The History of Women in Horror 1: A Man Explains

As everyone knows, women are gentle, fragile creatures. Awash with the emotional flux of existence, they tremble and flutter on the edge of harsh reality… no, that’s moths, isn’t it? Women are something else, and have surprisingly hard fists. So why not join us today as we consider the history of women in horror writing, including the remarkable Mary Woollencraft Shellfish, noted author of Extreme Surgery for Girls: How to Construct A Real Husband (aka Frankenstein).

women in horror - 'being too ambitious for a girl' treatment
one of the early women in horror escapes from her ‘being too ambitious for a girl’ treatment

This, dear listener, is the sort of thing you do in Women in Horror Month. As we said the same time last year, extremely talented women are writing the weird the whole year round, and shouldn’t need singling out in this day and age – in theory. In practice, men do shout a lot,  send more promotional emails and fill up a lot of lists, so maybe WiH Month is still needed.

We’re back, therefore, with everything you need to know about the subject. If, by that, you mean a collection of literary trivia, sweeping generalities, ill-founded suppositions and the like, of course…

The History of Women in Horror

Ever since Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt married her brother, wore a false beard, and claimed her father had named her as heir on his deathbed, women have been familiar with horror. It may have been the Fifteenth Century BCE, but we’ll bet she had some tales to tell. Unfortunately we don’t know what they were. After her reign, a male pharaoh came along, declared that the covers to his clay tablets were more striking and got his mates to push his reviews in What Hieroglpyh Monthly.

Perhaps our in-depth history might work better if we start a little more recently.

The Birth of a Monster

women in horror frankenstein 1831
von holst, frankenstein 1831

Many people believe that the history of Women in Horror truly began in 1816, when Mary Codling and her poet-lover Percy Bivalve Shellfish were caught in the rain during the Geneva Convention. Finding Switzerland wetter than expected, they paid a visit to a certain Lord Biro, who had the sense for once to be indoors.

Over coffee and rapier-like wit, the young Mary was impressed by the fact that Biro had been beaten up by yet another angry husband. Before her was a bandaged, discoloured parody of a man. She left the young rake’s company in a tumult of imaginative excitement, inspired at last.

That night she wrote the novel Dracula.

However, the next morning Mary recognised that she wasn’t Irish enough, or called Bram, and so she scrapped the idea and started work on something different. Not long after, Frankenstein was born (Percy Shellfish later married Mary to avoid gossip as to why their child had a bolt through its neck).

But the story of Frankenstein did not spring from a wet dress and an injured hunk of nobility alone. And if you want to be picky, yes, the author’s proper name was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, nee Mary Godwin (1797-1851).

mary shelley
mary shelley

Apart from the fact that Mary hung out with artistic types in general, what female literary figures might she have had at the back of her mind when writing Frankenstein? One influence may have been the work of Clara Reeve, an English writer who lived in Colchester, but who died in Ipswich for marketing purposes. Reeve’s novel The Old English Baron (1777) is a piece of work which gets you trembling right from the beginning of the preface:

“As this Story is of a species which, though not new, is out of the common track, it has been thought necessary to point out some circumstances to the reader, which will elucidate the design, and, it is hoped, will induce him to form a favourable, as well as a right judgement of the work before him.”

OK, The Old English Baron is not brilliant, but worth a flick through. It’s a bit Castle of Otranto (by Horace Walpole, 1764) without some of the more over-the-top Gothic fancies that make the genre enjoyable, i.e. not enough mock-supernatural shenanigans. It does have the usual isolated castle, hidden rooms and stolen inheritance, though. More of a Gothic door-stopper than a Gothic horror, depending on your tastes.

the old english baron, free on gutenberg

Mary also had the example of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe. Udolpho was a four volume work, written when her publisher asked her to produce another archetypal Gothic novel before the Napoleonic Wars started and distracted the reading public. Udolpho was a piece of old-school creaking and groaning in the Otranto style, but it became a cornerstone of Gothic (some prefer it to Otranto), and it provided a background for Mary’s bold attempt to bring something new to the genre.

