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The vampire fiction which sells like hot cakes today has its roots in the Gothic novels pioneered by British women in the 18th century. The tradition of the eccentric English female supernatural writer dies hard: to this day, the UK is accepted as the birthplace of the genre.
Recent decades have spawned hundreds of writers who dabble with the dark side: but in my opinion, British female supernatural authors Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Edith Nesbit, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Susan Hill have frightened more people per capita than any others… and isn’t that the mark of a good ghost story?
~ Mandy Baldwin
People have enjoyed being spooked since the first stories were told round the first fires, but female writers of the supernatural have an exceptional ability to tap into our psyche.
These ladies don’t so much draw on ‘things that go bump in the night’, as on the shadows that follow us from within.
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A true ‘daughter of the Enlightenment‘, Anne specialised in finding a logical explanation for the ‘supernatural’ events in her books.
Radcliffe could be called the mother of all female supernatural writers.
Her writing provided a comfortable living for herself and her husband. For just one book, she was paid £500, a spectacular sum at the time but she avoided any other company and appeared to have no friends. When Anne died in 1823, Christina Rossetti tried to write her biography, but gave up for lack of any information.
Anne published volumes of poetry, as well as the novels ‘The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne’, ‘A Sicilian Romance’, ‘The Romance of the Forest’, The Italian’, ‘Gaston De Blondville’, and ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho.’
Her writing style now seems a tad florid – heroines have a tendency to swoon, for example – but alongside the drama which makes Anne’s books timelessly entertaining, there is some fascinating social commentary on the time, especially regarding a woman’s place in it.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794)
Got a week to spare? Then lose yourself in the mysteries surrounding Udolpho Castle.
Set in 16th century southern France, this has everything: supposedly haunted castles, seemingly supernatural phenomena, definitely dastardly, dashing villains, a brooding hero, a hopeless romance, and a heroine who is the target for a rapacious step-uncle.
There is a mystery connecting our heroine’s father to the castle – oh, and just in case you are bored, Anne has thrown in a locked room mystery.
There is a lot of attention paid to the landscape. The heroine, Emily St Auberne, travels from Gascony across the Pyrenees to northern Italy and Venice with a handsome stranger who shares her mystical connection to nature. (Unfortunately, Anne Radcliffe had never travelled to any of these places, so some of the descriptions are wildly ‘off’ – but hey, this is high drama, not a guide book.)
Written in four volumes, this really is an epic tale, and because it is not concerned with the marriage market (unlike so many novels of the time), it shows a daring and passionate side to Emily, giving it a modern feel.
The haunting which terrifies Emily isn’t likely to scare you very much now – but Anne’s husband found this book so frightening that he refused to read it when he was alone.
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Shelley’s life was as dramatic as many of the novels which fuelled her desire to write.
She was the illegitimate daughter of an early feminist and a political activist.
In her teens she fell in love with a married poet (Percy Bysshe Shelley), ran away to Italy with Lord Byron’s pregnant girlfriend, came home to England pregnant herself, married the philandering Percy after his wife drowned herself, and lived like a literary gypsy, roaming Europe.
She lost three children, survived smallpox, and finally returned to England permanently after her husband drowned during a boating accident. Byron personally cremated his body on a beach – if that’s not Gothic, I don’t know what is.
Left with little money and a child to raise, most of her efforts went toward publicising the work of her husband, until her early death from a brain tumour.
Besides her novels ‘Valperga’, ‘Perkin Warbeck’, ‘The Last Man’, ‘Lodore’, and ‘Falkner’, Mary left collections of essays and short stories and books about her travels in Europe, such as ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy’.
Her writing style is typical of the 19th century – it can get a bit ponderous and over-descriptive. But bear with her… her stories are revolutionary.
Book Recommendation: ‘Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus’ (1818)
On a wild and rainy night in an old house by a lake in Switzerland, two young girls and their poet lovers challenged each other to write a ghost story.
Mary struggled with this, until, a few nights later, she had a terrible ‘waking dream’ and wrote it down.The result was ‘Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus’ – probably the most famous horror story of all time.
A brilliant young student in a fit of arrogance brings to life a being intended as an experiment. Rejecting “the wretch” he tries to lead a normal life, but is pursued by his creation, who has the capacity to love and is therefore endlessly wounded by the rejections he encounters.
Forget the bolts of electricity, the square headed monster, and especially forget the film version by Kenneth Branagh.
Lose yourself in the original, which still holds all its power to horrify and challenge belief: a chilling blend of science-fiction, ghost-story, and psychological drama.
Warning: this is a 19th century Gothic novel, so don’t expect a happy ending.
Image Source: Goodreads
Two sides to Edith’s life – two sides to her writing.
The author of innocent children’s books such as ‘The Railway Children’ and ‘Five Children and It’ was a mistress of blood-curdling horror.
