Recently, we compiled a massive 750,000-word, 1,200-page anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (Atlantic/Tor), which covers 100 years of weird fiction. In doing so, we revisited many old favorites and discovered new ones. This included discovery of our thoughts about some of the best women writers of weird fiction. Although there were many women writing in a ghost story and/or traditional Gothic mode in the first half of the twentieth-century, there weren’t that many women writers of the weird. This began to change in the 1950s in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, a shift reflected in the ratio of male to female writers in the latter half of The Weird. There is also often just as much of a barrier to women writers in non-US/UK markets that limits their visibility in English translations — even today. We are also still tracking down Latin American weird in general, and Latin American women writers of the weird in particular.
How does weird fiction differ from horror and fantasy? Although dark like horror, it is generally about encounters with the inexplicable where there may never be a full explanation for strangeness. For this reason it rarely involves vampires, werewolves, zombies, or ghosts because these are known quantities to fiction readers that have hardened, to some extent, into archetypes. In the same way, naturalistic horror about serial killers would not be considered “weird” fiction. Sometimes, as in the work of Kafka, the weird can involve strange rituals, and have the atmosphere of being in the middle of a nightmare from the very first word on the page.
Any list of fourteen women writers is going to be too limiting, and can only be seen as signpost or marker on a life-long journey of discovery. In offering this list we hope it will be considered just a jumping-off point for further exploration. The list also doesn’t include notable writers who work or worked primarily in fantasy, horror, or the literary mainstream but occasionally engage in the weird, like Jamaica Kincaid, Leonora Carrington, Luisa Valenzuela, Merce Rodoreda, Rikki Ducornet, Kelly Link, Catherynne M. Valente, Margo Lanagan, Karen Joy Fowler, Lisa Tuttle, Nalo Hopkinson, Poppy Z. Brite, Tananarive Due, and Deborah Biancotti. Interesting writers just beginning to make their mark include Chesya Burke, Lisa H. Hannett, Livia Llewellyn, and Allyson Bird. And even this list is, of course, terribly incomplete!
K.J. Bishop (1972 – ) is an Australian writer who with her first novel The Etched City quickly became a favorite of those seeking weird dark fiction. First identified as a member of the New Weird movement, Bishop is influenced by the Decadents of the late 1800s, and has parlayed that influence into a unique approach to her fiction. She has won the William L. Crawford Award and the Ditmar Award. Her work has appeared in Leviathan 4, Subterranean, Album Zutique, and Fantasy Magazine, among others. Although Bishop rarely seems interested in a supernatural element, per se, her fiction is at its core haunted by the inexplicable. Subsequent short stories like “Saving the Gleeful Horse” are unclassifiable but essentially weird.
Gemma Files (1968 – ) is a Canadian writer of visceral horror and weird fiction in both the short and long forms. She has won the International Horror Guild Award, been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, and appeared in several year’s best anthologies. Files often takes traditional tropes and transforms them, but some of her short stories also start in places unique to her and then become even stranger. A uniquely lush yet muscular style informs her fiction and in her dark visions and her ability to convey the alien she most closely seems to be aligned with writers like Caitlin R. Kiernan.
Daphne du Maurier (1907 – 1989) was an extremely popular English author and playwright, even though much of her work was very dark. Many of her works have been adapted into films, including the novels Rebecca (1938), which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1941, Jamaica Inn (1936), and the story ‘The Birds’ (1963), all three movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1971) was adapted into a cult classic film directed by Nicolas. The novella is a masterpiece of the occult, its hints of a world beyond embodying the best of uncanny fiction. Du Maurier’s work had much in common with Gothic fiction, but in modernizing it she easily entered the pantheon of weird writers.
Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965) was U.S. writer best-known for her story “The Lottery” (1948), although much of her other short fiction is as good or better. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House is considered one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century. Her influence can be seen in the work of many fantasists, including Joanna Russ, Kelly Link, and Neil Gaiman. The founding of the Shirley Jackson Awards and publication in 2010 of a collected stories volume by the Library of America has helped to cement her popularity. One of our favorite stories, “The Summer People,” selected for Best American Short Stories in 1951, is a chilling yet subtle tour de force of the weird.
Caitlín R. Kiernan (1964 - ) is a U.S. author who has steadily moved beyond a reputation as an heir to the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft and Southern Gothic literature to become one of the most original and audacious weird writers of her generation. In addition to her many award-winning novels and stories, Kiernan has written scientific papers that reflect her love of herpetology and paleontology, also reflected in her fiction. Perhaps more than any other writer of the past thirty years, Kiernan places the reader somewhere alien and inhabits points of view that seem both luminous and edgy. She has an extraordinary ability to portray the uncanny in original and terrifying ways.
