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15 Essential Gothic Horror Works: A Crimson Peak Pregame

Photo: Universal Pictures

If you’ve seen any trailers or posters for Guillermo Del Toro’s new movie Crimson Peak, out today, you’ll recognize such standard horror elements as a haunted house and a wide-eyed ingenue. But based on the film’s style and tone — the dark and stormy nights, the woman with the secret, and Tom Hiddleston’s Byronic hero – there’s a much more specific subgenre that it’s clearly evoking: gothic horror. In the movie, young bride Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is swept away by her charming, enigmatic new husband (Hiddleston) to his gothic mansion, where she soon learns that he and his sister (Jessica Chastain) know more than they’re letting on about the mysterious house. It’s the lying and withholding that speaks to the genre sensibility driving the movie.

Women’s gothic horror is not always about actual ghosts, but rather crushing expectations, gas-lighting, and repressed desires. It’s about how houses are not always homes, but the prisons that women are often relegated to; about how the men they love often treat them with indifference and contempt; about how being a women can be a horrifying prospect in and of itself. In both theme and execution, gothic horror is often terrifying. But it’s also incredibly fertile territory that has given rise to countless unforgettable works of art. In case Crimson Peak inspires a deeper dive into this sort of fare, we made a (by no means complete) list of stories and creators that define or typify the genre.

1. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, 1938
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again” is one of those opening lines that sends chills down your spine. With its mysterious lover Maxim de Winter and an estate (Manderlay) full of secrets, Rebecca is a standout of the genre. The story is propelled by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers’s needling of Mrs. De Winter about whether Maxim loves her as much as he did his first wife, the late Rebecca, giving rise to Mrs. De Winter’s growing fears that she can’t compare to what she imagines Rebecca to have been: a charming hostess, a beloved wife, charismatic above all. Add in the fact that Maxim was her ticket out of poverty and you end up with a bigger case of Imposter Syndrome and class anxieties than one woman can bear.

2. Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960
Just because Norman Bates is tall and has a nice smile and makes you a sandwich doesn’t mean he’s to be trusted, Marion! (Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn admits that she had a crush on Norman Bates — “He’s my first bad boy,” she told us.) That seemingly harmless nature is what makes Bates such a perfect form of terror for women — he makes Marion comfortable and he sublimates his violence through yet another woman, his mother, to separate himself from it. Like other Hitchcock films, the movie relies on what you don’t see and don’t know to evoke a kind of psychological horror, rather than relying on the violence that is par for the course for a lot of regular horror.

3. We Have Always Lived in The Castle, by Shirley Jackson, 1962
Shirley Jackson is such a revered figure in the genre that in 2007 the Shirley Jackson Award was created to honor outstanding stories of horror and suspense. Jackson is unique in a lot of ways, but most notable is her unflinching writing voice, which makes a reader squirm under its forthright tone. In We Have Always Lived, that tone arrives in the detached voice of 18-year-old magic practitioner Merricat, who is navigating scrutiny from the community following the mysterious murder of her parents and siblings. Her intense, dismissive nature springs off the page, meaning that while readers can understand the wariness of the suspicious townspeople, they’re nevertheless drawn in by Merricat’s magnetism. It’s quite the magic trick by Merricat and Jackson alike.

4. Pretty Little Liars, by Sara Shepard, 2006
Before it was a hit show on ABC Family, Pretty Little Liars was a suspenseful YA book series that took the premise of the ubiquitous Gossip Girl–esque novels of rich kids in the 2000s to new, murderous heights. While in another series this might read as simply soapy, it’s the presence of “A,” who taunts the girls about their secrets and crushing expectations, plus the bodies found in the shrubbery and the feeling of constantly being watched, that turns the simple suburban setting into something more menacing and fearful.

5. Kelly Link’s oeuvre: short story anthologies Get in Trouble (2015), Pretty Monsters (2008), Magic for Beginners (2005), Stranger Things Happen (2001).
Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble came out earlier this year, but she’s been around for a while. Her stories could be described as fantasy, horror, or magical realism, but regardless of categorization, they’re all chilling. Most of her main characters are women who run the gamut in terms of personality, but all of them have unique sense of agency in their demise — or escape. In the Shirley Jackson award winner “The Summer People,” in her latest collection, an Appalachian schoolgirl is tasked with taking care of a house full of mysterious beings. She ends up doing everything in her power to escape out from under their servitude.

6. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, 1845
Whatever you think of the Twilight series, the fact that both Bella and Edward’s favorite book is Wuthering Heights is a stroke of genius. That story is the ur-text of gothic romance, but it’s still relevant, not least because one of the most menacing realities a woman can face is the revenge of a man she’s spurned. The rich and spoiled Catherine Earnshaw meets Heathcliff when they are both children — her father brings Heathcliff home one day and announces that he’s to be part of the family. Though they become so close during adolescence that Catherine goes around saying, “I am Heathcliff,” she still marries another man, causing her adoptive brother-lover-doppleganger Heathcliff to set off on a quest for vengeance that poisons generations. Like Sir Sharpe, Heathcliff could be described as a darkly enticing Byronic hero — he hung Catherine’s husband’s sister Isabella’s dog from a tree to make a point to Catherine, and Isabella still married him.

