This is a short-term project of essays on women who write horror, suspense, and other dark fiction. I am no longer actively updating it, although I may add a new essay as the spirit moves me. If you like my writing, I encourage you to visit my main blog at, which is updated regularly.

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Patricia Highsmith, Misanthrope

Books discussed in this essay: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and The Blunderer (1954). Slight spoilers.


Patricia Highsmith could have been a character in one of her novels, a dark and distinctly odd personality. She was a smoker and an alcoholic, a bisexual who never stayed in a long-term relationship, and supposedly, a cruel misanthrope who preferred animals to people. She published her best-known novels in the 1950s and 1960s, of which her most famous is The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Highsmith_Talented_Ripley_DellIn The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith’s writing style is a little old-fashioned by today’s standards, perfectly conveying the time and place of the story, but her word choices are so precise and evocative that when reading it, I could almost see the action unfolding in technicolor in my imagination’s eye. I hope it’s not spoiling anything to tell you that there is a scene where a murder takes place, and that scene is so well narrated that I actually felt like I was the one committing the crime. At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy, I don’t know if people write like this anymore.

Her antihero, Tom Ripley, is a character who is impossible to like, or even to sympathize with, but he does fascinate. Tom is not particularly clever or charming, or even that self-aware. Rather, he is a very lucky opportunist who wants to be anyone other than who he actually is — he despises himself — and he gets away with what he does through a combination of skillful lying and unthinking brazenness. Therein lies Tom’s talent: He doesn’t just lie effectively, but he convinces himself that his lies are what actually happened. Since he believes them so sincerely, everyone around him must believe them too.

We may not like Tom Ripley, but we do love his story, as it goes completely against the kind of story we’ve been conditioned to expect, in which the good guys triumph and no one gets away with murder.

Highsmith_BlundererThe Blunderer, which was published a year before Ripley, might have been a warm-up for the later novel. Highsmith does nothing to dispel her reputation for misanthropy with this thriller. First, let’s take a look at the women characters, such as they are. Two of them are shrill, nagging wives who both die violent deaths, and it seems they deserved them. The last is pretty much a non-character, who falls in love with Walter (the most non-romantic person imaginable) without any provocation whatsoever and spends the rest of the novel not doing much.

Highsmith is obviously more interested in her men than her women, specifically three men. The first is Walter, the titular blunderer, who when his wife supposedly commits suicide by jumping off a cliff during a rest stop on a bus trip, he does pretty much everything he can to make himself look guilty of murder. Walter has none of the misplaced charisma of Ripley. He is milquetoast, indecisive with his feelings, slow on the uptake, “nothing but a pair of eyes without an identity behind them.” After reading a news story, Walter becomes obsessed with a man named Kimmel, who really did murder his wife at a bus stop (as revealed in the first chapter). Kimmel is in every way repulsive, who considers himself so much above the rest of humankind that he can get away with murder; he thinks of himself as “powerful and impregnable as a myth.” Highsmith takes care to mention Kimmel’s physical appearance at every opportunity, his fatness, his lack of grace and bad eyesight, his repulsive thick lips like a heart.

It takes a lot to get the reader to feel even a modicum of sympathy for such a man, who did, after all, brutally strangle his wife without any sense of remorse whatsoever. However, when Corby, Highsmith’s third man, comes into the book, she almost manages to do so. Corby is the police detective obsessed with pinning both deaths on the husbands, by any means necessary. While Walter is stupid and Kimmel is arrogant, Corby comes across as nothing less than evil, which is all the more shocking because he represents justice.

Again, Highsmith brilliantly turns our expectations upside down and has us rooting for Kimmel and Walter to triumph over Corby. She is an expert manipulator, and it shows in this novel, but after finishing it, I felt icky, contaminated. These are not people I’d care to know, and Highsmith offers no alternatives, not even a hint of one. The world is full of people like these, she seems to be saying; take a close look at anyone and you’ll find something to disgust you. So while The Blunderer is a well-written novel and an effective piece of horror, it is not a book I can say that I liked.

Highsmith was clearly a talented writer who adroitly explored the dark side of human nature, but is she a writer that many readers could love? For this reader, the answer is probably not.


If you want to see if you can love Highsmith, check out her 10 best books according to her biographer. Highsmith also wrote a lesbian novel under a pseudonym, The Price of Salt, that has recently been adapted into film; read the story behind it.