the mysteries of udolpho, gutenberg

(Four years after Udolpho, Jane Austen began her archetypal parody, Coathanger Abbey, in which an obsession with Gothic novels was explored at much shorter length than Ann Radcliffe ever managed. Sadly, Jane decided to die before publication, so this did not emerge until only a few months before Frankenstein hit the shelves in 1818. There is no record of Austen and Shelley ever meeting, nor does Mary mention reading Austen, though four of Austen’s books were out by 1816.)

a typical scene from ‘coathanger abbey’

Other women writers who would have been known to Mary include Joanna Baillie, a playwright who was incidentally appalled by Mary’s frolicsome Swiss holiday package, and Sophia Lee. Lee’s popular The Recess (1783-5) was considered proto-Gothic, although it was more a historical romance, set in Elizabethan times and free of supernatural elements.

the recess downloadable archive

Girlish Trivia Section: 111 years before The Old English Baron, another woman, Margaret Cavendish, wrote what some consider to be the first science fiction novel. In 1666, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, published The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World.

It’s a sort of utopian satire. “A young woman enters this other world, becomes the empress of a society composed of various species of talking animals, and organizes an invasion back into her world complete with submarines towed by the “fish men” and the dropping of “fire stones” by the “bird men” to confound the enemies of her homeland, the Kingdom of Esfi.” (Wiki)


This is vaguely relevant because SF writer Brian Aldiss considered Frankenstein to be the first science fiction novel, and he was cleverer than we are, so he might be right.

(We might have shoehorned the female writer Aphra Behn in here, but quite honestly her novels, such as the 1688 Oroonoko, aren’t SF or supernatural. Oroonoko does have some gross violence in it, though, if you like that sort of thing.)

Frankenstein was commercially successful, but received mixed reviews from the critics; some positive, some dismissive. The extended scene where Bella mopes yet again and Edward stares into the distance for five hours was singled out as lacking pace (or is that another book?). More importantly, the fact that Frankenstein had been written by a woman was not to everyone’s liking:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment”

The British Critic (April 1818)

But with Frankenstein’s monster on the loose, and Napoleon Bonaparte safely exiled on St Helena, women were at last free to write what they wanted. Or were they?

Despite the Mary Woollencraft Shellfishes of this world, men were still quite touchy. Some thought that the ‘gentle sex’ shouldn’t meddle in these dark passions for their own good; others were convinced that women couldn’t write anything of substance.

As this was already obviously Untrue, we must assume that they were worried about all the anthology and magazine slots being taken. The other possibility is that they feared their wives and sweethearts would suddenly become independent-minded and realise that marrying a ledger clerk from Hounslow was not the height of Life’s Great Adventure.

Scholar E J Clery, in her book Women’s Gothic: From Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley (2000) asks: “What gave women the confidence to experiment, attempt large effects, fly in the face of critical opinion, openly rival and emulate the achievements of their male peers?” She cites the actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) as one inspiration.

sarah siddons by gainsborough
sarah siddons by gainsborough

Siddons starred as Lady Macbeth in John Philip Kemble’s 1794 production at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and took the stage by storm in many of her performances. She played female characters with strength and passion, and at the same time she did it for money, marrying literary and pecuniary spheres. We were, unfortunately, slightly too young to be allowed into the theatre at the time.

Some female writers still thought it wise to chose paths which stopped men from feeling so terrified. Common approaches included:

  • Changing your name to George, making you a chap and therefore ‘all right’.
  • Changing your name to ‘Anonymous’ (as happened with the first edition of Frankenstein).
  • Making sure that you were called Mrs. Something, making you married, a part of the established order, and not a wanton, over-ambitious hussy in need of a man.

A Womb with a View

Apart from the name problem, Nineteenth Century women had many burdens to bear in comparison to the chaps. This was particularly true of women in horror. The following were all difficult issues if you were a chapess writing during the Victorian period:

a) Brain fever – Women were informed that their mental apparatus was prone to overheat following too much information or too much excitement. Writing about the supernatural was a clear threat. Inventions such as Henrietta Keogh’s 1853 Cerebral Radiator, a stylish copper-lined bonnet with vanes, proved of little use. Coupled with the demands of ordering decent lamb chops from the butcher, and raising children, it was considered that women had limited mental capacity left for serious literary pursuits, compared to men.

