‘The Gothic is a sensation, not a genre,’ writes Sarah Perry in The Paris Review. But this sensation, in my opinion, is heightened to its utmost feel when the Gothic fiction is female-centric. Now you must be thinking of a damsel in distress. Am l right? Because this is what most of the best Gothic novels, particularly the classic ones, portray: a helpless woman who is all the time fainting and screaming, and later gets saved by some form of hero. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho are prime examples in this regard.
But this Gothic trope of damsel in distress has undergone tremendous development over time. In modern Gothic novels, the traditional damsel in distress is replaced by a fully independent and self-reliant woman. She is an unconventional heroine who overcomes adversity, social norms and stands up against society that wishes to submit her. For instance, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is the best example in this regard. Some contemporary Gothic novels that portray strong female characters include: Madam, Mexican Gothic, The Essex Serpent, Surviving the Night and others.
Hence, there are now plenty of best Gothic novels that have shifted their focus from damsels in distress to powerful, self-sufficient and bold women. Once these female protagonists take the reins in their respective stories, they don’t need any hero to save them because they are their own heroes.
20 of the Best Gothic Novels that are Female-Centric
Today’s blog post is especially for those who like an engaging and powerful female-centric narrative set in castles and monasteries, with dark and romantic atmosphere, and a certain dose of mystery and suspense, in addition to wonderful thoughts and deep feelings.
So, if you’re in the mood for creepy, horrifying, mysterious, atmospheric, and absolutely riveting best Gothic novels that are female-centric, then look no further!
Here are 20 of the best Gothic novels with powerful female protagonists that you won’t ever regret reading!
1. Madam by Phoebe Wynne
Hailed as a feminist modern Gothic tale, Madam is deliciously dark and completely haunting. Set against the backdrop of an illustrious boarding school for girls on the Scottish cliffs, 26-year-old classics teacher Rose Christie is the first ‘outsider’ to be hired at the mysterious school for over a decade. And she quickly realizes that what she uncovers at Caldonbrae Hall means she’s likely to be the last. Once the school has Rose in its clutches, complicity is the only viable option. But is she willing to stay quiet on the atrocities she witnesses to save her own life and those of the people she holds dear? The book is reminiscent of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, with the added bonus of Greek mythology peppered throughout.
Atmospheric, bizarre and intriguing, Madam is a must read Gothic novel with darkly feminist themes.
2. Survive the Night by Riley Sager
Riley Sager’s Survive the Night is jam packed with constant twists and turns, heightened mystery, and Gothic tone. Charlie, a movie-obsessed college student, needs a ride home from college after her best friend was brutally murdered by the ‘campus killer’. Luckily she finds one—a stranger named Josh offers to drive her home as he’s also heading in that direction. Once in the car, Charlie senses something suspicious about Josh, and the fact that the ‘campus killer’ is still on the loose makes her even more worried. Is she in the car with the ‘campus killer’? Will she make it home?
One of the most anticipated books of the year, Survive the Night held up to its expectations. It’s highly entertaining, fast-paced, and a fantastic Gothic thriller.
3. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
If you’re looking for a terrifying, unpredictable, fun rollercoaster ride with a strong and beautiful female protagonist, pick this one up. I’m sure you won’t regret it! When her newly-wedded cousin calls for help, Noemi Taboada heads to High Place—a crumbling old mansion in the Mexican countryside. Her cousin’s in-laws—the Doyles—are a strange and unnerving lot. But perhaps what’s even more unnerving is the house itself. The author has beautifully incorporated Mexican and Gothic elements into some classic plots and anecdotes. Noemi is a robust and powerful protagonist. In fact, she is an excellent example of a female protagonist from the turn of the century.
So far, Mexican Gothic is simply one of the mind-blowing, fantastic, and best Gothic novels. And you must read it!
4. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Sarah Perry’s award-winning novel, The Essex Serpent is a historical fiction based on a real legend. It’s a book that hides a mystery, a snake that seems to have come out of a child’s worst nightmares (but also of an adult!) scares the quiet life of small village residents. There seems to be no more joy, no life. Just fear. But what really crawls between the streets, what can make man so uncertain about his future? What is actually hiding in the river? Our protagonist Cora finds herself embroiled in suspicion, rumor, questioning, love and the battle between faith and science.
The Essex Serpent is definitely a book worth reading for the Gothic fans! It is dark, full of mystery and intriguing. Luckily, soon we will have a TV series based on this story starring Clair Danes and Tom Hiddleston.
5. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
A Gothic novel set in Victorian England, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell evokes the most unsettling kind of fear. Following the life of a newly-widowed Elsie Bainbridge at her late husband’s crumbling estate, the book tells a haunting and deliciously creepy tale of intrigue, betrayal and things that go bump in the night. Narrated from three different perspectives, Purcell has centered her novel around the 17th century art creations known as ‘silent companions’; the two dimensional wooden lifelike portraits of adults or children that decorated the homes of the wealthy. After protagonist Elsie moves into her new residence, she meets the silent companions, one of which looks strikingly similar to her, and whose eyes seem to follow her around.
An eerie, sinister Victorian Gothic horror story full of twists and tendons, The Silent Companions will not disappoint you!
6. The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas
Poignant, atmospheric, dark and Hopeful, The Mad Women’s Ball is a unique and interesting read. It’s a historical Gothic fiction with strong feminist themes. The story is set in 1885, Paris and centers around The Salpêtrière asylum for women. This is a hospital filled with the outcasts of society, they are deemed hysterical, mad and inconvenient. Each year these women look forward to one event, a grand ball which provides them with a glimpse of life beyond the confined, dark walls of prison. And for the Parisian elite, this event is the highlight of the social season. But everything begins to change when a young girl is admitted to the asylum by her family for claims of being able to communicate with the dead. Are these women really what the public think of them?
Extremely terrifying and graphic at times, The Mad Women’s Ball presents a vivid portrayal of the institutionalized women in 19th century Paris. It’s a book that will make you frustrated, horrified and hopeful, all at once!
7. The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins
A unique twist in a Gothic Classic, The Wife Upstairs is a modern day retelling of Jane Eyre with a mix of Gothic, mystery, suspense, humor and romance. Jane is new to Alabama and has scored a dog-walking job in a wealthy neighborhood of Thornfield Estate. This lands Jane in the path of Eddie Rochester, a rich and handsome man who lost his wife to a tragic accident a couple of months ago. Her encounter with Eddie leads to more than she could ever hope for. The story fluctuates back and forth from the present-day to the weeks after the accident, and is narrated through the perspective of three central characters.
Will Jane get a happy ending? Will she do better for herself than the man and life she has chosen or stumbled upon? To find out, you’ve got to read The Wife Upstairs!
8. Girl in the Walls by A. J. Gnuse
A coming of age Gothic story, Girl in the Walls is about finding friendships in the most unlikely places, accepting and growing with grief and being seen after being lost—all embedded in a thrilling plot. The story revolves around Elise who knows every inch of her beloved house. She knows which boards will creak and where the gaps are in the wall. She also knows very well which parts of the house can take her in or hide her away. It’s her home, after all. The home her parents made for her, before they died in a car crash, and where she has to stay at any cost. It’s not a typical haunted house or ghost story, but does have suspense and thriller elements to it. Besides, it’s incredibly thought-provoking and heartwarming.
Mesmerizing, suspenseful and written with grace, Girl in the Walls is one of the best Gothic novels!
9. Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
Then She Was Gone is a fabulous story about a mother’s love and how that love is unconditional and never-ending even after death. 15-year-old Ellie goes missing without a trace. A decade later, the old wounds that never healed are ripped open when Ellie’s mother meets someone who might know something. Lisa Jewell takes us through a thrilling and psychological tale of the attempts to find out what exactly happened to her daughter ten years ago. However, what Ellie’s mother doesn’t realize is while she’s on a mission to find her missing daughter, she’s losing the family that’s right in front of her. The book is written spectacularly well, with it flashing from three different accounts.
