Frankenstein was just the beginning: horror stories and other weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. From Gothic ghost stories to psychological horror to science fiction, women have been primary architects of speculative literature of all sorts. And their own life stories are as intriguing as their fiction. Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, who was rumored to keep her late husband’s heart in her desk drawer. But have you heard of Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier (and liked to wear topless gowns to the theater)? If you know the astounding work of Shirley Jackson, whose novel The Haunting of Hill House was reinvented as a Netflix series, then try the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V. C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Colter, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). Curated reading lists point you to their most spine-chilling tales.
Part biography, part reader’s guide, Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote will introduce you to more than a hundred authors and over two hundred of their mysterious and spooky novels, novellas, and stories. Available September 17th from Quirk Books, you can read more about three of the authors—Margaret Cavendish, Shirley Jackson, and Toni Morrison—below!
In a time when women had few career options outside the home, and even fewer rights, one lady was writing a breathtakingly prolific body of work that prefigured the genre we now call speculative fiction.
Margaret Cavendish is an outlier, producing her strange fiction a century before Gothic novels came along. That seems appropriate for a woman who so refused definition. She was a poet. She was a philosopher whose intellect was on par with that of Thomas Hobbes—famed English political philosopher—and other thought leaders of the day, and she boldly added her voice to male-only discussions of politics and philosophy. She wrote an autobiography when this literary form was relatively new. More than that, she published plays, essays, and novels. And Cavendish may well have been one of the first literary “celebrities” in English history. Her open pursuit of fame was one of her ways of thumbing her nose at society—she was a Kardashian before there were Kardashians.
She was born in 1623 to the wealthy Lucas family of Essex—but her parents were not part of the titled aristocracy. Tragedy struck early; her father died when she was a young child. Her mother raised Cavendish as other daughters of rich families were raised, which meant no formal education, especially not in the sciences. Instead, she was taught to entertain in polite society, which included learning to read and write (as well as to sing and dance). Some women of her rank were afforded private tutoring, but Cavendish was not. So she read every book she could find, embarking on a self-navigated education in history and philosophy. Her brother John, who was highly educated in these fields, taught his sister what he learned.
In 1643 Cavendish applied to be, and was accepted as, a “maid of honour” to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I. Though her parents had been wealthy, Cavendish inherited no money following the death of her father (and certainly received no dowry for marriage). She knew she’d have to make her own way in the world. When the queen was exiled to France (following the execution of Charles I in the First English Civil War), Cavendish moved to Paris with her. There Cavendish met her husband, William, who would become Duke of Newcastle Upon Tyne. Despite protests from friends (they felt William was on the “wrong side” politically), theirs was a good match. William had been educated by Thomas Hobbes, and he found Cavendish to be his intellectual equal. The couple traveled before settling in England, where they began to restore the Cavendish estates that had been confiscated during the war. And soon Margaret Cavendish became socially infamous, known among the upper-class circles as “Mad Madge” for her wild fashion and her loud, flirtatious behavior.
Calling her the Kardashian of her day is no exaggeration; Cavendish was acutely aware of her notoriety and cultivated her reputation as a celebrity. Once, in London’s Hyde Park, she was mobbed by crowds, hoping for a glimpse of the infamous woman. How infamous was she? Cavendish scandalized polite society more than once; on one occasion, she showed up to a theater event wearing a dress that exposed her breasts, including her nipples, which she had thoughtfully painted red. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, called her “mad, conceited and ridiculous.”
Which is perhaps another way of saying that Cavendish pushed against the societal roles available to women in her day, who were expected to be demure and polite and, most important, silent in social situations. Women certainly were not supposed to speak about what were believed to be “men’s subjects” like philosophy or politics. And, should they know how to write, women definitely were not supposed to publish their writings. Not only did Cavendish read the major philosophers of the day, like Hobbes and Descartes, but by 1668 she had published numerous letters and essays on matters of philosophy, all with her name proudly on the front page.
