Like many American girls, I was still in elementary school the first time I pilfered a copy of Flowers in the Attic and locked myself in a room to read it under the secrecy of covers. The story itself is scary: four children locked in an attic by a family that cares for them as little as they care for cast-off furniture. My home life was shitty, and I was already starting to learn that familial love wasn’t ever going to be the stuff of a Louisa May Alcott novel.
Besides that, once a week, I was treated to evangelical yellings about the sin my body was built for long before I even understood what a penis was or how one might come to be close to me. Sex was haunted by the judgment of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before I understood its logistics, and so the palpable longing of Cathy for her brother, Chris, as they whiled away their time in the attic seemed really no worse than the depravity I’d already been told was inevitable.
In her article about Shirley Jackson’s not-very-subtle advocacy for matricide, “House Mothers and Haunted Daughters: Shirley Jackson and the Female Gothic,” Roberta Rubenstein defines the Gothic novel as a work that “pivot[s] upon anxieties about selfhood and entrapment, represented through bizarre or exaggerated events that may or may not be explained as manifestations of the (typically) female central character’s troubled imagination.” That’s a pretty good working definition of the genre, but it ignores one crucial element: the nihilistic horniness of a good Gothic read.
A Gothic novel almost always centers on an impoverished, fatherless female attempting to navigate the treacherous halls of a haunted house while also playing a dangerous game of Snakes and Ladders with a patriarchy that wants her, with or without her consent. Hand-in-hand with those terrors is good old human sexuality. The pussy wants what it wants, even if that desire manifests itself as a monster, a captor, or sometimes even a brother. The ideas a good Gothic novel plays with are perverse, and though we don’t like to admit it in polite company, sometimes unsettlingly sexy.
As the news cycle is increasingly shaded by real-life horror stories that have, until now, been recounted only in whispers, a question keeps popping up on my Twitter timeline: Why on earth are we still fucking these awful men? It’s an important question with no good answer, and one Gothic novels have been asking for ages. It is common knowledge in the Gothic novel that unwittingly inspiring the wrong erection can literally be lethal, and young women are constantly fighting their way through the deadly boners to the friendly ones, only to find that sometimes, they’re one and the same (looking at you, Rebecca). The result is books that read like fevered nightmares driven by the situational insanity of being biologically attracted to your oppressor.
Recently at a bar, a man who was hoping to fuck looked at me as if he’d just discovered the neutron chain reaction that might give birth to an atomic bomb: “I get it,” he said, “you’re a little bit crazy.”
The very idea of even considering intercourse in a bar with stories of rapey shitsacks blaring out of overhead televisions is crazy. It doesn’t make any sense, yet still, we consider it—and even do it—with the right men and the wrong. I answered on behalf of myself as well as my girls V.C. Andrews, the Brontës, and Shirley Jackson.
“You have no fucking idea,” I told him.
So in the spirit of Halloween and the never-ending, twisting Gothic reality of navigating the world in a woman’s body, here’s a definitive ranking of Gothic novels based on how well they balance the thin red tightrope between sexy and scary.
Castle of Otranto
The secret of Otranto is an old man’s erection and the fact that men are trash. The novel centers on Manfred, the Harvey Weinstein of the Italian castle circuit, and his attempt to imprison a young girl until she gives up and fucks him. Luckily there are like a billion escape routes and Manfred is kind of an idiot. Also, there’s a giant haunted statue that does basically nothing? I dunno, maybe giant statues used to be scarier but the penises of old white men in power have always been terrifying. All in all, the house isn’t that scary and the “sexy” secret is just an entitled, malevolent dick. Horace Walpole is the best argument for why ladies eventually had to take the reins on sexy/scary castle books.
Sexiness: Oh God, negative 2.
Between Tintern and Downton, there was Northanger, arguably the best of the abbeys. And while this isn’t a Gothic novel, per se, its heroine Catherine Morland, who’s lowkey obviously been masturbating to Mysteries of Udolpho, sure as shit wishes it were. The scene where she tells her would-be boyfriend that his dad definitely murdered his mother and he’s straight up like “Please stop before I no longer want to fuck you” is more mortifying than a billion big statues. Most interesting about Northanger Abbey is the fact that Jane Austen seems to predict the unrealistic expectations her novels will eventually foster in generations of women. Catherine Morland read too many books and became convinced her boyfriend’s dad was a wife-murderer just like we all read Pride and Prejudice and casually accepted it was a truth universally acknowledged that every awkward asshole would turn out to be Colin Firth. Haha, Jane, you got us.
Sexiness: Sexier than an old man locking you in a room until you agree to look at his junk.
Mysteries of Udolpho
Look, I’m glad Catherine Morland was able to get her jollies from Ann Radcliffe’s long (long) Gothic road trip novel, but after the 40th gloomy-ass tree in the Italian countryside, one’s mind does begin to wander. Mostly to why English people are so scared of Italy. Also, the rotting corpse behind the curtain is just a wax figure. I’ve just saved you hundreds of pages of your life. The moral of the story is that happiness is overrated, and it’s the gloom we feel when looking that’s trees that’s important, which, fair, but do get on with it.
Sexiness: Let’s put it at a 2 for our girl Catherine Morland’s sake.
Surprisingly low on the list is the also surprisingly very sexy Dracula, but we have to go where the numbers take us. Does it have elements of the supernatural? Sure. Does it have an Englishman driven nearly to madness by the thought of having a threesome with not just the undead, but the foreign undead? Yes. Perhaps most importantly, Bram Stoker finally egalitizes the genre by arguing that men can be trapped in sexy castles too, you know. And Count Dracula, who really isn’t in the book that much, is hot in a Hannibal Lecter way. Like, he’s the kind of monster who politely presents an elegant tea tray replete with your favorite little cakes before he drinks your blood.
