Science, Ghosts and Haunted Houses: Three 19th Century Classic Women Horror Writers

Frankenstein Pic 1823

Photo Credit: Mr. T. P. Cooke, of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, in the character of the monster in the dramatic romance of Frankenstein, 1823 production of Presumption; or, the fate of Frankenstein, lithograph reproduction of an original painting by Nathanial Whittock and Thomas Charles Wageman, The New York Public Library: Tronvillian/ Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 Expired

I am not a huge horror fan, that is, of the blood and gore type. I am fascinated by psychological horror, especially in classic fiction and in classic films, such as the films of Val Lewton. Many of my stories have hints of psychological horror, such as my short story “A Saturday Outing” in my collection Gnarled Bones and Other Stories.

But February was Women in Horror Month and an incident in the blogosphere inspired this post. Many bloggers and authors celebrate this month by featuring and reviewing books written by women horror writers or posting author interviews with women horror authors. A blog I follow does a series of interviews each year and I was anxious to see the line up of authors as I am always interested in what women writers are doing and I even like to feature interesting interviews in my newsletter.

However, I was disappointed to find the blogger included several male authors in this year’s line-up. I have nothing against male authors in any genre, but the idea that male authors featured during a month intended to celebrate and promote women authors in a male-dominated genre like horror where their work is often overlooked did annoy me. That inspired me to devote this blog post to three of my favorite classic women horror writers of the 19th century (since I”m all about history): Mary Shelley, Charlotte Riddell, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

Many consider Mary Shelley the godmother of horror, as her book Frankenstein is a classic in the genre. Last year, I wrote a tribute to Shelley and her book here, tracing some of the inspiration behind Frankenstein. Shelley’s book is a “thinking outside the box” work in many ways, not the least of which is it breaks the pattern of the separate spheres as it takes Shelley away from the angel in the house idealogy and puts her in the role of a woman writer who dares venture into a genre considered too dark and dangerous for women by many. Frankenstein is, in some ways, a male text. It deals with science, or, rather, science gone wrong, which was a realm of the male sphere at that time. But it is also a very human text about the fallacies of the patriarchal concept of man conquering nature (as is the concept of man conquering woman) and the dangers of that type of megalomaniacal thinking.

Riddell Pic

Photo Credit: Charlotte Riddell, visiting card, 1875, Elliot & Fry photograph, courtesy of Jennifer Carnell: Funkhauser/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)

Freeman Pic

Photo Credit: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, scanned from frontispiece of her novel Jane Field, published in 1892: Ruzulo/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

But many women writers of the nineteenth century who delved into the horror genre preferred to do so from the angle of the spectacular and supernatural. They favored the more psychological elements of the unexplained in horror. Charlotte Riddell used the haunted house as a metaphor for social horrors, specifically those related to women and property. Emma Liggins, in her introduction to Riddell’s Weird Stories, points  out:

“[Haunted house narratives] allowed authors to explore issues around the acquisition and loss of property, inheritance, and material possessions, as well as women’s financial dependency, their positions as wives, mothers and daughters, a matter of great personal interest to popular women writers…” (location 45-55)

For example, in Riddell’s story “Walnut Tree House”, there is a complex structure of inheritance that involves only the male members of the family. The house is left at one point to the male grandchild of a pair of fraternal twins while the female grandchild remains out of the picture, placed in the care of an aunt. Even at the end of the story when the inheritance is sorted out, the owner still is a male member of the family (and not a direct heir at that) while the woman receives a small stipend.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman dealt more with ghosts and unexplained supernatural phenomena. What is interesting about Freeman’s stories is that the unexplained frequently remains so. The characters attempt to find logical explanations but fail to do so. For example, in the story “Luella Miller”, a friend of Miller’s relates the baffling way in which Miller caused the death of all who came into contact with her. Her devotion to the Cult of True Womanhood which rendered the ideal woman as fragile, dependent, and in need of constant care sucked the life out of everyone involved with her so that they began as robust human beings only to end up as hardly skeletons who died of exhaustion and illness while their mistress thrived. So Luella Miller becomes a sort of psychological vampire in the story.

Perhaps because these women writers worked outside the realm of what was considered acceptable for women at the time, their fiction crosses boundaries and moves beyond ideas of proper nineteenth century womanhood. Their fiction “allowed for greater commentary on social mores and more details about a wider range of characters, whilst building up tension behind the ostensible realism” (Liggins, location 33). Stepping into the darker world that lies on the other side of the mirror is a difficult thing to accept in women writers, even by today’s standards, and deserves praise and recognition.


Are you a fan of classic horror fiction? What horror stories have you liked?

Works Cited

Liggins, Emma. (2009). [Introduction]. In Charlotte Riddell, Weird Stories (location 13-99). Victorian Secrets Limited, 2011 (original publication date 1882). Kindle digital file.

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