mother and wife return from the dead, mixed with Uche’s unexpressed anger and grief was, in fact, one of the many inspirations for my book. Despite this unusual and, perhaps, miraculous opportunity, Uche finds she is still unable to let go of the hurt she’s held onto towards her mother. It is a meditation on the grief of losing someone, but also of the grief a daughter experiences in not feeling good enough. 

The Ghost as Family 

These ghosts are family by maisy card.

In the Paisley family, every character has its own ghost. Abel Paisley takes on the identity of a dead man, becoming, in effect, somebody else’s ghost. His life becomes a haunting absence in the lives of his children, his ex-wife, and the family of the ghost he replaces. His daughter, Irene, is possessed by her abusive dead mother, Vera, and winds up running into the rain naked to relive a painful childhood memory. His son’s white wife, Debbie is haunted by her slave owning ancestor that causes her to have increasingly disturbing nightmares and drown his priceless journal in the river. Abandoned daughters in Jamaica begin to shift into Ol’ Higue, the spirit who drinks the blood of babies and takes off her skin at night. Jamaican American author, Maisy Card beautifully weaves these ghost stories together to create an extraordinary narrative on forgiveness, past trauma, and what it truly means to be family.

The Ghost as a Mother’s Deepest Shame

Beloved by toni morrison.

What else is there to say about one of the most famous ghost novels of all time? Also known as the foremost historical fiction text on U.S slavery, Beloved actually takes place seven years after U.S emancipation. As a reader, you do not always know whether you are in the past or present of these characters’ lives. The memory of haunting (or what Toni Morrison calls rememory) becomes its own terror, perhaps even more powerful than the thing itself.

The haunting begins as many ghost stories do—through the house. The house, described as spiteful, shakes and screams all the pain that it absorbs. At some point the characters believe they have cast the spirits out, but what enters their home next is even more frightening. For in Beloved , the thing you most want to forget will always be the things that comes back to haunt you—the scar in the shape of a tree you received from an angry slave master, the iron bit they fastened to your mouth as punishment, your daughter’s corpse after you slaughtered her. Or perhaps what haunts these characters most of all is the shame of American history we most want to forget. 

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Writing about women in ghost stories: subversive representations of ideal femininity in “Nie Xiaoqian” and “Luella Miller”

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  • Published: 05 March 2020
  • Volume 47 , pages 751–766, ( 2020 )

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On the one hand, because of the double historical prejudices from literary criticism against ghost stories and women’s writing, little attention has been paid to investigate the ideals of femininity in women’s ghost stories in nineteenth-century America. This article examines “Luella Miller,” a short story by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, who indirectly but sharply criticized the ideal of femininity in her time by creating an exaggerated example of the cult of feminine fragility. On the other hand, although extensive research has been done on Chinese ghost stories, especially on the ghost heroines in Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio , there are few studies comparing the Chinese and the American ones. By comparing “Luella Miller” and Pu’s “Nie Xiaoqian,” this article does not primarily aim to list the similarities and differences between the Chinese and the American ideals of femininity, but to provide fresh insights into how both Freeman and Pu capitalized on the literary possibilities of the supernatural, because only in ghost stories they could write about women in ways impossible in “high literature.”

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“The Master did not discuss prodigies, feats of strength, disorderly conduct, or the supernatural” (Confucius 2003 , p. 71). By believing so, Confucianism divides the world into the “real,” practical and secular and an opposite otherworld of ghosts and spirits. Devoted to recording and exploring this otherworld, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (聊齋志異, hereafter Strange Stories ) belongs to a special literary genre. Completed in 1679, Strange Stories is a collection of nearly 500 tales of the supernatural and is the most prominent of its kind in China. In this collection, supernatural beings such as fox spirits, often assuming human form in the guise of beautiful women, become likable, “humanized” and even integrated into the human family. Although the author, Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640–1715), was only an obscure provincial private tutor, Strange Stories became an immediate success after its publication and inspired many imitations for centuries. “Nie Xiaoqian” (聶小倩) is one of the most famous stories from this collection. Because most of the ghosts and spirits in this collection are female, including Nie, and their characteristics and struggles for identity are portrayed in such a detailed manner, the ideals of femininity or of “true womanhood” in Strange Stories have since been a heavily discussed topic. Many believe that it was the supernatural that offered Pu possibilities to write about these otherwise unapproachable issues.

Over 100 years later, across the Pacific, while the nineteenth century featured its progress in technology and rationality in the United States, spiritualism and fascination for the supernatural still played a significant role in literature. Considering examples like Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book , Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw , many critics argue that the supernatural was inextricably intertwined with the American literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and this popularity can be partly explained by people’s doubts about the stability of the modern world (Briggs 1977 ; Lundie 1992 ; Sullivan 1978 ). While men’s supernatural fictions demonstrated these public anxieties of an increasingly technologized society and the tension between science and spirituality, women’s ghost stories, which had not been as much discussed, focused on the issues that shaped their authors’ private lives. Marriage, motherhood and sexuality were among the main themes (Lundie 1996 , pp. 1–10). Many female writers, among them Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930), had enormous success with supernatural writing. Just like the case in China, ghost stories functioned as a safe harbor for American female writers to express dissatisfactions and criticisms because they usually slipped under the critical radar.

Vividly recreating the countryside and recording the dialects of New England, Mary Freeman spent her long and prolific literary career writing about what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth-century America. In a calm and objective style with occasional subtle ironies, Freeman’s female characters were often pictured with rebellion against patriarchal oppression despite their short and bleak lives. Although Freeman was enormously popular in her day and was one of the first women honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, her works have only been rediscovered and discussed by academia in recent years (Lundie 1996 , p. 305; Reichardt 1992 ; Glasser 1996 ). “Luella Miller” was a short story written by Freeman in 1903, which is frequently reprinted in anthologies but remains almost unexplored by secondary literature.

