WIHM 2022: Ten Great Ghost or Spooky Stories written by Women
Ten Great Ghost or Spooky Stories written by Women
by Alyson Faye
Here’s a little known fact to ponder:- between the 1830s and the onset of World War I (1914) – the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the ghost story – 70% of the ghost stories were written by women. There was a huge market and public appetite for these supernatural tales in the literary magazines and they were both a fun outlet for writers and a steady way of earning income.
Any of these names ring a ghostly bell? Mary E Wilkins Freeman? Evelyn Henty? Olive Harper? Elinor Mordaunt? Lettice Galbraith? BM Croker? Probably not.
But Edith Wharton, and Edith Nesbit? Ah, maybe now the bell is tingling faintly? I will include these two Ediths, as I think of them, in my personal selection below as well as a few more recognisable or even downright famous femme writers of this genre.
But briefly, as an interesting sidebar – why have these ladies been ghosted from history?
Here’s the view of Dr Melissa Edmundson, a specialist in 19th- and early 20th-century British women writers, from an article in The Guardian newspaper.
“So while these women were well known in their day, their work wasn’t included in many anthologies of supernatural and weird fiction. Then (often male) editors relied on the work of other (often male) editors, not doing the research themselves. This caused the same, relatively small selection of mostly male-authored works to be republished and republished yet again.” The brackets are my addition for clarification and fit in with Edmundson’s view.
Edmundson goes on to say :- “Women focus on women’s experience in these stories, so their writing was conveniently labelled too ‘domestic’ to be included alongside the men … the home can be the scariest place of all, because it’s supposed to be the place where we feel safest or where we have the most control.”
So, having set the background, here’s my personal selection of women-authored ghost stories of the last 150 years and where you can read them – often online, for free ( always a bonus). The list is in no particular order except mainly by the year of publication – oldest to latest.
1) The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell.
The Old Nurse’s Story’ can be found in collections of Gothic stories, ghost stories and tales of the macabre pub in 1852. It came out just in time for Christmas, so this story ticks the ghostly holy trinity of – Christmas Gothic Ghost story all in one hit.
Read it for free here :-https://web.english.upenn.edu/~nauerbac/story.html
If you know Elizabeth Gaskell for her famous social novel North and South, you might be surprised to learn that she also wrote supernatural stories, and truly chilling ones at that. In “The Old Nurse’s Tale,” a woman recounts the time she spent in her youth at a mansion haunted by the ghosts of its dark and devastating past. After reading this sinister story, you’ll never be able to listen to the sound of an organ the same again.
Why choose a nurse, a member of the lower classes to narrate this tale about the higher social echelons? And feature in the title.
As is common in Elizabeth Gaskell’s fictions, the nurse, a servant is an outsider, not of the same class as her employers and therefore able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint from outside the family’s story. She must learn the law and the boundaries of her position and in her bid to protect her charge, Rosamond, the nurse, here named Elizabeth, shows how love and the law are in conflict. The nurse’s upbringing in the rural lower classes would suggest her susceptibility to superstition. It was in rural areas and among the poorer people that superstition tended to survive, in such a way Elizabeth also distances these beliefs from herself, the wife of an Unitarian minister and a somewhat public figure in the community.
2) Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit aka Edith Nesbit (written 1893) (famous author of ‘The Railway Children’- remember the film and Jenny Agutter waving her petticoats? – yup, that’s the one).
In this story a married couple moves into a cottage that the locals say is haunted. Every All Saints’ Eve, according to the legend, the effigies of evil knights come to life and torment all who they come across.
Quote:- ‘When I was quite sure that she was dead, and that nothing mattered at all any more, I let him open her hand to see what she held.
It was a grey marble finger.’
3) A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf
‘A Haunted House’ by Virginia Woolf was published in her first collection of short fiction, Monday or Tuesday (1921). It later appeared as the lead story of another collection of stories, A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944), after Woolf’s death.
In less than two pages of prose the narrator describes the house where she and her partner live. “Whenever you wake in the house, you hear noises: a door shutting, and the sound of a ‘ghostly couple’ wandering from room to room in the house.”
Quotation:- ‘Death was the glass; death was between us, coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows…’
To read for free at :- https://theshortstory.co.uk/devsitegkl/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Short-stories-Viriginia-Woolf-A-Haunted-House.pdf
4) The Eyes by Edith Wharton, who in 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature, for her novel The Age of Innocence.
In 1910 she published the collection Tales of Men and Ghosts. One of its most acclaimed stories, is ‘The Eyes’.The story tells of a man’s encounters with his own personal ghosts. The main paranormal element in this short story is a pair of grotesque, disembodied eyes which appear to him in times of great stress.
But Wharton wrote a lot of ghost stories, including the more famous ‘Kerfol’ – so there are plenty to choose from. But what I remember about my reading of ‘Eyes’ is how damn creepy and disembodied they were, literally the eyes are watching you.
Read for free here:- https://storyoftheweek.loa.org/2012/01/eyes.html
5) Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard
One of only two ghost stories Howard ever wrote. It’s set in the enclosed environment of a canal barge travelling through a sparse and desolate landscape, with two bickering male friends on a holiday, who take on a female passenger who is not what she seems.
The last paragraph is a master-class in bleakness and understated spooky horror.
Originally published in We Are for the Dark: Six Ghost Stories. Jonathan Cape. 1951. (a collection containing three stories by Howard and three by Robert Aickmann and republished by Tartarus Press in 2003.
Read about the story here on one of my fave blogs:- https://wyrdbritain.blogspot.com/2018/03/3-miles-up.html
6) Where would a list like this be without Shirley Jackson, currently enjoying something of a renaissance with her book ‘The Haunting of Hill House’) being televised recently on Netflix and Elizabeth Moss playing Jackson in her life story. Jackson, it seems, is everywhere.