Out of This World
Most relevant to our purposes, Cavendish wrote what could well be considered the first science-fiction novel. Her 1666 book The Description of the New World, Called the Blazing World (often shortened to simply The Blazing World), was published some 150 years before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. To be clear, scholars debate who holds that title of “first,” or if Cavendish’s book is even science fiction. Perhaps it’s better described as speculative fiction or philosophy. Ultimately, that’s not the point. The Blazing World is a breathtakingly creative narrative, worthy of study particularly for its treatment of women and its inventive technology. The main character, simply named the Empress, is kidnapped by a lovesick sailor and finds herself on a ship meeting a storm at sea. The crew doesn’t survive, but our protagonist is thrust into a magical world—what science-fiction readers would recognize as an alternate universe, entered through a portal.
This “Blazing World” is full of dreamlike inventions. Enormous boats are propelled by air-powered engines and can lock together in an intricate design to make them impermeable to weather. The society the Empress encounters is a feminist utopia where science and philosophy reign supreme. The adventure is part fantasy, part philosophical enquiry, part almost steampunk.
This new world is a vehicle for Cavendish’s own philosophies (the author even shows up as a character named the Duchess), which resemble those of Thomas Hobbes. This doesn’t mean she wasn’t an original; she published several works detailing her personal theories. Like philosophers Hobbes and David Hume, Cavendish was a naturalist, believing that everything in the universe had a purpose and a mind—and every working part collaborated in the machine of the greater universe. She was interested in the intellect of humankind and the motions at work in the universe, much of which helped her build The Blazing World.
Cavendish wrote for most of her life, penning poetry, plays, and philosophical essays. She and her husband lived happily and never had children. But as possibly the first woman to publish science fiction, and the female frontrunner in the speculative fiction genre, she left quite a legacy.
Not to be missed: The Blazing World is in the public domain and not hard to find with some online searching. The breadth of Cavendish’s imagination makes for a fun read.
Also try: If Margaret Cavendish’s outrageous life sounds like fiction, readers may be interested in Katie Whitaker’s book Mad Madge (Basic Books, 2003), which explores the paradoxes in the real Duchess’s life. For instance, Whitaker speculates that Cavendish was dyslexic, though she pushed herself to read and write.
Related work: The Black Dossier graphic novel from Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series (DC Comics, 2010) takes its characters on a trip to the Blazing World… which appears in 3-D when viewed with the glasses included with the book.
The Queen of Horror
In 1948, the New Yorker published a short story by a then-unknown writer. The tale, about an ordinary town with a sinister secret, so outraged readers that the magazine reported receiving more negative mail than ever before, including many subscription cancellations.
That story was “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, which went on to become one of the most famous short stories in American literature.
Though Jackson had been an obsessive writer since her youth and began publishing her writing during college, “The Lottery” made her a household name. For decades she received letters about it, which typically fell into one of three categories: bewilderment, speculation, and “plain old-fashioned abuse.”
The New England setting of the story was an integral part of Jackson’s writing, which often features main characters who are outsiders and find themselves persecuted in a hostile small-town environment. This was an experience familiar to Jackson.
Born in 1916, Jackson spent her childhood in California. She met her husband, the literary critic and professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, at Syracuse University, where they were students. The couple married in 1940 and moved several times before settling in 1945 in North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman took a faculty position at Bennington College. She wrote, in what has become a famous anecdote from her life, that when checking into a hospital for the birth of her third child, the nurse asked Jackson what her occupation was. Jackson replied that she was a writer, to which the nurse said, “I’ll just put down housewife.”
The truth was that Jackson always struggled against her roles as wife and mother—or, to be more accurate, the roles that others cast her in. Professionally she was a successful author, but at home in North Bennington, she was Hyman’s wife and the mother of four children. Her husband expected her to play the part of faculty wife: to maintain the household, to rear the children, to cook, to clean, and to entertain people he brought into their home. The residents of the college town never quite accepted her as one of their own, which likely informed how she wrote about various groups’ intolerance of outsiders (see: the stone-wielding townsfolk in “The Lottery”).
Hyman controlled the family’s finances, but often it was Jackson’s income that kept them afloat. Jackson’s posthumously published collection Come Along with Me (Viking, 1968; Penguin, 1995 reprint) contains an anecdote about a time the family needed a new refrigerator. So she wrote a story, was paid, and bought the fridge. In this way, writing was, for Jackson, a real kind of magic. Hyman encouraged his wife’s work, especially because it supplemented his income. But when eventually her career eclipsed his, Hyman no longer tolerated her success and belittled her in front of his university colleagues. What’s more, he was frequently unfaithful, being particularly fond of his former students.