This article examines the subversive portrayals of the ideal femininity in “Nie Xiaoqian” and “Luella Miller.” In his widely cited The Fantastic , Todorov distinguishes three genres: If the reader decides that the laws of reality remain intact and can explain the phenomena described, the work belongs to the uncanny . If, on the contrary, the reader decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, the work belongs to the marvelous . If the reader hesitates between the uncanny and the marvelous, the work belongs to the fantastic (Todorov 1995 , p. 41). Because the ghosts cannot be explained by the normal laws of nature, we might assume that “Nie Xiaoqian” and “Luella Miller” should be the marvelous in Todorov’s terms. However, we shall see that in both cases the boundaries between the world where the laws of nature apply and the world where the laws of nature are violated are ambiguous because the identities of our heroines as ghosts are uncertain and mutable. Moreover, the characters in these two stories often have an almost businesslike attitude toward the supernatural. It does not necessarily mean that these ghosts are not terrifying at all, but it implies that making the reader afraid is not always the authors’ point. Historically, as in Strange Stories , horror had almost never been the predominant tone of Chinese ghost stories, whose themes varied from melancholy to romance and even comedy (Huntington 2001 , p. 113). In “Luella Miller,” the supernatural was also underplayed by the author, because, as we shall see, Freeman deliberately let go of many opportunities to create fear or mysteriousness. Therefore, we should read between the lines of the supernatural in these stories and try to discover how ghost stories as a unique genre enables the authors to carry out their hidden agendas.

“Nie Xiaoqian”: the free pursuit of love and the transformation from ghost to woman

In the “Author’s own record,” the preface of Strange Stories , Pu Songling wrote: “I referred my non-success in this life to the influence of a destiny surviving from the last. I have been tossed hither and thither in the direction of the ruling wind, like a flower falling in filthy places. […] Yet I only succeed in writing a book with solitude and anger. I thus commit my thoughts to writings; how pitiable I am! Alas!” (Pu 1880 , pp. xxi–xxii. Translation modified) “Solitude and anger” is the name of an essay by Han Fei, a philosopher of the third century BCE. In this essay, Han Fei lamented the immoral and unfair behaviors of the age in general and the corruption of officials in particular. He was cast in prison by the intrigues of a rival minister and was forced to commit suicide (Pu 1880 , p. xxii, Giles’ footnote). By alluding to this essay, Pu implicitly stated his overplot of social criticism behind the obvious literary motive of simply venting his anger and frustration as an unsuccessful scholar to write a book about the supernatural.

Among the various topics of Pu’s social criticism, his subversive representations of ideal femininity at that time have drawn the most attention from modern scholars. In his female ghosts, Pu created, in the words of Marlon Hom, “a unique type of feminine image whose actions are in total contradiction to the conventional image of mortal women” (Hom 1979 , p. 274). Pu’s heroines are most commonly described with “defiant”, “rebellious” and “indifferent to traditional morality” (Barr 1989 , p. 501). In the following story, we shall see a special example.

In “Nie Xiaoqian,” a folktale-inspired story by Pu, a man named Ning Caichen found an unknown lady in his inn room, discovered that she was going to bewitch him and drove her away sternly. The next day, another traveler was killed and his servant the night after. Then the young lady, Nie Xiaoqian, appeared to Ning again and told him that she had fallen in love with him for his virtue and perseverance against the seduction of sex and money. She confessed that she was indeed a ghost and had killed the traveler and his servant, but she was forced by a demon to bewitch people by her beauty. To help her get out of the evil control, Ning reburied Nie in her hometown. Nie then wanted to marry Ning, but Ning’s mother had little faith in ghosts and disapproved of their marriage. Nie then suggested that she could also serve as her daughter, if not daughter-in-law, and Ning’s mother agreed. She looked after Ning’s mother day and night, endeavoring to please her in every way. Ning’s mother gradually became fond of her, but she still worried that if a ghost could give birth to children. Nie reassured her by saying that Ning would have three sons, all of whom would become distinguished men. Ning’s mother finally blessed their marriage and Nie’s prophesy came true (Pu  1880 , pp. 124–135).

At first glance, Nie Xiaoqian is by no means a good example of Pu’s defiant heroines. On the contrary, she complies with the female ideal as an obedient daughter-in-law and a “child-bearing machine.” Indeed, having been raised as a Confucian scholar, Pu cannot be expected to break with every tradition at his time, which will be discussed later. The unconventional behavior of Nie that we want to analyze now is her independent pursuit of love. By commending Nie and describing vividly her happiness as a result of this pursuit, Pu indirectly advocated “free love” for women in this story. While in the modern sense, when people seek “free love,” they want their personal relationships to be freed from many matters, such as state regulation or church interference, the concept of “free love” in Chinese history is exclusively connected with “love marriage,” where the individuals love each other before they get married, as opposed to arranged marriage. This aspect is also what the classical History of Chinese Literature by You Guo’en emphasizes when mentioning Strange Stories : “One of the main themes of this work is love. […] It is strongly against the traditional rules of etiquette. […] The young men and women in this work are able to fall in love freely and get married freely, a stark contrast with traditional marriages” (You 1978 , p. 328).