Frankenstein: Gods and Monsters

This essay discusses Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818). There are spoilers.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel, originated many horror tropes that we now take for granted: the obsessive mad scientist, resurrection of the dead, the misunderstood monster, and the ultimate folly of playing god. Originally published in 1818, Frankenstein — along with Dracula, published in 1897 — bracketed the nineteenth century with iconic works that established the modern horror genre. 

Mary Shelley

I have previously written about Frankenstein’s origins during a cold summer Mary Shelley spent with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Each was challenged to come up with a ghost story, and that is where Mary first conceived Frankenstein’s monster. She published the first edition anonymously. A second edition, this time bearing Mary Shelley’s name, along with an introduction by her husband, was published in 1823. Following the death of Percy Shelley, Mary revised the text and released it as a third edition, published in 1831.

Mary Shelley wrote about the first edition of her book:

‘If there were ever to be another edition of this book, I should re-write these first two chapters. The incidents are tame and ill arranged – the language sometimes childish. – They are unworthy of the rest of the narration.’

For the third edition, she fulfilled that intention. However, despite her claim in the 1831 Introduction that she had “changed no portion of the story nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances,” she made other changes that impacted the overall theme of the story. The third edition places more emphasis on the now overused warning against man playing God. The original story, though, with less emphasis on religion, might also be read as an indictment of bad fathers and  men who try to take women’s place in the role of reproduction.

original_264909_0sB5IeSiKzP7Tjr3Gu1kks6o3Victor Frankenstein, one of the most dislikable characters in literature, is a full-on narcissist in any version. He takes on the challenge of creating new life out of an obsessive need to prove himself as a scientist, but he refuses to take responsibility for his creation. He abandons the monster he made and runs away home. The monster follows and, maddened by his isolation and disillusionment with humanity, seeks revenge by murdering those closest to Frankenstein. For Frankenstein, the murders are horrifying only in how they impact him, not for the loss of innocent life. Even when the monster tells him, “I will be with you on your wedding night,” it never occurs to Frankenstein that the monster means to come after Elizabeth, supposedly the great love of his life but really only another mirror in which he can admire himself. Instead, he assumes that the monster means to attack him.

Compared to Frankenstein, the monster is a more admirable, and more understandable, character. His story, at the center of the book, is one of awakening, learning, rejection, and isolation. It parallels a loss of faith in God. When he is created, the monster is a blank slate. “Who am I?” he asks, repeatedly. As he goes out into the world — alone, remember, because his “parent” has abandoned him — the world rejects him solely based on his appearance. Because he looks like a monster, everyone who sees him assumes he is a monster. He becomes entirely alone.

9780143122333It didn’t have to be that way. The cottagers he spies on model for him how to be loving, kind, and compassionate. But when he reveals himself to them, they reject him. He is shot, beaten, and chased away. He believes he has no self worth. Even after declaring his hatred for the human species, the monster saves a young girl, but he is punished for his good deeds. Is it any wonder that he develops feelings of hatred and bitterness, that he cannot control his rage? The monster is made, not born, by his experiences. Monsters — human monsters — are made in this way every day.

The monster is denied his humanity. Even the one who gave him life doesn’t care for him and cannot answer his fundamental question: “Why am I here?” This drives him to madness and echoes the human condition. We are all in this same boat. If we can’t answer that question for ourselves, we too might go mad.

The horror of Frankenstein’s monster lies not in his monstrousness, but in his thwarted humanity. The same capacity for monstrousness lurks in us all. 

“Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone?”


We Have Always Lived in the Castle: An Inside-Out Fairy Tale

Books discussed in this essay: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson; 1962). Spoilers galore.

Penguin Deluxe Classics edition.
Penguin Deluxe Classics edition.

We don’t usually think about how things got they way they are in the fairy tales and ghost stories we are most familiar with. The witches have always lived in their gingerbread houses deep in the woods. The restless spirits have always haunted their ruined castles. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson tells us about the time before the fairy tale begins. She takes us into the haunted castle before it becomes a ruin, before children dare each other to go up on the vine-covered porch and possibly disturb the ghosts inside.

