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.

Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up Is a Festive Holiday Decoration, Calendar, and Book for Potterheads

Insight Editions
Insight Editions

If you find the weeks leading up to Christmas to be interminable, Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up from Insight Editions can help make the wait a bit more whimsical. This unique, interactive hardcover opens up to a festive illustration of Hogwarts’s Great Hall, modeled on its appearance from the Harry Potter movie series. In the center is a pop-up Christmas tree that measures 13 inches tall. And since no tree should be left barren during the holidays, there are 25 ornaments, all based on magical artifacts from the series, that can adorn the branches.

The ornaments are housed right in the pages of the Great Hall and can be removed one day at a time like an Advent calendar. Also included in the package is a mini book that features behind-the-scenes details and images about the props, sets, and holiday moments from the movies.

Buy Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up on Amazon for Christmas 2019.
Insight Editions

Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Christmas Pop-Up will be available on October 22 for $39.99 (or $27.99 if you pre-order on Amazon), but that’s not the only Harry Potter book on offer from Insight Editions this fall.

Harry Potter: Magical Places brings the film series’s most iconic locations to life with the help of fully illustrated, multi-layered diorama scenes. These immersive depictions of Potter locales are combined with behind-the-scenes details and descriptions to throw you further than ever into Harry’s world. Harry Potter: Magical Places is on sale now for $29.99.

Harry Potter: Magical Places: A Paper Scene Book
Insight Editions

There’s also Harry Potter: Exploring Hogwarts An Illustrated Guide, which showcases full-color illustrations of the nooks and crannies of Hogwarts, shining light on some of the more obscure details hidden in the school of witchcraft and wizardry. It goes on sale on October 8 for $29.99 (or $20.99 on Amazon).

Harry Potter: Exploring Hogwarts: An Illustrated Guide.
Insight Editions

And be sure to check out our latest List Show, where we discuss the origins of 30 words and spells from the Harry Potter series.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

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