After Ning had seriously resisted her seduction with self-discipline, Nie came back the other day and openly expressed her admiration to him, “I have seen many men, but none with a steel cold heart like yours. You are an upright man, and I will not attempt to deceive you” (Pu 1880 , p. 127). Because in seventeenth-century China, women who did not maintain a proper distance with men were frown upon, let alone taking initiative to approach them, Nie definitely crossed a line here. When Ning’s mother was not sure if her son should marry Nie, Nie again showed her frankness and sincerity: “I have but one motive in what I ask, […] and if you have no faith in disembodied people, then let me regard him as my brother, and live under your protection, serving you like a daughter.” As a result, “Ning’s mother could not resist her straightforward manner” ( Ibid. , p. 131). After Nie had been diligently fulfilling her duty as a daughter-in-law for some time, Ning’s mother “secretly wished Ning to espouse Xiaoqian, though she rather dreaded any unfortunate consequences that might arise. This Xiaoqian perceived, and seizing an opportunity said to Ning’s mother, ‘I have been with you now more than a year, and you ought to know something of my disposition’” ( Ibid. , p. 133. Translation modified) and Nie took the initiative again to ask for her approval of their marriage. This time Ning’s mother agreed. All these bold behaviors of Nie were against the traditional morality and the social codes of ideal women.

As Chen Yinke (1890–1969), one of the most important historians in twentieth-century China, pointed out, “in my country’s literature, due to the rules of etiquette, people do not dare to write about the relationship between men and women, much less about husbands and wives. The reason is that the romances in bedroom and the trivialities of family are not considered as worth to write about in detail, but only in general terms” (Chen 1962 , p. 93). However, these romances and trivialities were exactly the focus of “Nie Xiaoqian” and many other tales in Strange Stories : How did the husband and the wife meet and know each other? How did society react to this? What were the roles of husband and wife in marriage? How did they think of each other? How should women behave, when they are daughters, daughters-in-law, wives, and mothers at the same time?

When Nie Xiaoqian first arrived in Ning’s family, although Nie and Ning were passionately in love, they could only act in a brother-sister relationship. Their complex feelings that they dare not express publicly were exquisitely depicted by Pu:

[S]he entered, lighted a candle, and sat down. For some time she did not speak: at length asking Ning if he studied at night or not—“For,” said she, “when I was little I used to repeat Śūraṅgama Sūtra ; but now I have forgotten more than half, and, therefore, I should like to borrow a copy, and when you are at leisure in the evening you might hear me.” Ning said he would, and they sat silently there for some time, after which Xiaoqian went away and slept in another room. […] In the evening before she went to bed, she would always go in and repeat a little of the sutra and leave pitifully as soon as she thought Ning was getting sleepy (Pu 1880 , p. 131. Translation modified).

Two periods of silence here were particularly noteworthy. Nie did not hesitate to talk to Ning in private when they were earlier in the inn. When this time she and Ning were together alone at the beginning of this passage, why did she not speak for some time? It was the different atmosphere around her and her identity in the transition from ghost to women that held her back: Because Nie was now in Ning’s home with his mother around, she had to consider the social codes between single men and women as they were not married yet; the social codes also concerned her now more than before because she was not a lone ghost who can act freely anymore, but an adoptive daughter. After they had discussed the plan of reading the sutra together, there was silence for some time again. Pu had described these two periods of silence as powerfully intense because Nie and Ning clearly had much to say but they had to conceal their feelings. Although Nie was defiant in many ways, she chose to behave within the rules this time. By contrast, when later the marriage was arranged and Ning’s relatives eagerly asked to see the bride, Nie was finally able to be herself again and “came forth proudly in beautiful clothes and make-up.” “The whole room could not take their eyes off her. Instead of suspecting her as a ghost, they wondered if she was a fairy” ( Ibid. , pp. 134–135. Translation modified).

When comparing these two scenes (reading together and appearance before relatives), we can find that Pu’s emotional subtext was more than clear: only if all the women could pursue their love freely like Nie Xiaoqian! Only if there were no oppression of women so that Nie and Ning would not be forced into silence! By directly and elaborately presenting Nie’s happy marriage, Pu indirectly endorsed Nie’s courage to protest actively against the ideal of the passive female and arranged marriages. Chang Chun-shu and Chang Hsüeh-lun, in their “The World of P’u Sung-ling’s Liao-chai chih-I,” one of the earliest and the most cited English papers on Pu, even argued that Pu developed a new concept of femininity: “Protesting against the prevailing idea of ‘A woman without talent is a woman of virtue,’ the author embodies his heroines with wisdom, courage, talent and wits that sometimes surpassed the heroes” (Chang and Chang 1973 , p. 407). There is one more virtue that can be added to this list: many other heroines in Strange Stories , like Nie Xiaoqian, were portrayed as more determined and independent than men in general. They dared to act on their own and to break the basic code of “Three Obediences” in Confucianism: obey your father as a maiden daughter; obey your husband as a wife; obey your sons as a widow (Yang 2004 , p. 308). Judith Zeitlin suggested that the domestication of Nie, her transformation from harmful spirit to exemplary wife and her “progressive reintegration into the human community” are only possible because Ning “maintains iron control” over his sexuality by resisting the ghost’s advances at the beginning of the story (Zeitlin 2007 , p. 35), but that is not enough, because unless Nie also has iron control over her destiny and chooses her own husband, there would not be any transformation in the first place. When it comes to describing women as superior to men, Pu’s own comment in another story is most striking: “[Comparing with the heroine of this story], all those who wear Confucian hats and call themselves great men are shamed to death!” (Pu 1960 , p. 769) Although this is not a comment of “Nie Xiaoqian,” it is still representative of Pu’s “new concept of femininity,” an overcorrection in terms of gender equality.

