13 female horror writers you should read

2 of 14

Shirley Jackson (Image via Magnum Photos)

1.) Shirley Jackson

If you had met Shirley Jackson during her lifetime, you might not have guessed that she was a horror writer. Her days were largely taken up by the duties of a 1950s mother and wife – that is, the constant drudgery of cleaning, cooking, and childcare. She also had to ignore the infidelities of her professor husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, though it apparently caused her great pain. Yet, despite all this, Jackson produced finely wrought horror that scares readers even today.

The New Yorker published one of her earliest short stories, “The Lottery”, in 1948. In it, a small community moves through its everyday motions while preparing for an annual ritual known as “the lottery”. The story links small-town culture with an undercurrent of evil and savagery for a bone-chilling ending.

Jackson herself was an outcast in her small Vermont town, thanks in part to her marriage to Hyman, a Jewish man (antisemitism in 1950s America was often unabashed), and to her own  strangeness. Rumors abounded that Jackson was a witch, and while she may not have actually practiced witchcraft, it spoke to her self-imposed isolation.

Shirley Jackson died early in her life, after experiencing prolonged illness and a bout of paranoia that forced her to stay in her home. She left behind a series of works that speak to the base strangeness of American life, including novels such as Hangsaman, The Sundial, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and her best-known work, The Haunting of Hill House.

Where to start
The Haunting of Hill House. Published in 1959, this novel still brings an eerie chill to your spine more than fifty years later. Here are its oft-quoted first lines:

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."