An illustration of a figure of a woman emerging from a green forest
An illustration of a figure of a woman emerging from a green forest

Depending on which new novels you’ve been reading lately, you may have found a whiff of gothic between their covers. In Francine Toon’s debut, Pine, released in January, there was the persistent sound of dripping, an inexplicable smell of rotting meat. In Sisters, released this summer, Booker-shortlisted author Daisy Johnson constructed a house that is riddled by “thumps and thundering, the sound of many footsteps, the crash of windows opening and closing, sudden explosions which sound like shouting”. Last year, author Sara Collins introduced her titular Frannie Langton to a London where “the cold seemed to carry its own smell, like raw meat, and came on me sudden as a cutpurse.” In 2021, poet Salena Godden will introduce us to Death herself, “a homeless black beggar-woman with knotty natty hair”, who tells stories of murdered women lost to history in Mrs Death Misses Death.

These are just a few examples of recent literary fiction written by women which reinvents horror and gothic tropes. Harpies, witches, ghosts and the otherworldly have snuck into the pages of books that wouldn’t necessarily be categorised as horror, but nevertheless suggest a shift in how female writers, especially, are reflecting the world today. Are we in the midst of a gothic resurgence, and if so, what does it say about being a woman at the moment?

Women have long been associated with gothic fiction. Catherine Spooner, Professor of Literature and Culture at Lancaster University, points out that, at the end of the 18th century, gothic fiction comprised approximately a third of the books published. “Women writers were critical to that”, she says. Often these stories would feature women trapped in a castle, dungeon or abbey (“a stand-in for the domestic environment”), and they have been trying to escape ever since. From Shirley Jackson to Helen Oyeyemi, the haunted house narrative has proved ripe for literary reinvention.

In Sisters, Johnson’s mother character Sheela “has always known that houses are bodies and that her body is a house in more ways than most”, a neat nod to the body horror genre ushered in by Frankenstein in the 19th century. “It’s a heady mix,” says Spooner, of how motherhood, womanhood and domesticity have collided with horror over the years, “and it provides a ready-made vehicle for today’s writers to address things such as the MeToo movement or everyday sexism.”

In March, Evie Wyld united disparate female voices in The Bass Rock in a biting criticism of generations of male violence in a book described by The Guardian as “a gothic novel, a family saga and a ghost story rolled into one.” Sophie Mackintosh’s Booker-longlisted debut, The Water Cure, combined the eerie stylings of The Virgin Suicides in a reflection on toxic masculinity in 2018.

“I think women are uniquely qualified to write about horror because almost all women are told from childhood that the world is a dangerous place for them,” says Kirsty Logan, author of Things We Say in the Dark, a collection of dark short stories. “I believe one of the underlying reasons women find the image of a witch so appealing is because of that power and agency to inhabit any space they want and to live without threat,” wrote Francine Toon in The Irish Times earlier this year.  

Pine is a novel about motherhood, grief, ghosts and a legacy of witchcraft, something Toon gained lived experience of after moving to the Scottish Highlands as a 10-year-old. “We lived near Dornach, which was the last place to execute a woman for witchcraft, in 1727,” she tells me when I call her up. “Growing up, a witch, for me, was a real person who got killed by people. There was a lot of superstition that had been there for hundreds of years.”

Nevertheless, both Logan and Toon are swift to acknowledge the recent interest in what Logan refers to as “a connection to spirituality in a witchy, tarot sense”. Azealea Banks’ announcement that she was a witch, in 2015, encouraged The Guardian to declare the era as “season of the witch”, a term borrowed by Publisher’s Weekly to reflect the rise in books on the subject. Last year The New York Times trilled: “We have reached peak witch.”

Like a good spell, there are a range of ingredients behind the phenomenon. Toon makes a convincing case for nostalgia, spinning recollections of a Nineties childhood filled with urban legends being told in playgounds, The Worst Witch on after-school telly and sleepovers fuelled by The Craft. “Women who grew up with these kind of figures in their adolescence and childhood have now reached their twenties and thirties and are drawn to it, but in a different shape,” Toon says, pointing out the Netflix remake of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Stephen King-inspired Stranger Things as evidence of creepy throwbacks taking grasp of pop culture.

But feminism's at play, too: “I think that’s kind of appealing to young women who are wanting to feel empowered. The witch character is always outside of the patriarchy and kind of fascinating but also enraging to male characters,” Toon adds. Plus, she explains, the witch figure is an inclusive one: “not only in terms of gender or sexuality, but also throughout the world.”

Spooner agrees that in recent years women writers have reclaimed folk horror, a genre that, since the Sixties and Seventies, has “been quite male-dominated and masculine in tone”. A way of talking about the British landscape with reference to folklore, it could be thought of as a kind of spooky nature writing (which has also been picked up and remoulded by female writers over the past decade). This month saw the publication of Hag, a collection of “forgotten folktales” from “the islands of Scotland to the coast of Cornwall” written by female authors including Irenosen Okojie, Johnson, Eimear McBride and Liv Little.

Spooner also cites Pine, Daisy Johnson’s first collection Fen, Folk by Zoe Gilbert (“which mixes folk tradition with Angela Carter in a really exciting way”) and Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucky McKnight as examples of women “transforming” the genre. Why such a proliferation? “I think this really speaks to certain themes that are very prominent in contemporary culture,” she replies. “First of all, the urban-rural divide that we can see in British politics at the moment, which I think it’s reflecting that in really interesting ways, and secondly - perhaps even more prominently - the ecological crisis and what we make of the landscape at this particular time.”

Logan, meanwhile, believes that the turbulence of the past five years has led to us looking to the otherworldly for a sense of stability – after all, the first explosion in gothic writing did collide with the French Revolution.

“Most horror is not really about death or violence or destruction, it’s about survival,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it’s uplifting, but it’s a consolation in a way. Women are uniquely situated to understand that the world is a site of horror and danger but that it can be survived, that you can come out of the other side.”

What Spooner is keen to point out, though, is that women writing gothic and horror-inflected fiction has never really gone away as much as be erased from the canon. “There’s a tendency, especially with female writers, that subsequent generations kind of forget about them. There’s a huge wealth of writers that we’ve just neglected.” While many will remember Stephen King’s dominance over 1980s horror, for instance, the international popularity of Anne Rice’s vampire fiction gets overlooked.

What, then, can we expect from gothic in the near-future? Jeanette Winterson’s Frankisstein, which was published in January, is among a new wave of horror-inspired work to deal with queer narratives. And, while gothic tropes have appeared in slave narratives since the 19th century – not least in Toni Morrison’s Beloved – there is also more recent experimentation with the genre coming from more inclusive voices. “What’s happening now is a huge variety of gothic and horror fiction coming from writers of colour,” says Spooner, “which is really exciting and feels very new.”  

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

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