While ghosts and spirits were practically ignored by the Confucian mainstream, at Pu’s time women also belonged to this marginal “other,” because they had almost no social status and were usually considered as men’s property. The oppression of women during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) was the strongest in Chinese history. Not only were foot-binding and concubinage more common than ever, the social pressures on widows to remain chaste or even to commit suicide of loyalty to their deceased husbands were also particularly intense (Ropp 1976 , pp. 5–6). Thus, interestingly, this story is about how a member of one kind of “other” (ghosts) manages to meet every demand of another kind of “other” (women) so that she can come back to the mainstream and be accepted by the larger society. This intriguing setting makes “Nie Xiaoqian” a major source of Chinese gender studies since its publication. While most of the scholars focus on Pu’s advocation of women’s free pursuit for love (Zhou 2015 ; Bo 1985 ), as we have talked about, many also noticed the fascinating identity transformation of Nie. In his influential A Brief History of Chinese Fiction , Lu Xun shrewdly observed that “the supernatural stories at the end of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) are usually so brief and strange as to seem incredible. Strange Stories , however, contains such detailed and realistic descriptions that even flower-spirits and fox-fairies appear human and approachable; we forget that they belong to the ‘other’” (Lu 1998 , p. 147. My translation).

What if the author did not want to write about the supernatural in the first place so that the detailed descriptions of ghosts were not needed to make believe, but only as a subversive cover? One modern Chinese scholar even shouted in his paper: “What Strange Stories wrote about was all human !” (Zhao 1980 , p. 10) If we read Nie’s change from a ghost to a woman closely, we can discover that it takes more than “detailed and realistic descriptions” of ghosts as humans to make people forget about their otherness. Since feminism cannot be accepted by his society, Pu attributed Nie’s unconventional behaviors to her identity as ghost, but once we realize that this ghost element was only a cover-up, it becomes clear what his motive really was.

We have discussed how it only took Nie to “come forth proudly in beautiful clothes and make-up” to convince Ning’s relatives of her new identity. Indeed, they even went a step further to consider her superhumanly (Pu 1880 , pp. 134–135), but it was much more difficult to win the trust of Ning’s mother. At first Nie “went into the kitchen and got ready the dinner, running about the place as if she had lived there all her life. Ning’s mother was, however, much afraid of her, and would not let her sleep in the house” ( Ibid. , p. 131). Nie continued to work as a housewife industriously, and gradually made Ning’s mother from feeling “unbearably tired” to “wonderfully comfortable” ( Ibid. , p. 132. Translation modified). Ning’s mother grew to regard her almost as her own child and even forgot she was a ghost: she kept Nie living and sleeping with her. Both mother and son loved Nie so much that speaking of her as a ghost became a taboo and other people were not able to tell the difference ( Ibid. , pp. 132–133).

In this story there is a constant play between the appearance and the truth behind the appearance, both of which can be defined by the society in the case of Nie’s identity: for other people, the unknown truth is that Nie is actually a ghost; for Ning’s mother, as long as Nie can be a subordinate daughter-in-law and a child-bearing mother, her identity as human can be the truth. As argued above, it was the uncertainty of the fantastic (Todorov 1995 ) and the supernatural enabling this play of identities. The identity of ghost can be regarded as a metaphor for all the oppression of women, from which Nie tried to escape by actively acting on her own to choose her love and control her destiny, unreservedly supported by Pu.

However, this transformation conforms with one of the most established ideas in Pu’s time, the reduction of women’s value to childbearing, an idea appeared not only in “Nie Xiaoqian,” but throughout the book. Not until Nie had reassured Ning’s mother by saying that ghosts could also bear children did Ning’s mother allow their marriage. The astonishing turn of Ning’s mother’s attitude to Nie from fear to love also shows how decisive childbearing was for a woman’s consolidation of her position in the family: it does not even matter that Nie was once a murderous ghost. Judith Zeitlin argued that in this story “childbearing becomes simply the final marker of […] the ghost’s humanity” (Zeitlin 2007 , p. 36). Childbearing cannot “physically” change Nie from ghost into woman, but it is so socially important that it can make people forget this fact. The “otherness” of both ghosts and women is most obvious when we consider how simple they can be defined by their “function” and how easily their identities can be transformed. At the end of “Nie Xiaoqian,” there is a typically Chinese happy ending: a big family with many distinguished sons, a cliché that many see as a serious compromise of the subversive feminist implications in this story.

Acknowledging that Pu was still bound by some traditional Confucian precepts of womanhood makes some scholars believe that Pu’s feminism was not genuine, but only another form of sexual objectification, still serving for men’s interest (Ma 2000 ; Xu 2001 ). But most of the secondary literature argues that Strange Stories unquestionably commend the female rebels by sympathetically writing about how they search for love independently like Nie Xiaoqian, showing the awakening of feminism in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties (Carlitz 1994 ; Liu 1996 ; He 2004 ; Kang 2006 ; Hsieh 2008 ; Huang 2008 ). We suggest that these two positions are compatible, because in Strange Stories , as Maram Epstein summarizes, there is “a tension between two potentially oppositional ideological stances: one is a deeply conservative desire for social stability […]; the other is an equally compelling desire for individual expressive freedom […]. The interplay between these two ideological poles has long informed and inspired the development of Chinese culture in both political and aesthetic terms” (Epstein 2001 , pp. 303–304). What deserves our attention more is Pu’s feminist side and his usage of the supernatural to undermine the ideals of femininity. Briefly introducing the historical background of Chinese censorship can help us understand why retreating to a world of ghosts for subversive purposes was such an urgent need.