During her relatively short life (she died aged 48), Jackson composed six novels, two memoirs, and more than 200 short stories – so there’s plenty of choice here to get your reading fangs into.
Here’s a useful intro article for you:- https://www.bustle.com/articles/200133-10-shirley-jackson-short-stories-for-fans-of-the-queen-of-horror and the good news is that many of her Gothic spooky domestic tales are available online to read for free.
Jackson, for me, has the knack of tilting the reader’s world, to an uneasy angle – and then letting them keep falling – her language is very subtle. She was the queen of horror – taking our safe spaces and making them frightening. Nothing can be more scary than your home, your family, your neighbours and your local town.
So I choose her story, The Summer People (1948) by Jackson.
Although it is one of Jackson’s lesser-known short stories, ‘The Summer People’ is very spooky indeed.
Following their decision to stay at their country cottage for another month, the extremely ordinary Mr. and Mrs. Allison try to ignore the massive change in the attitude of the local village, who all insist that “nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before,” and who then continue to make it painstakingly obvious – at least to the reader! – that everybody would like them to leave.
Of course the Allisons don’t take the hint and the story escalates from there to the terrible haunted last few lines.
Not a typical ghost story, but filled with quiet mounting dread and dawning horror.
7) The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
(A long short story or a mini novella really at around 30 pages) (1952)
Du Maurier’s are not supernatural tales (she doesn’t do real ghosts, so to speak); but what could be more unnerving than nature behaving unnaturally?
Environment is everything in Du Maurier’s fiction, from the sinister alleyways of Venice in ‘Don’t Look Now’, to the wilderness of her beloved Cornwall, where, like nearly all her most famous work, ‘The Birds’ is also set.
Her protagonist is Nat a p/t farm labourer, and his (nameless) wife and children. That night, in bed, in the tiny cottage there is a tapping on the window (that ghost story staple!) and when Nat goes to investigate a bird nips him on the knuckles … and from then on the avian onslaught escalates. Nature’s law has been broken and this subversion is very scary indeed.
Not a typical ghost story, but a haunting, savage tale which has no tidy ending and leaves the reader very unsettled.
(Yes, do watch the 1963 Hitchcock colour version ‘The Birds’, but the source material is far creepier and less sanitised and Hitch transplanted the story to the American coast line.)
8) Celia Fremlin
She wrote 4 story collections :-
- 1970 – Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark
- 1974 – By Horror Haunted
- 1984 – A Lovely Day to Die
- 2019 – Ghostly Stories
Celia Fremlin is an author I discovered a few years ago, who isn’t as well known as I think she should be, but happily her work is increasingly available to download especially since publisher Faber have republished her work.
Faber describe Fremlin as ‘A little Patricia Highsmith, a touch of Shirley Jackson: the long-neglected Celia Fremlin wrote short, sharp stories that threw women’s lives into shiver-inducing relief.’
Primarily known as a writer of mystery stories and thrillers, it is her spooky tales that I am most drawn to.
My pick by Fremlin – The Hated House and The New House in ‘Ghostly Stories:Faber Stories’ (2019) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghostly-Stories-Faber-Celia-Fremlin/dp/0571356842
Quote :- ‘Be sure you don’t answer the door to anyone you don’t know.’
9) Famed worldwide for ‘The Woman in Black’, anyone NOT seen either the film version, the TV version or the stage version by now? My next choice is – Susan Hill.
Hill has also written a handful of excellent stand alone short stories/novelettes – all of which I’ve read and loved in varying degrees.
I write a lot in my own dark fiction about dolls, so I’ve picked:-
Dolly by Susan Hill (2012)
Also apart from the titular doll we have a bleak and isolated house, (in the Fens), storms, a dreary churchyard abandoned by God, two strange children – all grist to the ghost story mill.
Much of the narrative is a flashback told by a now adult Edward, looking back to one childhood summer, when he and his cousin, Leonora, arrive in the Fens by steam train, to spend their first summer together at Iyot House.
Needless to say the summer does not go smoothly or happily and Leonora becomes somewhat the cousin from hell especially when ‘Dolly’ arrives.
10) Stairs by Penelope Lively
To read for free https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/22/stairs-penelope-lively-ghost-story from Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time by Penelope Lively is published by Fig Tree
I grew up reading Lively’s children’s novels, ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’ and ‘Astercote’, amongst others. I loved her hauntings and time slip stories.
She’s written several short story collections and this story, ‘Stairs’ is one of her latest.
It is a very modern day haunting. A young couple buy and renovate an old house – so far, so normal, but an elderly neighbour, hints in her rambling chats about accidents at the house and a death. Everything is alluded to, nothing is spelled out. Tim has become obsessive about the renovation, or is it more like possession?
Hope you’ve enjoyed my selection, and if it encourages you to dip in and try one at least of these authors, well, that’s brilliant.
If you’d any other tales you’d like to add to my list please do so in comments.
Happy ghostly readings.
- About the Author
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Alyson lives in the UK; her fiction has been published widely in print anthologies – DeadCades, Women in Horror Annual 2, Trembling with Fear 1 &2, Coffin Bell Journal 1 and Stories from Stone and in ezines, most often on the Horror Tree site, Siren’s Call and The Casket of Fictional Delights. In May 2019 Night of the Rider, was published by Demain, in their Short Sharp Shocks! E book series and reached the amazon kindle top 10 best seller lists. Her work has been read on podcasts (eg Ladies of Horror), shortlisted in competitions and published in charity anthologies. Future work will appear in anthologies from Things in the Well, Mortal Realm and Twisted Wing Publishers.
She performs at open mics, teaches, edits and hangs out with her dog on the moor in all weathers.