It’s no wonder that Jackson wrote about women who were lonely and ostracized. Her characters are haunted, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively, by pasts they can’t escape. Jackson became a master of both types of hauntings, the supernatural and the psychological, the interior and the exterior.
Haunted house stories are a staple in horror literature; nearly every writer of the genre has told one or two. None have come as close to perfection as Jackson in creating houses that loom larger than their actual size, describing a past that haunts the present. What also sets her domestic stories apart is how quickly and effectively the mundane scenarios she depicts turn violent. Even a setting as seemingly humdrum as a grocery store transforms into a downright bloodbath in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her 1962 novel about two sisters living in a family home following an infamous multiple murder.
“The Lottery” established Jackson as reigning queen of the horror genre, though she wrote everything from campus novels to darkly comic domestic sketches about family life. These sketches were first published in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day and, later, in the books Raising Demons (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957; Penguin Books, 2015) and Life among the Savages (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1953; Penguin Books, 2015). She cemented her status as a titan of terror with the 1959 publication of The Haunting of Hill House (Viking), which was adapted in 1963 into the film The Haunting, which then developed a cult following of its own. Director Jan de Bont brought a less popular adaptation to the screen in 1999. And in 2018, the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House took the bare bones of Jackson’s story into new territory.
Hill House is a lovely work of ambiguity. Four characters from different walks of life converge on the titular property, which has a bad past and a bad reputation. Eleanor Vance, the protagonist, has answered an advertisement posted by Dr. Montague seeking assistants for a haunted house investigation. She sees it as the first adventure of her life, which until that point she has spent taking care of her invalid mother. Once the action begins, it’s hard to tell if the four people are cracking under the strain of their isolation in the bizarre mansion, or if the house truly is haunted. It doesn’t help that every angle in the building is off by a few degrees, and the decorations are… well, let’s just say, strange. In addition to the usual cold spots, bangs and knocks, and even a séance of sorts, Jackson adds Eleanor’s internal monologues in which she struggles to understand her morbid attraction to Hill House.
With this book and others, Jackson drafted a blueprint for the modern haunted house in both literature and film. Stephen King modeled his Overlook Hotel in The Shining after another of Jackson’s creepy settings, the Halloran house in The Sundial (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1958). Moreover, King wrote at length about his debt to Jackson in his nonfiction ode to the horror genre, Danse Macabre (Gallery Books reprint, 2010), and in On Writing (Scribner reprint, 2010), his memoir on his chosen craft. Other authors who have cited Jackson as an influence include Neil Gaiman, Richard Matheson, and Sarah Waters.
If The Haunting of Hill House was the definitive haunted house novel, then Jackson’s final completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Viking, 1962), cemented her in the Gothic and horror traditions. Time magazine named it one of the ten best novels of 1962. The story focuses on the Blackwood sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine (nicknamed Merricat), who live with their infirm Uncle Julian in their fenced-in family estate outside of a New England town. Uncle Julian’s poor health and the scorn the townspeople feel for the surviving Blackwoods are the result of a tragedy that occurred six years earlier. One night at supper, four members of the Blackwood family—the girls’ parents, brother, and aunt—were poisoned and died. Constance, who hadn’t used the arsenic-laced sugar on the dinner table, was arrested for the crime but not indicted. The townspeople believe she got away with murder. Her younger sister Merricat had been sent to her room without dinner on that fateful night and now is the only member of the household who ventures outside; she also practices magic rituals in order to keep Constance safe. Out of the blue, their cousin Charles swoops in, believing he is the rightful inheritor of the estate, and establishes himself as patriarch.
Castle is often praised, especially for its protagonist. Merricat Blackwood is an outsider, like many of Jackson’s women, but she maintains an imaginative spirit and a fierce devotion to defending her sister and her home. Fans of the horror writer Paul Tremblay will recognize similarities in his protagonist Merry in A Head Full of Ghosts (William Morrow, 2015).
The Blackwood sisters’ existence at the margins of their community reflects Jackson’s own experience. She didn’t quite fit in with the other wives of her small university town; she spent her days writing and tending children, but her nights were filled with more exotic fare. A lover of the occult, Jackson gave tarot readings to friends and family. She claimed not to believe in ghosts but she owned a crystal ball and a Ouija board and seemed to relish her reputation as a “witch.” Whether or not she practiced witchcraft is debatable.