China has a long history of censorship, and, as a result, countless works went lost. The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang (221–206 BCE), is notorious for his “burning of books and burying of scholars” (焚書坑儒) that he disagreed with. The Tang dynasty (618–907) banned private ownership of astronomical and prophetic texts. The Song Dynasty (906–1279) banned military treatises (Sunzi’s The Art of War was fortunately excluded). The Ming Dynasty further tightened the censorship to forbid political allegories. But it was Pu’s time, the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1660–1710), when the “literary inquisition” (文字獄, literally: “imprisonment due to writings”) reached its peak. Because the Qing rulers were alien Manchus from the northeast of China, they were very sensitive to the native Chinese nationalists, especially the loyalists of the former Ming dynasty. In the striking case of Zhuang Tinglong (?-1655), his updated version of an unauthorized Ming history, published posthumously, was considered as defamatory to the Qing. As a result, Zhuang’s remains were excavated from his grave and destroyed in 1663. Over 70 persons, including all the male members of the Zhuang family and many scholars associated with the works, were beheaded (Whitefield 2015 ).

Under this reign of terror that cast gloom over the academic world for a long time, supernatural fiction naturally became a vehicle for protesting against the oppression of women, because “orthodox” scholars despised them (Ropp 1976 , p. 11). Avoiding censorship was one of the main reasons why, as Andrew Plaks pointed out, seventeenth-century Chinese novelists were consciously manipulating the literary and thematic conventions of the vernacular genre for new purposes (Plaks 1985 , p. 543).

Strange Stories was indeed regarded by the readers at that time as pure entertainment and a harmless collection of supernatural tales. Its popularity at Qing’s court, in particular, proved that Pu’s strategy worked: The famous early Qing scholar, Wang Shizhen (1634–1711), Minister of Justice, exhibited the contemporaneous view of Strange Stories in a poem commenting on the book: “Those that are told playfully are also received playfully” (Wang 2002 ). Ji Yun (1724–1805), another influential Qing scholar, also wrote: “ Strange Stories is exceedingly popular, but while this is the work of a talented man, it is not the way a serious scholar should write” (Lu 2000 , p. 262. Translation modified). While Pu’s contemporary readers were primarily fascinated by his imagination, they did not recognize his deep-grounded social criticism, which, more than anything else, has won him the respect and sympathy of modern readers.

“Luella Miller”: the cult of feminine fragility

“Luella Miller” was largely narrated by an old lady Lydia Anderson, the last person alive who knew our protagonist. According to Lydia, Luella was an energy vampire, absorbing the life of those who loved her. Her husband Erastus Miller, sister-in-law Lily Miller, Aunt Abby Mixter, colleague Lottie Henderson, Doctor Malcom, helpers Sarah Jones and Maria Brown all worked themselves to death looking after her. Thanking these people who were obsessed with caring for Luella until they got ill and died, Luella managed to live. Unlike traditional vampires, Luella was not evil but indifferent and oblivious, because she had no intention to do harm, and she could not control her strange ability to enslave others and swallow their energy. In the end, “not another soul in the whole town would lift a finger for her. There got to be a sort of panic” (Freeman 1996 , p. 315). She finally died, but not without her family and friends’ ghosts “helping,” which will be analyzed later.

Luella was a “true woman” of her time in terms of being an absolute domestic lady. Prior to the Victorian period, in both Britain and America, an ideal woman was expected to work with husbands in the family business. She could directly contribute to the family income by serving customers or keeping accounts. As the industrial era advanced, however, home and workplace became separated, meaning while men commuted to work in the public sphere of business, women stayed at home in the private sphere of domesticity. The perfect ladies at that time had little connection to society and became totally dependent on their husbands. According to this ideal, a woman did not even have to work much at home, since domestic duties were increasingly done by servants. Being a mother had different meanings too, as taking care of children could be left in the hands of nannies and governesses (Vicinus 1972 , p. ix; Mintz and Kellogg 1989 ; McDannell 1994 ). Besides, women were always regarded as delicate and weak, because “their fragile nervous systems were likely to be overstimulated or irritated, with disastrous results” (Cogan 1989 , p. 29). Consequently, she must be protected and taken care of by others, especially her husband. Therefore, being ideally domestic at that time did not always mean being good at housekeeping, but ironically the opposite. No one fitted this new ideal more than Luella Miller, and she never found anything wrong with it:

When the doctor had gone, Luella came into the room lookin’ like a baby in her ruffled nightgown. I can see her now. Her eyes were as blue and her face all pink and white like a blossom, and she looked at Aunt Abby in the bed sort of innocent and surprised. ‘Why,’ says she, ‘Aunt Abby ain’t got up yet?’ ‘No, she ain’t,’ says I, pretty short. ‘I thought I didn’t smell the coffee,’ says Luella. ‘Coffee,’ says I. ‘I guess if you have coffee this mornin’ you’ll make it yourself.’ ‘I never made the coffee in all my life,’ says she, dreadful astonished. ‘Erastus always made the coffee as long as he lived, and then Lily she made it, and then Aunt Abby made it. I don’t believe I can make the coffee, Miss Anderson’ (Freeman 1996 , p. 310).