b) Reproductive breakdown – With the extraordinary demands on the Victorian woman’s reproductive system, excessive mental activity could easily lead to ‘ovarian neuralgia’ and sterility. If the brain absorbed all the goodness in the blood, they (mostly men) reasoned, then there would be nothing left for the ‘lower’ parts. In the process, the wandering nature of the womb could easily lead to a hysterical reaction. An 1859 physician claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria, although some of this occurred after they were presented with his bill.

charcot demonstrating hysteria (c. wellcome library)
charcot demonstrating hysteria (c. wellcome library, london)

c) Innocence – As women of the period had little contact with anything unpleasant, their inspiration for supernatural and horror stories was suspect. Male authors had to sit at writing desks for long, cramp-inducing hours, and then go to their club and endure quite tedious conversations. They understood horror.

Women only went through agonising childbirths, dealt with infant mortality, got abandoned by callous lovers, beaten by hypocritical husbands and then found themselves penniless, or withering away in lonely rooms bereft of purpose. They were too innocent and protected, therefore, to think up good plot ideas.

Abandoning the Ruins


Despite the above drawbacks, by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, sisters were doing it for themselves, especially if they were called Bronte. Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branston Bronte all wrote (Branston being an honorary sister when not drunk and in a pickle). The longer, 18th century-style Gothic was less popular, but broader ghost stories and the penny dreadful were in vogue. And spiritualism was on the rise, which brought more interest in supernatural fiction.

Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) had many touches of the Gothic, done more subtly than in the past, as did Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (also 1847).  H P Lovecraft singled out the former:

“Quite alone both as a novel and as a piece of terror-literature stands the famous Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë, with its mad vista of bleak, windswept Yorkshire moors and the violent, distorted lives they foster. Though primarily a tale of life, and of human passions in agony and conflict, its epically cosmic setting affords room for horror of the most spiritual sort…

“Miss Brontë’s eerie terror is no mere Gothic echo, but a tense expression of man’s shuddering reaction to the unknown. In this respect, Wuthering Heights becomes the symbol of a literary transition, and marks the growth of a new and sounder school.”

Supernatural Literature in History (1927, revised 1933/34)

The Brontes also chose to put out their early works under male names, being published initially as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. It was a calculated move, undertaken after their first choice of George, George and George Bell was vetoed by the publisher. As Charlotte wrote, this move was:

“…dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because… we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice”

The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1857)

mrs gaskell c 1860
mrs gaskell c 1860

Elizabeth Gaskell herself (known to her close friends as Mrs Gaskell) certainly deserves a mention. She took time off from supplying Charles Dickens with names like Chumblypegg and Quizzlifob to write her own ghost stories, which began to marry the Gothic with more contemporary approaches. Gaskell was a keen observer of social injustice and harsh living conditions among the poor. Along with the Brontes, she had begun to ease serious questions into her fiction, sober reflections on women’s lives and their status in the society around them.

elizabeth gaskell – curious, if true collection – gutenberg

Also by mid-century, Gothic was truly dying, coughing a last few spots of blood into its handkerchief. In its place, along with Gaskell and the Brontes, there came a flowering of Women in Horror as had never been seen before. The second half of the Nineteenth Century also produced a reasonable flowering of Men in Horror, but that’s not the point here, is it?

In the process, women began to use supernatural and horror fiction more directly as a vehicle for questioning social mores, marital double-standards and gender relationships as a whole. Which was a Good Thing.


Later in the month, in the History of Women in Horror 2, we’ll introduce some of the striking pieces of horror fiction produced by women in the latter part of the century. And we’ll try to mention some of the authors that we haven’t covered in any detail previously.

In the meantime, feel free to check out some related posts from during the last year, such as:

  • Author Amanda DeWees on classic female supernatural writers

forever new – women in supernatural fiction

  • The story of Carnacki illustrator Florence Briscoe

the woman who drew carnacki

  • The extraordinary life of writer Amelia B Edwards

all saints’ eve

  • An interview with writers Laura Mauro and V H Leslie

hurrah, it’s scary women again

Back in a couple of days with more weird somethings…

Share this article with friends - or enemies...

2 thoughts on “The History of Women in Horror 1: A Man Explains”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *