For much of its history, the ghost story has provided something of a sanctuary for female writers. Denied the same authorial licence as their male contemporaries in the realms of 'realist' fiction, a significant number of women turned to the supernatural to provide a coded expression of their experiences, speaking their truth from - and through - the penumbral spaces of the literary marketplace. Yet despite this rich and varied tradition, with the ghost story branching out into others forms of supernaturalism and Horror, most anthologies have tended to privilege the efforts of male authors as being somehow more cerebral than the blood-curdlers penned by women. Unsurprisingly, this is absolute hokum. Female authors have always brought intellectual heft to their stories of the strange and the supernatural, whilst never losing sight of the genre's capacity to unsettle and disturb its readers, as demonstrated by the collections below. Enjoy your descent into their delightfully dark and sinisterly spooky worlds.
Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense by Black Writers – Various
As Brandon Massey tells us in this introduction, this collection is the first anthology of ‘original horror and suspense stories written exclusively by black writers ever to be released by a major publisher’. It may have taken until 2004 for it to appear, but it’s a thundering corrective to the omission of black authors from the genre, and features an equal number of tales from men and women. The ideas and images which permeate this collection make it an indispensable read for anyone even vaguely interested in Horror, and will haunt you long after you finish reading.
One to Try - ‘He Who Takes Away the Pain’ by Chesya Burke
Dark Tales - Shirley Jackson
Few writers of the twentieth century, or perhaps ever, have so brilliantly captured the dark side of everyday life as Jackson. The cumulative dread that suffuses these stories is so perfect that you have to remind yourself to breathe whilst reading them. Jackson elevates disquiet to levels beyond the reach of almost all other writers, and this collection of her most unsettling tales (published in 2016) exhibits the depth and range of her genius.
One to Try - Picking just one story from this collection is impossible (and if the Booker judges can go for two, that’s good enough for me): ‘Paranoia’ and ‘The Summer People’
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque and The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque - Joyce Carol Oates
Two full-blooded collections which more than live up to their gory name. However, Joyce Carol Oates, one of the titans of American literature, is not interested in merely turning stomachs. Her stories are animated by her razor-sharp literary ability, and pulsate with feminist energy throughout; she reflects contentious issues in her monstrous mirror and delights in distorting and distending them into frightening new forms.
One to Try - ‘The Premonition’ (from Haunted) and ‘Unprintable’ (from The Collector of Hearts)
The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease – Various
Although a lot of the stories featured in this anthology are by men, the four women represented are what make this one to seek out. Although the collection’s title may be quibbled over (is there really anything that new about the ‘new uncanny’?), the stories by Sara Maitland, Jane Rogers, Alison MacLeod and A.S. Byatt are satisfyingly unsettling in their imbrication of the familiar with the strange, ranging from creepy dolls to malevolent foot-massage machines.
One to Try - ‘Family Motel’ by Alison MacLeod
Thus Were Their Faces – Silvina Ocampo
In her introduction to this collection, Helen Oyeymi describes the Argentinian author Silvina Occampo as 'a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school’, which captures something of the hybridic quality of these stories. Whilst not overtly ‘spooky’ they are steeped in literary strangeness, blending Horror tropes with fairy-tale and fantasy features in a way that might be read as anticipating Angela Carter’s revisionist Gothic short story collection The Bloody Chamber. The intensity and obliqueness of her imagery is startling and utterly captivating.
One to Try - ‘The Photographs’
Uncanny Stories - May Sinclair
At first glance, this collection of unsettling short stories from the early-twentieth-century British writer May Sinclair might appear to be ‘classic’ ghost stories in the vein of M R James. Yet Sinclair’s writing mediates between the heyday of the ghost story in the mid-to-late nineteenth century with the thoroughly modern and (then) cutting-edge preoccupations of Freudian psychoanalysis and an emergent modernist literary sensibility, and it is this that makes her one of the foundational figures of the modern supernatural story. These are tales which spark the intellect whilst chilling the blood.
One to Try - ‘The Victim’
The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, Volumes I & II – Various
These anthologies of contemporary ghost stories feature some of the most celebrated women writers of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Edith Wharton, Jean Rhys, Margery Lawrence and Daphne du Maurier. The selections demonstrate the versatility and breadth of the ghost story as a reflection of women’s lived and imagined experience, and are incisively contextualized by the excellent introductions from Jennifer Uglow and Sara Maitland in the respective volumes.
One to Try - ‘The Eyes’ by Edith Wharton (Volume I) & ‘The Haunting of Shawley Rectory’ by Ruth Rendell (Volume II)