Luella was interrogated, directly like this by other characters or indirectly by narration, and placed under the microscope throughout the story by the bitingly critical narrator, Lydia. While Luella, excessively dependent on others, enjoyed a luxurious life, Lydia, hard-working and self-reliant, lived in misery. As a result, her portrayal of Luella as vampiric has often been regarded as unreliable by the critics because of her mixed emotions towards Luella: In her narration, the reader can find that Lydia was fascinated and repelled by Luella simultaneously. On the one hand, Lydia never restrained herself from praising Luella’s beauty. According to her, “Luella Miller used to sit in a way nobody else could if they sat up and studied a week of Sundays, […] and it was a sight to see her walk. If one of them willows over there on the edge of the brook could start up and get its roots free of the ground, and move off, it would go just the way Luella Miller used to” ( Ibid. , p. 306). On the other hand, she jealously described how Erastus “worshiped her” and how Lottie “used to do all the teaching’ for her” and “just set her eyes by Luella, as all the girls did” ( Ibid. , p. 307). This obvious resentment of the narrator indirectly reflected the author’s attitude of the ideal women at that time whose job was only to be beautiful and to depend on others. As a professional author who could support herself by writing short stories, Freeman caricatured the ideal of femininity which regarded helplessness as one of the supreme virtues (Lundie 1996 , pp. 21–22; Hinkle 2008 ) and implicitly criticized the ideal of the true woman by telling Luella bore “an evil name” (Freeman 1996 , p. 305) (although, as mentioned above, she was not deliberately evil as Lydia suggested), because people’s acceptance of this passive and fragile ideal enabled her prey on the goodwill of her relatives and friends.

As Alfred Bendixen argued, “supernatural fiction opened doors for American women writers, allowing them to move into otherwise forbidden regions” (Bendixen 1985 , p. 2). By setting the experience of their characters in the supernatural realm, Freeman was able to explore more freely “‘unladylike’ subjects as sexuality, bad marriages, and repression” ( Ibid. ). The fact that the supernatural element is only a marginal theme and a vague background in “Luella Miller” also suggests that the author only intended to use it as a cover for critique. Even the only explicit supernatural plot in the story was doubtful, where Lydia saw Luella’s ghost escorted by other people who were already dead [“I saw Luella Miller and Erastus Miller, and Lilly, and Aunt Abby, and Maria, and the Doctor, and Sarah, all goin’ out of her door, and all but Luella shone white in the moonlight, and they were all helpin’ her along till she seemed to fairly fly in the midst of them. Then it all disappeared.” (Freeman 1996 , p. 316)], because, as argued above, the narrator Lydia was not necessarily reliable, for she was jealous of and disgusted by Luella at the same time. As the only person surviving Luella, Lydia said: “There was somethin’ about Luella Miller seemed to draw the heart right out of you, but she didn’t draw it out of me” ( Ibid. , p. 312). Before retelling the story of Luella’s death, Lydia emphasized its authenticity too much, “I saw what I saw, and I know I saw it, and I will swear on my death bed that I saw it” ( Ibid. , p. 316), only making it less convincing. Again, as we categorized “Luella Miller” into the ambiguous fantastic (Todorov 1995 ), if the author wanted to play up the supernatural, she would not make the reader hesitate about it.

In a letter to Fred Lewis Pattee (1863–1950), a leading authority on American literature at the beginning of the twentieth century, Freeman clearly revealed that she wanted more indirect suggestion in her stories and how she had to compromise for commercial reasons: “Most of my own work […] is not really the kind I myself like. I want more symbolism, more mysticism. I left that out, because it struck me people did not want it, and I was forced to consider selling qualities” (Freeman 1985 , p. 382, on 5 September 1919). Perhaps this is part of the reason why unlike some of her more openly feminist contemporaries, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), Freeman was often regarded as a “subtle feminist” and “a fascinating middle ground”, because she is neither like an outspoken and unambivalent “new woman” in the 1890s nor a passive promoter of the status quo in women’s advice books and journals of her time (Glasser 1996 , p. 214).

We can see better why Freeman was considered “subtle” when she undramatically described the tragic death of Lottie Henderson, Luella’s colleague, the first victim in the story:

It was funny how she came to get it [Luella came here to teach the district school], for folks said she hadn’t any education, and that one of the big girls, Lottie Henderson, used to do all the teachin’ for her, while she sat back and did embroidery work on a cambric pocket handkerchief. Lottie Henderson was a real smart girl, a splendid scholar, and she just set her eyes by Luella, as all the girls did. Lottie would have made a real smart woman, but she died when Luella had been here about a year—just faded away and died: nobody knew what ailed her. She dragged herself to that schoolhouse and helped Luella teach till the very last minute. The committee all knew how Luella didn’t do much of the work herself, but they winked at it (Freeman 1996 , p. 306).

The death of “a real smart girl” and “a splendid scholar” for no obvious reason at the beginning of the story should have been seized on by the author of a traditional ghost story to develop a melodramatic and intriguing plot. However, Freeman’s account here cannot be calmer, which indicates that she did not aim to create suspense and horror but to use the genre of this story as a sham to undermine the helpless ideal of femininity. Leah Blatt Glasser, in her In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman , the most comprehensive biography of Freeman so far, recognized Freeman’s implicit fear of the open expression of feminism because she understood “the obstacles to open protest” (Glasser 1996 , p. 217). As a result, Freeman wrote “ seemingly supernatural tales” ( Ibid. , pp. 218–219. My emphasis) to protest implicitly.

The death of Lottie (and a boy who helped Luella after Lottie) did not stop Luella’s admirer Erastus Miller from marrying her not long after. He grew weaker and weaker afterward, because not only could Luella not help him run a home, but she was herself in great need of daily care. Still, Erastus loved her whole-heartedly:

He always got the breakfast and let Luella lay abed. He did all the sweepin’ and the washin’ and the ironin’ and most of the cookin’. He couldn’t bear to have Luella lift her finger, and she let him do for her. She lived like a queen for all the work she did. She didn’t even do her sewin’. She said it made her shoulder ache to sew, and poor Erastus’s sister Lily used to do all her sewin’. She wa’n’t able to, either; she was never strong in her back, but she did it beautifully. She had to, to suit Luella, she was so dreadful particular (Freeman 1996 , pp. 307–308).

