“... the female of the species is more deadly than the male,” said Rudyard Kipling and he might have meant writers excelling in frightening us with tales of supertural horror and terror. In fact, the horror genre was one where women authors held their own against their male counterparts and even outpaced them - especially in the Victorian era. But virtually all have been forgotten except by a few truly devoted aficiodos and deserve to be brought back into the limelight.
Rooted in folklore and religious tradition, and focussing on death, afterlife, evil and the demonic, horror fiction in English began with the Gothic (origilly only a sub-genre of Gothic fiction with the me derived from the architectural style of buildings these stories are usually set in).
The pioneer was Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” (1764), the first modern novel to encompass supertural elements, but it was Clara Reeve (1729-1807) who moved the genre forward. In “The Old English Baron” (1777), she took Walpole’s plot only but balanced the fantastic elements with realism to make it more believable.
Giving the genre respectability with her technique of “the explained supertural” or a fil ratiol explation of seemingly supertural events, was Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), author of “The Mysteries of Udolpho” (1794) and “The Italian” (1796).
Radcliffe, who influenced among others Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Daphne du Maurier - and Jane Austen (who parodied her in “Northanger Abbey”), also differentiated between literary terror and horror, or the dread before the actual experience and the revulsion afterward respectively - criticising the emphasis on the latter.
Both Reeve and Radcliffe influenced Mary Shelley (1797-1851), who created one of the best-known supertural characters - Frankenstein’s monster in the eponymous novel of 1818 though it is more science fiction than horror.
But it was the Victorian era, spanning most of the 19th century that the genre caught popular interest. The epoch saw unprecedented scientific advance but also keen interest in the supertural and many authors - a large number of women among them - catered to it. The stories were slow and suspenseful, but guaranteed to send a chill down your spine.
Known for her novels of society, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865) occasiolly penned the scary stuff, one of which was “The Ghost in the Garden Room” - an entry in Charles Dickens-helmed story “The Haunted House” featured in the 1859 Christmas issue of his weekly literary periodical “All the Year Round”.
This also included “The Ghost in the Clock Room” by Hesba Stretton — pen-me of Sarah Smith (1832-1911) who otherwise wrote children’s books —, and “The Ghost in the Picture Room” by poet-philanthropist Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864), who was Queen Victoria’s favourite poet.
More famous than Dickens in her time, Ellen Wood (1814-1887) also contributed to the genre with her most-known and often-anthologized “Reality or Delusion?” among others.
Margaret Wilson Oliphant (1828-1897) also had several works of supertural fiction, including the long ghost story “A Beleaguered City” and other shorter tales, among her 120 books, while Countess Wilhelmi FitzClarence (1830-1906), who only took up writing when 60, produced “Ghostly Tales” (1896), largely forgotten now, but quite popular then. Jourlist, traveller and Egyptologis Amelia Edwards (1831-1892) also found time to write mystery and horror fiction, with “The Phantom Coach” most known.
Then there was Rhoda Broughton (1840-1920), niece of renowned author Sheridan Le Fanu and known as the “Queen of the Circulating Libraries” due to demand for her works - not limited to ghost stories. Equally prolific were Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), also not limited to the supertural, and Henrietta Dorothy “H.D” Everett (1851-1923). (IANS)