Shirley Jackson may not have been understood by the people who knew her, but her literary legacy is indisputable. As an example, consider the Shirley Jackson Awards, a juried accolade that has been given annually since 2007 for excellence in horror, thriller, and dark fantasy fiction.
Not to be missed: Need some Shirley Jackson in your life? Honestly, who doesn’t? Jackson is best known for her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both available from Penguin Classics. “The Lottery” can be found in The Lottery and Other Stories, a 2009 Penguin reprint, among other editions. But Jackson’s other novels are criminally underread. The Sundial is an apocalyptic tale with all the Gothic trappings: a family with a sordid past, a manor house with secrets, and a storm blowing in. Yet it avoids cliché thanks to a unique exploration of family relationships. The narrative quickly turns into psychological suspense, and readers must question whether the end of the world is, in fact, near. It is available in a 2014 Penguin edition, with a foreword by Victor LaValle.
Also try: As mentioned, the 1963 film adaptation of Hill House has gained a fandom of its own. The ten-part 2018 Netflix series provides a fantastic reimagining (not a straight adaptation) of the novel that is well done and worth viewing.
Judy Oppenheimer’s Private Demons (Ballantine Books, 1989) was the first full-length biography of Shirley Jackson. Oppenheimer interviewed Jackson’s family and friends for a more complete portrait than a mere blurb on a book jacket could offer. In it she focuses on Jackson’s supposed witchcraft and occult leanings… maybe a little too much. Ruth Franklin’s more recent and thoroughly engaging Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright, 2016) dives deep into Jackson’s personal papers and notes from the Library of Congress archive and interweaves insightful readings of her works into a sharp yet sympathetic biographical portrait. If you read only one biography of Jackson, make it Franklin’s.
Related work: In a testament to Jackson’s enduring allure, Susan Scarf Merrell’s murder mystery Shirley (Blue Rider Press, 2014) features Jackson as a character. Like so many of Jackson’s novels, this is a psychological thriller, with a young girl at the center. When the girl disappears, Jackson is a suspect. The director Josephine Decker began adapting the novel to film in 2018, with actress Elisabeth Moss playing Shirley Jackson.
Haunted by History
Toni Morrison is one of the best-known authors in American history. If you weren’t assigned one of her novels for English class, perhaps you’ve seen her being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey or on The Colbert Report. She’s the recipient of high-profile awards and accolades, including the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and the 2016 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. She’s one of the most written about authors, up there with the two Wills, Shakespeare and Faulkner.
Toni Morrison is awesome. But is she a horror writer? Is she part of the tradition of weird fiction?
Our answer is yes, and our proof is her fifth novel, Beloved, published by Knopf in 1987.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Her parents, George and Ramah, were migrants from Southern states. She studied the classics and humanities at Howard University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, and Cornell, where she earned a master’s. She gained critical attention with her first novel, The Bluest Eye, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1970, and she hasn’t slowed down since. She has published ten additional novels and worked as an editor for Random House and then as a professor at several universities. She has influenced numerous writers, including Angela Davis, Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Amy Tan, and Louise Erdrich. Morrison retired from teaching in 2006, and her papers and manuscripts are archived at Princeton University. But Morrison maintains an active literary life through writing and speaking and by recording audio book versions of
Toni Morrison may not be a horror writer in the vein of Shirley Jackson or Anne Rice or Tananarive Due. But in addition to being a great historical novel of twentieth-century American literature, Beloved is a horror tour de force that evokes every trope of the genre while peeling back the bandages from the wound of slavery on Americans’ collective psyche. Writing within the horror genre affords authors an opportunity to show the most violent and terrifying parts of real life, and Beloved is a master class in that technique. Morrison tells a ghost story that makes visible the gut-wrenching true horror of slavery, especially as experienced by African American women, and forces readers to reckon with an often-ignored part of U.S. history and its haunting effects.
Morrison is also no stranger to the supernatural. Several of her novels, including Song of Solomon (1977), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), and Home (2012), feature ghosts of the past. Her play Desdemona (Oberon Books, 2011) focuses on the ghost of Shakespeare’s character, giving her a voice (finally!) to explore what went wrong in her relationship with Othello; in letting this character speak, Morrison calls attention to the issues of race and class that Shakespeare glossed over in his play.
