The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Theme Queen is Her Campus Brighton’s latest new column written by the editor-in-chief, Neave Glennon. Each article will explore the themes of different pieces of literature and cinema, as well as weekly reviews on upcoming titles/releases.
My first memorable encounter with the ‘unhinged woman’ trope was definitely when I sat down and watched Misery at an age-way-too-young-to-be-socially-acceptable. Annie Wilkes was absolutely terrifying, and I knew for sure I wanted to stay away from mad women like that. It was a part of the human psyche so unfamiliar to me that it was just plain unenjoyable and made me look at women who exhibited any kind of rage as ‘crazy’ or ‘irrational’. Flash-forward to year 11, and I’m reading Macbeth in class, weirdly being able to understand the emotional impulses of a woman who is quite literally encouraging murder. Lady Macbeth was a woman with far more of a dominant nature than her husband in a time before feminist ideology, later falling victim to her own madness despite her potential.
For centuries, women have been exposed to all kinds of fiction that teaches them that there is nothing but danger in embracing their dark side. Anything that goes against traditional feminity has always been seen as a threat to the men who have enforced it. However, thanks to the likes of authors such as Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), we have started to see the reclamation of the trope in a way that allows women to live out the darkest parts of their psyche in a way that men have been able to do for years.
For this article, I will be sharing and celebrating my top 10 favourite books for ‘unhinged women’, all written by women, for you to cosy up with and share with your loved ones this Galentine’s. Just a warning, some of these books may contain topics that may cause distress to readers. It is vital that you Google any trigger warnings before purchasing and reading any of the below recommendations.
10. Other People’s clothes by Calla Henkle
Henkle’s debut novel centres on two girls, Zoe and Hailey, art students who move to Berlin from New York in 2009. We are introduced to two protagonists: Zoe, who struggling with the murder of her best friend and Hailey, who is filthy rich and wants nothing but to become an art prodigy. After Hailey finds an apartment sublet on Craiglist, the two girls begin enjoying all that the city has to offer. However, things take a sharp turn as they then start to suspect that their bizarre crime novelist landlady, Beatrice, is, in fact, spying on them for her next book. Believing that they need to become more novel-worthy, the two girls start throwing wild parties that soon become the talk of the city. But, alas, things don’t stay this carefree for long as the two girls are forced to go down a dark spiral of events that will change their lives forever.
Other People’s Clothes is a fantastic novel that focuses on important topics such as celebrity culture, female friendships and the consequences of not dealing with emotional pain. Not only is this novel relatable for students who have no clue what they are doing, but also for those who like their intense partying with a drop of murder mystery sprinkled into the middle. A creepy, intense slow-burn of a novel that you can buy a copy of on Amazon here for £11.99.
9. Girls Against God by Jenny hval
You might know Hval for her music or her first novel, Paradise Rot, which has gained notoriety from fellow book enthusiasts on Tik Tok. I was initially drawn to her second novel, Girls Against God, after seeing it described as being a horror story crossed with a feminist manifesto. Whilst it could be argued that it lacks some horror elements, there is no denying the haunting and disturbing vibe that this novel gives off. Set in Norway in the ’90s, the story is told in a non-linear fashion and features time travel, witchcraft, murder and death metal.
Whilst Hvals style may not be for everyone, Girls Against God is a revolutionary take on female rage and is enriched with feminist and queer theory. You can purchase a copy on Amazon here for £8.99.
8. Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh (or any moshfegh, really)
Moshfegh is one of the most loved authors right now, and it’s no surprise why. Known for her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh has done well to pave her way towards becoming one of the best female novelists of this generation. She is a strong contender for the reigning queen of the ‘unhinged woman’ trope, with a majority of her work focusing on complex, dark and at times narcissistic female protagonists. Whilst some of her other novels, such as Death In Her Hands and Homesick For Another World (my personal favourite), are also honourable mentions for this list, Eileen really hits the spot for any ‘unhinged’ reader.
The novel takes place in the early 60s. It focuses on Eileen Dunlop, a young woman who spends her days caring for her alcoholic father or working as a local boy’s prison secretary. Consumed with rage and resentment for her life, Eileen begins embarking on several antisocial activities such as shoplifting, stalking Randy, the prison guard, and cleaning up her father’s mess. Life becomes all too repetitive for young Eileen, so when the remarkable Rebecca Saint John becomes a counsellor at the prison, Eileen can’t help but be enchanted by her. However, this enchantment takes a turn for the worse as Eileen is pulled into a crime far surpassing her wildest imagination. You can buy a copy of Eileen here for £6.99.
7. Her Body and other parties by CARMEN MARIA MACHADO
Her Body and Other Parties is the first short story collection I will be talking about on this list and is a must-read if you were a fan of Moshfeghs Homesick for Another World or are familiar with The Black Emerald by Jeanne Thornton. Her Body and Other Parties contains some of the most original pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It encompasses sci-fi, horror and comedy elements, all while balancing on the cusp between fantasy and realism. In addition, the book offers an inventive perspective on what it means to inhabit a female body and what that really means in such a mysterious and atmospherical way.
My personal favourite stories in this collection are Especially Heinous, Inventory and Difficult at Parties. Whilst the entire collection itself is magnificent, these were the three that shocked, entertained and resonated with me the most. It is an absolute must-read for the ‘unhinged’ who want more diverse stories that they enjoy and relate to, and you can buy it on Amazon here for £7.22.
6. tHE DANGERS OF SMOKING IN BED BY MARIANA ENRIQUEZ
The second short story collection on this book and a favourite of mine, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is one of the most hauntingly bizarre books I have ever read. Initially, it was definitely a book that I was drawn to due to its beautiful cover, but its content does not disappoint. I have placed Enriquez’s novel above Machado’s because I feel as though it encompasses every aspect of female rage that I would expect in an ‘unhinged’ sense. It shows women as a complete force to be reckoned with, utilising horror elements such as cults, witchcraft and ghosts to complement its themes of madness, rage and mental illness.
Set in urban Buenos Aires, Argentina, these stories feature obsession, cursed neighbourhoods and rotting babies. The most extended story in the book, Kids Who Come Back, truly shows all of the themes that Enriquez likes to display in her work and will leave you aching to read the rest of her work. Not only does this story feature all the wonderfully dark themes we want to see when we pick up a book like this, but it is also informative on Argentinian history and politics, making it by far the most vitalised story in the collection. You can buy a copy of The Dangers of Smoking in Bed here for £6.99.
5. boy Parts by Eliza CLARK
If you’re a resident on BookTok, there is no way that you are not familiar with Boy Parts by Eliza Clark. Making its way onto every ‘unhinged women’ book recommendation list possible, this is one that I urge everyone to add to their collection. Centred on a young woman from Newcastle called Irina. She has a strange addiction with taking explicit photographs of men she persuades to model for her. After being tracked down by the mother of one of these boys, Irina begins focusing on her photography more religiously. She is offered a slot at an upcoming fetish art exhibition in London to showcase her work. However, this opportunity sends Irina on a spiral of self-destruction and violence that will make you want to turn your eyes away and slam the book shut.
Boy Parts begins the Top 5 of this list because of how fascinating a character Irina is. In terms of the ‘unhinged woman’ trope, it could be argued that Irina is one of the best examples of it. It illustrates why male rage is something that we have become so desensitised to as a society: because we don’t underestimate a man’s ability to cause destruction. Irina is a character who is fully aware of this and wields it to her power, making her as frightening as she is likeable. The only woman who could take down Patrick Bateman, you can purchase a copy of Boy Parts here for £8.19.
4. a certain hunger by chelsea g. summers
Just like the aforementioned Boy Parts, if you’re actively on BookTok and haven’t heard of A Certain Hunger, you’re living under a rock. The novel follows food writer Dorothy Daniels, who lives a double life as a serial killer who eats men. Unfortunately, this is not a book for the fainthearted. I’m not condoning a lot of the protagonist’s behaviour – but I’d be doing a disservice if I said it isn’t one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read.