Still, even this story starts with a legend. Six years before the story begins, the Blackwood family sat down to dinner. By dessert, most of them were dead of arsenic poisoning. The arsenic had been put in the sugar bowl. Only the eldest daughter, Constance, her younger sister, Mary Katherine (or Merricat), and their uncle Julian survived. Julian, however, was crippled and suffered ever after from dementia and an obsession with that “last night.” Constance was accused of the crime, but acquitted due to insufficient evidence. She returned home to take care of her sister and uncle, and the three of them kept the house unchanged, stopped in time, stuffed with the remnants of the dead.

The local villagers–and there always is some unnamed village in these stories–had convicted Constance of the crime in their hearts. Indeed, the locals always hated the Blackwoods, who were wealthy and aloof and strange. Merricat in particular suffered their taunts and ostracization whenever she went into the village for food and library books. The children had even made up a rhyme to torment her.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle exists in the unreal world of the fairy tale. The Blackwood sisters live on the edge of a wood. The path through it is barred to the villagers by locked gates. Like witches, the girls keep a familiar, a black cat. They know the names and uses of all the wild herbs and mushrooms, especially the poisonous ones. Constance is constantly in her kitchen, baking gingerbread, stirring a bubbling cauldron of soup.

Detail from Popular Library cover.
Detail from Popular Library cover.

While there are no supernatural elements in the story, it is suffused with an atmosphere of magic. Merricat speaks words of power, nails talismans to trees, and buries significant items to ward off evil–meaning the outside world. Perhaps her magic really works. By the end of the story, her barriers successfully keep she and her sister safe in their isolated house, where no one can reach them.

But before that end, a change must come, one that Merricat senses even before it arrives, forewarned by bad omens. That change is the arrival of their cousin, Charles. Merricat sees Charles as a ghost or demon, a grotesque caricature of their dead father returned to life. In reality, he is nothing more than an ordinary man, boorish and greedy, and like many men, he gets offended when everyone does not fall in line with his notions of how the world should be. The witches are not the monstrous ones in this inside-out fairy tale–the normal people are.

Back detail of Penguin Deluxe Classics cover.
Back detail of Penguin Deluxe Classics cover.

Jackson channels some of Frankenstein as well, when Charles’s arrival sets in motion a chain of events climaxing in an enraged mob of villagers attacking the Blackwood house and driving the two girls into the woods. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the Blackwood sisters embrace their differences and their consequent isolation from the world. They come to call the people outside “strangers”; the monsters are outside the walls, not in.

This is a ghost story told from the inside out. By the end, the Blackwood sisters, still alive, are nonetheless haunting their ruined house: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Parents tell their children stories about the sister-spectres, how they capture and eat naughty children. Offerings are left as baskets of food, a la “Red Riding Hood,” to appease the spirits.

We readers know that the two sisters have not always lived in the castle, that indeed the castle was once just a house. But by the end, we come to believe they will always live there, just like the old fairy tales and ghost stories live on in retelling after retelling.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short, tight novel, not a word of its 130 pages wasted. It was Jackson’s final novel, and many believe that it was her masterpiece. While it echoes those old stories we know by heart, this is a story we’ve never heard before, at least not told in this way.

moon_color_flat-8971Is there an attraction in the “happily ever after” ending, the idea of walling oneself up away from the world? Surely there must have been for Jackson, who toward the end of her life became an agoraphobe and didn’t leave her bedroom for several months. Sometimes there is for me as well, when I am confronted in my morning newspaper with the banal evil that human beings are capable of. No wonder Constance and Merricat are happy. How nice it must be to live in the fairy tale, to be the ghosts in the story, to have found the way to the moon.

Further reading: “The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson” by Joyce Carol Oates; “Shirley Jackson: Delight in What I Fear” at DarkEcho

Haunted Houses to Visit: A Reading List for Halloween

71-xokziKRLStephen King said in Danse Macabre, his 1981 survey of horror fiction, that The Turn of the Screw (Henry James; 1898) and The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959) were the only two “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” If you have already read those two books, though, and noted how the second is a direct descendant of the first, where should you venture next in the haunted house genre?