A chilling, heartbreaking, and a little bit heartwarming, Then She Was Gone is an amazing thriller underlying mysterious Gothic tones.
10. Stalking Shadows by Cyla Panin
A debut novel of Canadian author Cyla Panin, Stalking Shadows draws on the myth of the Beast of Gévaudan, while giving it a Gothic spin. Amabelle has been cursed to turn into a beast once a month and Marie dedicates herself to making perfumes that help her mark her sister’s victims as well as make much needed income as their mother has died and their father is an absentee alcoholic. Panin’s writing is gorgeous and complements the setting: a small town in 18th century France, a dark forest, and a Gothic mansion. The book highlights the beautiful bond of sisters, the dangers of small-town prejudice, and the heartbreak of generational secrets.
A Gothic fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Stalking Shadows puts a new twist to the beloved tale as old as time!
11. The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn
An engrossing, fast-paced and diabolically gripping thriller, The Woman in the Window draws heavily on the Gothic elements. Dr. Anna Fox spends her days locked up in her house in New York, drinking wine, watching old movies and spying on her neighbors. Her only lifeline to the real world is her window. One day, as she looks out the window, she witnesses something horrifying in the house across the way, a house of the Russells, a family that the entire neighborhood considers exemplary. After that her world begins to crumble and its shocking secrets are laid bare. The book contains several great twists and tons of intense moments.
The Woman in the Window is no doubt one of the best Gothic novels that are thrilling, heart-breaking yet engaging!
12.The Lighthouse Witches by C. J. Cooke
Bursting with mysterious atmosphere, mythology and folklore, The Lighthouse Witches is a chilling Gothic tale with witchy vibes. The gloomy atmosphere sets the pace for this dark story. Based in Scotland, the narrative is told in dual timelines that span from the present day all the way back to the witch trials of 1662. A mother moves with her three daughters to a remote Scottish island to paint a mural on a 100 year old lighthouse. The islanders are facing some mysterious events and disappearances, all started with a witch hunt. One by one, the members of the family disappear, leaving behind the only survivor. As the story unfolds, we learn the mysterious past of the lighthouse and what happened to the family.
Enthralling, immersive and filled with Gothic menace, The Lighthouse Witches is the perfect read for the fans of horror. The author makes great use of places to help create an atmosphere that sends shivers down your spine.
13. A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong
A Stitch in Time is a Gothic tale mixing horror, mystery and historical romance equally— all wrapped up within the two timelines, one in the present day and the other in the Victorian era. William and Bronwyn grew up together, Bronwyn travelling to his time whenever she visited the haunted Thorne Manor in the present day. But something happens that eventually leads to Bronwyn stopping her visits. William still stays at Thorne Manor hoping she’ll return, and finally gets his wish fulfilled twenty years later. But there is a hidden secret. The ghosts that are haunting her actually belong to William’s time and somehow linked to him.
An intriguing story of a couple lost in two different time periods, A Stitch in Time is one of the best Gothic novels that are female-centric!
14. Affinity by Sarah Waters
Thrilling and atmospheric, Sarah Waters’ Affinity is filled with amazingly complex LGBTQ characters. Sarah Waters is a master storyteller and her novels are simply some of the best. The book follows Margaret, a mentally unstable spinster, who starts visiting a prison and soon meets a mysterious inmate and spiritualist, Selina Dawes. They form an intimate connection that changes the life of both. In Sarah Waters’ world, nothing is ever as quiet as it seems. A sense of dread hangs over the plot and thrives on the psychological turmoil of its characters. And who could forget all the twists and turns?
A blend of historical fiction, Gothic and romance, Affinity brings to light the continual oppression and disenfranchisement of women and the need for change.