Unlike many women supernatural writers, though, this wasn’t her first choice of genre.
A happily married established writer of children’s novels, Edith was shocked to find that her husband had not only had a child by another woman, but insisted that Edith adopt the child, to bring him up alongside her own children.
So far so difficult: but the child’s mother was Edith’s friend, Mary, and she and Edith’s husband thought it would be a good idea if she moved into the family home, so that Edith could support all of them.
When Edith protested, her husband threatened to leave her (taking her house, earnings and children) if she didn’t agree. Mary moved in, took over housekeeping, and the three effectively lived as a menage a trois – Mary had another child, and again, Edith was forced to adopt him.
But the suppressed rage she felt gave Edith an entirely new career: the pretty, prim, sweet children’s author became a hard-drinking, chain-smoking writer of Gothic bestsellers.
It would be impossible to list all of Edith’s works here. She was incredibly prolific, producing at least forty lively, popular children’s books, and around thirty novels for adults – most of them dark tales of revenge and horror.
Book Recommendation: ‘Man-size in Marble’ (1893)
This for me is the perfect example of Edith’s style: the sweetness and light which is ripped away to show an underlying sinister threat.
A pair of newlyweds move into a small cottage in a quiet village and dismiss local tales of a curse: it’s surely nonsense that the marble statues in the local church come to life each year on All Saint’s Eve to exact revenge… isn’t it?
But on that night, the husband discovers that the stone slabs the statues used to lie on are empty… and his young wife is missing.
There is a strong element of suspense to this story – as well as a pompous, smug husband who gets what’s coming to him. (No surprises there!)
As with her children’s stories, the tale is beautifully balanced: and the final horror is as shocking now as it ever was.
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Mary was the original woman who had it all: eighty novels and eleven children.
Born into ‘genteel poverty’ in 1835, Mary worked as an actress, before becoming mistress to a man with five children and a wife in a lunatic asylum.
Eventually they were able to marry, and Mary went on to have six children of her own, who she brought up along with her step-children.
This didn’t stop her writing. Braddon was, without a doubt, the most dynamic British female author of her day, and she was soon well known for her ‘sensation’ novels, such as ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’. She also began her own magazine that published short stories and serialised novels, and worked as an editor.
Branching out, she began writing Gothic horror and psychological thrillers, eventually settling on the supernatural as her chosen genre.
Her style was faster-paced than many writers of her time, although sometimes a little melodramatic for today’s tastes.
Book Recommendation: ‘At Chrighton Abbey’ (1871)
I first read this book during a stormy weekend at an isolated old cottage: perfect conditions for reading a ghost story.
This really is a classic: the events and the situation are so familiar, that you will be lulled into thinking it is just pleasantly spooky… until later, when (as happened for me) there is a power cut and the story floods back.
A poor governess comes back to England after years in Vienna and stays with a wealthy branch of her family in their grand old house, Chrighton Abbey, which has portions dating back to the 12th century.
She is welcomed, but the house is haunted – by tragedy and by ghosts, which our heroine, an educated woman, refuses to believe in until it is too late.
Beautifully atmospheric, with wonderful descriptions of life in the great house, and the family who are – they believe – doomed and cursed by what clings to the old stone walls and the very land their home is built on.
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Susan Hill is, I believe, the finest writer of traditional ghost stories currently working.
She was born in Yorkshire, but moved to Stratford Upon Avon when she married, and occasionally refers to her home county in her work. Much of her writing references typically dark and gloomy landscapes, with a strong ‘Bronte-esque’ feeling.
She is most famous for her novel-length ghost story ‘The Woman in Black’, but has written short stories, as well as a series of crime novels.
Being one of the most traditional of all British women writers, Hill’s ghost stories are unashamedly Gothic, but beautifully balanced: there is a strong sense of impending gloom, which is perfect.
Even thought you know tragedy is inevitable, it will still take you by surprise.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ (1992)
A traveller returns to London after years away, travelling alone, and decides to investigate the life of a man who inspired him from childhood.
As he learns more about the man, he soon finds he is being followed by an emaciated child who disappears when he is spoken to. There are sounds of sobbing and screaming, which everyone denies being able to hear, and he realises that he is personally haunted.
Eventually his investigations lead him to an old lady at a manor house, where he discovers that something incredibly evil is at work.
Hill’s descriptions of place and people are detailed, but never slow down the pace of the story. The sights, sounds, even smells, are amazingly evocative and only add to the sense of impending doom.
The ending is a little inconclusive, but the story is terrifying, and the final drama creeps up without warning.
The supernatural is the only genre of literature which has no boundaries: it appeals equally to male and female, young and old.
Why is this? Perhaps because it puts no limits on imagination and makes the heart beat faster.
And although reading is essentially solitary… you are never alone in a haunted house.
Could these books make the hair on the back of your neck stand up?
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