Erastus “went almost bent double when he tried to wait on Luella, and he spoke feeble, like an old man.” ( Ibid. , p. 307.) He died soon too. Again, like the case of Lottie, the author did not treat his death as important or exaggerate its mysteriousness other than clearly showed that Luella’s “true womanhood” killed his husband. Despite this, her next suitor, Doctor Malcom continued to admire her and wanted to marry her.

How could Luella’s complete dependency on others keep attracting so many people, even after her helpers had died one by one? Why was her fatal helplessness not only considered as harmless but also lovable? Freeman show her subversive power by compelling the readers to ask these questions and challenge the ideal of charming woman in nineteenth-century America, because accepting this ideal can potentially make you an accomplice, as in the case of Lottie, the committee of the district school all knew how Luella did not do much of the work herself, but they winked at it and consequently made Lottie die helping Luella.

We may also notice that Luella was described “like a baby” many times: she slept like a baby ( Ibid. , p. 310), looked like a baby ( Ibid. ) and was ignorant “like a baby with scissors in its hand cuttin’ everybody without knowin’ what it was doin’” ( Ibid. , p. 314), however, her baby-like helplessness is not genderless, but always feminine, with “a wonderful grace of motion and attitude” ( Ibid. , p. 306). Emphasizing this is crucial because describing her as a genderless baby would weaken the author’s subversive representation of ideal femininity. In Nina Auerbach’s words, Luella was a “perfectly idle Victorian lady who exists to be helped, […] the exemplar of her class and time, the epitome of her age, not an outcast in it” (Auerbach 1996 , p. 108). To serve for her feminist criticism, Freeman designed the plot so exquisitely that although Luella actually belonged to a class in which a woman must work, as she did not have servants and had to “work” as a teacher before she married Erastus, it did not stop her from being de facto an ideal lady from upper class, because according to Freeman’s setting, this helpless ideal is so powerful that once you fulfilled it, people would volunteer to help regardless of your class.

Many early critics regarded Freeman’s supernatural stories, a minority of her works, as vastly inferior to her realist works with which Freeman established her reputation (Voller 2002 , p. 121). As Perry Westbrook, the author of one of the early biographies of Freeman, argued:

As early as 1903 the deterioration in […] Freeman’s art had become catastrophically noticeable in a volume of ghost stories, The Wind in the Rose - Bush and Other Tales of the Supernatural . Deficient in suspense and atmosphere, these tales rely on the most ludicrous devices for their interest […]. With the exception of an occasional flash of […] Freeman’s old flair for presenting the distortion of village characters […] these stories are without merit (Westbrook 1967 , p. 149, cited in Oaks 1985 , p. 208).

“Freeman’s old flair,” for many critics like Westbrook, is exclusively her realistic presentation of the New England village life in which people are “free to work out their own destinies by their own devices” ( Ibid. ). In terms of her feminist concern with the strictly defined roles of women, Freeman directly discussed the responsibilities assigned to her female characters and the limits of their freedom in her earlier realist short stories. Freeman’s ghost stories, on the other hand, according to this standard, does not explore the individual struggles as thoroughly and thus are of lower quality (Oaks 1985 , p. 208).

However, as Jack Voller also observed, we argue that this “lapse” that for many critics Freeman’s ghost stories represent was deliberate. It was an attempt to involve what she called, in her letter mentioned above, more “symbolism” and “mysticism.” Although she recognized that this might not sell as well as her realist works, still she wanted it, because it allowed her, as was common for many other women writers in her time, to use the supernatural as a means of giving voice and examining the feminists issues that the constraints of realism did not permit (Voller 2002 , p. 121). In the end, she found a middle ground among bookselling, censorship and radical feminism by undercutting traditional ideals of women in her “seemingly supernatural tales.” Recognizing this is significant because it makes us reconsider not only the values of Freeman’s ghost stories, but also helps us understand the sizable body of supernatural fiction by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American women in general, which was “organized around recurrent themes and tropes that develop out of, responded to, and, in many cases, critiqued the roles of women in Victorian and Edwardian America” (Weinstock 2008 , p. 2).

The ghosts told their King, “Here is that crazy scholar who [had just died and] didn’t believe in ghosts and spirits and persecuted us when he was alive.” The King of the Ghosts blamed him angrily, “You have sound limbs and intelligence—haven’t you heard the line [from Confucius] ‘Abundant are the virtues of ghosts and spirits’? Even Confucius, who was a sage, said you should revere us and keep your distance. […] Who do you think you are and how dare you to say we don’t exist?” (Qu 1981 , p. 186. My translation)

As this tale goes, Confucianism never denied the existence of the supernatural, but only refused to talk about it and wanted to keep a distance. Ghost stories were therefore always tolerated but taken less seriously and were not judged as strictly by the moralists as other forms of literature. Pu Songling was thus able to use the supernatural to directly write about femininity and indirectly criticize its ideals. In “Nie Xiaoqian,” while still conditioned by the ideal of woman as prolific mother, Pu advocated for female independence by writing favorably of Nie’s free pursuit of love.

In “Luella Miller,” Luella was described as an extreme example of an ideal woman in Mary Freeman’s time, whose dependence and passiveness made people addicted to her, eventually leading them to death. The real horror of this story was not its metaphorical vampirism, but the cult of “true womanhood.” According to this ideal, a “true feminine genius is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood” (Greenwood 1850 , p. 311; Welter 1966 , 1977 ). By adding “a lethal dimension” to this most widely circulated Victorian stereotype of passive women (Auerbach 1996 , p. 107), Freeman hid behind the supernatural and accused this cult of creating useless women who were kept from independence like Luella and of forcing other people to work themselves into an early grave.

