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11 Women Horror Writers You Need to Read

Edward Gooch/Getty Images
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’ll love Daphne du Maurier. The director adapted three of her novels into films, first with Jamaica Inn (1939), then Rebecca (1940), and finally The Birds (1963). 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. And 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

A copy of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"

MISS SHARI, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Shirley Jackson was one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted for the big screen twice (and is currently being developed as a Netflix series), 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 The Haunting of 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

Octavia Butler signs a book at a reading.

NIKOLAS COUKOUMA, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Though she’s primarily known as a science fiction author, Octavia Butler's stories often incorporate elements of horror. Her final novel, Fledgling, published in 2005, 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

The cover of Lisa Tuttle's "Familiar Spirit"

JOHN KEOUGH, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

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 currently teaching 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

Helen Oyeyemi stands at a microphone.

STANNY ANGGA/UBUD WRITERS FESTIVAL, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

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 is a relatively new literary face, but her latest novel more than earns her a spot on this list. The Grip of It, which came out in August 2017, 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. Aspiring writers, take note: Jemc also keeps a catalogue of all of her rejection letters on her site as a testament to the challenges of being a working writer.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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