Similar to how Irina from Boy Parts mirrors Patrick Bateman, Dorothy Daniels rivals Hannibal Lecter and ultimately comes out on top as a much more enjoyable character. The problem with cannibalistic characters such as Hannibal Lecter is that they don’t have the same level of depth as women. They’re simply mindless psychopaths. Sure, their intelligence is impressive, but what makes them tick? What is it about them that made them so unhinged? That’s one thing that A Certain Hunger does best. This novel allows women to explore the darkest part of themselves in a way without having to actually act it out, in the most gloriously gory manner possible. You can buy a copy of A Certain Hunger here on Amazon for £12.79.
3. who was changed and who was dead by barbara comyns
Now that we’ve reached the Top 3, I feel it’s important to state that whilst these books are old, they truly paved the way for the ‘unhinged woman’ trope to flesh out and become what it is today. Given how familiar we are with the word ‘pandemic’, you might find this novel quite a relief. Rather than seeing the world plagued by a deadly virus like Covid-19, we see a small village become ravaged by a virus that causes those infected to commit suicide.
Whilst it has one of the darkest premises of any of the previous books mentioned on this list, the themes encompassed in this novel make it so spectacular. Comyns maintains delightful dark humour against the macabre backdrop despite touching on tyranny, tragedy, and madness. Whilst I must include a major trigger warning as this book isn’t for the fainthearted, I have to mention it just for how beautiful Comyns makes the morbid appear. You can buy a copy of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead here for £7.89.
2. the yellow wallpaper by charlotte perkins gilman
It would be wrong to make a list like this and not speak about The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In fact, if I could force any of you to read a book on this list, it would be this one. At just 29 pages long, the shortest on the list is by far the most impactful and unsettling.
The story reads like a first-person account by an unnamed narrator suffering from postpartum depression after giving birth to her first child. Her husband, John, confines her to an upstairs nursery in their summer house, believing that the rest will do her good and cure her depression. However, his constant restrictions on her work and writing lead her to go mad alone in this nursery. She begins to believe that a woman is trapped in the yellow wallpaper of the nursery. An incredible insight into the treatment of mental health in the late 18th century, the novel also focuses on very relevant issues regarding motherhood. It is also one of the first examples of the ‘unreliable narrator’. Possibly the most unsettling ending I have ever read, this work paved the way for writers such as Sylvia Plath to further explore the trope of the ‘unhinged women’ and contributed to early feminist theory on the ‘domestic sphere’. Whilst you may be able to access a digital copy of The Yellow Wallpaper for free, you can buy a copy for your bookshelf here for £2.50.
1. we have always lived in the castle by shirley jackson
Some people may be surprised that I haven’t chosen Plath’s The Bell Jar or Flynn’s Gone Girl to take the top spot on this list, but to me, it is undeniable that Shirley Jackson is the queen of the ‘unhinged’. Every single one of Jackson’s novels has elements of the ‘unhinged’, some tamer than others. Still, she truly mastered an aspect of madness and the macabre that I feel many other authors haven’t quite come close to imitating yet. Whilst her stories The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House and The Birds Nest could all easily be contenders for this spot, it is truly We Have Always Lived In This Castle that takes the cake for Merricat alone.
At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to our narrator, Merricat, who informs us that the rest of her family are dead, minus her elder sister, Constance and her Uncle, Julian. Merricat and her family, the Blackwoods, are the ultimate black sheep of the town, and when Merricat runs her daily errands, no one wants to speak to her. Of course, it doesn’t help that her sister, Constance, was acquitted for the murder of their entire family, either. So when the arrival of their Uncle Charles begins to pose a threat to the remaining Blackwoods, Merricat must do what she can to protect those that remain. A haunting delight of a novel, this novel is essential for the lovers of the ‘unhinged’ and mad. No character in literary history embodies the ‘unhinged woman’ trope in the way that Merricat does, nor are there any that are quite so endearing. There is nothing that I feel that I can say that could entirely give this book or Jackson the credit they deserve, other than the fact that her writing makes me feel as though I’ve been nailed into a 4 x 4 box, and I have to claw my way out before I suffocate. You can buy a copy of We Have Always Lived In The Castle here for £7.53.