Lately I’ve seen lots of “there are no women in horror”/”why are there no women in horror?”/”go read women in horror” around social media, and I thought that I would
engage in serious mansplaining offer some tips on finding historical and current horror/weird fiction by female authors. Helping people find information is the sort of thing I do all day long, specifically helping people conduct research in the humanities, so hopefully this will be helpful to someone out there. I’ve divided it up into “Basic” and “Advanced” sections, to help people who are new to researching authors and to help people who are somewhat experienced in researching authors.
Women are often absent from “best of” lists in horror fiction, or only present in small numbers. I am writing this post with you in mind, to help you locate more female authors & their works. Most any book listed below you can find at your library, on Amazon, or via used book dealers/sites like Abebooks. Please note that, over the years, many kinds of language have been used to describe this literature: Gothic, horror, weird, supernatural, etc.
Read anthologies. Anthologies are collections of stories by multiple authors, although some lists and stores will actually class single-author short story collections as “anthologies.” Some large anthologies, like Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, contain a wide range of authors from a broad span of time, giving you a taste of authors you might not otherwise have read, like Margaret Irwin, Leonora Carrington, or Jamaica Kincaid. Anthology editors assemble their books carefully, and if they found an author worth reprinting, it’s usually worth your time to find other stories by the same author. Sometimes an author writes only one or two horror stories, but usually… where there’s one, there’s more.
Read themed anthologies. Some anthologies are made up of stories on a theme, like cats or tarot cards or a beloved author (“tribute anthologies”). A few recent examples of these are Aickman’s Heirs, Shadows over Main Street, or Tales of Jack the Ripper, all of which contain stories by female authors.
Other themed anthologies are arranged according to the writers included: race, sexuality, or some other aspect of identity as the unifying factor. Recent examples include Dreams from the Witch House, Night Shadows: Queer Horror, or Suffered from the Night: Queering Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bonus: be on the lookout for special issues of short fiction magazines that focus on female authors.
Read best-of anthologies. Some anthologies are made up of selections from a given year’s stories, published in magazines or single-author collections. Some series only last a few years, others go on for decades. The Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror are some of the most well-known, but there are many out there.
Look at lists available online. There are often lists available on sites like Wikipedia that will be of some help, though they can be very long, and they are usually put together as labors of love. Because this topic (“women in horror”) is one that is important to many people, many articles have been written on the subject in recent years (like “Top 25 Women Horror Writers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of (But Should Know)“) . You can also find a lot of information about many authors at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB).
Women in Horror Month. Women in Horror Month is February. It’s designed to celebrate women involved with the field of horror, and I urge you to go read all about it.
Ask an expert. Your local public librarian or bookseller has more advice for you! If you walk in the door and say you want to read “horror by women authors,” or something like that, they will happily help you find new things to read. These people are paid to help you find things to read, so don’t be shy.
This section is aimed at readers who already do all of the above. When you want more information and know the field, sometimes you can get help by asking around on social media or in conversation for ideas, but this has some challenges.
We’re social animals, and we tend to recommend based on personal biases and preferences. Writers, publishers, editors, etc. want to make money, and they have to get the word out about their stuff, so there’s a lot of actual signal out there before you even hit noise. People also tend to recommend books they’ve read recently and/or that jump to mind. That tends to mean the stuff that’s available, and the market inevitably pushes older books out of sight, so finding any of the thousands of horror novels or stories written more than a decade or so ago takes effort.
Read surveys and studies of the field. Think you know horror? Maybe you do, but the odds are pretty good if you’re reading this that you don’t have a Ph.D. focusing on horror literature, or have otherwise acquired systematic knowledge of horror literature. Try a book like Gina Wisker’s Horror Fiction: An Introduction to get a look at the breadth of the field. Have you read Vernon Lee (AKA Violet Paget)? May Sinclair? Fay Weldon? If not, check it out and see what else you’re missing, or books like Danse Macabre, etc.
Use encyclopedias and other reference books. Once upon a time, libraries almost always had robust reference sections, with many specialized works that helped locate, describe, define, and index information. A lot of those are gone now, replaced by the internet and Google, but some are still in libraries’ reference sections, or are still published and you can check them out. Representative titles include Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: an Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares, St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, or the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Horror Fiction.
Use tools that librarians use. On the one hand, there are books specifically designed to get librarians some familiarity with a field, reader’s advisory guides like The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror. Such books are one of the many tools librarians use to become familiar with fields they may not themselves read in for their own pleasure.
On the other hand, when you’re using library catalogs, look at the catalog record for the novels, anthologies, and short story collections you are reading. They often will have descriptors, tags, or subject headings to find related works, if the library uses such tools to collocate fiction. Not bulletproof, because many libraries don’t really do this for fiction, but it’s worth checking. Sometimes you’ll a helpful Library of Congress heading, such as “Ghost stories.”
Read what your heroes have read or are reading. Not everyone leaves behind a treatise like “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to articulate what they’ve read and/or consider important for the field, but authors and editors regularly give interviews or lectures, or are profiled. They will often list or discuss what they’re reading, and women generally talk more often in equal or greater numbers about female authors than men do. Currently I’m reading short stories by Joan Aiken, based on the recommendation of Kelly Link in a talk I saw her give earlier this year. I probably would not have sought out Joan Aiken without Kelly Link’s advice to do so. I’m grateful for it.
Speaking of Gratitude, Part One: I appreciate your reading this far. If you find this post useful, please consider reposting, RTing, or sharing it.
Speaking of Gratitude, Part Two: If you feel more materially grateful, as in “wow, this was really useful, and I’d like to do something to show my support,” please purchase one or more books by or featuring a living female author of horror or weird fiction. And if you like it? Tell someone about it.