You could turn to the descendants of Hill House. The similarity of the title of Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971) is no coincidence. The general plot–four psychic researchers investigate a haunted house–is essentially the same. The ambiguity of Jackson’s novel dissatisfied Matheson, and Hell House is his response. Stephen King’s own Carrie White (Carrie; 1974) is another descendant. Carrie’s childhood, like Eleanor’s, featured an unexplained shower of stones, and she also had a troubled relationship with her mother (to say the least). While there is no haunted house in that story, Carrie’s home is creepy enough to satisfy on that score. It’s no surprise that Hill House’s influence on King was strong, considering his high esteem of the novel. It’s not a stretch to claim that Hill House laid the foundations for both of the terrifying buildings in Carrie’s follow-ups: the Marsten House in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) and the infamous Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1977). The Shining, for my money, wins the “what’s the scariest book ever written” parlor game, but Hill House follows at a close second.

watersMoving a little later in time, we have plenty of haunted houses to choose from, all owing something to Jackson, certainly, but still offering a unique perspective to the genre. The House Next Door (Anne Rivers Siddons; 1978) features a modern, newly built haunted house with an equally ambiguous source of the haunting. The Woman in Black  (Susan Hill; 1983) is a short novel as imprecisely placed in time as Hill House is in location. It introduces Eel Marsh House, a brooding gothic mansion on the edge of a treacherous moor. The house in The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters; 2009)  is a dilapidated mansion that represents the decline of the British upper class after World War II, with yet another ambiguous haunting placing it squarely in line with its precedents.

515z5W8kjtLLeading us to others, as yet unread: The Red Tree (Caitlin R. Kiernan; 2009); The Unseen (Alexandra Sokoloff; 2009); White Is for Witching (Helen Oyeyemi; 2009)–2009 was a very good year for haunted houses, it seems. We might expect to become bored with the premise after all this, but betrayal by the structures we have built to shelter and protect us continues to fascinate and terrify us. Rooms (Lauren Oliver; 2014) is a recent haunted house read, which delves into the minds of the ghosts who have merged with the rundown old house they inhabit. The gloomy, gothic haunted house might be an old chestnut, but it keeps on exciting our imaginations.

Happy Halloween!

The Haunting of Hill House: A Love Story?

Books discussed in this essay: The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959); We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson; 1962); The Sundial (Jackson; 1958). Slight spoilers for Hill House.

Journeys end in lovers meeting.

51eCg0PJc6L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night plays a constant refrain in the mind of Eleanor, the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s ghost story masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. The thought is first prompted not by meeting one of her fellow haunted-house researchers, but by seeing Hill House itself. A lot of the horror of Hill House stems from how the house seduces Eleanor into falling in love with it, by writing her name on the wall, caressing her, whispering to her, even–in one of the most memorable and scariest scenes–holding her hand in the dark.

Hill House belongs to me.

Shirley Jackson seems to have been obsessed with houses, so much so that she featured memorable mansions in her three best-known novels: The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Sundial. The houses are primary characters in each book, with a distinct personality and perhaps even desires–but nowhere so overtly as in The Haunting of Hill House.

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.

Hill House as imagined in the film The Haunting.

Two stories about Jackson’s research for Hill House may be too good to be true. When she was searching for houses to serve as the model for Hill House, she found a photo of a suitably haunted-looking one in a magazine article. Since this house was located in California, Jackson asked her mother, who lived there, to find out more about it. The house turned out to have been built by Jackson’s own great-great-grandfather, a San Francisco architect.

Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Also, Jackson and her husband went to New York for a weekend away and passed a house that so terrified Jackson, she couldn’t enjoy herself. She insisted on returning at night–“in the night, in the dark,” as Mrs. Dudley would say–so that she wouldn’t have to see the house again. Later, she asked a friend to find out more about the house and discovered that nine people had died there in a fire, leaving basically only a shell of a house behind, which was what Jackson saw.

The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.

ED-AK419_jackso_DV_20091028223410Whether these stories were true or embellished by Jackson, the writer, I don’t know, nor do I care much. They lend a mystique to the legend of Hill House, now generally considered one of the best–if not the best–haunted house stories ever written. Perhaps Hill House itself exists somewhere–Jackson never identifies its location in the novel–and we might stumble upon it by accident sometime. If we do see it, will it inspire love or fear? Or that most delicious of emotions, a mixture of both?

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—
Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

–Feste, Twelfth Night

But is she alive? Gillian Flynn and the “unlikable” female character

Books by Gillian Flynn discussed in this essay: Sharp Objects (2006); Dark Places (2009); Gone Girl (2012).


