Haunting (and Sometimes Terrifying) Works by Classic Women Authors

Frankenstein 1831 inside cover

As every Halloween approaches, literary thoughts turn first to Edgar Allen Poe. Yes, the guy could write a thrilling and creepy tale —no surprise, as he himself was pretty creepy. What’s annoying is that his work overshadows that of several classic women authors whose haunting works give his more than a run for the money. Here are a few whose work will send shivers up your spine, while at the same time giving your ear for great language a thrill.

It’s hard to a work that has had as much grip on the public imagination as Frankenstein. While countless Frankenstein monster costumes are trotted out each Halloween, relatively few people know that it was Mary Shelley who’s responsible for the story. Barely 21 when the book was published in 1818, she would have been amazed at its staying power, nearly 200 years on. Disturbing but beautifully written, it’s the story of the wayward scientist Victor Frankenstein, and the consequences of creating a living being from dead flesh. 

The birds (Hitchcock) movie poster, 1965

Daphne du Maurier wrote her share of psychological thrillers and dark mysteries, though her standouts are the novel-length Rebecca and the long short story, The Birds. Both were made into eerie films by Alfred Hitchcock; and while the 1940 film version of Rebecca was quite respectful to its source (creepiest character: Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper!), The Birds in its  1965 film version was rather bowdlerized by the master of suspense. The film version really freaked my out as a child, though now I know that du Maurier’s story is much, much better.

The-Lottery-and-other-stories by Shirley Jackson coverDo you remember reading The Lottery  by Shirley Jackson in high school? It’s considered one of the most horrifying short stories of the twentieth century. When it was a kind of precursor to The Hunger Games, about the bizarre ritual of a small village. When it was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were shocked. Somehow, though, the story had legs and is now considered a classic of modern American short literature. Similarly, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House are designed to both thrill and unsettle. It’s easy to see why Stephen King has long cited Jackson as a prime influence.

Strangers on a Train 1951 film posterPatricia Highsmith produced fiction populated with sociopathic characters whose modus operandi is to ensnare not-so-innocent victims their tangled webs. Strangers on a Train  (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley  (1955), her best-known works, went on to become even better-known films. In these works and other novels and short stories, Highsmith’s particular brand of terror comes from quietly creeping disasters and morally ambiguous conclusions. The victims in her stories are often  fascinated by the very people who seek to destroy them. Just like in real life — though more compellingly depicted.

A long fatal love chase (louisa may alcott) coverAnd finally, we must give a shout-out to Louisa May Alcott in this grouping. Wait — Louisa May Alcott of the genteel girls’ novels like Little Women and Jo’s Boys? No, this isn’t a typo. Early in her career, before she started the girls’ books, Ms. Alcott wrote thrillers under a pseudonym because they sold well, and she was the main support of her parents and sisters. While they may not have been as terrifying as The Lottery or The Birds, her recently rediscovered thrillers, including A Long Fatal Love Chase and others, reveal a very different side of this beloved author.


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