This month we asked authors, artists, editors, and other friends of TFF to recommend their favourite classic horror stories by women authors. (By “classic” we really mean pre-1920s or by an author who died pre-1940s. These have the advantage of being in the Public Domain, so anyone can read, share and even adapt these stories!) Here are a few suggestions to get us started, but we’d really like to learn about more such stories and authors in the comments…
Jessica Campbell (faculty page)
Vernon Lee’s “Amour Dure” (from Hauntings, 1889) is a gothic ghost story about a young scholar who travels to Italy and becomes obsessed with the alluring mysteries of the past. Classic! While researching the archives of a castle, he becomes fascinated with a sixteenth-century femme fatale figure who led multiple men to their deaths, and pretty soon he is convinced that he is actually communicating with her, through letters and in person. She signs her letters with a very emo motto: “Amour Dure—Dure Amour,” or “Love Lasts—Cruel Love.” Let’s just say things don’t end well.
Vernon Lee (1856-1935) was way ahead of her time. She lived all over Europe, dressed like a man, and was a pacifist, a feminist, and a lesbian. Her stories will seem long to readers today, but the lush prose and gothic drama are worth it. See also her excellent titles, like “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”!
Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)
E. Nesbit wrote amazing supernatural stories, among them “The Violet Car” (in Fear, 1910 [audiobook]). A young woman goes to a remote farmhouse as nurse to an older woman. Her husband believes she is deranged because she does not hear, see or smell the things he does. She believes he is deranged because she doesn’t see the things he does. The nurse agrees with her. To begin with.
This is one of the earliest ghost stories to feature a car; it is an indicator of modernity, as is Nesbit’s discussion of whether ‘ghosts’ are in the mind or corporeal, signalling that the ghost story is moving into new territory, even as it looks back to older traditions. Nesbit offers several possible explanations of the haunting but no certainty. The ghost car may be a manifestation of the husband’s guilt for sending the lost driver over a cliff, punishing him for killing the couple’s daughter in an earlier accident, but we’re left with a modern young woman who now doubts the thing she saw with her own eyes. It is masterly storytelling.
Aliya Whiteley (website)
There’s a moment in “Was it an Illusion?” by Amelia B. Edwards (1881 [online]) when we change from past to present tense, and that feeling of quiet observation is replaced by being right inside the story. It only lasts for a paragraph and a half, but it always works its magic on me; suddenly I’m part of the action, and I hold my breath as something ghastly is revealed. I love the way that the story builds to that crescendo, and then falls back from it.
It’s a tale of a school inspector who sees odd things: a walking figure who disappears, and then a shadow that shouldn’t exist. The strangeness of it all creeps up, and even the narrator is not sure how to make sense of the experience. Rambling, occasionally wandering off into other associations, it lulls me with its classic, slower rhythm—and then it changes tense, and I’m gripped all over again.
Valeria Vitale (TFF bio; City of a Thousand Names)
Recently I have been spending a lot of (delightful) time reading ghost stories written by women, especially from the “golden age” of Gothic literature. Although the list of authors is very long, their tales are still often dominated by male POVs. A refreshing exception is Charlotte Riddell. Her “Nut Bush Farm” (in Weird Stories, 1882) is not only a captivating supernatural story, but also features a variety of female characters (although not in the leading role), often challenging both gender stereotypes and literary clichés. In Riddell’s stories you may meet single women that found perfect happiness in the management of their farm; or criminals able to shoot a gun and put up a proper fist fight (as in “The Open Door”). But even when they are not extraordinary, Riddell’s women become remarkable just by being visible, actively opposing the consuetude in the genre of erasing women from the scene or making them bidimensional cutouts.
Besides being pleased by how Riddell populates her stories with well-written female characters, I also enjoy her combination of supernatural horror and traditional mystery. Her ghosts are often flagging some unsolved crime, and so the protagonists have to become cold-case detectives and investigate what happened. With a little help from the ghost themselves, of course!
Maria Grech Ganado (profile; interview)
Christina Rossetti’s maternal uncle, John William Polidori, published the first English vampire short story in 1819, so the paranormal was probably in her blood. Revived by feminist criticism, “Goblin Market” (in Goblin Market and other poems, 1862), open to diverse interpretations, is today considered her masterpiece. Fantastic, ambiguous, symbolic, erotic, religious, with themes of temptation, fallen womanhood, addiction, sisterly love and redemptive sacrifice, Goblin Market’s vocabulary, even more than its allegoric form, suggests both Christian and sexual readings. Various kinds of fruit with sexual undertones, more enticing than one apple, are offered by different types of savage goblins more repulsive than a serpent. Rossetti probably found the market concept itself redolent even of Victorian marriage, let alone the horrible plight of prostitutes she herself did charity work with.
Andrea Gibertoni (Miskatonic Bookshop)
The story I’d like to recommend is “The Villa Lucienne” by Ella D’Arcy, first published in 1896 in The Yellow Book Quarterly, one of the most prestigious British literary magazines of the nineteenth century. The Villa Lucienne is a deeply unsettling tale featuring an all female group of characters that includes women of different ages, from a little girl to an old lady. While visiting the South of France, the women start looking for a house to rent during their stay, and are struck by the malevolent aura of an old villa. Not only does the place look bleak and decayed, but it also seems to have been abandoned in a suspicious hurry. It is a short story, where the characters feel haunted by eerie and malignant vibes. The final, dreadful twist will be revealed to the readers through the young daughter of the tenant.
These all sound great, and I look forward to reading them. What other horror stories by women from this period can you recommend we look at? Please leave suggestions in the comments.