15. The Familiars by Stacey Halls
A chilling Gothic historical fiction, The Familiars is a powerful read based on true events. Set in 17th century Lancashire, the story follows Fleetwood, a young pregnant noblewoman who is afraid of losing her baby again. None of her pregnancies have gone full term, and her husband is now anxious for an heir. By chance she meets Alice, a local midwife, who promises to help her and the baby survive. Everything goes wrong when Alice is brought to trial on accusations of witchcraft. Now Fleetwood must risk everything to save her. Stacy Halls is a magician with words and time. Her book tells a stunning story of motherhood, sorority, friendship and how the truth is sometimes the only thing that can save a life.
Written so masterfully, The Familiars is absolutely a must-read female-centric Gothic tale.
16. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is one of the most influential and classic haunted house stories of all time. In the book, we follow a small group of adults in their experience with Hill House. A professor of the supernatural rents Hill House in order to investigate the mysterious phenomena rumored to have occurred within its oddly angled walls. The professor also invites other people to assist him. Upon arriving at the mysterious Hill House, the guests immediately begin to experience ‘oddness’. This oddness appears in the form of lost emotional control, unusual feelings, muddled thinking, and unexplained sensations. Shirley Jackson has crafted outstanding characters, especially our main protagonist Eleanor.
The Haunting of Hill House is an ethereal, suggestive and perfect Gothic story that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. A book worth reading, indeed!
17. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho is a widely popular Gothic novel that inspired Jane Austen’s famous parody The Northanger Abbey. The book follows a young girl imprisoned in a gloomy castle by her evil guardian. It’s dreamlike atmosphere and deep introspection of the characters’ psychological states certainly inspired other female Gothic writers such as Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson. The beginning of this novel might be a little tedious for the modern reader, but always keep in mind the period when it was written. There are some elements that keep you engaged with a desire to know what is going to happen. And this novel is a perfect example of damsel in distress!
A mystery full of suspense, castles, rain splashed windows, candlelit corridors and Gothic elements, The Mysteries of Udolpho is a kind of book that aptly defines the genre.
18. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Brilliantly sophisticated and elegant, Rebecca is a classic Gothic masterpiece. A young, charming and clever girl marries Maxim de Winter, owner of the famous Manderley estate. In a huge mansion, everything reminds her of Maxim’s dead first wife, Rebecca de Winter: from arranged figurines, to hostile servants, who do not hide their admiration for the former hostess. For months, the puzzle of tragic events shows the main character on the edge until she finally discovers the truth that everyone is trying to hide. The book has an enduring appeal— it’s truly iconic and unforgettable.
From its famous opening line—“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”—to the mind-blowing ending, Rebecca is full of twists and surprises. It is, indeed, one of the best Gothic novels I have read in my lifetime.
19. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
One of the stunning works of 19th century English literature, Jane Eyre is a literary masterpiece addressing women’s rights and shining light to this day. It’s a Gothic classic about Jane, from youth to adulthood, as she navigates belonging, class and love. She is an unconventional heroine, an independent, self-sufficient woman who overcomes adversity and social norms. Modern and independent woman, she stands up against society that wishes to submit her. Following her evolution, the reader observes the inner changes of a complex woman but whose concerns and feelings are undoubtedly universal. Though I read this novel ten years ago, I’m still mesmerized by the depth of introspection Charlotte Bronte provides her protagonist. Beside, the wonderful story, the plot twists, and the setting are also amazing. And Jane Eyre is one of those heroines that I’ll never forget.
Gothic, romance, mystery and suspense—all is present to be enchanted by this fictional biography. In fact, Jane Eyre is part of those universal works that time doesn’t fade.
20. Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
A precursor to vampire thematic, Carmilla is considered by many critics as one of the best Gothic novels of the 19th century. The story follows Laura, a young woman who lives isolated with her father in a castle, until an unexpected guest shows up. This strange guest awakens the young lady’s loving feelings, while also causing her certain terror by reliving old nightmares. Sheridan Le Fanu is a definite meticulous writer, careful to scare his readers not because his stories are horrifically amazing; but because they are true.
Carmilla presents a vampire woman with strong homoaffective appeal. It’s, in fact, a milestone of Victorian Gothic literature, and absolutely, one of those best Gothic novels you won’t regret reading!
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