Why do we insist that female characters in fiction be “likable?” What is likability anyway? “Likable” is often a code word for a woman who does not challenge the norm. The cultural expectation of women as selfless nurturers is so ingrained in our psyches that we find it shocking when a woman, even a fictional one, behaves in a way that is self-serving. She is labeled “unlikable,” as if the only purpose a woman serves is to get other people to approve of her.

We tend to think of women, especially fictional women, as types, usually in some kind of binary arrangement: madonna or whore; good girl or slut; princess or witch; crone, mother, or maiden. In reality, women come in all the variations of humanity, just like men, even the unpleasant flavors. Some women are shallow, narcissistic, capricious, cruel, cynical, dysfunctional, insensitive, unrepentant–all qualities that men can be. Female characters should also have a wide variety of qualities, if they are to seem as real and true as male characters.

Take the women in Gillian Flynn’s novels, for instance. Not one of her protagonists can be called “likable.” Libby in Dark Places is self-involved, dysfunctional, deeply damaged:

I was not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.

Camille in Sharp Objects is also damaged, insulated, unwilling to coddle men or give them what they want. She sympathizes with the other girls who are outsiders and don’t play by the rules, even her violent sister:

The photo showed a dark-eyed girl with a feral grin and too much hair for her head. The kind of girl who’d be described by teachers as a ‘handful.’ I liked her.

And then there is Amy of Gone Girl, where Flynn pushes the boundaries of unlikability about as far as she can. Can she not only create a female protagonist who the reader doesn’t like, but one we actively hate, and still pull us into her story? Judging by the success of this novel, I’d say yes.

Likability, as Roxane Gay puts it so astutely in her essay “Not Here to Make Friends,” is a code of conduct. When a woman is said to be “likable,” she is behaving according to how society expects her to be. An unlikable girl is a problem for society. The problem, especially when discussing fiction, is that likability can be boring. It doesn’t challenge us at all. Flynn’s women make us feel uncomfortable and reexamine our assumptions about women. Making us feel uncomfortable is what horror is supposed to do.

When we read about a woman, the relevant question isn’t whether we like her. It’s whether we believe in her. Or as Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, puts it: “Is this character alive?” A character who is alive, who is the primary actor in her own story, is a character who engages us and helps us see ourselves more clearly–even if what she is showing us is our darker side.

Our darker thoughts are as much a part of us as our strong and powerful qualities. We are women, but we are also humans, and that means we have flaws. The job of horror is not to portray our ideal selves, but our worst selves, the selves we don’t usually allow ourselves to be–for fear of not being liked, perhaps? We feel uncomfortable reading Flynn’s novels because we glimpse ourselves in her unlikable women. She puts voice to the dark thoughts we all have. She helps us accept and even embrace our “dark places,” in the process rejecting the unattainable expectations society has always put on women to be perfect, saintly, likable.

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. — Libby in Dark Places

Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed. Not surprising considering the sheer amount of traffic a woman’s body experiences. — Camille in Sharp Objects

I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. — Amy in Gone Girl


Gillian Flynn, not surprisingly, was not a nice little girl herself.

Special thanks to Roxane Gay for her essay on the importance of unlikable female protagonists. 

Gothic horror: We’re all mad here

Books discussed in this essay: American Gothic Tales (edited by Joyce Carol Oates; 1996). Also see the reading list at the end of the essay.

I was recently reading an anthology of American gothic tales, spanning from the 18th century to contemporary writing. It was a good collection of stories, all suitably weird or creepy, but aside from the earliest stories, I wasn’t sure that they all truly qualified as “gothic.” That got me to thinking about what gothic means exactly and why it is my favorite sub-genre of horror.

02133255b81d234fe909022ed7ae73a8Gothic literature has been around since at least the mid-1700s, and there are a lot of definitions of the term gothic. But academic classifications don’t get at why gothic continues to appeal, why we keep writing and reading gothic stories. The earliest gothic fiction, by authors like Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, were by their very nature melodramatic and unrealistic; they made an easy target for parody, such as what Jane Austen does so skillfully in Northanger Abbey, but they set the stage for two-and-a-half centuries of great writing by such diverse authors as Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Rebecca du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anne Rice (yes, I’m leaving out the guys, of which there are many, but this is a site about horror by women).

A story has to have three essential ingredients for me to consider it truly gothic.