Beloved, however, is a full-on ghost story from top to bottom. Morrison centers the story on the title character, the ghost of a deceased girl called Beloved, in order to explore the effects of trauma. It is a fictionalized reimagining of the life of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who, in 1856, attempted to escape her northern Kentucky slaveholder, along with her children, husband, and in-laws. The family crossed the frozen Ohio River into Cincinnati, where they were ambushed and recaptured. Because Garner believed that death was preferable to slavery, she tried to kill her children, and succeeded in slaying one of them.
The subsequent trial, and accompanying fiery speeches, protests, and violence, presaged the Civil War. Testimony revealed that Garner’s owner had physically and sexually abused her. Ultimately she was returned to enslavement but sold to a planter in Louisiana. She and one of her children were traveling there by riverboat when their vessel sank in a fiery crash with another boat. Her child died but Garner survived; she died two years later in Louisiana of typhoid fever. Her husband recalled that her last words to him were: “live in hope of freedom.”
Chains of Memory
Morrison read a news clipping about Margaret Garner while doing research for another book, and she decided to try to imagine what caused a woman to commit infanticide. What does it mean to be a mother to children who literally belong to another person? What does it mean to face, every day, the possibility that your loved ones could be abused, tortured, maimed, killed, or sold away? What she created was a novel in the tradition of ghost stories, but in which the ghost represents more than just a person returning from the afterlife. The spirit also stands for the estimated sixty million people who died in the so-called land of the free during the time of enslavement.
Beloved begins with the protagonist, Sethe, and her daughter Denver living in a home troubled by an angry ghost-child, whose torments prompted Sethe’s two older sons to run away. Mother and daughter attempt to communicate with the spirit because they believe it belongs to Sethe’s youngest daughter, whom Sethe killed, as Margaret Garner had done, after the family escaped slavery and was faced with recapture. Both Sethe and Denver find comfort in the haunting presence of the lost two-year-old child. Then the ghost comes back in physical form.
Or does it? Like all good supernatural fiction, Morrison’s story can be explained one way or the other… or both. Regardless, as the women interact with the seemingly full-grown Beloved, each is gripped by memories of a past full of trauma—physical, emotional, and sexual—experienced and witnessed. Ultimately, Denver learns about the painful past despite her mother’s attempt to protect her by refusing to speak about slavery.
Not to be missed: After Beloved, turn to Song of Solomon (Knopf, 1977), which is probably Morrison’s next most spectral read; it features a protagonist who is haunted by his parents’ and aunt’s pasts. By facing the ghosts, he learns where he came from and who he is. Love (Knopf, 2003) is a story of the strength of female relationships in the face of trauma and abuse, in which at least one of the narrators is a ghost.
Also try: Beloved (1998) was adapted to the screen in 1998 by Akosua Busia and directed by Jonathan Demme, starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. It was not well received, perhaps because there’s something special in Morrison’s prose that can’t quite be translated to film. We think it’s worth a watch nonetheless.
Related work: Steven Weisenburger’s Modern Medea (Hill and Wang, 1998) outlines the events surrounding Margaret Garner’s escape, recapture, and trial. It’s history that is as riveting as any modern-day drama. For more fiction centered on strong African American women living in a world tinged with supernatural possibilities, read Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (Ticknor & Fields, 1988). Like Morrison, Naylor also explores the haunting past of slavery and how it ruptures family histories.
Tananarive Due’s novel The Good House (Atria, 2003) is on our required reading list. Due explores how family histories haunt homes by focusing on the titular residence and its place in the nexus of African American and Native American history. As in Naylor’s Mama Day, the story’s paranormal elements may have roots in an ancestor’s curse. Due’s story collection Ghost Summer (Prime Books, 2015) is an exemplary group of varied paranormal and apocalyptic tales; the title novella is a great follow-up to Beloved. In it, Due explores how we are haunted by history, whether we learned about it or not. She doesn’t shy away from violence; like the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (Beacon Press, 1979; reprint, 2009), Due’s characters are physically injured by encounters with the past.
Speaking of Kindred, if you haven’t read Butler’s time-travel novel about slavery, what are you waiting for?