March is Women’s History Month, a celebration of women’s contributions throughout history. It began as Women’s History Week, as instituted by Congress in March of 1981 and then expanded over the next five years to encompass the whole month. At LOHF of course, we celebrate women every day! However, this month we wanted to highlight the women who paved the way for modern horror and other speculative genres.
During the twelfth century we meet our first lady of horror fiction, Marie de France. Marie was a poet who wrote the poem “Bisclavert” (“The Werewolf”), which was a story of an adulterer who was punished by being trapped in his werewolf form.
It is during this same period that we meet our second LOHF, Julian of Norwich, also known as Dame Julian. In 1393, she wrote about a visitation from the devil she experienced during a period of sickness. In the story, the devil tries to seduce and physically harm her in order to make her waver in her devotion to God.
The next significant time period for horror fiction was the emergence of Gothic literature in the eighteenth century. Gothic tales were a departure from physical fright to psychological fear, and they began incorporating supernatural elements instead of pure realism. They also often included Romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and high emotional states like fear and suspense.
You may think that I am going to talk about Ann Radcliffe here, but SURPRISE: before there was Radcliffe, there was Clara Reeve. In 1778, Reeve published The Old English Baron (originally published anonymously the year before as The Champion of Virtue). A major influence on the development of the Gothic novel as we know it, this work takes on key elements of Gothicism such as dark, brooding characters and a musty, secluded mansion. Reeve’s considered her work a “literary offspring” of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (widely recognized as the first horror novel), but she grounded her version in realism rather than the supernatural.
This is when we meet master of the Gothic, Ann Radcliffe, who published The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794 and The Italian in 1796, among other works. The Mysteries of Udolpho is Radcliffe’s most widely recognized work and follows a young girl imprisoned in a gloomy castle by her evil guardian. Its dreamlike atmosphere and focus on the characters’ psychological states certainly inspired other women Gothicists such as Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson.
In the nineteenth century, the genre that modern readers would recognize as horror came bubbling up. One of the main works of note in this era is of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. This work was originally published in 1818 anonymously, and readers during that time believed it to be written by a man. This tale of a monster created from the flesh of corpses and reanimated by lightning was not Shelley’s last foray into horror, though. She went on to publish a post-apocalyptic novel titled The Last Man—basically a prophetic story of a global pandemic. It was Shelley’s favorite work, but it wasn’t well received by reviewers who missed the point, calling it the work of a diseased mind. A story of isolation and the extinction of humans, the book ruminates on the destructive nature of man and defines humanity by our compassion and ability to create community with one another. She truly was ahead of her time.
The Victorian era also gave rise to the modern ghost story. The Victorians had a fascination with death and the spirit, and their works show a preoccupation with what happens to the soul after death. As opposed to the dramatic and heroic Gothic tales, Victorian ghost stories tended toward the domestic and often followed a strict structure. Christmas ghost stories were popular and even stolidly realist authors like Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle took a turn! There were a number of ladies of horror fiction writing ghost stories during the Victorian period, here are just a few:
- 1847: “The Necromancer” by Isabella F. Romer—found in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories volume 2
- 1852: “The Old Nurses Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell—See Gothic Tales for a collection of her work that includes this story
- 1857: “Mysterious Visitor” by Ellen Price Wood—found in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories volume 1
- 1871: “At Creighton Abbey” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon—look for her collection A Face in the Glass
- 1881: “Was It An Illusion?” by Amelia B. Edwards—found in The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories
- 1882: “The Open Door” by Charlotte Riddell—found in The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories
- 1893: “The Wicked Editor’s Christmas Dream” by Alice Mary Vince—found in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories volume 3
- 1897: “The Lady’s Walk” by Margaret Oliphant—found in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories volume 1
Though the Victorians dominated the scene, in the United States, Mary Wilkins Freeman penned the story “Luella Miller” in 1903, which surrounds the mysterious deaths of everyone who came into contact with one Luella Miller. Also check out Lost Ghosts, a collection of Wilkins Freeman’s weird stories.
In 1923, the modern era of horror was firmly established by the first issue of Weird Tales. The magazine folded after thirty-two years, but has had several reincarnations, including a current iteration. During its heyday, it published stories written by the greats of speculative fiction, such as H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury. The original run saw 365 works by women authors, which was only about 13.5%. Many of these women were incredible speculative authors that have sadly passed into obscurity, but publishers such as Valancourt Books are on a mission to bring them back into the limelight. Check out their recent publication The Women of Weird Tales for one such effort.
The twentieth century gave rise to more diverse styles of horror and more diverse authorship too. Here’s a brief timeline of the hits:
- 1902: Of One Blood: Or, the Hidden Self by Pauline Hopkins
- 1927: The Demon Lover by Dion Fortune
- 1938: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
- 1948: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
- 1969: Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter
- 1976: Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
- 1979: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
- 1983: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
- 1987: Beloved by Toni Morrison
Of additional note was the rise of YA horror in the late 1980s and early ’90s. These books were made with a younger readership in mind, but still brought the scares! Many readers might have had their first forays into horror with authors such as V.C. Andrews (Flowers in the Attic), Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer), and Point Horror authors like Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, L.J. Smith, and Carol Ellis.
And that brings us to the ladies of horror fiction of today! Without these pioneering women innovating and imagining, horror as a genre would not exist as we know it. Though this little history isn’t meant to be exhaustive, let us know if we missed your favorite classic horror author or work.
Toni is one of our LOHF Admins. Toni hosts the Ladies of Horror Fiction podcast, manages our guest posts, and oversees community outreach and communications for the LOHF team.
Audra and her horror hound, Ouija, help manage the Ladies of Horror Fiction Instagram page. When not ghost hunting or rollerskating, she also contributes articles and helps maintain the website.