Kathe Koja (1960 – ) is a U.S. writer who first emerged as a novelist during the horror boom of the early 1990s. Kafkaesque, transgressive novels such as The Cipher (1991), Bad Brains (1992), Skin (1993), and Strange Angels (1994) established her as one of weird fiction’s most innovative practitioners. Koja’s version of the weird is both claustrophobic and luminous, continually questioning the nature of reality. Many of her stories concern characters marginalized by society who either transcend their environment or disintegrate into it.
Leena Krohn (1947 – ) is one of the most respected Finnish writers of her generation. In her large body of work for adults and children, Krohn deals with issues related to the boundary between reality and illusion, and issues of morality and conscience. She comes to the weird in the same ways as Franz Kafka. Her short novel Tainaron: Mail From Another City, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and International Horror Guild Award in 2005. Tainaron shares some affinities with Kafka, while being utterly original. Each section of the novel illuminates the next, with the weird element serving both as strange adventure and parallel to the real world. For this accomplishment alone, Krohn deserves a place on this list. Her books have been translated in many languages, but most of it does not yet exist in English.
Tanith Lee (1947 – ) is an iconic English writer of science fiction, horror, and fantasy, with over seventy novels and hundreds of short stories to her credit. It is impossible to think of weird fiction without thinking of Lee. She has been a regular contributor over many years to Weird Tales magazine. She has won the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Nebula Award multiple times. Along with Daphne Du Maurier, Lee has established herself as one of the preeminent writers coming to the weird from gothic fiction.
Joyce Carol Oates (1938 – ) is U.S. author who has published over fifty novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Her novel them (1969) won the National Book Award, and her novels Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), and Blonde (2000) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to portraying compelling, complex characters, Oates excels at writing stories with a New Gothic or weird sensibility, many of them terrifying or disturbing. She has also anthologized weird fiction and written extensively about it.
Micaela Morrissette (1979 – ) is a U.S. writer who thus far has specialized in short fiction, fueled by Decadent, fantastical, and weird sensibilities. She is a senior editor for the U.S. literary magazine Conjunctions as well as a fiction reviewer for Jacket and Rain Taxi. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, Morrissette’s fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Weird Tales, Best American Fantasy, and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, among others. On the basis of just a handful of tales, she is one of the best of the next generation of weird writers.
Margaret St. Clair (1911 – 1995) was a U.S. writer whose most creative period was during the 1950s, when she wrote such acclaimed stories as “Brightness Falls from the Air” (1951), “An Egg a Month from All Over” (1952), and “Horrer Howce” (1956). In 1951 she also published the classic “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles.” The story is satirical, weird, and gives a nod to a Lord Dunsany story. Her 1963 novel Sign of the Labrys was known for its early use of Wicca elements in fiction, while interests included witchcraft, nudism, and feminism.
Francis Stevens (1883 – 1948), was the pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett. Stevens wrote a number of uncanny fantasies between 1917 and 1923 and has been called “the woman who invented dark fantasy.” Among her most famous books are Claimed (1920), which H. P. Lovecraft called “One of the strangest and most compelling science fantasy novels you will ever read.” She also wrote an early dystopian novel titled The Heads of Cerberus (1919). Although not all of Stevens’ work has dated well, she was the first American woman to have her weird fiction widely published and acclaimed.
Karin Tidbeck (1977 - ) is a Swedish writer of remarkable range and talent whose understated and darkly imaginative stories have just begun to appear in publications like Weird Tales, Unstuck Annual, and Shimmer. All of her fiction is influenced by a weird sensibility, and sometimes partakes of the landscapes and tales of her native Sweden. She has one collection out in Swedish, and recently won a prestigious grant from the Swedish Author’s Fund. Her first English-language collection will appear later this year from Cheeky Frawg.
Kurahashi Yumiko (1935 – 2005) was a Japanese writer perhaps best-known in the English language for her collection The Woman with the Flying Head and Other Stories. Yumiko’s first story was published in 1960, and she continued to publish fiction through the 1980s, with health problems leading to her giving up creative writing after a certain point. She tended to be both transgressive and traditional in her work, poking at boundaries of sex and power while also being influenced by Poe. As a result, there is a surreal and unsettling quality to her fiction that admirably does not allow readers to get comfortable.