At this time of year, it seems everyone is looking for a good scare, but I love horror year-round. Still, the “rules” of horror, as it were, are often a challenge for me. Too frequently in horror stories, women are cast as the victims—those in need of rescuing, those threatened by murderers, those who suffer horrible trials, those whose bodies are brutalized. But women don’t always have to be treated as objects in horror. In fact, we can be the heroes—and not just when we’ve got Buffy’s superpowers. Women can be the ones who figure out what’s going wrong and fix it. Agency is important, especially in horror. It’s what drives characters to survive in the face of terror and the unimaginable, lurking in the shadows.
What follows is an incomplete list of women who fight, win, and survive in horror. In these stories, you’ll encounter violence against women, sure—but what you’ll also witness their survival, and a strength that makes them more than just waiting victims.
The Hollow Girl, by Hillary Monahan
The only YA book on this list, The Hollow Girl is a fantastic example of revenge horror. Bethan is attacked by five boys, and her response is to take matters of their punishment into her own hands. A difficult read, but worth it; Monahan doesn’t shy away from the boys’ assault, while also treating the issue with respect and zero exploitation. If you’re looking for YA about disability, seriously dark issues, and revenge, this is your go-to for the season.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds, by Cherie Priest
Eden Moore is the kind of Southern Gothic woman you shouldn’t mess with. She’s never alone, and the three ghosts who watch and warn her of trouble have always been there. Eden’s stories are creepy as hell, and the character never lets up—not when the Civil War comes to her door, nor when her aunt’s life is threatened, nor when the creek rises and her city is under threat. The ghosts of this series are vicious and violent, and have kept me awake at night.
Bird Box, by Josh Malerman
When the world isn’t safe even with your eyes open, when you’re pregnant and living with strangers, when you need to get your children to safety—you need strength. You need to be full of mettle. And that’s exactly what our heroine Malorie is made of, fighting to keep those she loves safe in a world in which an unseen horror has driven most everyone mad. A bonus for readers who follow me for my writing on disability, or who appreciate well-handled disability issues in fiction—this is the only horror novel I’ve encountered by a sighted person that deals with blindness in a way that does not make me furious. Malerman manages to make the experience of being blindfolded a “tourist experience” rather than that of an expert. You’ll see what I mean.
The Miriam Black series, by Chuck Wendig
When she touches people, Miriam Black can see how they die. That’s the premise of Chuck Wendig’s unclassifiable dark fantasy series, which started and “intense” in book one and has only accelerated from there. Miriam is hard core, punk rock, and dealing with things way worse that death. She is a take-no-prisoners kind of girl, and that has mades her a survivor in a brutal world. If you’re looking for a blistering read in madcap setting, with lots of short chapters delivered in staccato style, you’ve found your Halloween binge read.
She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles
This is a short fiction collection, but it’s an important one. One of the many reasons some people are not big fans of Lovecraft in 2017 is his blatant sexism. This collection flips that on its head. This is a collection dealing exclusively with the Lovecraft Mythos, and every story is by a woman.
The Newsflesh series, by Mira Grant
Another disabled heroine, Georgia Mason is a journalist with a determined streak a mile wide. The zombie uprising is long in the rearview mirror by the time George and her team are assigned as the would-be President’s own personal contingent of bloggers. But when disaster strikes, only one journalist can track down the culprit behind a plot that could get everyone she loves killed. Hint: it’s Georgia Mason.
The Haunting of Hill House and many others, by Shirley Jackson
Finally, there’s one author who deserved to be chiseled onto any list like this, and that’s Shirley Jackson, who terrified the world with The Haunting of Hill House, “The Lottery,” and so many more novels and stories. She transformed the banal realities of small-town life into stories that raise goosebumps and tales that transform every creaking sound in your home into a lurking terror. Read everything she’s every written.
What stories would you add to this list?