7. Anya’s Ghost, a graphic novel by Vera Brosgol, 2014
Vera Brosgol’s beautifully rendered and pitch-perfect story is about a teenage girl who falls in a well and finds the bones – and ghost – of a fellow teenage girl. Like Crimson Peak, there’s a bad boy, a mysterious murder, and a house of secrets at the heart of it. But the girls’ solidarity in being teen outcasts and their thirst for popularity makes the story reminiscent of Mean Girls, albeit with a supernatural twist. Brosgol is no stranger to this kind of offbeat horror – she works for stop-motion animation studio Laika, which produced the disturbing Coraline, but her wordless mini-comic “WHAT were you raised by WOLVES?” has a similarly upsetting charm.

8. Beloved, by Toni Morrison, 1987
Former slave Sethe literally has to live with her dark past in the form of a poltergeist that constantly hounds her family and home. The situation reaches a climax when an odd woman approaches her family, calling herself “Beloved,” which is coincidentally the one word on the tombstone of her dead daughter. This winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 (and later a movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton) employs the creepy house and bad men so common to the genre, but they’re less darkly romantic and more about examining the horror of slavery using those gothic horror tropes.

9. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, a domestic suspense anthology edited by Sarah Weinman, 2013
The idea of “domestic suspense” is about disrupting the notion that the home is a space safe from fear and horror. The stories are quick but weighty, creating an upsetting premise with a few character strokes. In the first story, “The Heroine,” by Patricia Smith, main character Lucille finds herself in a much better situation – a nanny for a kind, normal family – than she once was. But the possibility of Lucille developing whatever affliction landed her late mother in a mental institution is forever hovering over her, even as she’s told she’s doing a great job. To stave it off, she becomes driven to do an even better job. She wants to be the family’s savior, their heroine in a crisis. When no crisis is forthcoming, she realizes she can easily create one.

10. White Is for Witching, by Helen Oyelemi, 2009
Another novel about a menacing house, this time with its own agenda and motives. Miranda and Eliot are fraternal twins who move with their family to their mother’s ancestral home. When their mother dies, they are ripped apart, with Miranda falling and flailing under the influence of the house’s “character,” a would-be bed and breakfast that obsesses over her and infects guests with a painful fear in order to drive them away. It even narrates the story at one point, showing itself to have a jealous, spiteful personality. Houses, man – they don’t even need ghosts sometimes.

11. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892
Instead of a ghost of a late relative, the unnamed narrator in Wallpaper is haunted by herself. Or rather, what she’s been told about herself. What’s unique about this novella is that’s it’s not only so insular and unspecific — the narrator spends all her time in one room and other characters barely factor in it – but also its social message. Gilman was a notable feminist, and this book was written to counter not only the “nervous depression” diagnosis so many women received, but also the physician that prescribed her a “rest cure,” which meant living “as domestic a life as possible.” This not only did not work, but brought her extremely close to a mental breakdown. Another motif in women’s gothic horror is that men believe they know what’s best for women. Or, put another way: Men are wrong, women suffer for it.

12. Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen, 1817
One of the oldest instances of the gothic horror genre is Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, which carries all the tropes of a gothic romance – a maltreated heroine, a moody, broody bad man, a crumbling castle, and events that might or might not be supernatural but are definitely terrorizing – and is considered a classic example of the genre. So it’s no wonder that a little more than 20 years later, Austen was parodying Radcliffe in Northanger Abbey, about Catherine Morland’s “training to be a heroine” like those in books like those by Radcliffe. (The book is really something to read after Twilight, considering how much it seems to retroactively parody that story as well.) But of course, even while Catherine is surrounded by the usual tropes – a home with forbidden rooms, a jerk of a possible fiancé, and the possibility of a the supernatural – Catherine’s imagination is the one filling in all the gothic details.

13. “Through the Woods,” comics anthology by Emily Carroll, 2014
Emily Carroll’s stories involve house and home, yes, like other gothic horror tales. But it’s their briefness that is so chilling, and their open-ended nature leaves you wondering about what happened after that last panel. In “Our Neighbor’s House,” Carroll takes on three sisters who have to decide what to do after their father disappears. Like in “His Face All Red,” it’s written with enough verve to bring the characters to life by searing them into our memories with their familiarity. Who hasn’t had a fight with their sister or brother that proved to have dooming consequences in the form of ghosts and gloom?

14. A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray, 2005
Libba Bray’s series resembles historical Victorian fiction, but when strong-willed 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is sent off to Spence, a boarding school, after her mother’s death and her father’s descent into opium, she becomes involved in the supernatural. At Spence, she meets the group of friends whom she shares her magic secret with in order to visit the Realms. There she is able to contact and speak with her mother, who continues her controlling, secretive ways even after death. An interesting twist on the genre, it takes all the usual tropes and turns them into political parable on the way Victorian society and their own families oppress the four women.

15. The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise, 1963
The house in The Haunting, based on the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, has a gruesome history of its owners and occupants dying mysteriously and brutally. The character of Dr. Markway, who wishes to study the house’s haunted nature, ends up dragging the current owner’s heir Luke Sanderson, psychic Theodora, and our heroine, the tremulous Eleanor “Nell” Lance, for a night of investigation. Why is it that the meek do so well in this genre? No doubt their inhibited sexuality and unspoken apprehensions liven up a place, as they do with Nell’s peculiarities here. The movie stands out as a favorite because the beautiful and mordant Theo has an amazing wardrobe courtesy of designer Mary Quant, who made the miniskirt a thing. Going to a haunted house while not looking your absolute best? Talk about horror.

A 15-Item, Pre–Crimson Peak Gothic Horror Primer