Dracula is basically a love letter to haematophilia; in one scene, our good Dr. Seward def gets hard giving a blood transfusion and is super frustrated when he doesn’t get to transfuse to completion. In another, three men pump blood into an unconscious woman while her husband watches. So, yes, if blood-cucking sounds hot, by all means have at it, but Stoker misses all the other unsettlingly sexy elements of the Gothic novel. Maybe because he can’t stop himself from re-iterating, time and again, that even the smartest women are pretty stupid.
Sexiness: 4-10, depending on what does it for you.
The Little Stranger
On the opposite end of the sexiness scale is Sarah Waters’s contemporary Gothic tale that begs the question: what if you were trapped in a haunted mansion by your own aristocracy and the only available sexual partner was the literal human embodiment of erectile dysfunction? And while no one is ever, ever going to find themselves titillated by anything in this book, whose narrator is so vehemently unsexy even the world’s leading adorable ginger, Domhnall Gleeson, couldn’t redeem him, the little baby ghosts are scary as hell, and the isolation, well-heeled poverty, and the slow realization that the family is caught in a gilded trap they spent generations unwittingly building makes for a beautifully frightening, literary addition to the genre.
The Haunting of Hill House
Ever caught yourself obsessing over whether or not your friends were talking bad about you behind your back? Shirley Jackson would like you to know that they’re not your friends and they’re not even thinking of you because you don’t matter. While the ghosts in Jackson’s most overtly Gothic novel are unsettling (“God! Whose hand was I holding?”) the scariest element of this book is Eleanor’s slow realization that she doesn’t belong anywhere and that she’s not wanted by anyone, even the people she’s come to love. If low self-esteem could turn itself into a mansion full of disembodied cackling, it would be this house and we would all drive our cars into trees to make it stop.
Scariness: I want to stop thinking about it, but I can’t.
Sexiness: The opposite.
It’s no wonder that arguably the most batshit Brontë asks the question: “What sex is bad?” The answer, of course, in the world of the Gothic novel, is that all sex is bad and will eventually kill you. “Therefore,” Brontë wonders, “if all sex is lethal, then how bad is brother sex, really?” To which generations of V.C. Andrews girls who would grow up to become Tom Hardy-as-Heathcliff stans responded, “I’m listening.” Sure, Heathcliff is only maybe Cathy’s brother. I mean, patriarchs bring home orphans from county fairs every day. They can’t all be our brothers. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because we’re all going to die, and if we’re lucky, perhaps our maybe brothers will dig up our rotting corpses and hold them for a while.
Scariness: It depends on how messed up you are.
Sexiness: See above.
Flowers in the Attic
The scariness dipped-in-sexiness of Wuthering Heights was not lost on V.C. Andrews. If you like well-written sentences, this book is not for you. But if you were waiting on someone to take it one step further and say “Okay, so without a doubt, this is full-blooded brother-fucking, but the brother is hot,” you’ve hit Gothic gold. There are no supernatural elements in Andrews’s cult-classic trash read, and the author just expects us to plug everything we know about Gothic novels into a house she basically describes as “200 years old and scary or whatever.” But what Andrews does capture, apart from the brother-fucking, is the psychic damage years of neglect can do. Sometimes the monsters aren’t ghosts; they’re memories of the fact that our own families didn’t love us like they should have. Cathy is never getting out of that attic even after she gets out of that attic. What V.C. Andrews understood best was that hiding trauma behind a pretty facade doesn’t work. The past always seeps through the cracks, and trying to stanch the leak is a slow, sad slog to madness.
Scariness: Depends on your relationship with your mother.
Sexiness: Depends on how old you were when you read it.
As an Andrews girl through and through, I have to say that my main takeaway from this novel is that you can’t expect me to be shamefully attracted to a dude who locks people in attics. Heathcliff snuggles corpses and steals inheritances, but at least he entraps people in the whole house and not just the attic. This is an unpopular opinion. Rochester enthusiasts are real, and they’re horny for him no matter how many wives he’s got locked away up there. Plus, if we go by the ranking system, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre ticks off way more boxes than her sister’s fever-dream incest apologia. Fine, I’ll give it to y’all. Jane Eyre is good.
Scariness: The fact that it’s possible to be so chronically unloved that a man like Rochester starts to seem hot is fucking scary.
Sexiness: Reader, insert your own opinion.
And here we are. The sexiest, scariest of all the Gothic novels according to science. Manderley is so creepy even cocker spaniels don’t act right there. Daphne du Maurier also deserves credit for taking an objectively silly tension driver—Why are the servants being so mean to me?—and making it genuinely terrifying. But the sexiness of the book is maybe the most unsettling part, since it centers on the narrator’s being simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the memory and the mystery of her new husband’s dead wife. Zero sexiness points awarded to Maximilian de Winter, who is an unsalted soft-boiled egg of a boner-killer. Instead, Manderley’s sexy secret is Rebecca’s vagina and the ways it ensnared, bewitched, and left for dead everything around it, including Manderley, Mrs. Danvers, at least one depressed spaniel, her husband, the narrator’s grip on reality, and a fishing shed. Long live Rebecca and her poisonous pussy!
Scariness: 10 but only if you’re the motherfucking patriarchy.
Sexiness: I’ll never love anyone the way I love Rebecca de Winter.
Emily Alford is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has also appeared at The Rumpus and Buzzfeed, and she recently completed her first novel. She tweets @AlfordAlice.