The first ingredient is by necessity an element of the uncanny. Gothic literature is concerned with the thin spaces, such as between the material and nonmaterial worlds, or between life and death–even the gaps between universes. What lurks in those spaces we don’t know and can’t comprehend. Spirits haunt this realm; supernatural beings lurk in the corners; madness lies within. This is not the place for shiny glass and steel skyscrapers; there are no spaceships or computers here. Gothic fiction stands in opposition to science fiction–it’s about what we cannot know rather than what we can discover, and it has a marked sense of fatalism as opposed to optimism. Neither is it the realm of realistic fiction, of suburbs and apartment buildings and cocktail parties. Gothic fiction eschews everyday experience for the extraordinary, the bizarre and grotesque. It explores ideas and themes which reveal that the universe is a vaster space than we can ever hope to understand.

goreyNext, gothic fiction is linked inextricably with nature. By “nature,” I don’t mean the sunny, flowering, tamed outdoors where we like to have picnics. Rather, the nature of the gothic landscape is wild, implacable, indifferent to our needs and desires, and uncontrollable despite our best efforts. Nature is always encroaching on the human world; that’s why buildings in gothic stories are usually ancient, crumbling, and moldering, and gardens are overgrown; they are constantly threatened with being overtaken by nature. When people enter natural spaces in gothic stories, they find themselves in treacherous, menacing environments: tangled forests, fetid swamps, windswept moors, craggy peaks, bottomless black lakes. The weather is also hostile; usually, it’s foggy or snowing, or a storm is raging. Animals are mysterious, feral, imbued with unsuspected powers.

The natural aspect of gothic fiction reflects the dark region inside our own psyches, as we too are a part of nature, even though we frequently strive to deny it. This is the final ingredient. Gothic literature delves into our depths to disclose the darkness within: the acts we believe ourselves incapable of, the feelings we hope to bury and ignore. It subverts our pretense to civilization and reminds us that we are all susceptible to death and decay, that there is no escaping it. In gothic literature, our inner human nature, like the natural world itself, is uncontrollable and governed by forces we cannot fully comprehend. In gothic fiction, the prevailing emotion is fear, and that quite often leads to madness. Trying to look what we can’t comprehend square in the face is enough to drive anyone insane.

In the gothic worldview, humankind is incapable of complete understanding of the universe; we’re just fooling ourselves if we think we can know or discover everything. The real truth is that we are a very insignificant part of a vast, indifferent universe, a truth that, once acknowledged, might drive you insane. Or it might just set you free.


Gothic horror by women–required reading:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • We Who Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
  • Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
  • The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters


Horror is a feeling, not a genre

Horror has one goal: to disturb. To remind us that we don’t have all the answers. To explode our illusions of being in control.

There may be monsters or the supernatural, but there doesn’t have to be.

There may be blood, gore, and guts, but there doesn’t have to be.

There may be psycho killers running around with axes, but again, it’s not necessary.

Horror can be, and often is, scary, but more important is a lingering feeling of unease, a delicious sensation of being unsettled.

The best horror takes place in our living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. The best horror shatters the comfortable little worlds we’ve constructed for ourselves. It pulls back the veil and reveal the things in the shadows. Horror helps us understand exactly how insignificant we are in a vast, unknowable universe.

It reminds us that we are animals, and sometimes we are monsters. It reminds us that we’re all going to die, and there’s no telling what comes after that.

If you close the book feeling shaken, disturbed, upended, then it has done its job. A horror story doesn’t have to deliver the kind of scare that makes you turn all the lights on in the middle of the night, although that’s cool too. The best horror gets inside your brain and gnaws at it.

I recently read a book called The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara. There was nothing supernatural in it, no psycho killers. It was about a doctor who accompanies an anthropological expedition to a remote island and discovers a remarkable tribe of people. And it was one of the most disturbing books I’d read in a long time.

Was it horror? I’d say so. It was the best kind of horror, in fact, the kind of horror you don’t see coming. The kind that leaves you shaken and uncomfortable, wondering what was that?

Why do we like horror then? Even more importantly, why do we need horror?

Horror strips away our complacency. It enables us to explore the things we try to hide from ourselves, our fears, our desires, our obsessions and madnesses–but in a safe place.

If science fiction is a playground for ideas, for imagining what if, then horror is a playground for emotions. When it’s over, we can close the book, turn on the lights, and know that everything is all right.

And yet, is it? We wonder.