Taking the Portraits out of the Attic: Women and Horror Literature

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If there were a Horror Literature Hall of Fame (or should that be Haunted Mansion of Fame?), the faces on the gilded portraits bearing down from its walls would doubtless look awfully similar. The sallow, sunken features of Edgar Allen Poe, the monumental, Moai-esque head of H.P. Lovecraft, the thin-lipped visage of Stephen King – the public faces of the genre have been overbearingly male since the teenage Mary Shelley had her name omitted from the first publication of Frankenstein. Horror panels at literary festivals often contain more ghouls than girls, anthology editors ignore female authors, and best-of lists of horror authors, like this one, are often about as demographically diverse as the Bullingdon Club. But while the public image of the horror canon can be exclusive, it is also, thankfully, utterly false.

For beneath the masculine shroud of its public image, horror literature has been shaped and perpetuated by women. As anyone who has attended the British Library’s brilliant exhibition of the Gothic will tell you, female authors – the aforementioned Shelley, along with Anne Radcliffe, Clara Reeve and Jane C. Loudon – were instrumental in birthing what we now call horror. Modern horror’s exploitation of the psychological was established by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s uncanny The Yellow Wallpaper, the ghost story was taken to its apotheosis in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and the first exploration of the postmodern Gothic was debatably Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. And for me, the greatest work of horror literature of the 20th Century was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which expertly used the ghost story as a way to examine a very real evil.

Joyce Carol Oates

But this grand tradition is by no means confined to history – the 21st Century has brought to light several female writers who deserve a place in the Horror Hall of Fame. The prolific Joyce Carol Oates possesses an intrinsic understanding of what horror literature is and what it can do, as proven in her remarkable essay on H.P. Lovecraft for the New York Review of Books. As well as an eminent critic and anthologist, she is also a remarkable writer of horror, as her 2013 novel The Accursed attests.

Set in Princeton, New Jersey, it is the story of the Slades of Crosswicks Manse, who are subjected to the titular ‘Crosswicks Curse’. Sprawling, phantasmagorical, it stakes a convincing claim to the title of Great American Gothic Novel, with an enormous cast (among its members Jack London, Mark Twain and three Presidents: Cleveland, Wilson and Roosevelt) and a plot that encyclopaedically encompasses New England’s occult history. The prospective reader intending to dive headfirst into the Gothic need look no further: this is a novel of demonic possession, corseted virgins, mass hysteria, zealous sermons, drunken buffoons and unspeakable abominations. As Stephen King says, ‘It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it.’

Sarah Waters, photographed by Charlie Hopkinson, © 2014. Licenced use only.

Sarah Waters’s 2009 novel The Little Stranger is as British as Oates’s book is American – a subtle, creeping horror of manners. Hilary Mantel suggests that it ‘operates in the queasy borderlands between the supernatural and the psychopathological’ – in doing so, it ploughs the same uncanny furrow as The Yellow Wallpaper and The Haunting of Hill House. Set around Hundreds Hall, a Warwickshire stately home, shortly after the end of the Second World War (Waters depicts the period with her trademark accuracy, what Philip Hensher calls an ‘unnerving evocation of place and time’), it is narrated by a doctor known only as Faraday, who strikes up a friendship with the crumbling pile’s occupants, the Ayres family. As Faraday grows closer and closer to the family – Mrs Ayres, the widowed lady of the manor, her shell-shocked son Rod, her ‘plain’ daughter Caroline, and their servant girl Betty – events in the increasingly dilapidated Hall quickly go from odd to terrifying.

As with all good horror novels, the spectres that hang over Hundreds are all too real – the trauma of war, the rigidity of the class system, the ordeal of loss, and in our narrator, the cancer of misogyny. These tensions weigh on the refined, mannerly Ayreses until their stiff upper lips turn to jelly. Another reason for The Little Stranger’s success is its insistence upon a plot element often foreign to the Gothic novel: ambiguity. Like Shirley Jackson before her, Waters expertly balances her readers’ belief and scepticism – she writes her shocks so cleverly that it is unclear as to whether they have supernatural or mundane provenance. The Little Stranger may bear the hallmarks of classic literature, but under its surface it is unmistakably a product of the 21st Century.

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Last year, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became a publishing sensation, and earlier this month, the film adaptation directed by David Fincher was released to widespread acclaim. But in 2006, long before the Gone Girl phenomenon, Flynn released her debut novel: a sickly, skin-crawling Southern Gothic shocker called Sharp Objects. Unlike Oates and Waters, Flynn sets her story firmly in the present, in Wind Gap, a Missouri backwater town that’s hiding more secrets than GCHQ. Flynn’s appreciation of noir is apparent, and the novel centres on a mystery, but this is unquestionably a horror story.

As in Gone Girl, she delights in deconstructing domesticity, but here her scalpel is sharper, her examination more excoriating: Wind Gap is a festering hole of familial tensions, semi-feral children, sexual depravity and silenced victims. In horror literature both conservative and liberal, women are almost always victims – bitten by vampires, groped by aristocrats, stalked by serial killers – but Flynn determinedly breaks the mould. This is a novel by a woman about women abusing women. Flynn’s protagonist, Camille Preaker, is an alcoholic journalist who abuses herself by cutting words into her skin. Her mother, Adora, abuses her children through Münchausen’s by proxy. Amma, Camille’s half-sister, is a precocious, promiscuous 13 year-old, who wields an abusive power over her friends. Sharp Objects is a horror novel without a male influence, a horror novel entirely about women.

Female horror writers are by no means a new phenomenon – they’ve been shaping the genre for centuries. But horror writing by women is more prominent and accessible than ever – the three authors I have lauded are the tip of the iceberg. Instead of continuing to curate the genre as a principally masculine endeavour, we should open our eyes to the dozens of terrifying novels written by women, of which there are far too many to list here. The history of horror literature is full of fearsome female authors – it’s time to take their portraits out of the attic, dust them off, and put them up on the wall beside Poe, Lovecraft and King, where they belong.

Words by Tom Killingbeck

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