In Pu’s story, the boundary between the strange and the normal was often uncertain because it was constantly altered and redefined, especially by the actions of the heroines. By fulfilling her duties as a good wife or filial daughter-in-law, a female ghost could earn acceptance and esteem from society and become human. In “Luella Miller,” the supernatural element was also uncertain since the only obvious supernatural plot involving ghosts was doubtful because of the narrator’s unreliability. If the authors wanted to write “real” ghost stories that were sensational, scary and dramatic, they would not have made the supernatural element uncertain and marginal. Therefore, for both Pu and Freeman, ghost stories were only a formulaic covering allowing them to express discontent without openly challenging the norms.

Just as female ghosts offered insight into constructions of femininity in seventeenth-century China, we have argued that feminism and women’s supernatural fiction in nineteenth-century America were firmly connected as well. The ideals of femininity were not only the main topic of Freeman but also many other American women ghost story writers. As Catherine Lundie argued, these women are actually not “dealing with fantastic worlds” but “dealing with their own” (Lundie 1992 , pp. 271–272). Although this article is based on only two stories, it collaborates with the existing studies of Pu and Freeman, which both have respectively argued that ghost stories as a conventionally less serious form enabled both Pu and Freeman to inquire into sensitive issues without fear of exposure, as we have repeatedly stressed as well. By comparing these two stories, our primary goal is not to find similarities and differences of ideal women in China and America, but to suggest that writing ghost stories for subversive feminist purposes can be a cross-culture and cross-temporal practice.

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Zheng, Y. Writing about women in ghost stories: subversive representations of ideal femininity in “Nie Xiaoqian” and “Luella Miller”. Neohelicon 47 , 751–766 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11059-020-00524-3

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    Listopia Female Horror Authors Contemporary and Classic Female Horror Authors flag All Votes Add Books To This List 80 books · 26 voters · list created July 6th, 2014 by Patty Templeton (votes) .

  13. The Haunted House in Women's Ghost Stories, by Emma Liggins

    The ghost story has long given female writers a way to make the domestic terrifying. The title of this book promises much: uncanny domesticity, hauntings and "occupied" houses (houses that are perhaps a little too full). Pointing to the appearance of a guest or intruder, or the hovering presence of servants, Emma Liggins evokes questions ...

  14. Victorian Ghost Stories by Eminent Women Writers

    A collection of 21 ghost stories by Victorian women writers. Interestingly at the time women led the field in Gothic novels and stories in this genre, although they were often published anonymously, in magazines such as Charles Dickens's "Household Words".This collection includes many famous names such as Mary Braddon and Charlotte Brontë, but also some lesser known authors, and makes for ...

  15. Uncanny Stories

    The ghost story as a form has allowed women writers special kinds of freedom,not merely to include the fantastic and the supernatural, but also to offer critiques of male power and sexuality which are often more radical than those in more realist genres.

  16. Women Writers and Ghost Stories

    The woman's ghost story is a distinct and important subgenre within a subgenre, namely the Female Gothic that arose out of a wider Gothic tradition. Ever since Ellen Moers deployed the term "Female Gothic" in Literary Women, the idea of such a tradition has provided ample ground for discussion and debate among scholars of the Gothic and ...

  17. A Haunted History of Invisible Women: True Stories of America's Ghosts

    Leanna Renee Hieber, Andrea Janes $16.95 Publication Date: September 27th, 2022 Publisher: Citadel ISBN: 9780806541587 Pages: 352 Quantity Add to wishlist Available Formats The MIT Press Bookstore 1 on hand, as of Dec 22 10:13am (SS:GS) On Our Shelves Now Description "Deliciously eerie." —Leslie Rule, Bestselling Author

  18. The Haunted House in Women's Ghost Stories

    Women writers discussed include Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Vernon Lee, Edith Wharton, May Sinclair and Elizabeth Bowen. This book will appeal to students and researchers in the ghost story, Female Gothic and Victorian and modernist women's writing, as well as general readers with an interest in the supernatural.

  19. Ghost stories by Victorian women, a reading list

    1. The Virago Book of Ghost Stories "This collection, reprinted in 2009 and edited by the late Richard Dalby (one of the preeminent anthologists of our time), is an excellent and comprehensive introduction to women's ghost stories. The collection includes over 30 stories and covers over 100 years of women's supernatural writing.

  20. 10 Classic Ghost Stories By Women You Probably Haven't Read Yet

    Books Read These 10 Ghost Stories By Women If You Don't Want To Sleep Tonight by Sadie Trombetta Oct. 22, 2018 Warner Bros. Everyone knows that Halloween is the best time of year to indulge...

  21. A Short Story Collection about Monstrous Women and Female Ghosts

    Translated by Polly Barton, Aoko Matsuda's collection Where the Wild Ladies Are takes these "monsters" from Japanese folklore and gives them room to breathe in the contemporary world. Human women revamp themselves into canonically monstrous forms, comfortable in their power. In "Smartening Up," a woman's body hair grows so long and ...

  22. 7 Haunting Ghost Stories by Black Women Writers

    7 Haunting Ghost Stories by Black Women Writers - Electric Literature Reading Into Everything. SEARCH Reading Lists 7 Haunting Ghost Stories by Black Women Writers In literature, we have used ghost stories to tell the things we are too scared to hear about Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash Apr 7, 2023 Soraya Palmer

  23. Writing about women in ghost stories: subversive ...

    Many female writers, among them Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), had enormous success with supernatural writing. Just like the case in China, ghost stories functioned as a safe harbor for American female writers to express dissatisfactions and criticisms because they usually slipped under the critical radar.