Don’t get dirty. Smile. Be nice. Don’t do this, don’t do that, it’s not ladylike. Don’t, don’t, don’t. Boys can run, climb trees, play and get dirty, but girls aren’t given that same leeway. We’re taught we have to behave a certain way, an acceptable way, and while things are slowly improving, deviation from that norm is still viewed askance by society at large. Then we’re given the conflicting message of girl power! But what exactly do we have power over? Is it any wonder that girlhood is fraught with so much internal chaos?
Look at our portrayal in media. Girls are victims. Girls are pictures on Missing flyers. In fiction and in real life, girls are abducted, assaulted, killed. We’re the six o’clock news, the warning to dress modestly, the reason you shouldn’t talk to strangers. There’s a sense of constant danger in our girlness, and there’s also an unspoken message that it’s all our fault when it happens. We took the shortcut we weren’t supposed to, we snuck out of the house, we wore a too-short skirt. The messages are everywhere and they’re endless.
But when a girl is the protagonist in a horror story, novel, or movie, things shift. We get to fight back, and maybe, if we’re lucky, we get to survive. Not being a victim is shocking. Revolutionary, even. The fact that we’re capable of something more than the expected narrative, that we might have a bit of control over our lives, feels like a triumph.
In my novel The Dead Girls Club, I gave a group of twelve-year old girls the freedom to talk about serial killers, to sneak into an empty house, to spit into a bottle of wine that would be consumed by a parent, to acknowledge and harness the power of girls, both dead and alive.
Here are five other books that delve into the secrets and darkness of girlhood.
The Corn Maiden by Joyce Carol Oates
“The Corn Maiden” is a novella included in Oates’ collection The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares. After a field trip to view the Onigara exhibit of the Sacrifice of the Corn Maiden, Jude, the leader of a group of eighth grade girls, decides they’re going to kidnap and ultimately sacrifice Marissa, an eleven-year-old girl who attends the same private school.
They befriend the girl months before the kidnapping in order to establish trust and, one day after school, invite her to the large house in which Jude lives with her grandmother. There, they feed her drugged ice cream and after she’s unconscious, they carry her into a basement storage room beneath the unused guest wing of the house.
Jude tells the other girls that since Marissa came as a guest, it’s not kidnapping. They build her a bed with blankets and shawls. They clothe her in a nightgown and keep her drugged with Xanax. Jude insists they call her the Corn Maiden. Jude teaches her friends about the sacrifice ritual—the Corn Maiden was slowly starved, she was tied to an altar while still alive, and then shot with an arrow through her heart—but after keeping Marissa captive for six days, the other girls want to let her go.
It’s a chilling look at the group friendship dynamic and how it can easily be corrupted. But it’s also the story of a young, neglected girl trying to find control. Jude “…was infused with the power. The power of life-and-death.” Although Jude is the antagonist, her need to create this sort of order becomes easier to understand as more of her life is revealed. Her actions and the desired outcome are monstrous, but she isn’t a monster. She’s a girl broken by circumstance and desperate for guidance, a lost girl who isn’t missing, and the true horror is that her desperate wish for power ultimately takes control over her. The final scene between Jude and Marissa is both terrifying and heartbreaking. The first time I read it, I was shocked and sat staring at the words in disbelief for some time before I could go on.
Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
In horror, evil children are as much a staple as a final girl, but Zoje Stage breathes new life into the trope with her debut novel.
From the outside, the Jensen family looks perfect. Alex, the father, owns his own architectural firm and Suzette is a stay-at-home mother who home-schools their daughter. Hanna, at seven, is mute, but medical tests reveal no underlying reason for her silence.
But from the time she’s a toddler, there’s something obviously wrong about Hanna. One of her favorite games is called “Scare Mommy,” and we find out that she wants her mother dead so she can live happily ever after with her father. Hanna torments her mother in small and large ways, from writing bad words instead of her spelling assignments, to stealing Suzette’s favorite earrings, to tampering with the medication she takes for her Crohn’s disease. But when Hanna’s father gets home from work, she’s all smiles for him.
The chapters from Suzette’s point of view are filled with frustration, sorrow, and rage as she tries to mother her unlovable child. Those from Hanna’s side of the fence are chilling. She wants her father all to herself and is willing to do anything to achieve that goal.
A healthy relationship between mother and child is one of comfort and guidance, but of her mother Hanna thinks “She was a good opponent.” I found myself horrified at how manipulative and cruel this young girl could be and at the same time, horrified at how callous Suzette could be in turn, yet I couldn’t entirely blame her.
I think the true horror is that there’s no possible way the story will have a happy ending for everyone. Both girlhood and motherhood are irrevocably twisted out of shape. And Hanna, in her youth, doesn’t seem to understand that, although she can manipulate the people around her as much as she can, that’s the only tool she really has. Since she’s a child, the decisions that will shape the course of her life are ultimately not hers to make. I was filled with loathing and pity both for her.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power
The girls and teachers at Raxtor School have been under quarantine for the Tox for eighteen months and are waiting for a cure. The Tox is a disease that alters humans and animals both in horrific ways: Skin may turn into scales, serrated ridges of bone may grow from the spine, growths may emerge from behind eye sockets, or gills may open on the neck. Every victim is struck with a different mutation. The Tox is ultimately fatal.
The school is on an island, cut off from the rest of the world, and those left are waiting for a cure. Because the school is surrounded by woods and animals are also changed by the Tox, trekking into the forest is perilous and forbidden. But when Hetty’s best friend Byatt goes missing, Hetty tires to find her, even breaking quarantine to do so. Once Hetty begins her search, she quickly learns that not all is as it seems, those they’ve trusted to protect them can’t be relied upon, and the girls might very well be expendable.
It’s a disturbing but also achingly lovely story of love, trust, hope, and friendship, and the reliance on the latter is easy to connect with. At one point Hetty is told that something has been “…over for a long, long time” and it shatters her belief in a truth she’s been clinging to. The lesson learned is a brutal one, but also one that ultimately propels her forward and strengthens the bond between her and her friends even more.
And it’s fitting because sometimes, as girls, we find we’re unable to turn to adults for help. Maybe it’s a situation we can’t bring ourselves to share with them or maybe they are the situation. Our friends are often the ones we turn to instead. They’re the ones who help us find the way through. The bonds of friendship can be the only tether that keeps us safe when everything else spirals out of control.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Grace, Lia, and Sky live on an isolated island with their parents. They are told the outside world is toxic, and only their father, the one man they’ve ever known, is allowed to make trips to the mainland for supplies. The girls undergo strange therapies, supposedly to keep them healthy, which include being held underwater. The girls are taught that this is done out of love. Some of the therapies force them to turn on each other. They’re also taught to fear all strangers, especially men. But not long after their father disappears, two strange men and a boy wash ashore, throwing the girls and their mother’s lives into chaos.
It’s a gorgeous, disturbing book that explores sexuality, strength, and the damage that patriarchy inflicts upon women. Until their father vanishes, the girls have no control over any aspect of their own lives. When the men arrive, they eventually begin to exert their control over the house and the girls. The relationships between the sisters start to change and fracture, but in order to claim some sort of control over their lives, the sisters have to learn to rely on each other.
In that respect, the novel shares thematic similarity to Wilder Girls. The only way girls and women can break the boxes we’ve been put in and can truly gain power over ourselves and our lives is to stand with each other. I don’t know what the next chapter holds for Grace, Lia, and Sky, but I have faith they’ll tackle it side by side.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Although Camille, the main character, is an adult, once she returns home, her emotional girlhood rises to the surface, which is why I’m including this book on the list. Camille, a reporter who barely speaks to her mother or to her thirteen-year-old half-sister Amma, is sent to her old hometown to cover the murders of two young girls.
From their first encounter, you know the relationship between Camilla and her mother is off. So, too, the relationship between her mother and Amma. Although Amma is thirteen, she frequently behaves like a much younger child, allowing her mother to wrap her in a robe and cuddle her close, and at other times she acts much older: wearing revealing clothing and taking drugs.
Secrets in Camille’s past emerge, becoming entwined with the current mystery, and while I don’t want to reveal any details, this book takes the relationship between mother and daughter and pummels it into something unrecognizable. At its core, though, it’s another story about girls and women and control. Camille thinks she’s in control, but she isn’t and hasn’t been in a long time. Her half-sister is trying to claim control over her life with varying degrees of success, and their mother is trying to control everything and everyone. The first time I read it, I felt as though I were caught in a whirlpool with no chance for escape. The family is that dysfunctional.
Because there were many others books I could’ve also written about, here are a few other recommendations:
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
- The Girl in Red by Christina Henry
- The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
- A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Damien Angelica Walters is the author of The Dead Girls Club, forthcoming in December 2019, Cry Your Way Home, Paper Tigers, and Sing Me Your Scars. Her short fiction has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and published in various anthologies and magazines, including the Shirley Jackson Award Finalists Autumn Cthulhu and The Madness of Dr. Caligari, World Fantasy Award Finalist Cassilda’s Song, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. Find her on Twitter @DamienAWalters or on the web at http://damienangelicawalters.com.